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,The Stranglers of Bombay

The Stranglers of Bombay

Set in 19th century India, the colonialist thriller The Stranglers of Bombay (1960) from Hammer Studios centers on a murderous Indian cult that worships the female deity Kali. The Thuggees, as they are called, are led by a charismatic High Priest (George Pastell). Their aim is to undermine Bombay's East Indian Company by slowly picking off their numbers, intercepting and robbing the company's caravans and killing their travelers.

It is up to the British Army to put a stop to the murders. The man who seems best suited to the task is British Army Capt. Harry Lewis (Guy Rolfe), who begins to investigate the killings and to suspect a vast conspiracy behind them. But his efforts to prove that conspiracy are thwarted by the arrival in Bombay of Capt. Christopher Connaught-Smith (Allan Cuthbertson), whose aristocratic bearing and pedigree create a class war of wills between the men. When their commander Col. Henderson (Andrew Cruickshank) appoints Connaught-Smith to look into the murders and disappearances of both Brits and Indians, the investigation stalls under his incompetent direction. Lewis's Indian servant Ram Das (Tutte Lemkow), whose brother has disappeared, is given permission to look for him in the hopes of unmasking the cult of kidnappers. But the cult is soon aware of Lewis's role in the investigation and they send a message by throwing a package through his window containing a grisly warning inside. The gruesome message only buoys Lewis's resolve to get to the bottom of the murder and mayhem that has overtaken Bombay, but not before Lewis himself is kidnapped and threatened with being burned alive.

An exotic setting, baroque tortures like the eye-gouging suffered by disloyal Thuggees and an onscreen battle between a cobra and a mongoose make The Stranglers of Bombay a sensational movie version of the real-life Thuggee cult's 300 year reign of terror. The gory content helped to uphold the Hammer reputation for the macabre, despite the film's staid black and white lensing, which was a distinct departure from the usual hyper-vivid Hammer color schemes. The film's marketing materials went to great lengths to convey its graphic outrages with images of a beautiful woman being strangled by one of the Thuggees and tag lines like: "This is true! This is real! This actually happened" and "Murder cult strikes terror in exotic Asia!" The poster art promised a film made in "Strangloscope." Despite all of that excess, the film is viewed as the most realistic and visually subdued in the Hammer canon.

The Stranglers of Bombay helped director Terence Fisher seal his reputation as a master of the gruesome. He would go on to make the Hammer horrors The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), The Phantom of the Opera (1962) and Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), among others. Fisher entered the film industry at the very bottom of the employment rung, eventually working his way up to film editor. However, he did not make his directorial debut until the age of 43 with the film Colonel Bogey (1948). His first real break came at the age of 52 when he came onboard the Hammer production The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (frequent Fisher collaborators). That film's bloody violence and realistic characterizations set a new standard for the horror film and distinguished Fisher as a master of the genre.

Originally called The Horror of Thuggee and then The Stranglers of Bengal, The Stranglers of Bombay originated with the extensive research of writer David Z. Goodman, basing his script on W.H. Sleeman's efforts in India to eradicate the cult. Goodman may have become too carried away with the material, however, to consider its impact on the movie screen. His graphic scenes of mutilations, burnings and torture ended up being heavily censored.

The production of the Hammer film coincided with the rekindling of Thuggee cult activity following a 120 year break: a timely boost to the film's marketing efforts. Critical reception of the film was generally negative, with critics failing to hide their disgust. The Evening Standard remarked, "hardly my idea of a jolly entertainment theme." But there were fans too, like The Kinematograph Weekly which called the film an "exuberant adventure melodrama." In 1988, Ismail Merchant co-produced The Deceivers, another grisly costume adventure about the Thuggee cult, that was directed by Nicholas Meyer.

Director: Terence Fisher
Producer: Anthony Hinds
Screenplay: David Z. Goodman
Cinematography: Arthur Grant
Production Design: Bernard Robinson
Music: James Bernard
Cast: Capt. Harry Lewis (Guy Rolfe), Capt. Christopher Connaught-Smith (Allan Cuthbertson), Col. Henderson (Andrew Cruickshank), High Priest of Kali (George Pastell), Patel Shari (Marne Maitland), Mary Lewis (Jan Holden), Lt. Silver (Paul Stassino), Ram Das (Tutte Lemkow), Gopali Das (David Spenser), Sidney Flood (Michael Nightingale), Mrs. Dorothy Flood (Margaret Gordon), Camel vendor (Ewen Solon).

by Felicia Feaster



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