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Directors: John Gilling, Don Sharp, Terence Fisher and Anthony Bushell

Hammer Films were and still are best known for their horror and science fiction efforts, as their non-genre catalog is often neglected and little seen. Take for instance the four films presented here: a quartet of costume “adventure” pics that haven’t had much TV play in recent years (some of them have popped up on cable in pan and scan transfers), all of which have never before seen U.S. home video releases until now. Sony has done these so-called “lower tier” Hammer titles absolute justice with eye-candy widescreen transfers, worthy audio commentaries for all, several extra fun supplements and a very reasonable price tag that makes this one of the best collections of the year.

Disc 1 commences with THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER, directed by John Gilling and released in 1962. In a Puritan village, young Jonathan Standish (Kerwin Matthews) is accused of adultery, and after his lover perishes in river full of hungry piranha, he's condemned to 15 years of hard labor in a penal colony. Tough as nails, Standish is able to escape but encounters a ship full of pirates commanded by the eye-patched Captain LaRoche (Christopher Lee). LaRoche makes a deal with Standish to take his men to his peaceful colony, as he believes there is hidden treasure there. As soon as the pirates step foot on land, the pillaging and murdering commences, but this is not enough reason for the Puritans to tell them right of the bat where their gold is hidden.

In the capable hands of John Gilling, THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER is well-intentioned Saturday matinee fodder, and even though it looks way more expensive than it actually is, most of the action takes place on land. Making great use of Bray Studios and Black Park, the cast is a venerable “who’s who” of familiar British faces, with former SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD star Kerwin Matthews on the lead, revealing that Hammer was still prone to using (sometimes fading) American thespians to assure box office appeal. Michael Ripper, Peter Arne and a young Oliver Reed all get to ham it up as LaRoche’s drunken sidekicks, American Glenn Corbett is a clean-shaven hero type, Marla Landi (from Hammer’s HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES) is a damsel in distress, Desmond Llewelyn (“Q” from the “James Bond” series) is seen briefly as a villager and an adolescent Dennis Waterman (a decade later he would appear again with Lee in Hammer's SCARS OF DRACULA) is also on hand. The oddest bit of casting is Kier playing Matthews’ father since they’re exactly the same age. A very colorful film indeed, PIRATES contains significant amounts of blood that Hammer was known for (what do you expect with a sea full of piranha?) and there’s also some swordplay thrown in, most significantly when Lee and Matthews duel it out in the climax.

Also on Disc 1 is a similar Hammer pirate adventure, THE DEVIL-SHIP PIRATES, directed by Don Sharp and released in 1964. Led by Captain Robeles (Christopher Lee), a pirate ship (called “Diablo”) fighting on the side of the Spanish Armada, docks on the British coast in need of repair. Their boarding of a small village inhabited by settlers almost leads to two of the varmints committing rape, but after they're captured, the duo is soon freed as the villagers are falsely told that the English have been defeated by the Spanish, and that these invaders (who they don’t suspect as pirates) are now their masters. Naturally, the pirates take full advantage of the settlers’ peaceful hospitality, and it will take some time before their true identity of these shady buccaneers will be known to them.

THE DEVIL-SHIP PIRATES follows much of the standardized formula of THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER, and even recycles some of the main cast (Lee, Kier, Ripper), and for a pirate film that takes place mainly on land (even the shenanigans during the climax have the ship ported), Don Sharp (KISS OF THE VAMPIRE) handles the action sequences well. Lee’s Captain Robeles is more cold-hearted and better developed than LaRoche, and this film has historic value in that it’s the last pirate adventure that Hammer ever attempted. Again, Hammer erects some fine sets (including the life-sized galleon made specifically for this film) on the Bray lot, with ample use of the picturesque Black Park, making this look just as costly as most of the stuff coming out of Hollywood at the time. The cast includes the underused Barry Warren (FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN) as Robeles’ right-hand man, John Cairney (THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS) as the feisty but crippled hero, 1960s horror vixen Suzan Farmer (DIE, MONSTER, DIE!) as his lover, Philip Latham (“Klove” from DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS), Hammer character actor Duncan Lamont, and a very young Natasha Pyne (MADHOUSE) who takes the most abuse in the film. Since Hammer was very much in the market of exploitation, expect the splashes of color to occasionally spill crimson red, with several floggings, hangings and stabbings added to the grand scheme.

On Disc 2, 1960’s THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY was helmed by Terence Fisher, Hammer’s most prominent director, working without screenwriter Jimmy Sangster for the first time since CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. In colonized British East India in 1824, a vicious religious cult who worship an obscene statue of Kali, are offing travelers and stealing precious cargo. The mounting disappearances have the British East India Company baffled but seemingly uninterested, and it’s up to the levelheaded Capt. Harry Lewis (Guy Rolfe, MR. SARDONICUS himself) to get to the bottom of things. Lots and lots of torture and killings are performed by these fanatical cultists known as “thuggees,” and Lewis later finds himself tied up to be sacrificed to a poisonous snake, at which point his trusty mongoose comes to save the day.

STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY takes Fisher away from the traditional color gothics he was at this point specializing in to deliver this exploitation tale (in glorious black and white) which was often considered his most sadean effort. Quite controversial upon its release, the film offers a good leading performance by Wolfe, and although the frequent dialog scenes drag, sensational (for the time) bits of torture are what its reputation rests on: assorted eye-gauging, stabbing, strangling and dismemberment. The screenplay is unique for a Hammer movie, not only since it was written by an American, but because the monster of the piece is actually a horde of zealous serial killers. Leading the “thuggies” are bald-headed George Pastell (THE MUMMY) as the High Priest, and another recurring Hammer villain, Roger Delgado (best known as “The Master” on the early 1970s incarnation of “Dr. Who”) as his right hand man. Indian-born Marne Maitland (THE REPTILE) is great as a dubious intermediate agent, and in a non-speaking role, Marie Devereux (BRIDES OF DRACULA) steals every brief scene she’s in with her tremendously sensual frontal assets!

The second feature on Disc 2, TERROR OF THE TONGS was directed by Anthony Bushell, better known as an actor early on in his career. In Hong Kong in 1910, a corrupt group of thugs known as the “The Red Dragon Tong” maims or murders anyone who interferes with their ways of slavery and trading opium. A soon-to-be-murdered enemy of the Tong (Burt Kwouk, “Cato” of “Pink Panther” series fame) plants a piece of paper on merchant sea captain, Jackson Sale (Geoffrey Toone) which opens a can of worms. His daughter is found murdered by the Tongs, as well as a number of others associated with the captain, so he knows his life is in mortal danger. Teaming up with a beautiful subservient young lady (Yvonne Monlaur, BRIDES OF DRACULA, CIRCUS OF HORRORS), he challenges the dreaded Tongs and their malicious leader (Christopher Lee) with the help of some brave resistance fighters who plan to revolt against them and end their hedonist crimes.

Basically a re-working of THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY (though this time set in the orient), TERROR OF TONGS is certainly not the best thing Hammer produced, but it still can be an enjoyable little film, clocking in at a brisk 76 minutes. What’s interesting about it is that Christopher Lee’s character is very similar to Fu Manchu, a role he would later essay five times between 1965 and 1968. The Tong Leader pretty much looks exactly the way Lee’s Fu would, but the actor doesn’t attempt a Chinese accent here as he would in that series. Colorful and visually exceeding its budget as most Hammer productions do, the film has enough action and quite a bit of gore (fingers getting hacked off, and much of the cast getting axed) and as Lee, Yvonne Monlaur might be miscast, but she’s very charming and totally gorgeous. The laughs emerge though at the sight of numerous Anglo actors (including Roger Delgado, Marne Maitland and Charles Lloyd Pack!) sporting unconvincing eye appliances to make them appear Chinese. Hammer strongman Milton Reid (also sporting Chinese eye make-up) makes a memorable appearance as a brutish torturer.

The back cover for this DVD set says, “Digitally remastered for the best possible quality picture & sound,” and that’s an understatement, as there is no room for any criticism here. With two films each on two separate dual-layered discs, everything looks stupendous, and these are some of the best visual presentations (all High Definition) of Hammer films on the format to date. THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER and THE DEVIL-SHIP PIRATES are both presented anamorphic in their original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, in perfect blemish-free transfers with scrumptious colors. THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY is also presented 2.35:1 anamorphic, in a clean, well-detailed black and white transfer. THE TERROR OF THE TONGS (the only non-Scope title here) also looks fantastic, presented anamorphic in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and like the first two films, the colors are outstanding. The English mono audio is crystal clear on all four titles, and all but STRANGLERS include an additional French mono track. Optional English and French subtitles are included on all four titles.

Sony also went through the trouble of getting original behind-the-scenes talent for audio commentaries on all four titles, with is very impressive to say the least. THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER and THE DEVIL-SHIP PIRATES feature legendary Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and art director Don Mingaye in commentaries superbly moderated by Hammer Films expert Marcus Hearn. A wealth of information about the two gentlemen’s experiences with Hammer is recorded here, with many different film titles and various Hammer personnel being addressed during the course of both commentaries. THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY contains a solo commentary by its New York-born screenwriter, David Z. Goodman. Towards the beginning, there appears to be some gaps, and this one could have used a moderator, but Goodman still comes through with some good anecdotes about his screenwriting days and how he approached concocting the story for this unique film. THE TERROR OF THE TONGS has Hearn and Sangster back, this time joined by assistant editor Chris Barnes (who worked on numerous Hammer films, ending with the "Hammer House of Horror" series in 1980) for further perspectives on the glory days of Hammer, and another fascinating commentary, especially for those engulfed in the company’s history and the players who made it what it was. Other extras include Chapter 1 of the 1953 Sam Katzman serial, THE GREAT ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN KIDD starring Richard Crane and David Bruce; the amusing Andy Clyde short HOT PAPRIKA, which also features “Three Stooges” foil Bud Jamison as a practical-joking doctor; and THE MERRY MUTINEERS, a 1936 pirate-themed Technicolor cartoon which features caricatures of The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, Bing Crosby, Charles Laughton and other Hollywood legends. Original Columbia trailers for all four films (which all look excellent) and some promotional trailers for other Sony DVD product round out the extras.

As initial pre-release cover art implied, this excellent collection no longer carries “The Hammer Collection Vol. 1” in its title. Hopefully, Sony will still continue to release to DVD some of their many Hammer titles (SCREAM OF FEAR, MANIAC, THE GORGON, etc.) and other British horror favorites like BESERK with Joan Crawford and CORRUPTION with Peter Cushing! (George R. Reis)