Monday, November 2, 2015

Dr. Wong's Virtual Hell (1999)

An endless source of fascination concerning the labyrinth filmograpgy of Jess Franco is the “mapping out”, for lack of a better term, of Franco’s cinematic universe. Franco’s body of work is a maze of reoccurring motifs and its always interesting noticing little references in his films made to his other films and piecing together the puzzle of how one film relates to another. Common character names are another reoccurrence in Franco’s films with names like Dr. Orloff, Morpho and Lorna just to name a few constantly making appearances. As Franco’s career progressed, the more self-reflexive his work became, with his later digital features for One Shot Productions like Vampire Blues (1999) and Snakewoman (2005) being loaded with nods to his past films. While working for producer Harry Alan Towers, Franco directed two films in the Fu Manchu series based on the writings of Sax Rohmer starting Christopher Lee, The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968) and The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969) and portions of the Fu Manchu universe would pop up again over the years, even in Franco’s final film Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Ladies (2013). While not an “official” Fu Manchu film, 1999’s Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell certainly finds Franco channeling Rohmer’s super villain with Franco himself playing the lead role as the titular Dr. Wong in one of his most unique and ambitious films from the One Shot Productions era.

Dr. James Wong (Franco), a once powerful alchemist who terrorized the occidental population of the orient is now a shell of his former self after having been defeated by the wizard Cagliostro (Howard Vernon in archival footage from The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein (1973)). About to commit hari-kari, Wong’s daughter Tsai Ming (Lina Romay) proposes a plan to restore Wong to his former glory by using virtual reality to kidnap the daughter of a rich businessman and demand a ransom. Wong agrees and the scheme is put into motion, although detectives Nelly Smith (Romay in her “Candice Coaster” alter-ego) and her partner Doc Petry are put on the case. Aided by Nelly’s visions of Cagliostro from beyond the grave, Nelly and Doc set out to defeat Dr. Wong for good.

Even though at this point calling a Franco film strange and claiming that it defies genre pigeonholing is beyond redundant, the fact remains that Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell is a bizarre, genre hopping curiosity. Usually the concept of virtual reality is put to use in science fiction scenarios but here Franco puts it use in an odd horror, fantasy and crime film hybrid with a bit of comedy thrown in as well. As for the Fu Manchu connections, the biggest one would obviously be the character of Dr. Wong but also the detectives Nelly Smith and Doc Petry who are clearly recalling Fu Manchu’s pursuers Nayland Smith and Doctor Petrie. Franco as Wong gleefully hams it up in the role adding greatly to the films comedic tendencies as does Romay when her bubbly alter-ego “Candy Coaster” takes over for the role of Nelly Smith. Visually, the film is one of Franco’s most interesting as it sees Franco taking his digital experimentation to the next level by altering the image so much that at times the film appears to be animated. Going even further, there are instances where dialogue is replaced by text bubbles turning the film into a literal comic book movie. This is put to great use during the virtual reality sequences which are given an extra boost by the stunning presence of Analía Ivars as Loba, Tsai Ming’s henchwoman in one of her most striking roles, easily on par with her role in Vampire Blues and at times even rivaling it.

Interesting thing regarding the film, despite getting a solo Spanish DVD release, Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell has never gotten its own DVD release in North America. The film first hit disc as a bonus feature on Sub Rosa Studio's release of Franco’s Snakewoman, easily the best of Franco’s One Shot Films. The disc is now out of print and for the longest time commanded some outrageous prices even for used copies although as of late copies have been popping up for more reasonable prices. Of course, being a One Shot film means that the film was re-released by Sub Rosa on a set entitled “Cravings of the Depraved” as a double feature with Franco’s experimental Marquis de Sade inspired piece Helter Skelter (2000), a film which despite its title has absolutely nothing to do with Charles Manson. The decision to pair the two films for the set was apt as Helter Skelter features spliced in footage from the former film, namely an extended sequence of Analía Ivars whipping co-star Rachel Sheppard as well as snippets from the virtual reality scenes re-edited in various ways so the two make for an interesting double feature. As for Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell on its own, like all of Franco’s later films its incredibly divisive but its unique visual design and genre blending make it worth the time of those willing to take a chance on it.

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