Somewhere around 1933, and in a remote area of China the strains of a pipe organ can be heard drifting over the Himalayas. They are emanating from a castle in the mountains which is the lair of Fu Manchu (Peter Sellers) and it is he who is playing the organ, which turns into a rendition of Happy Birthday to You because Fu is one hundred-and-eighty-six today. This calls for a celebration, and he has assembled his henchmen to applaud him and witness him taking the elixir of life, which is brought in by a familiar face (Burt Kwouk) who manages to set his sleeve on fire and puts it out with the precious liquid. What can the evil mastermind do now to prolong his existence?
There is a tradition of movie stars having their last big screen work being one of the worst things they ever appeared in, and for Peter Sellers his Fu Manchu spoof, a Playboy production no less, was little different. It would be nice for any of those celebrities to go out on a high, and the reasons they don't are many, but for him they were very specific: he was a very sick man when he made this, both physically and mentally, and simply was not operating at his best. Recommended to give acting a rest for the sake of his health, he did not heed the doctors' warnings and watching him here you could see he was visibly frail, only sparking into life fitfully.
Therefore it was all too appropriate that his character in this should be desperately trying to find a way to extend his life through arcane means, because Sellers could have done with a magic potion himself. And also, he was his own worst enemy, for he sacked three directors in the process of making his final bow, being so difficult to work with that the production not only became subject to a list of impediments when he wanted to reshoot and rewrite it, but also having to take time off to recuperate from whatever latest stress he suffered in the shooting. Piers Haggard was finally credited as director, but really the faults of this sad little entry into a fascinating career would rest on Sellers' stooped shoulders.
It did offer an insight into where the comedian thought he would be able to get laughs, and given he was close to, or fully immersed in, madness when he made this it does offer the work a ghoulish quality apart from the obvious tired and drawn appearance of Sellers. It was clear the cast were willing to indulge him, but the final result was downright weird in places, yet not weird enough to prompt laughter, more an uncomfortable silence. He played Fu Manchu's nemesis as well, Nayland Smith, the joke being that both men were too elderly to justify continuing their past achievements: more uneasily close to the truth elements, and having Smith's best friend be his lawnmower was more sad and depressing than anything chucklesome. Surreal maybe, but that doesn't alone mean funny.
Among the cast was Helen Mirren who played the police constable recruited to impersonate the Queen for security reasons (hmm...); she auditions by playing the saxophone (miming, really), tapdancing and singing On the Good Ship Lollipop, though not all at the same time. In a hard to believe development she becomes Fu's love interest at his Himalayan fortress, but then there was a lot about this that was tough to contemplate, not to mention blatant evidence this was a work of a man not in his right mind as bizarre situation follows bizarre situation with nary a giggle to be found. Also appearing were TV legend Sid Caesar whose style utterly fails to mesh with the airless humour here, and David Tomlinson whose last film this was as well, a commendably stable characterisation. While this held a certain grimly compelling quality, it understandably never found a solid foundation, its racial caricatures were embarrassing, and it didn't so much end as grind to a halt - with an Oriental Elvis Presley. Music by Marc Wilkinson.
British director who works mostly in television, with the classic serial Pennies from Heaven to his credit; he also directed the final Quatermass series. On the big screen, his best work is the creepy devil worship horror Blood On Satan's Claw. Other films include (some of) Peter Sellers' terrible last appearance, The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu, and snake-on-the-loose thriller Venom. He is a relation of novelist H. Rider Haggard.