AVAILABLE ON REGION ‘1’ DVD
RUNNING TIME: 78 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
A sect of the ruthless Red Dragon Tong society controls the area in and around Hong Kong’s harbour, keeping the people in poverty because of the amount of money and goods they extort from them. When Mr. Ming flees the Tongs with a letter naming all the Tong members, he hides it in a book intended as a gift for Helena, the daughter of Capt. Jackson Sale before being killed in public by a Tong member. The gang’s Hong Kong leader Chung King orders his men to find the list and Helena is murdered in the process. Sale vows revenge and sets out to wreck the society, his seemingly impossible task possibly being made a little easier by others after the same result….
This is quite an obscure movie, but I’m not quite sure why, as it’s an unremarkable but still rather enjoyable low-grade thriller with Christopher Lee virtually playing Fu Manchu several years before the series of films featuring the actor as the Chinese master criminal commenced. One thing that did strike me very early into it was how much it rehashes Hammer’s The Stranglers Of Bombay [which perhaps could be partly why this semi-remake has been almost forgotten]. The setting is changed to Hong Kong in 1910 from India in the 19th century, but the basic plot of a middle-aged hero attempting to uncover the crimes of a secret sect in a British colony, being captured by the sect, and later released, having a personal stake in the outcome, finding that there is an inside villain, and losing friends and family are all there. The Terror Of The Tongs lacks much of the intelligence of the earlier movie, and is a bit tamer too, while the constant use of Caucasian performers sporting generally highly unconvincing Oriental makeup comes across as both amusing and offensive at the same time [though overall the film is slightly patronising rather than racist], but the thing is fast paced and, at times, pretty exciting, if never quite reaching the quality it seems to be on the verge of reaching, and does score highly in a few aspects.
Jimmy Sangster said that his script for the film, originally entitled Terror Of The Hatchet-Men, was one of the worst things he ever wrote, but I think it’s obvious that he was being leant on to imitate The Stranglers Of Bombay, as well as to make use of an expensive and expansive dockside set that was built for use in a pilot for a potential [and never made] TV series, Visa To Canton. The first draft was revised to include a bone scraping scene at the behest of the producers who wanted more sensational material. Christopher Lee got top billing for the first time in a Hammer film, even though all of his scenes but one were shot on one set and quickly as Lee was much in demand and had a job elsewhere. His deep tan, gained after a holiday in Italy, proved problematic for the makeup department. Despite the large Caucasian cast, 76 [a big number for Hammer] Oriental extras were used, mainly from Chinese restuarants. While The Stranglers Of Bombay got through the BBCF almost unscathed, The Terror Of The Tongs required almost a minute of cuts to bloody bodies, hand and finger severing, and the bone scraping sequence, due to this movie being in colour, and a new hard line attitude now being taken by the BBCF due to the controversy over Peeping Tom. It was distributed , to good business, by Columbia in the US and the Continent, but the UK release was held up for just over a year when the supporting feature, sexy drama Call Girls Of Rome, was considered too poor. Eventually coming out with the strong psycho thriller Homicidal, it got withering reviews but performed very well.
The film opens with a stock shot of Hong Kong harbour, then gets into the mayhem immediately with Lee’s Chung King demanding that a guy pays up, before his men hold him down so that Chung can remove his finger with an axe. This movie certainly grabs you immediately, and throughout its scant running time does give quite a strong sense of an enormously powerful organisation that controls everything and has members everywhere. The one and only Burt Kwouk soon turns up, meaning that I was enjoying the movie even more, though sadly his character is very quickly killed off in front of loads of people, something the Tongs like to do every now and again to assert their dominance and create terror amongst the general populace. Our hero is a boat captain who is introduced dismissing the importance and power of the Tongs, but he soon changes his mind when his daughter is murdered by them in a scene which, in the form that the film is currently in [and somehow I can’t see this movie ever getting an uncut restoration], makes little sense. The intruders hold her down, then she appears to faint, after which they carry her over to her bed and stab her with a knife there. What is missing is footage of one of her fingers being cut off with an axe, and you can even see the bloody axe that was used to do the deed!
There’s little sense of the sadness caused by Helena’s death for her father, who wastes no time in setting out to right the wrong. He comes up against a load of brick walls, as people tend to deny their involvement with the Tongs or pretend that the Tongs don’t exist even when some of their fingers are missing, but it soon becomes apparent that another group is also out to get the Tongs and decides to use Sale for their own ends. The plotting is overly simplistic here – Sangster must have dashed the script off in a few days – but the quick pace is pleasing and not really slowed down by the introduction of a romantic element involving Sale and Lee, a half caste girl who was sold into slavery and seems more than happy to serve the Captain in a similar fashion. Her growing love for the first man who has treated her well is slightly touching, though this whole subplot isn’t really very convincing. Meanwhile the several fights seem mostly rushed and half hearted, except for a rather fine brains vs. brawn face off between two Chinese characters with a few martial arts moves on display, but the story builds swiftly up to a reasonably done climactic battle in the streets, the crux of the issue being that the good guys rely on the down trodden peasants to rise up against tyranny when the Tongs attack them. Unfortunately, as with The Stranglers Of Bombay, the final confrontation is a big disappointment and very rushed, though Chung’s calm demeanor in the face of absolute defeat is interesting.
While most of the violence is shot [or censored] so that we don’t usually see the point of impact or much of an aftermath, the bone scraping scene, if obviously shortened and not showing the needles going in, is still quite gruelling and convincingly acted by Geoffery Toone. Unlike The Stranglers Of Bombay which utilised the [Buckinghamshire] countryside, The Terror Of The Tongs never ventures off its sets, and two thirds of it take place indoors, but with Bernard Robinson doing the set design you know the low budget was stretched as far as it could, and much effort was made with the Chinese elements, especially Chung’s main room which is full of extensive décor and which looks very plush. Sadly makeup man Roy Ashton [Phil Leakey having left, tiring of horror] was obviously stretched too far for the amount of Oriental makeup he had to do on most of the Caucasian actors, and some of it looks glaringly stiff, close ups even revealing where skin has been stretched, or where fake skin ends and real skin begins, which hampers some of the performances. Director Anthony Bushell was an actor who occasionally dabbled in directing, mainly for TV, and he does a decent job of moving the film forward if not exhibiting much style except for a few odd moments here and there, like two bits where the camera fades out on the heroine seeming to say something that we cannot hear, Bushell clearly trying to emphasise her falling in love but the device not coming off too well. The film could certainly have done with the hand of someone like Terence Fisher.
Lee, who spends most of the time sitting down, is typically menacing, though he only half attempts a Chinese accent while many of the cast try full ones and do reasonably okay. Toone is okay as a somewhat ineffectual hero who is constantly being rescued by others, and The Brides Of Dracula’s Yvonne Monlaur, playing Lee, is again a delightful presence, though for some reason she speaks in a kind of pigeon English even though she’s supposed to be part Chinese and part French [I think]. Marne Maitland, also in The Stranglers Of Bombay, makes a strong impression as a crippled beggar who is more than meets the eye, and Roger Delgado virtually reprises his henchman role in that film. James Bernard’s score is highly impressive as it merges his usual sound with Oriental instrumentation. His main title piece is built on one of those simple musical patterns he can do so well, just three notes augmented by Chinese sounds, and this is the main musical motif throughout the film, but is addition to lots of his usual throbbing action cues are lots of cues employing Oriental harmonies, including some uses of a lovely theme for Lee, the first five notes of which are sometimes used in a dissonant manner and are almost the same as his main theme for The Hound Of The Baskervilles. Bernard must have especially enjoyed writing some Oriental source music. The Terror Of The Tongs doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a simple ‘B’ thriller, but in that capacity it works well enough. Considering that I felt great sadness when one major character was killed towards the end, I can certainly say that the film was working for me at that point.