The Terror of the Tongs (1961)
In 1910, Hong Kong is in the grips of the powerful Red Dragon tong, a secret society that extorts revenue from merchant seamen, deals in both opium and slave trades and savagely slaughters all those who offer opposition. A merchant sailor, Captain Jackson (Geoffrey Toone), swears revenge on the nefarious clan after they brutally murder his first officer and daughter. Hammer's The Terror of the Tongs strives to offer a lurid period drama but falls somewhat short of the mark due to a clumsy script, an indifferent hero and a conspicuous lack of authentic Asian actors. Apart from Burt Kwouk, most of the cast are Europeans sporting rather poor prosthetics. Christopher Lee manages to bluff his way through his role as Tong leader Chung King, through the force of his acting skills. French actress Yvonne Monlaur (Brides of Dracula) is not as successful as a mixed raced serving girl.
However despite its shortcomings The Terror of the Tongs is still somewhat entertaining with its highly stylised view of the Chinese underworld. Frankly expecting anything like historical accuracy from such a studio as Hammer is a mistake. They were far more focused on shock, titillation and appealing to adult audiences baser needs. Thus we have a rather sixties interpretation of what an early twentieth century gambling den looks like. Also the violent activities of the Tongs are somewhat understated. Merchants have their fingers cut off with hatchets while others that cross the Red Dragon are stabbed but it is far from graphic. Indeed the infamous bone scraping torture scene in which Milton Reid uses long needles to inflict pain upon an incapacitated hero is very restrained, resulting mainly in reaction shots.
As ever with Hammer movies, The Terror of the Tongs benefits greatly from a set design that implies a far more lavish production. Despite being very studio bound, the movie has an engaging production design bolstered by a few robust matte paintings to make the dock sequences more credible. James Bernard's score is evocative as well as exciting and brings a degree of polish to the proceedings. Hammer continued to make several more of these historical dramas in parallel to their established horror franchises over the years and they often made for a welcome alternative to the restrictions of the Gothic Horror genre. The Terror of the Tongs is a somewhat workman like entry in Hammer's back catalogue and is more than likely of interest to the fans of the studio rather than casual viewers.