With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

In these theoretically more enlightened times, Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu is the dictionary definition of “problematic.” Created in 1913, the character is “yellow peril” personified, a renegade Chinese warlord and evil genius bent on world domination and the extermination of the white race. His nemesis: resourceful Scotland Yard commissioner Nayland Smith, who stands for everything good, proper, and most importantly, British. An unmistakable product of an imperial power on the verge of losing its supremacy, Rohmer’s adventure yarns (which he continued writing until his death in 1959) were extremely popular with the reading public, and eventually the viewing public, when they were brought to the screen in two dozen silent shorts made in the U.K. in 1923 and 1924, with Irish actor H. Agar Lyons playing the villain.

For his next screen incarnation, Fu Manchu was embodied by the Swedish-born Warner Oland in a trio of early talkies for Paramount made between 1929 and 1931. In 1932 Oland switched sides to take on the role of Charlie Chan at Fox, where he played the heroic detective until 1937, one year before his death. In the meantime, MGM sprung for British horror sensation Boris Karloff, then riding high on the success of Frankenstein, to star in 1932’s The Mask Of Fu Manchu. The studio didn’t cheap out on the elaborate sets and special effects, but it did follow Universal’s lead by burying its star under heavy makeup, which Oland had previously eschewed. The film also cast Myrna Loy as his “ugly, insignificant daughter” (say what, Fu?) and included a scene where he riles up his followers by exhorting them to “Conquer and breed! Kill the white man and take his women!” Good thing Nayland Smith is around to make sure he’s unable to follow through on his threats.

As deliriously entertaining as Mask is, with its unrestrained touches of sadism and homoeroticism that wouldn’t pass muster when the Motion Picture Production Code started to be strictly enforced two years later, it ultimately proved to be a one-off. Next came the 15-part 1940 Republic serial Drums Of Fu Manchu, starring German-born Henry Brandon as the dastardly doctor, which was edited down to a 68-minute feature in 1943. A handful of television appearances aside (including a failed 1952 pilot starring John Carradine), the character wouldn’t emerge again until 1965, when Christopher Lee headlined the first of five Fu Manchu features for producer Harry Alan Towers.

Made in the shadow of the James Bond franchise, but lacking the resources United Artists was able to pour into it, the Lee/Towers series ranged from 1965’s The Face Of Fu Manchu—easily the best of the bunch—to 1969’s Mystery Science Theater 3000-ready The Castle Of Fu Manchu, and was put through its paces by three different directors. Lee’s criminal mastermind even faced off against three Nayland Smiths, a situation brought about when the first, Nigel Green, elected not to return for the sequel, in which the role was taken by Douglas Wilmer. Wilmer, in turn, begged off after his second go-round and was replaced by Richard Greene. In fact, apart from Lee, whose subtle makeup was the result of two hours in the chair every morning, the only other cast members who appeared in all five films are Chinese actor Tsai Chin, who played Fu Manchu’s daughter, Lin Tang, and Howard Marion-Crawford, who blustered his way through the part of Smith’s comic-relief sidekick Dr. Petrie. And providing continuity behind the scenes was the ever-frugal Towers, who penned the screenplays for each entry using his frequent pseudonym Peter Welbeck.

In light of their relatively slim budgets, it’s surprising that Towers retained the ’20s period setting as opposed to updating it to the present day, as the German krimi films (many based on the works of Rohmer contemporary Edgar Wallace) being produced at the same time did. Indeed, since Towers partnered with the Munich-based production company Constantin Film to make his Fu Manchu films, many of the supporting roles in them were filled by krimi veterans regardless of where they were shot. Set in and around London, but filmed in Ireland, Face introduced many of the elements Towers would return to time and again, including Fu Manchu’s army of black-clad henchmen who strangle their victims with red prayer scarves; fight scenes in warehouses full of empty boxes; people on the telephone repeating things purely for the viewer’s benefit; and the last-minute foiling of Fu’s evil schemes and his apparent demise. It also cast German actress Karin Dor (two years before she played a SPECTRE assassin in You Only Live Twice) as the kidnapped daughter of a biochemist Fu Manchu blackmails into doing his bidding, because no respectable scientist would work for him otherwise.

While the plot of Face hinges on Fu Manchu harnessing the legendary Black Hill Poppy, simultaneously “the seed of life” and capable of being turned into a poisonous gas that can wipe out an entire village, 1966’s The Brides Of Fu Manchu revolves around his organization kidnapping the wives and daughters of scientists and industrialists to get them to work on a death ray designed to be sent out over radio waves. Not only does this tip the scale in favor of Bond-style gadgetry, it also gives Burt Kwouk (Cato from the Pink Panther films) an opening to play Fu Manchu’s chief technician and Lin Tang an opportunity to wear one of her patented old-lady disguises. Her father, meanwhile, is the real clotheshorse of the franchise, modeling several snappy tunics throughout. His plan to blow up an arms conference in London comes to naught, though, forcing him to regroup.

The tagline for Jaws: The Revenge—“This time it’s personal”—could just as easily apply to 1967’s The Vengeance Of Fu Manchu, since his main goal is to ruin Nayland Smith’s reputation by kidnapping the daughter of a surgeon (are we sensing a pattern yet?) and forcing him to transform one of Fu’s men into Smith’s double. “My objective is vengeance,” says Fu. “The means: death.” To that end, Smith’s doppelgänger takes his place and commits a senseless murder for which he’s arrested, tried, and sentenced to be hanged—all so Fu Manchu can convince an American mafioso he has the right stuff to head up a world crime league. It’s at that point that Dr. Petrie springs into action, as does an FBI agent who Smith met at a meeting in Paris to lay the groundwork for INTERPOL (placing the action squarely in the year 1923). Transportation being what it was at the time, it takes weeks to get anywhere, though, and communication is almost as slow, which robs the story of some of its urgency. Vengeance also comes up short in the spectacle department despite being shot on location in Hong Kong and at the Shaw Brothers Studio, which didn’t stretch the budget far enough to populate the streets with too many period cars or the courtyard of Fu Manchu’s ancestral palace with too many extras.

While directing chores on the first three films were handled by Don Sharp (Face and Brides) and Jeremy Summers (Vengeance), for the last two the reins were turned over to Spanish trash auteur Jesús Franco (credited, as he tended to be at the time, as Jess). Franco was uniquely qualified for the assignment on the strength of his stylish 1962 Eyes Without A Face knockoff The Awful Dr. Orloff and its numerous sequels, which had to soldier on without him while he was in Towers’ orbit. (In all, they made a staggering 10 films together between 1968 and 1970.) Their fruitful collaboration started with 1968’s The Blood Of Fu Manchu, which upped the sleaze factor and brought the sadomasochism that had always been present in the series to the fore. This is signaled from the start, as the film, which was shot in Spain and Brazil, opens with a bevy of women in chains and hoods being led through the jungle to Fu Manchu’s latest secret lair, where he’s plotting his latest all-out assault on the West.

Put out under a variety of titles, including Fu Manchu And The Kiss Of Death and Kiss And Kill, the fourth film in the series boasts a lunatic plot for which Franco received a co-writing credit. Fu Manchu’s hooded henchmen inject the venom of a legendary Incan snake into the breasts of 10 women (who spend much of their time in captivity chained up and barely clothed), turning them into hypnotized assassins tasked with planting a literal kiss of death on nine world leaders—and Nayland Smith, of course. As he’s the first target struck down, Smith is sidelined for the majority of the film, but since the poison has a six-week incubation period, his cohorts have plenty of time to find the antidote. Franco, meanwhile, injects the proceedings with a kind of manic energy that the previous two entries had been lacking, but this would not be the case with his threadbare follow-up.

Released in 1969 and shot largely on location in Istanbul, The Castle Of Fu Manchu was the final port of call for the series, with Franco and Towers cutting corners left and right. For starters, the sinking of an ocean liner is depicted by tinting footage from 1958’s A Night To Remember, which is intercut with the climax of The Brides Of Fu Manchu, even incorporating Burt Kwouk’s screen death. Later on, the destruction of a dam is represented by a sequence borrowed wholesale from 1957’s Campbell’s Kingdom, which at least had the benefit of already being in color. The rest of the time Franco pads the film with lengthy establishing shots, scenes of characters waiting for things to happen, and characters walking from one place to another. He even gives himself an extended cameo as an Istanbul police inspector whose relationship to the overarching plot—about an Ice-Nine-like crystal capable of freezing all the water on the planet—is tangential at best. But at least he wasn’t cut out of the version aired on MST3K in 1992.

Showing up at the tail end of the show’s third season, Castle came along relatively early in its initial run, but its poor quality still moves stranded janitor Joel Robinson to mutter one time as he leaves the theater, “I think this is the worst one they’ve ever made us do.” That assessment was echoed four years later by staff writer Paul Chaplin in the Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, in which he writes, “It looks okay and the music isn’t too bad, but the plot stinks like crap.” Even Harry Alan Towers, in a featurette produced by Blue Underground in 2003, marveled at what Franco had accomplished. “I said to Jesús, when I viewed the print, I said, ‘Oh, you’ve done something that was impossible. You’ve successfully killed Fu Manchu.’” For once, the villain’s boast at the end of each film that “The world shall hear from me again” would ring hollow.

Since Lee hung up the mustache in 1969, Fu Manchu has been absent from movie screens with a handful of exceptions, most notably Nicolas Cage’s brief cameo in Grindhouse 10 years ago and the 1980 Peter Sellers vehicle The Fiendish Plot Of Fu Manchu, a misguided attempt to revive the character by an ailing star who didn’t live to see his cinematic swan song belly flop. And while Fu Manchu was a major component of the first volume of Alan Moore’s The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic book series, the character was excised from its big-screen adaptation. Considering how that turned out, that’s probably for the best.

Final ranking:

1. The Face Of Fu Manchu (1965)
2. The Blood Of Fu Manchu (1968)
3. The Brides Of Fu Manchu (1966)
4. The Vengeance Of Fu Manchu (1967)
5. The Castle Of Fu Manchu (1969)