BluRay/DVD Reviews

ICONS OF ADVENTURES SET

By • Jul 20th, 2008 • Pages: 1 2

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007 would probably crack open a case of Dom Perignon ‘62, but the rest of us can celebrate Sony’s decision to release their horde of classic Hammer films, many unavailable for decades, by rushing out and buying the first set, “Icons of Adventure.” The price is low, and there are hours of viewing pleasure to be had. True, the cover’s lumpy pirate faces have the same clashing hues as my Aunt Sadie’s green and yellow tablecloth, which doesn’t endear one towards purchasing the thing. There’s also no mention of Hammer Films on the front of the box. (This has caused so much criticism that Sony has gone populist, letting people vote for the cover of their choice for the next set on Amazon.com.)

Although chiefly known for their stylish gothic horror (mostly directed by Terence Fisher, who is represented here by THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY), Hammer–an indie studio founded in 1948 and headquartered at a Medieval castle in Bray, a suburb of London–made all kinds of movies. Those under review fall into the adventure genre. Produced between 1959-63, when the Hammer production team was fresh from their great successes HORROR OF DRACULA & THE MUMMY (both 1959), these films are testaments to the occasionally odd coupling of art and commerce.

Although two are pirate extravaganzas and others Asian “peril” chillers, there are strong horror elements here, especially dismemberment (fairly explicit for its time but tame today), blood and dread, which, oddly, makes these films seem more original. What’s even better, though, are complex storylines and characterizations focusing on moral ambiguity in a cross-cultural context, as well as an unexpected lyrical beauty (courtesy of cinematographers Arthur Grant & Michael Reed), placing two, THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY and DEVIL SHIP PIRATES, among the best Hammer films ever made. Christopher Lee, who is a sardonically engaging presence, stars in three, and in THE DEVIL SHIP PIRATES, gives what may be the performance of a lifetime.

Once you pop the discs in your player, you’ll find beautifully restored transfers in their proper ratio with nary a flicker, including one, TERROR OF THE TONGS, released in the US in dull black & white, presented in deliriously luscious Technicolor. There’s also entertaining commentaries with the screenwriters (especially an informative & voluble Jimmy Sangster) and surviving production crew. Most surprisingly, cartoons & novelty shorts long buried in Columbia’s vaults are here, including HOT PAPRIKA (1935), an Andy Clyde two-reeler about a man with hiccups, a Scrappy Technicolor cartoon, MERRY MUTINEERS (1936) with manic caricatures of movie stars, and the first double episode of Sam Katzman’s 1953 serial THE GREAT ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN KIDD, presenting inept actors in tawdry sets reciting past events along with sub-Eisensteinian montages of stock footage, which plays like a drug induced collaboration between Ed Wood and Alain Resnais.

As for me, I’ve been dying to see THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY (“In Stranglescope!”) since 1960 when a trailer was shown at my local kiddie matinee. (The programmers had strange taste where children were concerned, for they scheduled PEEPING TOM the same year, giving us a somewhat jaundiced view of adulthood, not to mention traumatizing us in the bargain.) Alas, STRANGLERS never appeared, and it’s been ridiculously difficult to view in the 48 years since. It’s possible in the intervening decades I’ve formed this legend about the film in my mind, transforming it into a low-rent exploitation equivalent of CITIZEN KANE, visionary and startlingly original. It’s not quite that, but STRANGLERS is still one heck of a terrific film.

Set in India in the early 19th Century, STRANGLERS purports to be a historically accurate exploration of a death cult, worshipers of the goddess Kali, known as “thugees”. In David Z. Goodman’s (STRAW DOGS) screenplay, this cult is seen as proto-revolutionary, focusing their killing on British caravans exploiting the natural resources of India. If the thugees did exist (and there’s disagreement among historians about this), it was more Indian against Indian violence, similar to the religious killings that go on to this day. Nonetheless, this revolutionary aspect of the thugees’ murderous activity makes them more sympathetic, abetted by an extraordinary performance by George Pastell (THE MUMMY, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE), as high priest of Kali. Mr. Goodman has given the high priest spare, poetic speeches which Mr. Pastell imbues with strange silences, placing the viewer in the same position as his followers, whose silhouettes fill the scope screen amid the fluttering of cloth garrotes. This becomes all the more disturbing as most of the actors on the screen end up as corpses by the film’s end (especially a particularly grisly finale where an entire Army battalion is transformed into dead men in the winking of an eye.)

In any case, the above-mentioned caravans have vanished without a trace, compelling the local merchants to insist the British East India Company (which runs things) and their representative, Col Henderson (played by Andrew Cruickshank, who made a career impersonating upper-class, arrogant twits) do something. Col Henderson would rather sip mint juleps, so it falls to his subordinate, Capt. Lewis, played by Guy Rolfe (MR. SARDONICUS) to investigate.

Guy Rolfe is supposed to be the hero of the proceedings, but though tall and handsome, illustrates one of artist Jenny Holtzer’s main axioms, that “lack of charisma can be fatal”. Unfortunately, Guy Rolfe’s Capt. Lewis survives the film’s 89 minute running time, forming a vacuum that draws our attention to the apparent villains of the piece and their violent operations. We are regaled with mass garrotting, flaying, branding and various and sundry torture, climaxed by a battle between a mongoose and king cobra (alas, with strings much too visible).

It’s entirely possible this vacuum is what the filmmakers intended. The scope frame is used in a series of taut, shadowy compositions to create a feeling of off-space, not only to maximize minimal extras and poorly detailed sets, but also to form a sense of tension and unease that’s palpable. Although STRANGLERS is the only film on the set in black & white, in some ways it’s the most visually impressive. While the material is sensationalistic, the treatment is dreamlike and suggestive. There are extended tracking shots and deep focus compositions throughout that make one think of George Steven’s GUNGA DIN and William Wyler’s THE LETTER cross-bred with Maya Deren’s experimental trance film MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON. This is especially amazing considering the ridiculously low budget and patched together sets from previous Hammer productions. Yet Terence Fisher’s pacing is so sure and his storytelling sense so compelling, one doesn’t even notice these references to classic Hollywood on a first viewing, but is simply swept along.

The film is brilliantly, not to mention elegantly directed, with a use of shock editing (including one man who joyfully jumps into a noose) that empathizes our connection to the events taking place on screen. In particular, there is the voluptuous Marie Devereaux as Karim, a cult member who passively eyes the violence and is excited by it, questioning our passive roles as viewers of the film. (According to various film sites on the internet, there is allegedly a minute of close-ups of Ms. Devereaux missing, as opposed to a version shown last year at the BFI. This should not stop you from buying the DVD, however, for there’s lots of this material here with no sense of any trimming through splices or sudden black frames as the film unfolds.) Yes, Guy Rolfe’s performance is bland, making for some slow patches in the beginning, Yet in its stark, frightening imagery allied with a disturbing sense of ambiguity, this may be Terence Fisher’s best work, one that gets under your skin long after the film has ended. Highly Recommended.

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