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The Deceivers

The Deceivers(1988)

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Ismael Merchant didn't use his usual director James Ivory for this absorbing, superlative thriller set in colonial India and based on historical fact. Part adventure, part horror film and informed with a keen sense of spiritual possibilities, The Deceivers has at least five or six chilling surprises exactly where they are needed: Finally there is a movie that has gotten it right! Based on a novel by John Masters, Michael Hirst's script embellishes the truth with some wonderfully weird touches, including one drugged lovemaking scene that transposes psychedelics back to the first half of the nineteenth century.

The able director is Nicholas Meyer of The Seven-Percent Solution and Time After Time, but the big draw here is Pierce Brosnan. He cuts a fine form as a dedicated Englishman who goes undercover to expose a fiendish death cult.

Synopsis: 1825. The India Tea Company rules as a colonial power, and officers like William Savage (Pierce Brosnan) are expected to do as little as possible beyond collecting taxes in their districts. While helping the citizens, Savage uncovers evidence of a massive conspiracy of murderers. When his superior (his father-in-law) orders him to ignore it, Savage goes in disguise as a native and journeys with Hussein (Saeed Jaffrey) in search of a cult that has been murdering thousands of Indian citizens each year ... for centuries.

Movies have been using variations on the mysterious Thuggee cult of India as a catch-all for evil Eastern doings at least since George Stevens' Gunga Din, with the result that Arab and Hindu villains are still portrayed as glassy-eyed fanatics, killing at the behest of some profane God. When Our Man Flint wants to empty a nightclub, he simply puts a turban on his head and screams "Kali!" while shooting a pistol in the air.

The only film on the subject previous to The Deceivers is Terence Fisher's 1959 The Stranglers of Bombay, a gory Hammer horror that dwelled on tortures and mutilations: Branding, eye-gouging and tongue-cutting. Like Gunga Din, it distorted the Thuggee into a political terror organization dedicated to driving the foreign infidels out of India.

The Deceivers portrays the Thugs for what they were, a murderous organization of thieves that survived by maintaining absolute secrecy. According to historians, the cult prospered for six centuries before being discovered and eradicated in the 1820s after an investigation by a British officer named Sleeman. Pierce Brosnan's William Savage takes on this role, obtaining his evidence by dyeing his skin and living among the Thugs.

The expertise of the Merchant producing team creates a convincing colonial world with authentic costumes and credible cultural detail. A grieving Indian woman (Neena Gupta) plans to immolate herself over a missing husband that Savage suspects has been murdered by the cult. Savage captures a Thug named Hussain (Saeed Jaffrey of The Man Who Would be King) and convinces him that he can survive the vengeance of Kali if protected by a Christian crucifix. "My God is stronger than yours," claims Savage, a boast that will soon be put to the test.

Hussain and Savage join the evil band led by depraved nobleman Feringea (Tariq Yunus) and we see how the cult operates. Pretending to be beggars, the Thugs join passing caravans for protection. Feringea's men entertain their hosts; his own beautiful son dances to distract the merchant leader. At a predetermined signal, the Thugs whip out hidden cloth sashes and strangle the entire party simultaneously.

Savage is understandably horrified. He also discovers that other provincial governors seem to know about the Thugs, but instead of doing anything prefer to shake them down for extortion money. There's a growing unease when we realize that the Thugs have a potent spy organization of their own that reaches into the police force and even the personal staffs of the English overlords. Savage's deception can't last indefinitely.

Savage tries to limit his complicity to digging graves but is forced to kill along with the rest of the band. Feringea runs a terror organization and his stranglers are devout fanatics convinced that a horrible death awaits anyone that betrays Kali, the Hindu god-being warped by the Thugee leaders into a jealous and bloodthirsty monster.

As part of a Thug ritual, Savage partakes of a sugar cube laced with some unknown substance that produces terrifyingly vivid hallucinations. In a masterfully written and directed sequence, the drug is compared to the sacramental wafer in communion, while Savage's reality warps to turn one harlot into three women: Herself, the widow seen earlier and Savage's own wife (Helena Mitchell) left behind to provide cover for his activities. Savage hallucinates his lover as having six arms, like Kali herself, while the two women far away share a common vision of him falling into danger. As Hussain has warned, the ritual cube will make its partaker the property of Kali forever.

With exciting locales, well-directed action scenes (there's even a cavalry charge) and a number of chilling jolts worthy of the best horror movies, The Deceivers is an adventure thriller with a heady message about religious fanaticism and secret empires of crime. It's highly recommended.

Home Vision's DVD of The Deceivers looks fine but is slightly more grainy overall than most of the other Merchant/Ivory releases, with a couple of nighttime shots having some real problems. Thankfully, they're very brief and the prevailing impression is an appreciation for the lush cinematography of Walter Lassally and the fine production design by Ken Adam. The disc has no extras save for an excellent original theatrical trailer.

For more information about The Deceivers, visit Home Vision Entertainment. To order The Deceivers, go to TCM Shopping.

by Glenn Erickson