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Hammer Horror rolls off the tongue, but England’s Hammer Film Productions did not limit their releases to the scary genre. They went beyond spooky Gothic themes with sci-fi, war, thriller, crime and cavewomen movies. These diverse features took place all over the world as long as the international exteriors could be faked in Great Britain. Hammer might have been a major English studio, but it was poverty row when compared to their American brethren. Their low budget films never suffered from second-tier acting talent. They casted from the finest of England’s thespian crop including Christopher Lee. Most associate Lee with Dracula, the Mummy and Frankenstein’s Monster. but he played characters for Hammer that weren’t undead. The quartet of films featured on Icons of Adventure have a bloodthirsty Indians, Chinese mobsters and a double dose of pirates.
The Pirates of Blood River (1962 – 87 minutes) has cutthroats invade a Huguenot colony. Jonathan Standish (Kerwin Matthews) gets busted for having an affair with a married woman. And it turns out her elderly husband is a town leader. He doesn’t appreciate a young stud pleasuring his woman. So it’s off to the nearby penal colony for Standish. There’s no way he’ll be able to survive his time busting rocks under the hot sun while being starved and beaten. He escapes, but encounters a vicious band of French pirates in the swamp. Led by an eye patch wearing Captain LaRoche (Christopher Lee), the scurvy dogs demand a rumored treasure being hidden by the villagers. They will go to extremes to recover the fortune. While Standish wants revenge for his punishment, he doesn’t wish the raping and pillaging on all the Huguenots. Will he save his community or let them feel the pain they inflicted on him?
The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964 – 86 minutes) enlists Christopher Lee as the Spanish pirate Captain Robeles. His damaged ship was part of the Spanish Armada devastated by the English navy. The Captain comes up with a brilliant plan to get his ship repaired. They dock at an isolated English town and declare that England is now under control by the King of Spain. The townspeople buy into this bogus news since they have no CNN to give them the facts. Can the Captain get his ship ready to sail before the real results leak into town?
The Stranglers of Bombay (1960 – 79 minute) will cause a gasping sensation to anyone offended by Mike Myers’ The Love Guru. Director Terence Fisher was the master of horror for Hammer. He brings his grotesque tricks to this true tale of an Indian murder cult. George Pastell rules the followers of Kali. He’s a sadistic, painted bald guy. It seems that he was the basis for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Pastell prefers to cut out his victims’ hearts. The British authorities led by Guy Rolfe have to stop the mayhem and restore order to India. There’s a tense torture scene involving a king cobra and a staked out prisoner. The Stranglers of Bombay is the most brutal of the quartet in this collection.
The Terror of the Tongs (1961 – 76 minutes) deals with the criminal underworld of Hong Kong in 1910. For those who get upset seeing Charlie Chan played by a non-Asian actor, you’re going throwing a fit. The Red Dragon Tong Leader is Christopher Lee in thick make-up, altered eyes and Fu Manchu mustache. A party game for The Terror of the Tongs is everyone takes a shot when they spot a real Asian actor speaking a line. Only the cheapest of drunks can win. The big budget item on this shoot was body make up. There is one real actor of Asian heritiage in Burt Kwouk (The Return of the Pink Panther‘s Cato) however he doesn’t last long. He sails to Hong Kong with a list exposing the members of the Tong. Unfortunately his welcoming party arrives at the dock with hatchets ready. Geoffrey Toone is a British sailor who goes after the Tong when they mess with his family. Can his brute force overcome the tortures of the Tong?
All four films on Icons of Adventure are matinée pleasures. The two pirate films aren’t the normal swashbuckling affairs. There’s no giant ship battles or constant sword fights. The Hammer pirate films contain intriguing angles to set them apart from the normal Hollywood offerings. The Stranglers of Bombay and The Terror of the Tongs both deal with maintaining law in British colonies even through the native instigators are Englishmen in makeup. If you’re not offended by the “creative” casting, they’re fine entertainments. While Hammer’s legacy is horror, they weren’t a one trick pony studio as illustrated on Icons of Adventure.
The Pirates of Blood River & The Devil-Ship Pirates are 1.66:1 anamorphic. Both transfers don’t look like they were buried in the sand. The Terror of the Tongs and The Stranglers of Bombay are 2.35:1 anamorphic. The black and white image for The Stranglers of Bombay is sharp and helps the actors look more Indian than they deserve. The audio on the films are Dolby Digital mono. The Stranglers of Bombay is the only one lacking a French dub track. The levels are solid so that you don’t have to turn up the volume to hear the gasping of victims. The Pirates of Blood River & The Devil-Ship Pirates has a commentary track with screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, art director Don Mingaye and historian Marcus Hearn. The Terror of the Tongs has assistant editor Chris Barnes join Sangster and Hearn. The Stranglers of Bombay has writer David Z. Goodman. Their various commentaries are informative with plenty of tales about working for Hammer. The subtitles are English and French.
The Great Adventures of Captain Kidd – Chapter One (21:32) stars John Crawford as the pirate. Notorious cheap producer Sam Katzman oversaw this 15 chapter swashbuckler. Would have been nice to include a couple more installments.
Merry Mutineers (7:18) is a Color Rhapsody cartoon featuring Scrappy. Two kids have their model ships battle in a small pool. The boats are manned by caricatures of famous Hollywood stars. Ever wonder who would win in a battle between the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers? The answer is here.
Hot Paprika (17:16) is an Andy Clyde short. It was produced by Jules White who also did the Three Stooges series. Andy has just three months to live. He runs off to a Caribbean island country and deals with a revolution. Not nearly as good as a Three Stooges short with Joe Besser.
Original Theatrical Trailers (9:23) push the action and the threats in the four films.
Icons of Adventure reminds us that Christopher Lee’s career at Hammer wasn’t merely about sucking blood and stealing body parts. He could scare an audience as a pirate or Chinese sadist. He wasn’t limited to immortal roles.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment presents Icons of Adventure. Starring: Christopher Lee, Kerwin Matthews, Andrew Keir, Duncan Lamont. Box set Contents: 4 Movies on 2 DVDs. Rating: Unrated. Released on DVD: June 10, 2008. Available at Amazon.com