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When is horror not horror?

Answer:  when it’s done by Warner Brothers!  At least the Warner Brothers of the 1960s, if Chamber of Horrors is any indication.

Nowadays, horror is a more respected film genre, but for a long time, it was more on the outside.  The big studios rarely went all out on their horror movies, and when you see a film like Chamber of Horrors, you can see bigger is not better.  With its ornate set decorations, this seems to be a movie the studio went all out on; unfortunately, they forgot to include any true horror.

The film opens in late 19th Century Baltimore, where maniac Jason Cravatte has just forced a minister to wed Jason with an obviously dead woman.  The minister goes to the cops, but Cravatte is wise enough to go into hiding at a local brothel.  The police call in a pair of amateur investigators who also run a wax museum (the Chamber of Horrors of the title).  These investigators track down Cravatte, who is arrested, convicted and sentenced to hang.  Cravatte escapes, however, losing a hand in the process.  No problem, though, as he can now use a hook or various other implements instead to get revenge against those who wronged him.

This film was made in 1966, just as the industry was really breaking away from its Production Code ties.  In some ways, you can see it here, especially with so many prostitutes as characters and the vague hints of necrophilia.  On the other hand, the horror aspect is completely minimal and bloodless.  In a William Castle-like gimmick, there is a warning flash and noise before the “key” moments of horror, but nothing is ever shown.  Made years after Psycho, Chamber of Horrors comes off as quaint.  (According to hints I picked up from IMDB, this may have been a TV pilot for a series that was never picked up, focusing, I suppose, on the wax museum proprietors.  Maybe that explains the tameness of this film.)  Quality: 4/10, Fun: 3/10.

Accompanying this movie on DVD was Brides of Fu Manchu, the second in a series of five movies featuring Christopher Lee as the Sax Rohmer villain.  The plot has Fu Manchu kidnapping the daughters of scientists to force the fathers to help build a sophisticated weapon.  Fortunately for Fu Manchu, all the scientists have daughters who are young and attractive.  Opposing Fu Manchu, as always, are those intrepid Brits, Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie (kind of a poor man’s version of Holmes and Watson, even in the original stories).

Yes, the Fu Manchu films may be politically incorrect, but they are actually progressive compared to Rohmer’s “yellow peril” stereotypes.  To me, the great irony is that Fu Manchu is so much more interesting than his bland opponents that you actually root for him.  In the books, Fu Manchu is out to make China a world power, but the films have Fu Manchu serving only himself, a James Bondish villain out to conquer the world.

As for this film in particular, it is merely okay, a step up from its companion movie but no great shakes.  At least this one is not directed by Jesus Franco, the prolific but mediocre director who would later do Blood of Fu Manchu and Castle of Fu Manchu.  Actually, I can only think of one truly good Fu Manchu movie, 1932’s The Mask of Fu Manchu with Boris Karloff as the title character and Myrna Loy playing his gleefully sadistic daughter.  Yes, it is politically incorrect too, but it’s also a lot of fun to watch.  As for Brides of Fu Manchu, give it a 4/10 for quality and 4/10 for fun.

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