From his Hammer days to his recent Hollywood resurgence, Christopher Lee has provided filmgoers with seven decades of badass awesomeness. Today we’ll look a three wildly different films featuring Lee. First up is probably his all-time worst:
THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU (1972) *
Not only is The Castle of Fu Manchu Christopher Lee’s worst movie, it also happens to be Jess Franco’s worst too, which is REALLY saying something. Okay, so maybe it’s not as bad as Revenge in the House of Usher, but it’s still really, really bad. Really. The Castle of Fu Manchu also has the dubious distinction of being the worst nationally syndicated episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. You know a movie is bad if Joel and the ‘bots can’t even make it funny.
Lee’s fifth and final performance as the fiendish Fu Manchu finds him plotting to freeze the world’s oceans. From there on, the plot gets kinda murky… and a lot boring. Seriously, if The Castle of Fu Manchu isn’t Jess Franco’s worst movie, it’s definitely his dullest.
In the beginning, there is hope that the film will be at least semi-amusing in its badness. The scene where Fu Manchu tests his freezing machine to sink an ocean liner shamelessly re-uses scenes from A Night to Remember. The fact that Franco and company didn’t even bother to colorize the black and white footage is especially telling of just how awful this movie is. Sure, you’ve seen plenty of movies where it switches from day to night and back again within the same scene, but how many movies switch from color to black and white and back to color?
Once the film shifts its focus away from Fu Manchu, the pacing flatlines. By the halfway point, you’ll be sticking toothpicks into your eyelids to help you stay away. Sticking them directly into your eyeballs might be preferable though.
Lee does what he can. Saddled with laughable Oriental make-up, the only thing recognizable about him is his voice. Listening to him literally phoning in his performance might’ve been more fun than actually watching this crap.
AKA: Assignment: Istanbul. AKA: Fu Manchu’s Castle. AKA: The Torture Chamber of Fu Manchu.
Next up is…
HANNIE CAULDER (1972) ***
The late Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, and Strother Martin are three bank robbers on the lam who happen along Raquel Welch’s home. Once there, they kill Raquel’s husband, rape her, and burn her ranch to the ground. Raquel gets a bespectacled bounty hunter played by Robert (Turk 182!) Culp to teach her how to shoot and together they go out for revenge.
Directed by Burt Kennedy in a workmanlike but efficient manner, Hannie Caulder is a solid Rape N’ Revenge western. It’s not quite I Spit on Your Grave (I Spit on Your Tombstone?), but it has its own rewards. Chief among them is Raquel Welch’s performance. A lot of critics scoffed at Welch’s abilities at the time and dismissed her as just another pretty face. However, she’s quite good in this and holds her own against the predominantly male cast.
Of the male cast, Culp fares best. You know, now that I think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Culp give a bad performance. He’s just one of those guys that always give 100%, no matter what the material. I particularly liked that he played his gun for hire character as a soft spoken bookish fellow rather than the monosyllabic loner types you’d usually see in a western like this.
Christopher Lee also gets several good scenes as the gun maker who takes pity on Welch. His character is pretty cool too. His job is to customize a gun from scratch to accommodate Raquel’s inexperience and feminine frame. He also knows how to gun down banditos if they mess with his family too.
And if you’re going to cast three bad guys for your western, you probably couldn’t find a better trio than Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, and Strother Martin. They are a lot of fun to watch, especially in their scenes on the trail where they bicker with one another. My only complaint is that they sometimes play things too broad and provide the movie with a lot of unnecessary and ill-fitting comic relief.
As for Raquel, she’s plenty hot in this movie and spends a lot of time wearing nothing but a red poncho. But she handles herself very well in the thespian department and is especially good in the Mr. Miyagi type training scenes when Culp is teaching her how to shoot. I particularly liked the scenes where he made her lift rocks to strengthen her wrists. These scenes figure heavily into the montage where Raquel’s training exercises are intercut with Lee making a gun for her, and it’s probably one of the best pre-Rocky montages I’ve ever seen.
Hannie Caulder suffers from an uneven tone and a rushed climax. However, the awesome amount of highly quotable dialogue makes that stuff seem like water under the bridge. My favorite exchange was:
Culp: “You have the prettiest ass I ever laid eyes on!”
Welch: “If you’re lucky, you’ll get to lay more than that!”
And our final Lee movie is…
THE STUPIDS (1996) **
Behind John Carpenter, John Landis is my second favorite director of all-time. Even though I am a huge fan of the man, I still avoided watching The Stupids for years. It just looked so… stupid. Now that I’ve finally watched it, I have to say it’s about what I expected.
Stanley Stupid (Tom Arnold) thinks there’s a conspiracy afoot because someone is always stealing his garbage at night. (It’s the garbage man.) He and his family set out to get to the bottom of the matter and wind up uncovering an arms dealing ring.
Look, I know this movie is based on a kid’s book, but I’m not even sure if kids would even find it funny. Most of the jokes cringe-inducing, but every once and a while they’ll slip in something funny. And by funny, I mean something out of a bad Abbott and Costello movie. (Which is fitting I guess since Tom Arnold kinda even resembles Lou Costello a bit with his straw hat.)
What’s frustrating about The Stupids is that at times it tries to be an Idiot Hero movie; and succeeds. Like Blue Streak and Corky Romano, there are scenes in this movie in which Arnold saves the day just from being a complete doofus. While these scenes are some of the best in the film, the movie just doesn’t have the conviction to go whole hog into the Idiot Hero subgenre. It’s like it’s still got one foot stuck in Kiddie Lit land or something.
Another frustrating part of the movie is Christopher Lee’s role. He looks like he’s having a lot of fun sitting in a sweet looking hellish set and sporting a pimp suit and long ass fingernails. They build him up like he’s going to be the villain; but sadly, he’s just The Stupids’ IDEA of what the villain looks like. The REAL villain turns out to be played by… (wait for it)… Captain Kangaroo!?! Talk about a major rip-off.
Landis takes a “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach to the material. (There are 2001 gags, aliens, stop motion animated pets, etc.) But because of the herky-jerky anything goes nature; the film never really finds its footing. Arnold is definitely game, which helps immensely, but he can’t save the movie.
As a die-hard Landis fan, I enjoyed seeing his usual trademarks. There’s a bus ad for See You Next Wednesday and plenty of film director cameos. (Here we get Mick Garris, David Cronenberg, and Robert Wise in bit parts.) And because I AM a Landis fan, I absolutely loved the fact that Mark Metcalf was in the movie playing a soldier named Neidermeyer. And because of that, I can’t completely hate it.
Next week’s Legend: Sonny Chiba.