MST3K: The Castle of Fu Manchu (1992)
Director: Jim Mallon
Starring: Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu and Kevin Murphy

The Plot: In the not-too-distant future, Joel Robinson (Joel Hodgeson) is abducted by his boss at Gizmonic institute and shot into outer space. His boss, Dr. Forrester, then sends Joel the very worst movies that he can find in order to document his reactions. Joel, who has built two robot friends named Crow and Tom Servo, does his best to improve this bad situation by having a good time and riffing on the movies with his robot pals. In this episode, Dr. Forrester forces Joel to watch the fifth entry into the Fu Manchu series starring Christopher Lee, which is known as The Castle of Fu Manchu. A nearly incoherent film, the plot is made up of multiple strands that will confound any potential viewer. However, the basic story revolves around the evil Dr. Fu Manchu (Chrisopher Lee) who runs a massive opium operation and is consistently pursued by his righteous nemesis Nayland Smith, Britain’s top Interpol agent. This sequel follows Fu Manchu and his army as they take over a castle in Istanbul, where they look to enact a plan to freeze the world’s oceans. To do this, he has to kidnap an ailing scientist who has a bad heart. Fu Manchu promises to cure the scientist, but he must first construct his freezing device. Will Nayland Smith stop the evil Dr. Fu Manchu before all hope is lost? Will Joel and the bots find a way to survive this monstrous movie?

The Review
Throughout the rich history of Mystery Science Theater 3000, there were numerous varieties of bad movies that aired on the show. You had some that were completely inept, like The Girl With Gold Boots, and some that were offensively dubbed, such as The Voyages of Sinbad, but most were at least partially entertaining for one reason or another. Occasionally, something like Hamlet would slip through and the audience would be treated to a movie that might have been good, but was nearly impossible to riff on or make appealing. Yet, The Castle of Fu Manchu may be the first episode that I recall where the movie was so utterly boring that it nearly disabled any potential riffing that Joel and the bots could muster. This also puts me in a bit of a predicament, because if there is anything that any writer can tell you, the worst sort of project to write a review for is a boring one. Thankfully, if there is a plus side to all of this, it is that Castle of Fu Manchu still somehow manages to turn out as a rather decent episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Thanks to a few fairly entertaining host segments, as well as a few returning gags about how bad the movie is, the episode is saved despite the lack of action on the screen.

This is actually a fairly popular episode within the MST3K pantheon, but before actually watching the film I had very little understanding of why it was so popular. Hearing Frank Condiff talk about the nonsensical plot in The Castle of Fu Manchu, which he discussed during his introduction on the Shout! Factory DVD set, certainly had me a bit worried before the episode had even began. Still, I somehow managed to hold out hope. Knowing that Christopher Lee was in the movie, and that he played a nine foot tall Asian man, I figured that this was going to be worth watching regardless of the plot. Hey, it is even directed by genre film veteral Jesus Franco, so surely it was going to be worth SOMETHING! Unfortunately, that did not turn out to be the case. If there has ever been a movie that was given the MST3K treatment that benefited from being riffed on, it would be The Castle of Fu Manchu. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t Hobgoblins or Space Mutiny, but I honestly can not imagine sitting around in a room and watching The Castle of Fu Manchu without the commentary of Joel and the gang. That would be some form of torture that I can only imagine being inflicted in a dark room by some sort of tyrannical maniac. The sheer boredom of the movie would be enough to put the average man to sleep, but I doubt that he would be able to blissfully slumber due to the atrocious dubbing.

Directed by a true stalwart of cult cinema, Jesus Franco, this director was unfortunately about as hit or miss as you could get. If there is one thing that you can say, however, it is that this odd piece of spy fiction shows him at his strangest. Despite the ridiculous plot and the terrible dub, Franco does manage to offer some decent visual flair to the project. Packed with nifty visuals and some interesting foreground/midground/background differentiation, the movie generally looks “OK” for what it is. There’s a sequence early on in the movie that perfectly encapsulates this visual flair, where the audience is introduced to one of the best locations in the movie. A massive hallway, that appears Roman or Greek in its decoration, littered with giant columns, this sequence shows Fu Manchu approaching a key player in the story and showing off his power. Yet, here I am talking about all of this in a movie that is absolutely horrible in almost all other regards. Still, if you’re going to look at the movie from an objective standpoint, you have to acknowledge this one decent aspect. The fact that this movie is so poor shouldn’t come as a shocker to me, I suppose. I have never been a Franco fan, and the only project of his that I really seemed to like was Faceless. So, The Castle of Fu Manchu just turns out to be another head scratching train wreck from one of the most puzzling directors within sleazy cinema’s history.

I would like to meet the person who can actually keep up with the plot in this movie. Whether this comes from the movie being edited for the US market, or whether it was just poorly scripted, I do not know. As it stands, the movie is incomprehensible. Scenes happen, one after the other, but nothing seems to tie the movie together in a coherent fashion. Looking over plot descriptions, it seems that Nayland Smith was supposed to be the very-obvious hero within our story, but he has to be the least fleshed-out protagonist I have ever seen in a movie. In all honesty, it seems as if he is in the movie far less than most of the other characters. The only figure who seems to stick around for any long period of time is Fu Manchu himself. Going back to the plot and how it never seems to tie together, there is one potential viewer who could maybe explain it to the rest of the world. There is a joke made within this episode, by Crow I believe, that Roger Ebert supposedly gave this film a positive review. I want to think that this was indeed a joke and not based upon any reality, but Ebert has made some rather daring proclamations in the past. Since I can’t find it in Ebert’s catalog, I would assume this was merely a joke. However, if he is the one guy who can actually make heads or tails out of the plot behind The Castle of Fu manchu, then I beg for him to decipher it. My puny brain can’t handle the task. Maybe then, with Ebert’s notes in hand, I could go back and actually keep track of just what the hell any of it means.

Such a tremendously boring movie, it is no wonder that the crew seemingly goes insane. Which is fitting, because this is definitely a bad one in the lineage of MST3K. The riffing isn’t even the best part of this episode, which is surprising. The movie moves at such a sloth-like pace that it is hard for the guys to get any sort of rhythm going. So, the guys generally make better jokes when they point out how awful the movie is. Indeed, the host segments devolve into the group becoming more and more depressed as the episode progresses. As they devolve into tears, the scientists gleefully take comfort in the torture of the crew. Watching Tom Servo freak out over how awful The Castle of Fu Manchu is turns out to be one of the most memorable moments of the entire Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXIII box set. The conclusion to the host segments actually shows Dr. Forrester and Frank trying their best to one-up Joel by managing to strike a few successful riffs at the expense of The Castle of Fu Manchu… but they are unable to do it. A truly awful movie filled with some atrocious dubbing, it is most certainly in the running for worst movie ever featured on the show.

The Conclusion
The Castle of Fu Manchu is a solid episode for the set. Despite the fact that the movie is incomprehensible and features a sluggish pace, Joel and the bots are able to keep things entertaining by amplifying their own torture in having to watch this movie. If you’ve ever wanted to see Christopher Lee in some truly awful Asian facial makeup, then the MST3K version is the only one to seek out. I can’t fathom actually watching the movie without the useful commentary of the guys. This episode gets a 3.