Barry Forshaw writes:
HAMMER VOLUME THREE: BLOOD & TERROR: THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND (Val Guest, 1958), YESTERDAY’S ENEMY (Val Guest, 1959), THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY (Terence Fisher, 1959), THE TERROR OF THE TONGS (Anthony Bushell, 1961) These Blu-ray transfers are as impeccable as everything we have come to expect from the Powerhouse/Indicator label — the films have never looked so impressive. And that’s not even mentioning the extras — or the most complete version of Stranglers of Bombay we’ll ever see (we are presented with a composite edition of the film that conflates the US and UK prints, thereby restoring most of the censorship cuts). It’s now deeply ironic in what esteem the Hammer studios are held these days, given the excoriating condemnation thy received in their day. The two Val Guest war films here stand up particularly well (notably the lesser-known Yesterday’s Enemy), but the real draw here are the other two items, The Stranglers of Bombay and the Christopher Lee-starring Terror of the Tongs – both politically incorrect by today’s unforgiving standards, but massively enjoyable. As I noted in British Gothic Cinema, the blue-blooded Baron and the Count may have been the Trojan horses for Hammer’s inexorable ascendancy, but soon it became necessary to plunder other sources for material, both literary and filmic. As so often in Hammer films, grotesque physical mutilation and the erotic co-exist, as in the little-seen Stranglers of Bombay (directed by Terence Fisher in 1959) — a film which explicitly linked violence and torture with sexuality: a famous still from the film shows the actor Guy Rolfe spread-eagled on the ground, staked out by members of the Thuggee cult, while the actress Marie Devereux (whose generous cleavage was often utilised by directors in this era) displays her embonpoint while tantalisingly pouring away water within the sight of the tormented Rolfe. The attitude to Britain’s imperialist past as represented in Hammer films could not (it has to be admitted) be regarded as a balanced and enlightened one. But to criticise the film such as Terence Fisher’s notorious, much –excoriated The Stranglers of Bombay (1959) for its one-dimensional presentation of India as a cultural residue of potential evil sent to plague the sympathetic British characters is not a realistic stance. For a start, the company made no bones about the fact that they were in the business of making exploitation films, and audiences did not approach their product for considered historical insights. It might also be argued that the murderous Thuggee cult was a historical fact, and that the company was at liberty to utilise such material – although the approach remains very much in the territory of delivering the customary visceral shocks to the audience (via mutilation, dismemberment and – of course — strangulation, all performed with relish), rather than examining the interaction between two non-homogenous cultures; inevitably, it is the less-than-balanced approach of Fisher’s film (not to mention its now-frowned-upon use of non-Asian actors in key native roles) which has probably consolidated its neglect over the years. For quite some time, The Stranglers of Bombay was almost impossible to see, and then only in a heavily cut print. More recently, audiences have had a chance to assess Fisher’s original, uncut vision – but nothing like as complete as here. As with the other film he made in 1959, The Mummy, Fisher presents his British characters – while flawed – as representatives of a balanced and civilised order, in which foreign elements serve the function of threatening or destabilising this order. But there are defences to be made of Fisher’s (and Hammer’s) approach – not least in the fact that there is an implicit critique of British inflexibility, and a certain inherent weakness of character which lays open the protagonist to possible destruction; this is not flag-waving imperialism of the kind that is to be seen in many British films up to and including the 1950s, but a more subtle examination of the variety of elements within the British character (which Fisher and his colleagues imply, is – to some degree – always riding for a fall in its dealings with foreign nations). That the foreigners in such Hammer films as The Stranglers of Bombay and The Mummy are presented in a relatively unambiguous, threatening fashion may not conform to current politically correct standards but fulfils the narrative function of providing the nemesis which must be overcome for the central characters to survive. Viewed in this light – and extending to Fisher and his colleagues a certain degree of understanding of political attitudes of the day might allow for a more judicious approach to such often-despised films as The Stranglers of Bombay.
Terence Fisher himself had no great opinion of the film, perhaps perceiving that it was by no means a fully realised piece (and certainly not in the way that much else of his work for the company is); there is a glancing treatment of the class issue which is a recurrent theme in Hammer movies — in this case, a supercilious commanding officer whose authority is clearly a gift of his background rather than his accomplishments, set against the more sympathetic protagonist played by Guy Rolfe (who is less secure socially but is clearly the identification figure for the audience, precisely because of his quiet command of his own resources). The latter’s personal authority is contrasted with the craven fear of his inefficient superior officer during a vicious assault by the natives
JULIET OF THE SPIRITS & I VITELLONI, Federico Fellini, director/CultFilms More welcome world premieres on Blu-ray. HI-def Blu-ray editions of these two Fellini masterpieces are long overdue, and they have been well worth the wait. Federico Fellini was once considered the most important of all Italian directors, and his ground-breaking middle period works (notably La Dolce Vita and 8 ½) were essential viewing. But Fellini was an over-prolific filmmaker, and as his later films diluted the spark of genius evident in their predecessors, his work began to seem like a parody of itself, and even his earlier masterpieces began to be retrospectively reappraised in a negative light. But looked at today (something I touched on in my Italian Cinema), his films of the 1960s remain some of the most ambitious and interesting work ever achieved in the cinema. I Vitelloni (1953) inaugurates the plotless narrative that was to become Fellini’s speciality. Seen at the time as a devastating analysis of the emptiness of provincial existence, it now seems like an accomplished precursor of such ensemble pieces as La Dolce Vita. The film draws upon memories from the director’s childhood, with the five directionless young men at the centre of his narrative being the vitelloni (or, derisorily, the calves, as they are known in Fellini’s home town of Rimini). The one we see most is Fausto (Franco Fabrizi), who is described as the spiritual leader of the group, and his relationship with Sandra (Eleonora Ruffo), the sister of Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi), another of the vitelloni, is central to the narrative, as the shot-gun marriage and its subsequent betrayals put a strain on the life of the young men.
The observation of character and instant is as stunning as anything in Fellini’s later work, but his ambitions were circumscribed when seen in the context of the later masterpieces. Certainly, these young men aren’t going anywhere, but we are drawn less into their fates than we are into those of the characters who are played by Marcello Mastroianni in the later films.
But the film that established Fellini as a key voice in Italian cinema was La Dolce Vita (1959), followed by the autobiographical 8 ½ (1962) and Juliet of the Spirits (Giulietta degli Spiriti, 1965), which featured a sympathetic performance by Giulietta Masina. Later films, such as Fellini Satyricon (1969) and Roma (1971) were rich in the imagery that had become the director’s trademark, but lacked the narrative focus that made the earlier films so impressive. I Vitelloni and Fellini’s first colour film Juliet of the Spirits arrive with fresh HD restorations that do justice to his original visions and come complete with exciting extras from Fellini aficionados and academics.
THE ENDLESS, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, directors/ Arrow Video Perhaps the most striking aspect of this remarkable outing from the Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead duo blank is the readiness to throw a variety of genres into the blender and come up with something fresh and provocative. The film achieved a slew of enthusiastic reviews, and it’s not hard to see why. The Endless is a genre-splicing SF/horror synthesis in which the two brothers explore the ‘UFO death cult’ notion, succeeding their much-acclaimed Resolution; the latter is included in the Limited Edition Blu-ray release.
THE NAVIGATOR, Vincent Ward, director/Arrow Video More genre-bending fare arrives from Arrow with The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey. This New Zealand cult classic from Vincent Ward explores such SF notions as time travel along with medieval fantasy to forge something new and innovative. The film was not given a particularly good showcase on its first appearance in home cinema – now it looks absolutely splendid with a definition and clarity we have never seen before. A serious reappraisal of the films is now overdue, even though its reputation is solidly ensconced.
XTRO/Second Sight Blu-ray One of those odd films that combines quirky imagination with hilarious ineptitude (the visual effects would put early Doctor Who to shame, looking like scratches on the film), but this is still enjoyable indulgence for fans of schlocky British horror movies. Xtro is one of the strangest, most shocking exploitation flicks to land on earth during the video nasty heyday. A film that narrowly avoided inclusion and prosecution on the original nasties list, it threw in buckets of blood and gore and some of the most outlandish plot twists of the VHS era to create a truly memorable horror piece. Now it makes its arrival for the first time on Blu-ray courtesy of Second Sight Films as Xtro: Limited Edition Box Set.