Hammer Vol Five- Death & Deceit - Hammer Vol Five- Death & Deceit [Powerhouse - 2020]Death & Deceit is the firth in Powerhouses Hammer studios boxset. The four-disc set features pictures on the more adventure focused side of the studios' output, with the films featured moving between a fairly brutal and eventful pirate caper, a Colonial adventure, a British civil war set swashbuckler, and 60ís set Chinese set espionage thriller. So if you after the studios more celebrated horror out-put, this wonít be for you- but if like me you are generally curious about Hammer wider filmography youíll find this set of much interest- and as weíve come to expect from Powerhouse releases the sets crammed with new commentaries & features.
First up we have Visa to Canton (aka Passport to China) from 1960- a espionage adventure supposable based in china, but all filmed in Bray Studios. And itís very much of its time with its liberal use of non-oriental actors playing Chinese characters, and smug sexism- so you have really to put both of these issues aside to enjoy the film. It was directed by Michael Carreras- a Hammer regular, who had both produced and directed films for the company- taking in the likes of The Curse / Revenge of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Lost Continent, and others. The films lead character is suave, sleek, yet smugly sexist travel agent Don Benton(Richard Basehart)- who works in plush Hong Kong office surrounded by fawn female staff. Benton is contacted by members of the US secret service, who due to his connections in the country want him to go and rescue a downed pilot in communist area of the country- he refused at first, but then when he realizes the pilot Jimmy(Burt Kwouk)is the son of the Chinese family that saved him during the war- takes the mission.
The film features a Noir like voiceover from Basehart and really unfolds as eventful-if-fairly confusingly plotted espionage adventure- with the chain-smoking, sleek haired & fast-talking travel agent moving between been a smug creep, a low-rent James Bond, and sleek salesman. Along the way, we get some low-key action- taking in gunplay, fistfights, and chasers- added to this thereís quipping humour, and a nicely upbeat/ dramatic jazzy score- making for a fairly swift seventy five minute film that will appeal to those who enjoy camp-bound adventure, though as I mentioned early you have to be prepared for a lot of white folks badly playing Orientals - with yellowed up faces & taped back eyes, and the smug sexisms- from the lead character.
Moving onto this new release and the new scan of the film looks great- with bold colours & crisp definition, though of course, this highlights some of the less great make-up on display. On the extra side, we get a commentary from Kevin Lyons- genre expert & editor of The Encyclopaedia of Fantastic Films and Television. This is a fact packed & interesting track- it starts with Lyons discussing the way the film had a different title stateside, and a potted history of alternative US titles for Hammer films. He moves onto giving in-depth bios of each of the cast as they appearing, going onto touch the dodgy English actors to oriental make-up. As he goes on he talks about key crew members, the score, when the film appeared on British TV- and this been the first UK release of the film- all in an enjoyable track, that certainly makes a passable film better.
Next, we get Hammerís Women: Lisa Gastoni- this is a fifteen-minute profile of the films lead actress by critic and writer Virginie Sťlavy. Thereís Ticket to Ride- a fascinating eighteen-minute featurette about the film to hand & Tongs Of Terror( a pre hammer Fu Manchu like oriental villain pic with Christopher Lee) the two Chinese focused films the studio put in production at the same time- it finds writer/ genre expert Vic Pratt talking about each films Pulp fiction origins, the films racial stereotypes, and sets used throughout both. Next, we have the fifteen-minute Bond Before Bond- which finds soundtrack expert David Huckvale talking about Edwin Astley score for the film, how it pre-dated the 007 like music cues, and his other score work on small screen espionage/ spy shows like Dangerman & The Saint- again a very worthy extra. The disc is topped off the film's original UK trailer, and image gallery.
On disc two we have The Pirates of Blood River -a fairly brutal & eventful pirate/adventure. This is from 1962 and was directed by John Gilling, who had a background in pirate fare as he also directed 1961ís Fury at Smugglers' Bay. The films set in the 17th century & is based on the Isle of Devon, one of the largest islands of Canadian- which still to this day remains unpopulated islands in the world. On the island is a settlement of French Protestants, and Jonathon Standing(Kerwin Mathews) the son of one of the town's leaders is having an affair with one of the settles wives. He sent to a cruel & brutal penal colony on the other side of the island- one day he escapes, and comes across a group of French pirates led up by the black-clad & eye-patched Capt. LaRoche( Christopher Lee)- his crew is made up of some familiar faces such as Michael Ripper- as Mack the capt's right-hand man, and Oliver Reed- as the boisterous Brocaire. The pirates decide to raid the village, and what unfolds is a rollicking, entertaining & at times fairly brutal 1960ís action film- to start with all the pirates look suitable grimy- we get blindfolded sword fights, flintlock shoots outs, piranha attacks, and rapid tree felling to crush others. Lee is great a dubious capt , and Mathews is believable as the badly done by settler- as he goes from well kept, to bearded & tortured in the penal colony, to swashbuckling classic good guy. I canít say Iím the biggest fan of Pirate films in general- but I found this a lot of fun.
Moving onto this new disc- and first off the new scan looks marvellous- with wonderfully defined & bright greens, reds, and blues. Onto the extras & the new stuff first- we get an eleven-minute appreciation/ introduction to the film by horror author Stephen Laws Ė this sees him talking about the many times heís seen the film, the cast, and the different cuts of the film. Next, we have the always worthy & informative Jonathan Rigby- author of English Gothic- offering up Did I Write That?- a forty-three-minute featurette about the career of Hammer Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster- who wrote The Pirates of Blood River, and many other classics- this is a fascinating extra with Rigby giving a very thorough & balanced look at the films Sangster wrote for the company. Next we Hammerís Women: Marla Land- an eleven minutes overview of the career of the films female lead by genre expert Kat Ellinger. Thereís -Motifs of the Cheerful Heart which sees David Huckvale returning for a nine-minute appreciation of Gary Hughes's score. Thereís Yes, We Have No Piranhas- an eleven-minute visual essay about the different cuts of the film, which shows you the contentious scenes- and how they were cut for the different versions of the film. We get a twenty-one-minute interview with male star Andrew Keir from 1993, and a 2008 commentary track featuring screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, art director Don Mingaye, and Hammer historian Marcus Hearn. This is far-reaching & subject shifting track-moving from discussing the film's writing & how Sangster was given the difficult task of writing a pirate film without a ship, as it couldnít be afforded. With the trio going onto discussing when Sangster & Mingaye first met, and when they meet the studio founder William Hammer- who by that stage was an elderly circling enthusiast. Before going back to talk about the film, and itís cast. Also, the finished version of the set also takes in a thirty-six-page booklet featuring a new essay about the film, stills & promotion material.
Disc three offers up 1963ís The Scarlet Blade( aka The Crimson Blade in the US)- this was a swashbuckling adventure drama set in 1648, during the English Civil War. It was like the previous film in the set directed & written by John Gilling- with it's blend of autumnal English woodlands & big grand house setting, with stables & underground passages. In the male leads we have Lionel Jefferies as the initially tyrannical and cruel Col Jud, and Oliver Reed as the slipper Capt Tom Sylvester- these lead up a squad of Roundheads who are trying to route out royalist, and their dashing protector The Scarlet Blade/ Edward Beverly(Jack Hedley). In the film, we get characters switching sides, deals done in run-down oust houses, forced & real romance, and dodge looking gypsies- one of whom is Hammer regular Michael Ripper as brown up faced & silver earring wearing Pablo. As period adventure films go this is passable- both Jefferies & Reed are good in their roles, & along the way we get the expected Sword fighting, a hanging tree ambush, and hand-to-hand & flint locking battling in muddy & tree surrounded battlefields. The plotting is somewhat predictable, it lacks the more brutal & bloody edges of The Pirates of Blood River, and while Jefferies is effective enough as the baddie with family issues- he doesnít seem terribly memorable as a character. Iíd say if you enjoy a fairly swift-if-rather run of the mill British set swashbuckling action youíll enjoy this well enough.
Moving onto the extras we get a commentary track from Kevin Lyons- and once again itís a most informative & rewarding track, he moves from giving detailed bios of actors in the film- giving some fascinating to rather sad details about many of the cast. He talks about the set, filming time lines, and issues on set like Michael Ripper not wanting to ride a horse. He touches on talking about other British films based in the civil war period, and much more- even if you're not taken by the film its well worth playing this track. Next, we get Hammerís Women: June Thorburn- a nineteen profile of the films lead actress by film historian Josephine Botting. We get a seven-minute introduction/ appreciation of the film Stephen Laws. Doing Battle- an eight-minute onscreen interview with second assistant director Hugh Harlow and continuity supervisor Pauline Wise. With the longest extra aside from the commentary been Almost an Auteur- a twenty-eight-minute featurette from Kim Newman- this finds the horror genre expert talking about John Gilling career- discussing all the films he did for Hammer, but of course, focusing in on the three films from the director on the boxset. We have David Huckvale returning for Appropriately Military- twelve-minute study of Gary Hughes's score for the film. We get an original US trailer image gallery, and once again the finished edition of the set comes with another 36-page inlay booklet just focusing in on this film.
Lastly, on the fourth disc in the set, we have 1965ís The Brigand Of Kandahar- and once again this was written & directed by John Gilling. The films set in India in 1850, focusing in on British garrison that is defending the Fort Kandahar, which is on the northwest frontier of British Indian empire. What we have here is a fairly run-of-the-mill, cheap-looking, though involving enough Colonial adventure caper- with a fair bit of superimposed horse & infantry battles, some fairly tense sword fighting/ gun battles, and more than a few white English actors darken-up to look Arabic. The films lead character is mixed-race British/ Indian officer Lieutenant Case(Roland Lewis) who leaves one of his white colleague to get captured by the Indian rebels, heís also sleeping with the same colleague's wife. Heís court marshalled for his conduct, then escapes with the aid of his manservant Rattu(Sean Lynch)- it turns out he was undercover, and his true master is the rebel leader Eli Khan- a turban, bearded, and brown up Oliver Reed. Of the four films here this felt the least Hammer like and comes off more like a cheap rip-off of bigger budget Colonial & epic adventures- though itís entertaining enough, Reed is amusing as the pantomime like bad guy as heís constantly roaring with laugher & been devilish, thereís a torture pit with prisoners on a wheel, Lewis is good enough as the dashing switching sides hero, and while the plotting is a tad predictable it keeps one held well enough- making for a passable Sunday afternoon watch.
As with the other films in the set, the pictures good if still a little dark in places, though unfortunately, the improvements in picture have made the superimposed elements of the film look very cheap indeed- but that I guess is one of the downsides of remastering old effect based elements in films of this period. Moving onto the extras, and up first we have a commentary track from genre commentator Vic Pratt- he moves from talking about the films production history, itís unloved place with Hammer fans, and its liberal use of browned-up white British actors. He moves on talk about the first time he saw the film at the age of seven in 1977- later discussing the film's actors, the director, before lengthy talking about Oliver Reed. Itís far-reaching & subject varied track thatís edged with dry humour, through in place it does move towards more scholarly observations which I was less keen on. Moving onto the other extras we get- Adventures in Filmmaking- a twenty-minute examination of writer-director John Gilling career & reputation by writer and historian Neil Sinyard- Iíve enjoyed Mr. Sinyard features on other Powerhouse releases before- but sadly this covers a lot of similar ground to Kim Newmans look at Gillings career. We get a nine-minute appreciation of the film by Stephen Laws, David Huckvale talks about the score of the film for around thirteen minutes, and the last part of the Hammer women series on this set which finds film historian Melanie Williams focusing in for eight minutes about the career of the films lead actress Yvonne Romain. And once again the finished disc topped off with another thirty-six-page booklet.
In finishing Death & Deceit is another splendid boxset from Powerhouse- with the company once again offering up great clear prints through-out, a good selection of largely very worthy extras, inlay booklets, a neat boxset- and if you buy direct from Powerhouse's site here youíll get a doubled sided excusive poster taking in the original film poster for The Pirates of Blood River & The Brigand Of Kandahar.Roger Batty