The Stranglers of Bombay
Cast & Crew
In nineteenth-century India, a group of new initiates raptly listens as the High Priest of the Children of Kali, a cult group also known as Thuggees who venerate the Hindu goddess Kali, recounts the origin of the cult's sacred silk cloth used to strangle their victims, thus enabling them to "kill without spilling any blood." Meanwhile, in the British-ruled city of Bombay, Col. Henderson calls a meeting with members of the British East Indian Company to discuss the continuing disappearances of the company's caravans and the men escorting them. Burns, an executive in the company, complains that the British Army has been ineffective in protecting their shipments and demands that Patel Shari, the former "head man" be reinstated to his previous status. Acknowledging that thousands of people have been reported missing, Capt. Harry Lewis suggests appointing a special staff to investigate the disappearances. After the meeting, Lewis, who believes that an organized conspiracy is behind the disappearances, returns home to his wife Mary, eagerly anticipating that he will be appointed to head the new staff. Lewis is bitterly disappointed when Henderson appoints Capt. Christopher Connaught-Smith, the supercilious son of one of his schoolmates, to lead the investigation. The next day, as Lewis rides out to meet Smith, he sees two Indians attack a wagon. After capturing the thieves, Lewis confiscates the white scarves they are carrying, but they soon manage to escape. Lewis then continues on to meet Smith, who has just arrived in Bombay with a complete complement of polo equipment. At the post, Smith discounts the assailants as simple bandits. Meanwhile, the High Priest condemns the thieves, who are followers of Kali, to having their eyes gouged out as punishment for stealing for personal gain. Soon after, Ram Das, the Lewises' devoted servant, tells Lewis that he saw his missing brother Gopali passing by in a caravan and asks permission to search for him. Lewis gives Ram Das a horse, food and money to help in his quest. At the shrine of Kali, meanwhile, the priest instructs Gopali on how to infiltrate a caravan by posing as a simple traveler and begging for refuge. At the post, when Lewis offers Smith the notes he has laboriously compiled about the disappearances, Smith summarily dismisses Lewis and his documentation. After leaving Smith's office, Lewis walks through a narrow alley and is accosted by two assailants sent by the priest to retrieve the silk scarves. When Lewis reports the theft to Smith, Smith belittles the importance of the scarves. That night, Sidney Flood, the Lewises' next door neighbor who works as executive for the East India Company, is playing cards at the Lewis home when a package wrapped in cloth comes hurtling through the window. After Lewis opens the package and finds Ram Das's hand inside, he complains to Henderson that Smith is incapable of dealing with the situation and asks for permission to look for Ram Das. When Henderson bristles at Lewis' "insolence," Lewis resigns from his post. Deciding to investigate on his own, Lewis questions the villagers about Ram Das, but when they are uncooperative, he decides to join Sidney on his jungle tiger hunt, hoping to find some leads. As Sidney lays in wait for a tiger, Ram Das's pet mongoose, which Lewis has brought along, jumps out of its sack and runs to a barren patch of land, under which lies a mass grave. Although Lewis observes that all the bodies in the grave have had their necks broken, Smith finds nothing strange in the circumstances of their death and declares that the land must be a forgotten cemetery. Later, a thief breaks into Burns's house, and Lt. Silver, who is part Indian, questions the thief, who bares the brand of Kali. Exposing his own mark of Kali, Silver warns the thief to prepare to die for betraying Kali for personal gain. On the day of the thief's hanging, Lewis is puzzled by the high spirits of the crowd and follows them once they leave the city. Lewis tracks them to the shrine of Kali, where he is caught and staked to the ground. As a deadly serpent slithers toward him, the mongoose jumps from Lewis' saddlebag and kills the snake. Declaring the death of the snake to be a sign of Kali's displeasure, the priest orders Lewis released. Upon returning to headquarters, Lewis reports that he has noticed several men in the marketplace bearing the brand of Kali, but Smith laughs the brand off as a simple scar. Meanwhile, at the shrine of Kali, the priest pulls Ram Das from the cage in which he has been imprisoned and orders Gopali to strangle his own brother. In Bombay, Patel, who is a clandestine member of the Thuggees, advises the traders that it would be safer to ship their goods in one single caravan. After the caravan heads out led by Smith, Patel and Silver plot to kill Lewis and make it look like a robbery. To make the robbery more convincing, they decide to raid the Lewis house, too. That night, after Sidney is killed, Lewis realizes that he was the real target. The next morning, Lewis learns that the caravan has left, and sensing that it is in danger, decides to ride after it, and Silver insists on accompanying him. Along the trade route, Gopali approaches the caravan and begs Smith for refuge. That night, as the members of the caravan sleep, the Children of Kali sneak into camp and silently strangle them. Emerging from his tent, Smith is met by a sea of dead bodies, the silk scarves of Kali encircling their necks. After killing Smith, the Children of Kali dump their victims into a mass grave. When Silver and Lewis find the camp, Silver insists that its occupants have moved on, but Lewis senses they have all been murdered. As the men dismount their horses and remove their jackets, Lewis spots the brand of Kali on Silver's arm and shoots him. Lewis follows tracks leading to the shrine of Kali, where the priest condemns him to die on a funeral pyre. Breaking free of his captors, Lewis topples the pyre, setting fire to the shrine. Lewis then returns to headquarters with Gopali as his prisoner. He finds Patel dining with Henderson, and when Gopali confirms that Patel's servant is a member of the cult, Patel stabs the man before he can talk. Realizing that Lewis has accurately assessed the situation, Henderson recommends him for promotion and reveals the he never processed his resignation. Lewis then warns that Kali is "still out there."
David Z. Goodman
The Stranglers of Bombay
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
The Stranglers of Bombay
The working title of this film was Stranglers of Bengal. The film opens with the following written prologue: "For hundreds of years there existed in India a perverted religious sect dedicated to the wanton destruction of human life...so secret was this savage cult that even the British East India Company, rulers of the country at the time, was unaware of their existence." The film closes with the following written epilogue: "In the end, over one thousand thugs were tried and convicted of cold-blooded murder...the innocent victims totalled over a million (one thug alone claimed seven hundred)...Major General Sir William Sleeman, the officer of the East India Company actually responsible for their capture, wrote of his fellow officers: '"If we have done nothing else for India, we have done the good thing.'"
The East India Company was incorporated on December 31, 1600 by a group of British merchants, who received monopoly privileges on all trade within the East Indies. Over the years, as the British launched a massive expansion of their trading operations within India, numerous trading posts were established along the east and west coasts of India, and large English communities developed around the towns of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. By the 19th century, the era in which The Stranglers of Bombay takes place, the company's rule extended across most of India, Burma (now Myanmar), Singapore and Hong Kong. Thuggee was an Indian cult worshipping the goddess Kali. It was a hereditary cult in which induction was passed on from father to son. The members practiced large-scale robbery and murder of travelers through strangulation. The ferocity of their crimes led to the adaptation of the name thuggee into the modern word "thug."
As shown in the film, the thuggees would fall in with travelers, ease their suspicions, strangle them with a handkerchief, rob them, and after an invocation to the goddess Kali, bury them in previously prepared graves. Thuggee was suppressed in the 1830s, when due to the extensive efforts of Major General William Sleeman, a police organization known as the Thuggee and Dacoity Department was established within the government of India. It remained in existence until 1904 when it was replaced by the Central Criminal Intelligence Department. The defeat of the cult secured Indian loyalty to the British Crown for decades.