Friday, December 19, 2008

Chamber Of Horrors / The Brides Of Fu Manchu

Written by Musgo Del Jefe

My first clue should have been that Warner Bros. debuted their "Warner Bros. Horror Double Features" discs in December. The series has the promising tag of double features of horror films that have never been released on DVD. But, if you really had some gems from the huge Warner's vaults, wouldn't you debut the series in October? I'm afraid this first set answered my question.

The first film on the disc is Chamber Of Horrors. This 1966 horror film is an amalgam of the horror film trends of the mid-'60s and an illustration of how television had changed the horror genre. The movie starts with a "grave warning" - one that would make William Castle proud - that there will be scenes so terrifying that management has put visual and audible warning in place for the viewer. There is the Fear Flasher (a flashing red light around the screen) and the Horror Horn (a wailing siren) to warn you when to turn away and close your eyes.

This gimmick is actually pretty clever. The viewer is warned that it will go off at "four supreme fright points" during the film. One, that creates the suspense of waiting for the warnings. Two, the sound of the siren and the flashing red lights caused more stress for me than the "fright points" they were warning me about.

The movie, while American, is solidly based in the British tradition of horror films. The setting is turn-of-the-century Baltimore. But the foggy Baltimore of the movie would easily pass for London. The film starts with Jason Crevette (played wonderfully by Patrick O'Neal) forcing a reverend to marry him to a dead bride. Once turned in by the minister, Jason disappears and the police are at a stand still.

Enter our next British influence, Draco and Blount are owners of a local wax museum (very British) that specialized in Murder Through The Ages. They also seem to play the parts of Sherlock Holmes and Watson - operating outside the police to help solve murders. They are played off the police (who might as well be Scotland Yard) by an Inspector that doesn't want their help and a Sergeant (played by future Trapper John from M*A*S*H - Wayne Rogers) who's their friend. Draco and Blount are helped by my favorite horror genre tradition - a dwarf named Pepe.

Once on the job, Draco and Blount quickly solve the murder with the help of Pepe and Jason is sentenced to death. This felt like the end to a TV show episode. In fact, the movie comes from a pilot about a wax museum where these two would solve murders each week. The Second Act of the film starts quickly - it's nice to see the plot pick up again just as it was lagging. Jason escapes his transport to prison and during a "Supreme Fright Point" loses a hand.

That's an important plot point because it transitions the film to essentially what becomes the second episode of the film. This one is a very British take on Jack The Ripper. It also bears some resemblance to the Vincent Price thriller The Abominable Dr. Phibes. The wax museum boys assume that Jason is dead and that they're solving a completely different set of murders. Little do they realize that Crevette has a whole slew of attachments for his hand including cleavers, scalpels, and hooks.

Once again, Sherlock and Watson (Draco and Blount) are clever in the way they resolve the "second" case of the film. You can really see where this might work in a television format. The direction is solid - although a little derivative of the British horror films look and sound. The wax museum angle is a nice diversion that allows the additional telling of murders by our heroes. It reminded me in parts of the way Night Gallery used the paintings to tie into the story they would tell.

The second film in the set is The Brides Of Fu Manchu. This 1966 is British, but unlike Chamber, it doesn't embrace the trappings of the horror genre. In fact, I'd be hard pressed to even call this a horror film. The film is equal parts mystery and spy film - with much of the suspense coming from detectives trying to solve the mystery of disappearing women.

The Brides Of Fu Manchu is the second in a series of five Fu Manchu films. Brides follows the successful The Face Of Fu Manchu. In all five films of this series, Christopher Lee plays the lead character. Fu Manchu is a typical villain, always looking to take over the world. He's equal parts Ra's Al Ghul (a Batman villain that would come about in the early '70s) and Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers' universe.

The film starts very abruptly with what is probably the last couple minutes of the first film in the series. Everything blows up and Fu Manchu has obviously been killed. But a minute later he's back with a new plan. The plan is about as basic as a thriller plot can get. Fu Manchu is kidnapping the daughters of leading scientists to force them to help him build a Death Ray. What's funny is that his description of the Death Ray device sounds like they are building him an iPhone.

Fu Manchu stays one step ahead of Scotland Yard from his evil lair. The mystery isn't really a mystery and the thriller isn't that thrilling. Lee doesn't get enough of a chance to overact as the title character. But he's definitely the bright spot. There are some fun scenes with ninjas popping in and out of London locales to kidnap the daughters.

Brides is a let-down after the promise of Chambers on this disc. You don't get any extras with the "Horror Double Feature" - so the movies have to carry the day. This double feature comes up one film short. I'm going to keep my eye on this series - Warner's has a ton of great films that haven't seen the light of day on DVD. Maybe their saving their best for next October.

No comments: