During the first half of the eighteenth century in India, there was a secret cult responsible for the disappearances of thousands of innocent people. They were the Thugees and had dedicated their lives to the service of the goddess Kali, which meant they were intent on killing as many as possible - but they were not permitted to shed blood, and instead carried a sacred length of cloth with which they strangled their victims, then buried their bodies. The British East India Company had begun to notice something adversely affecting their trade, unaware that it was this sect, but Captain Harry Lewis (Guy Rolfe) had an idea...
The Stranglers of Bombay was a Hammer production and one of their most notorious at the time it was released, due to its grisly violence. It may not look like too much now (the camera does not dwell on the gore), but in its day this was controversial enough to build up quite the reputation of being pretty strong stuff. Hammer brought out a number of historical adventures in its lifetime, and this remains their most famous, such as it is, but there was more to it than the sadism and David Zelag Goodman's script actually emphasised the intrigue more than anything else.
As Captain Lewis, Rolfe provides a solid lead, but too often he comes across as ineffectual in the face of not only the Thugees but his own military British world - and the oppressive heat that suffuses every scene adds to the feeling of stultification. When he points out to the Colonel (Andrew Cruickshank) that he thinks he maybe onto something with whatever is behind this disappearance business, he expects to be put on the case right away but what happens is that another officer, Captain Connaught-Smith (Allan Cuthbertson) is given the position of investigating, much to Lewis' chagrin.
The idea is that Lewis respects the Indian culture more than the other officers, and we know this because he is nice to his manservant Ram Das (Tutte Lemkow). But when the cult, who appear to have spies everywhere just to ramp up the paranoia, kidnap him Lewis cannot take any more so offers his resignation to the Company and sets out on his own to bring down the bad guys. Poor old Ram Das doesn't last too long, and Lewis is sent his severed hand as a warning, but this strengthens his resolve and convinces him that he's on the right track.
Of course, the trouble with this plotline is that all the Indians are either murderous psychopaths or nice but cringing potential victims, with very little ground between them. This is very much India from the British perspective, even at that remove, but under Terence Fisher's direction the action moves along briskly, although the villains are far more colourful than the good guys. George Pastell in particular relishes his role as the head of the cult, and he is backed up with the likes of Roger Delgado among his followers. Eccentricities include the presence of a heroic mongoose which manages to save a staked down Lewis from the menaces of a cobra: that furry creature almost steals the film from his human co-stars. And of course there are various atrocities to quicken the pulse. It may be second division Hammer, and you're none too convinced by the resolution, but it's diverting enough. Music by James Bernard.