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Monday, 10 September 2012

'CHARLIE CHAN AND THE CURSE OF THE DRAGON QUEEN' (1981) ~ "elements of barefaced farce".


*This review may contain spoilers (though as the plot is as random as a pack of Smarties, you may not notice)*

Stars: Peter (where's the little grey cells?) Ustinov, Lee (where's the shampoo?) Grant, Richard (where's Starbuck?) Hatch and Roddy (where's the monkey suit?) McDowall .

Of all the strange and wonderful films in the world, some of which I've certainly seen, there's one that clearly eluded me all these years and made my jaw drop, a film totally and utterly bonkers to the point where bonkers transcends the reality of existence. It's Peter Ustinov's 'Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen'.

It all kicks off with Ustinov's offscreen Chan singing pretty badly about 'feeling really tired' and an unseen woman flicking ash from her cigarette at us. You ain't seen nothing yet! It's a film that remains neither good or bad after viewing, as it doesn't really exist, you being to suspect - the more you watch it. You also start to suspect that you may also have eaten a mushroom from the garden that wasn't the shiitake you thought it was by the time the climax arrives and the dog blows out a candle on the birthday cake after the bloke from Battlestar Galactica sings happy birthday (really badly, but not as badly as Ustinov sang 'I'm Really Tired' over the opening credits) to the whimpering (understandably by this point in the movie) pooch.
You know those Miss Marple episodes shown on ITV in recent years, post-'perfect Joan Hickson', that loads of traditionalists thought deviated too much from the Christie originals and went a bit bonkers and ridiculously-retro and overwhelmingly 'nudge nudge wink wink'? Well, this Charlie Chan movie makes those Marples with Geraldine McEwan (that I actually like) or Julia McKenzie (that I actually don't) in, look like Agatha directed and adapted all the TV screenplays of her own books, for ITV, herself. This is a mystery stabbed through the ribcage with thick, red-bloodied comedy chunks of unsubtle lunacy. It's like an after dinner party, sloshed to the brink with champagne, for various Hollywood heavyweights to strip off and swing from the chandelier at, but instead of hulmiliating themselves that way, decide to make this movie instead and possibly humiliate themselves even more.

It would all be very funny if it wasn't also very sad indeed that Rachel Roberts who had starred in such cinematic treasures as 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' (one of my favourite movies), 'This Sporting Life' and 'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning', committed suicide the same year Chan was released. Her fragile state of mind on set had producers worried. This final movie isn't much of an epitaph.

Chan investigates attempts on the life of a grandmother to his new #1 grandson, Richard Hatch, who has been adopted by the la-la land Lupowitz family (who have adopted Chan's #1 grandson. There's a mysterious Dragon Queen wafting around (played by Angie Dickinson) who Chan unmasked as the killer of Mrs Lupowitz's husband many years ago. The question is, are the gruesome murders (including baking by bacofoil with a potato stabbed to the heart - thankfully off camera) the work of an evil urban Aztec cult from 'Q - The Winged Serpent' (my idea) or the Dragon Queen (everyone else's idea) or something even stranger (no bloody idea whose idea that was).

Roddy McDowall's mixed up in all this too - my favourite actor, but he plays a noo-noo-land butler in a super-charged wheelchair here, who knocks over old ladies down the streets of San Francisco while not stealing breakfast from that bloke from Battlestar Galactica's (the one who wasn't in 'The A Team') breakfast the second he puts it down on the table, for laughs - so not exactly a performance you can love without some hesitation. I bet he misses Lassie after all the painful gags he's forced to perform in this movie, despite his shaggy co-star's famously unaromatic breath (I don't mean Ustinov, I mean the dog). You also get to see Academy Award-winning actress Lee ('Shampoo', 'Voyage of the Damned') Grant dance with a golden urn containing her late husband's ashes and then kiss it - in a performance that also includes the immortal line, upon picking the urn up, and after it has been used as an ashtray by others in the house: "Oh my dear, you're putting on weight".

Despite all this mockery, I quite enjoyed 'Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen' - I even laughed at the relentless gags that do their work by overloading you with so many one-liners and silly behaviour that sometimes you get to laugh at the odd one that's actually funny. What a tactic! Pour a hundred coloured Smarties down a man's throat (with a blue one in every few hundred) and you have to choke on the limited edition one eventually. It's wild and drop-dead-weird enough to have cult appeal and there are plenty of films out there that are plain boring from start to finish. This one, is never that. It's a film to stare at (and wonder why life is so long in the middle of) for 90 minutes, or maybe take in the certainly eventful setpiece stunt sequences from director Clive Donner that are full of invention and utter madness, perhaps appreciate the admittedly impressive overdose of overdone barefaced farce or even have fun with the overdone gammon-steaky performances of all the cast without exception - if not exactly 'watch and enjoy' any of it as such.
words: markgordonpalmer/ 2012

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