The Film: 3.5/5 (Overall)
Blue Underground’s latest double feature Blu-ray presents a pair of pulpy mysteries based on the works of the ultra-prolific author Edgar Wallace (who died decades before their making while he was toiling away on a screenplay for RKO Radio Pictures that would lay the groundwork for the original King Kong) and produced by the notorious Harry Alan Towers.
CIRCLE OF FEAR (1966): 3.5/5
On London’s Tower Bridge, a gang of criminals execute the daylight hold-up of an armored car and the only thing that comes close to ruining their perfect strategy is their inside man Mason’s (Victor Maddern) ill-timed execution of his fellow security guard. Now all he can do to save his sorry hide is take some of the money and deliver it to a rural drop site on the orders of the crooks’ unseen boss. When Mason arrives at the rendezvous, he is murdered by a mysterious assailant and the money goes missing. It just so happens that this has all occurred at the location of a popular circus owned and operated by the dapper showman Barberini (Anthony Newlands). Detective Elliot (Leo Genn) of Scotland Yard tracks Mason’s last-known whereabouts to the circus and commences with his investigation to find both the missing man and the missing loot. His efforts to recover the stolen money are made all the more complicated when other employees of the circus begin to turn up dead in the same brutal manner as Mason – a deadly blade buried deep in the victim from a distance courtesy of an expert knife thrower.
Elliot has quite the growing list of potential killers and each one harbors a disturbing secret. Among them are the hideously disfigured lion tamer Gregor (Christopher Lee), his lovely assistant Natasha (Suzy Kendall), diminutive Mr. Big (Skip Martin), and Barberini himself. Oh, I almost forgot to mention that the circus has a knife thrower by the name of Mario (Maurice Kaufmann) who is pretty possessively jealous of his bride-to-be Gina (Margaret Lee), and the gang’s lone wolf enforcer of few words Manfred (Klaus Kinski) is lurking about trying to find the money before the coppers get to it first and the killer gets to everyone else next.
SPOILER WARNING! The killer is Professor Plum, in the dining room, with the candlestick. Just kidding, but Circus of Fear is certainly a mystery that will have you constantly guessing who the killer could be and getting the answer wrong every time when the character you settle on ends up with a knife in their back. The screenplay by producer Towers (using the pseudonym “Peter Welbeck”) was inspired by Wallace’s crime novels and is all the better for sticking to a simplistic whodunit format rather than giving over to the impulse to overcomplicate the narrative and drown it in exploitable elements. The film is violent but barely at the PG level, the ladies stay clothed, and there isn’t enough blood shed to fill a thimble to the halfway mark.
Circus was directed by John Moxey, a longtime reliable veteran of episodic television and movies of the week whose best-known efforts include The Night Stalker (the introduction of Darren McGavin as the nosy monster-hunting journalist Carl Kolchak), Gene Roddenberry’s Genesis II, and Nightmare in Badham County. His feature film credits are sparse, the most notable of which is 1960’s The City of the Dead (released in the U.S. as Horror Hotel), and many of his early credits for film and television were adaptations of Wallace’s stories, so he brings a considerable amount of experience in that field to the task of helming Circus of Fear.
Moxey does a fine job with the tired and limited material and gets the movie off to a rousing start with the staging of the daring heist that sets the plot in motion. This all takes place before the credits roll and after a later car chase scene where the police pursue one of the fleeing bandits the story settles down into a more subdued and atmospheric thriller that could almost be seen as a forerunner of the slasher subgenre of modern horror cinema. The first ten minutes do the entire production no favors by inspiring unrealistic expectations in the viewer who might be hoping for a continuation of the hard-boiled crime drama kick-off, but thankfully the rest of Circus of Fear is weirdly intriguing enough to sustain your interest with its colorful supporting cast and the interesting central mystery of the police’s hunt for the stolen money and the mad psycho mucking everything up.
When Circus of Fear was released in the U.S. it had 22 minutes cut from its running time so it could be crammed uncomfortably at the bottom half of double bills and projected theatrically in black & white despite being filmed in color. There could not have been anything considered salacious or offensive by American censors because as I mentioned earlier, this film is pretty tame in the department of exploitable elements. The primary focus is kept on the killer carving a path through the unsuspecting circus entertainers and the story devotes enough screen time to establishing plausible motivations for each character to have taken the bank loot and committed the murders. Those scenes don’t contain much in the way of originality of conviction, but at least they aren’t boring and the soap opera-level performances of most of the cast help keep them watchable.
None of the actors take center stage, but a few among their numbers appear capable of doing so. The late screen legend Christopher Lee spends the majority of his scenes with his iconic face concealed behind a black mask for reasons the story makes clear several times. Such is the strength of his screen presence that Lee is able to do some mighty impressive acting with just his deep voice and imposing frame as the lion tamer with a troubled past. The lovely Suzy Kendall (Torso) classes up the proceedings with her beauty and charm as Lee’s gorgeous assistant. Klaus Kinski doesn’t get much to do in the story but hang around the edges of the action just waiting to make his move, but every time he’s on screen you’re guaranteed to be fixated on his sinister deeds. He even gets to use his actual voice (or at least it sounds like his actual voice) for the German-accented English language dialogue he speaks – a rare thing to be found in the international productions that featured Kinski throughout the 1960’s. Leo Genn (The Longest Day) brings gentlemanly poise and wit to his role as the Scotland Yard detective determined to see justice done. Maurice Kaufmann (The Abominable Dr. Phibes), Victor Maddern (Exodus), Skip Martin (The Masque of the Red Death), Margaret Lee (Casanova), Anthony Newlands (Scream and Scream Again), and the German comic Eddi Arent flesh out their underwritten parts nicely.
Director Moxey commands an able-bodied technical crew for Circus of Fear, the standouts being cinematographer Ernest Steward (Deadlier Than the Male) and the hysterically dramatic, jazz-tinged original score composed by Johnny Douglas (Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends).
FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS (1967): 3.5/5
Directed by Jeremy Summers (House of 1,000 Dolls) and once again scripted by producer Towers under the Peter Welbeck alias, Five Golden Dragons switches up a murder mystery set against the backdrop of wintry London’s steel grey skies for an exotic tale of international intrigue and suspense with the warmth and beauty of a sprawling, sun-kissed Hong Kong – back in the day when it was still under the rule of the British Empire - to serve as the story’s playground. Both Lee and Kinski are back for this little Fleming-esque adventure, with Lee taking a special guest star for his reduced presence while Kinski gets more action and dialogue as a result of his upgraded part.
Bob Cummings, a comedic film and television actor who also starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur and Dial M for Murder, plays Bob Mitchell, a goofy American playboy in Hong Kong for business and pleasure (but mostly pleasure) who finds himself being pursued across the city by local thugs and imported heavies after the police deliver to him a note taken from the corpse of a lawyer he met briefly who was thrown to his death from a hotel room balcony. The note in questions mentions something about “five golden dragons”, but Mitchell is too preoccupied with romancing beautiful fellow traveler Ingrid (Maria Rohm, the Austrian actress and spouse to Towers for over 35 years) to ponder what it could mean.
Once the attacks and chases start happening fast and pretty damn furious, our hopelessly out-of-his-element hero is compelled to take the note seriously and dig deeper into a sordid escapade involving gold trafficking, masked assailants, a ruthless henchman (Kinski), the sexiest women around practically falling at his feet, and the truth behind the identities of the Five Golden Dragons – particularly the elusive fifth - and the power they hold over the international underworld. The chase is on.
Compared to the bleak and humorless Circus of Fear, Dragons an infectiously bright and fun affair that feels like, especially if you watch the movies back-to-back, like being able to take a relaxing dip in an inviting swimming pool after enduring three straight weeks of unrelenting cold and rain. That’s hardly a slight against Circus because its grim tone and overcast locales suited the story perfectly, and the same could easily be said for the bustling streets and crowded harbors of sunny, scenic Hong Kong in Dragons. In the hands of Towers and his director Summers, the film is pretty lightweight fluff merely intended to deliver a little under two hours’ worth of disposable, unpretentious entertainment; as far as I’m concerned, it’s a success.
The plot doesn’t always make sense and the action scenes often kick in without the proper build-up making narrative momentum a pipe dream as the story limps to a dialogue-heavy close, but the cast of Dragons and director Summers muster enough energy and enthusiasm to carry the thin plotting over some rough patches where nothing much of interest happens. Expert lighting cameraman John von Kotze (The Million Eyes of Sumuru) keeps everything bathed in a rich and gold brightness and the swinging sounds of Malcolm Lockyer’s (Dr. Who and the Daleks) finger-snapping score helps to make even the scattered moments of dullness look and move like a hepcat soiree.
Cummings (think of a less charismatic Paul Lynde) was an odd choice for the lead role, even though he looks like a dead ringer for Roger Moore when he was getting too long in the tooth to play 007. He makes an adequate overwhelmed, reluctant hero for the audience to engage its sympathies with, but his goofball shtick gets tiresome after the first two or three scenes. The always watchable Kinski is clearly enjoying himself as he cashes an easy paycheck for the pleasure of playing yet another Eurotrash villain. Lee makes his big entrance in the third act, accompanied by fellow silver screen greats Brian Donlevy (Kiss of Death), Dan Duryea (The Pride of the Yankees), and George Raft (the original Scarface), and impresses with only a shred of the screen time he usually deserves.
Rupert Davies (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) spends most of his screen time in his office as the local police commander overseeing the investigation, but he plays the character with the right amount of weary English resignation. Smartly cast as his second-in-command Inspector Chiao is Roy Chiao of Enter the Dragon and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom fame and their interplay, often consisting of dueling Shakespeare quotes, provides the film with better chemistry and wit than Cummings brings to his scenes with the token sex appeal supplied by that horrible horndog Towers, include the previously mentioned Rohm as well as Margaret Lee (returning from Circus of Fear) as an elegant nightclub singer.
For its Blu-ray premiere Circus of Fear was scanned and restored in 2K resolution with the original British color negative employed as a source element for the 1080p high-definition transfer, which is by far the best the film has ever looked on any home viewing format. Presented in its original 1.66:1 widescreen aspect ratio, Circus’s revitalized image quality really comes alive with an amazing array of lurid colors bolstered and brightened to eye-pleasing perfection and details so sharp you can practically count every gorgeous hair on Suzy Kendall’s head and detect the subtlest of alterations in a character’s facial expression. The negative must have been in near-pristine shape because I could not detect a single instance of print damage or deterioration and a thin but authentic layer of film grain has been preserved so as to not destroy the integrity and beauty of the visuals.
Making its U.S. home video debut, Five Golden Dragons has been remastered in 1080p high-definition from its original camera negative and presented in its original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio. The image looks spiffy and damage-free for a film of its age and the colors are vibrant and lively. Details appear the sharpest and most improved during close-up shots, but even from a distance the quality of the upgrade cannot be denied. Grain is balanced and consistent.
Both films have been supplied with English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono soundtracks that are true to their sources and accomplish the task of exhibiting undemanding audio mixes without distortion or noticeable traces of deterioration. English subtitles have also been provided for both features.
Both films in this set come complete with a small selection of bonus features, which in the case of Circus of Fear were all ported over from Blue Underground’s 2003 Region 1 DVD (available separately or as part of the Christopher Lee Collection box set). The best of the lot is a dry but informative audio commentary from director Moxey moderated by David Gregory that is able to convey the occasional nugget of fascinating background info in spite of constantly fall prey to patches of dead air that will have you reaching for the remote. Trailers for the U.S. (under the “Psycho-Circus” title) and international releases in both B&W and color are included, as is a gallery of posters and stills. Five Golden Dragons has been supplemented with its original theatrical trailer (3 minutes) and a still gallery of its very own. Since director Summers is apparently still around his candid thoughts on the film would have been greatly appreciated in the form of a new interview or commentary, but alas…. You can find the same extras on Blue Underground’s separate DVD release of Dragons.
Two trashy pulp crime flicks for the price of one – Blue Underground’s double feature Blu-ray of these two Harry Alan Towers productions have as much emotional and intellectual impact as the kind of disposable paperback novels you could read in a single sitting while waiting for a delayed flight to begin boarding, but they’re also highly entertaining and won’t insult your intelligence too much. Both Circus of Fear and Five Golden Dragons are worth watching for different reasons and they each have their fair share of virtues and flaws. The high-definition transfers are excellent, giving fans of these inconsequential B-movie potboilers a guaranteed evening’s worth of frothy fun.