The Stranglers of Bombay (1959) dir. Terence Fisher
Starring: Guy Rolfe, Jan Holden, Andrew Cruickshank, George Pastell
For the unfamiliar Hammer Film Productions was a British production house making low-budget b-movie genre films from the 1930’s through the 70’s. Films such as the “Quartermass”, “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” series’ helped establish the ‘Hammer-Horror’ moniker in their hey-day in the 50’s and 60’s. Despite the low budgets they were highly popular and commercially successful and helped launch the careers of horror stars, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Oliver Reed.
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were likely a couple of those influential teenagers who watched and fell in love with the schlocky adventure, mystery and suspense of these films. Although it’s widely known the serial matinee films were the biggest inspiration for their Indiana Jones franchise, the Hammer adventure films were likely in their minds as well.
It's good timing that Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has released a two-disc set called the “Icons of Adventure” to capitalize on the Indiana Jones publicity. This set features four schlock classics, including the ridiculously silly but rarely seen and much sought after adventure film, “The Stranglers of Bombay”.
Set in 19th Century India, “The Stranglers of Bombay” tells the story of an intrepid British officer who investigates a secret Indian cult, which has been stealing men, women and children from their homes and raising them to be brainwashed followers of Kali. If this sounds familiar, yes, it could also be the logline for “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”. Apparently cults like this used to exist in India and were vanquished during the British colonial rule. And so the exotic rituals of self-sacrifice, cannibalism, torture, brainwashing all make for great b-movie material.
Like in “Temple of Doom”, the Hindu god Kali – goddess of death and destruction – commands the evil cultists. Our hero is the scrupulous Capt Harry Lewis, played by the tall, handsome and square-jawed Brit Guy Rolfe (“Taras Bulba”). Lewis is leading the investigation into the mysterious mass kidnappings, but to his dismay he’s being replaced by a snobby upperclassman who’s pushing buttons for the corporate British East Indian Tea Company. When Lewis discovers his replacement is lackadaisical about the investigation Lewis sticks around to continue to unearth the conspiracy himself. His sleuthing uncovers the evil and malicious cult, brainwashed and trained to strangle any and all threats to the society using their ceremonial white scarf – hence “the Stranglers of Bombay”.
This film was notorious in its day for what was, at the time, extreme violence – the type of dark visceral violence Spielberg showed us in “Temple of Doom”. In “Stranglers” we watch the evil cultist cut out victims’ tongues, gauge out their eyes, disembowel and chop off limbs with zombie-like efficient. At one point a prisoner fears the worst and kills himself by jumping into a noose and hanging himself to death before the stranglers can get a hold of him.
Like “Temple of Doom” the depiction of the British as the saviours against the backward uncivilized ways of the Indian people is a racist/white man’s burden point of view. Forgiving this attitude in 1959 is certainly easier than 1984 (the year “Temple of Doom” was released), but in either case, I usually lean toward the artistic license of the filmmakers, rather than political correctness.
Despite the influence and backstory of this long lost Hammer film, “The Stranglers of Bombay” is mild entertainment, providing only a dash of cinematic excitement. Guy Rolfe is no Errol Flynn and Terence Fisher is no Michael Curtiz, but it’s influence on Lucas and Spielberg are undeniable and so these “Icons of Adventure” become essential viewing for Indy fanboys and cine-geeks. Enjoy.
"The Stranglers of Bombay" is available with the 'Icons of Adventure Set' now available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.