(1959) Directed by Terence Fisher; Written by David Zelag Goodman; Starring: Guy Rolfe, Allan Cuthbertson, Andrew Cruickshank and George Pastell
Available on DVD
It’s time for some good old-fashioned xenophobia, Hammer style! I’m almost ashamed to admit that I enjoyed The Stranglers of Bombay as much as I did, considering that the sum isn’t as great as the parts, but in the final analysis the good manages to outweigh the bad. The film qualifies as a guilty pleasure, thanks to some compelling scenes with the eponymous bad guys that rescue the audience from boredom.
The Stranglers of Bombay was “Presented in StrangloScope!” (whatever the hell that was), and posters proclaimed, “This is True! This is real! This actually happened!” With hyperbole like that, how can you go wrong? According to screenwriter David Z. Goodman, the script was written in two weeks, and based very loosely on true events and fictionalized accounts like Gunga Din. The film is set in 19th century colonial India. When thousands of people in surrounding villages go missing and commerce is disrupted, it’s up to the East India Company to investigate the cause.
George Pastell didn’t get top billing, but he should have for his unhinged performance as the sadistic Thuggee leader known only as the High Priest of Kali. Pastell has relatively little screen time, but he steals the show whenever he appears. Let’s face it, most of the other performers are fairly stiff, but he puts extra effort in his role, providing the movie’s real raison d'être. He compels his Kali-worshipping flock to use their “sacred cloth” to strangle people in the name of their god. People (including their own) who get in the way of their mission are maimed and killed in a variety of awful ways. Most of the more gruesome mutilations occur off-screen, but there’s still a fair amount of bloodshed depicted, especially for the time. You might notice that the High Priest of Kali has an uncanny resemblance to another fictitious Thuggee leader, depicted 25 years later in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Coincidence? I think not.
A descendent of the High Priest of Kali, perhaps?
Most of the East India Company officers are either incredibly obstinate or profoundly obtuse. I prefer the latter explanation. Captain Lewis (Guy Rolfe) is only marginally smarter than his comrades, being the first to suspect that something’s up. Unfortunately, he loses IQ points for setting out on his own to discover the secrets of the missing villagers. Lewis tries to find out what’s going on from the locals, but they stay tight lipped on the subject. It slowly (and by slowly, I mean by the end of the film) dawns on his fellow officers that there might be a kernel of truth to his suspicions.
Goodman’s script has obvious pacing problems (acknowledged by the screenwriter in the DVD commentary), although to be fair to the filmmakers, at least some of this could probably be chalked off to the low budget. The film seems to follow the usual Hammer formula, which involves hooking you in with a captivating opening scene to whet your appetite, only to be followed by a series of overly talky scenes. A scene with a mongoose fighting a cobra wasn’t in the original script, but added by director Terence Fisher, presumably to add some impact to a script that sagged in the middle. Thankfully, The Stranglers of Bombay finishes reasonably strong, concluding with some of the action you were promised in the beginning. It’s an uneven movie, but there’s more than enough to make it a worthwhile viewing experience.
The Stranglers of Bombay has never been particularly well regarded among the other films in the Hammer roster, which might be a bit unfair, but also fitting. No amount of rationalization about the film’s deficits can ignore the rampant ethnocentrism going on here. The only respectable Indians are servants or in otherwise lowly roles. Anyone in a prominent role can’t be trusted. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the British officers eventually come to their senses, saving the poor, ignorant, superstitious natives from themselves. Admittedly, this condescending attitude is a bit hard to take, but viewed in its proper context The Stranglers of Bombay is good for some B-movie thrills. Recommended with reservations.