VISA TO CANTON
Color, 1961, 74 mins. 58 secs.
Directed by Michael Carreras
Starring Richard Basehart, Athene Seyler, Lisa Gastoni, Athene Seyler, Burt Kwouk
Indicator (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER
Color, 1962, 86 mins. 58 secs.
Directed by John Gilling
Starring Christopher Lee, Kerwin Mathews, Glenn Corbett, Oliver Reed, Peter Arne, Marla Landi, Desmond Llewelyn, Andrew Keir, Michael Ripper
Indicator (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), Twilight Time (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Sony (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

THE SCARLET BLADE
Color, 1963, 82 mins. 50 secs.
Directed by John Gilling
Starring Jack Hedley, Lionel Jeffries, Oliver Reed, June Thorburn, Robert Rietti, Michael Ripper
Indicator (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), Studio Canal (DVD) (UK R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

THE BRIGAND OF KANDAHAR
Color, 1965, 81 mins. 55 secs.
Directed by John Gilling
Starring Ronald Lewis, Oliver Reed, Duncan Lamont, Yvonne Romain, Katherine Woodville
Indicator (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), Optimum (DVD) (UK R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)


Indicator's Visa to Cantonongoing run of Visa to CantonHammer boxes has been a tantalizing mixture of the legendary and the very obscure, starting with Hammer Volume One: Fear Warning and moving on to Hammer Volume Two: Criminal Intent, Hammer Volume Three: Blood & Terror, and Hammer Volume Four: Faces of Fear. It was inevitable that they would eventually get around to the studio's adventure movie output, and sure enough that's what transpired with the 2020 limited edition box, Hammer Volume Five: Death & Deceit, which also functions as a 75% tribute to director John Gilling and actor Oliver Reed. Best known for his horror gems like Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile, Gilling was already a veteran filmmaker by the time he made those two Hammer classics and had a number of films under his belt ranging from the solid crime film The Man Inside to the superb The Flesh and the Fiends before he made the sorta-kinda Hammer film The Shadow of the Cat, opening the door for the consecutive action films included here. Limited to 6,000 units, the box can also be purchased directly from the company with an exclusive double-sided poster.

Before the Gilling cycle we have the first disc in the four Blu-ray set and easily the most obscure of the quartet, Visa to Canton. Also released in the U.S. as Passport to China, it's one of the earliest of the (very) cheap but colorful spy films that populated worldwide cinemas throughout the '60s in the wake of the James Bond craze (which this one slightly preceded, at least cinematically). Shot back to back with The Terror of the Tongs on the same sets and floated as a potential TV pilot, it's the story of American former combat pilot Don Benton (Basehart) whose tranquil existence booking travel in Hong Kong is upended when he's recruited to find the missing son of his local mother Visa to Cantonfigure (Seyler). The mission turns out to be very complex indeed since the young man was flying over China at the time, and his fate is entangled with an espionage plot involving a Visa to Cantonvaluable scientific formula held by a beautiful agent, Lola (Gastoni).

Hammer executive Michael Carreras was known to step behind the camera as a director from time to time, which was the case with this film, Maniac, Curse of the Mummy's Tomb, The Lost Continent, and finally Shatter. None of those are generally regarded among the studio's very best, but they're competent genre exercises designed to fill double and triple bills. That's certainly the case here as the film delivers a lot of vibrant color and picturesque locales for a fairly low-voltage story, with Basehart (who was in a bit of a career lull at the time before rebounding on TV with Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) making for a functional if somewhat bland hero. Mainly it's interesting to see Hammer try to get into the spy movie game so early on, and it's nice to have it available on Blu-ray from Indicator after being out of circulation for decades apart from a handful of TV showings. Considering the negative probably hasn't been touched since the mid-'60s, it's no surprise that this looks immaculate and up there with the usual high standards for Sony-based transfers from the era. As with the other titles in this box, the LPCM English mono track is in excellent shape and comes with optional English SDH subtitles. You have the option to watch the film with either the U.S. or U.K. opening title sequence, and an audio commentary by Kevin Lyons, editor of The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Films and Television, does a fine job of filling in the brief running time with a lot of info about Hammer at the time and Carreras in particular. In "Hammer’s Women: Lisa Gastoni" (14m18s), critic Virginie S√©lavy delivers a survey of the actress's life including her significant film projects mainly based out of Italy; as there probably isn't another video piece about her around on any other release, it's a welcome addition and especially great as a continuation of this particular series brand from past Indicator releases. In "Ticket to Ride," film historian Vic Pratt chats about the film as a sort of artistic companion to Tongs including its idiosyncratic depiction of Asian culture at the time and its place in Hammer's attempts to find a wider audience than the horror fare for which it had become famous. Finally "Bond Before Bond" (14m28s) is another in the ongoing run of Hammer score breakdowns by David Huckvale, back at his trusty piano and giving a breakdown The Pirates of Blood Riverof Edwin Astley's score (which anticipates some moves made by John Barry in the 007 series). The disc closes out with the British The Pirates of Blood Rivertrailer, a gallery of promotional stills and lobby cards, and an insert booklet featuring liner notes by Josephine Botting, an historical sketch of the real-life RB-47 affair that inspired the story, and publicity material selections.

Next we come to the best-known title in the set and the only one with a significant home video history, The Pirates of Blood River. This one popped up on DVD in 2008 during the height of the Pirates of the Caribbean craze as part of a set with Devil-Ship Pirates, The Terror of the Tongs, and The Stranglers of Bombay, followed by standalone DVD-R editions from Sony and a 2017 U.S. Blu-ray from Twilight Time featuring an isolated music track, a trailer, liner notes by Julie Kirgo, and a substantial audio commentary by writer Jimmy Sangster, art director Don Mingaye, and film historian Marcus Hearn. Essentially a more vicious twist on Treasure Island, it's the tale of nice guy Jonathan Standing (7th Voyage of Sinbad's Mathews, also in Hammer's Maniac), unfairly persecuted by his own father (Quatermass and the Pit's Keir), who's snapped up from a penal colony by a gang of pirates headed by the ruthless, eyepath-wearing Captain LaRoche (Lee). As it turns out, Jonathan has some vital information that could lead the gang (including a young Oliver Reed) to hidden treasure, and his best friend, Henry (Homicidal's Corbett), becomes tangled in the hunt as well.

The Pirates of Blood RiverDespite some obvious budgetary shortcomings (including the now-famous inability to secure an actual pirate ship), this is a The Pirates of Blood Riverfast-moving and entertaining programmer with a few bursts of that trademark blood-red Hammer violence, including some nasty piranha action that predates You Only Live Twice by several years. Speaking of which, you also get a pre-007 Desmond Llewelyn here along with golden age Hammer mascot Michael Ripper. The Indicator disc ports over the prior audio commentary and the trailer while adding a nice slate of extra goodies as well, including an intro by horror author Stephen Law (11m34s) about the censorship issues the film faced upon its release (when it went from an X certificate film to a U, but it's uncut again now), the budgetary constraints, the accident that sidelined Corbett's participation for much of the shoot, and the connections to other adventure films around the same time. In "Hammer’s Women: Marla Landi (11m10s), film historian Kat Ellinger presents a very cheerful and interesting account of the frequently overlooked actress' cinematic contributions and their points of interest among the "model-type" actresses in demand at the time, as well as her side ventures like language courses. A vintage VHS-shot Q&A with Keir at 1993's Manchester Festival of Fantastic Films (20m16s) is a surprisingly funny chat with Laws about his time at Hammer, including his casting tricks involving hairstyle choices and the circumstances behind his last-minute casting in the very troubled Blood from the Mummy's Tomb when Peter Cushing had to bow out. In "Did I Write That?" (42m27s), Jonathan Rigby draws upon his multiple interviews with screenwriter Jimmy Sangster for an overview of the scribe and occasional director's place in Hammer history and his indispensable contributions despite his inherent lack of interest in horror, as well as the importance of his first big break involving Joseph Losey. Huckvale returns for another film score analysis with "Motifs of the Cheerful Heart" (8m20s) and points out some of the little highlights and quirks in Gary Hughes' score; plus he gets to say "lugubrious" while doing a piano demo, which is worth the watch by itself. Finally, "Yes, We Have No Piranhas" (10m37s), whose title might sound familiar to Pino Donaggio fans out there, is a video essay on the censorship history of the film in the U.K. including the two very bloody shots omitted from a key piranha attack sequence. Also included are the theatrical trailer (as well as a Trailers from Hell version hosted by Brian Trenchard-Smith) The Scarlet Bladeand The Scarlet Bladean extensive image gallery, not to mention the insert booklet with liner notes by Lindsay Hallam, an excerpt of Sangster's recollections about the film, critical reviews, and sample promotional material. The quality of the feature itself is very strong and indistinguishable from the U.S. one, which is good news.

Retitled The Crimson Blade for its U.S. release by Columbia, The Scarlet Blade promotes Oliver Reed to higher cast status as Captain Tom Sylvester, the henchman of the nefarious Colonel Judd (Jeffries) who captures King Charles I at the height of the English Civil War in the 17th century. Judd's daughter, Claire (Thorburn), decides to switch alliances and provide help to the royalists represented by the Scarlet Blade (The New York Ripper's Hedley), a.k.a. Edward Beverley, who's out to stop the forces of Cromwell and possibly romance Claire in the process while protecting what's left of his family. Jeffries and Reed pretty much wipe everyone else off the screen here (with Reed in particular getting a corker of a final scene), though you do also get RIpper again turning up as... a gypsy named Pablo. Though the title might lead you to believe this will be a blazingly colorful swashbuckler, the film itself is more of a The Scarlet Bladestraightforward The Scarlet Bladehistorical drama with a few scuffles thrown in and some prime explosions and combat scenes; it's also in the iffier Eastmancolor process, so the look is more drab and muted than you might expect.

That aesthetic is carried over for the film's Blu-ray debut, which looks pretty great given the inherent nature of the original aesthetic. The film can be played with either the U.K. or U.S. title sequences, and it also features a thorough new audio commentary by Lyons who covers a lot of ground including lots about Jeffries, thoughts on some of the geographic and historical oddness at play here, the various Hammer vets around in front of and behind the camera, and the debt to the traditional Hammer Robin Hood films of which this could be considered something of an unofficial installment. A new intro by Laws (6m41s) is fairly short but has some fun notes on that scene with Reed, while "Hammer’s Women: June Thorburn" (18m21s) features Josephine Botting expounding on the actress' life and career before it was tragically cut short by a plane crash four years after this film's release. Among her notable films touched on here are her debut in The Pickwick Papers, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, and Tom Thumb. "Doing Battle" (7m12s) cuts together interviews with second assistant director Hugh Harlow and continuity supervisor Pauline Wise about the production of the film, including the sometimes temperamental Gilling, a backstage squabble over a hanging scene, and the general headaches of shooting with horses. Gilling really gets his due in "Almost an Auteur" (28m9s) with author Kim Newman appraising the director's work from his two best-known Hammer films through his more minor efforts, all displaying his tendency to focus on morally compromised characters and less than joyous endings. In "Appropriately Military" (11m49s), Huckvale tackles Hughes again through the prism of a swashbuckler score that's The Brigand of Kandaharboth indebted to Hollywood and British scoring conventions. A very faded American trailer is also included, plus the obligatory The Brigand of Kandahargallery of artwork and stills and an insert booklet with Neil Sinyard liner notes, a Jeff Billington essay on Reed's '60s output, publicity manual excerpts, and sample reviews.

Last and possibly splashiest is The Brigand of Kandahar, a sword-swinging adventure film that offers the odd spectacle of Reed and Scream of Fear's Ronald Lewis slapping on brownface before Laurence Olivier did the same thing a year later in Khartoum. In 1850s India, Lieutenant Case (Lewis), who is mixed British and Indian, pays for a sexual transgression with a married woman by getting court martialed and disgraced. He manages to escape into the mountains where he falls in with brigands led by Eli Khan (Reed), who wants to use the new arrival's military knowledge to plan an attack. Case struggles with his conscience as a British soldier and also finds himself falling for Khan's sister, Ratina (The Curse of the Werewolf's Romain). Meanwhile Case's commanding officer, Colonel Drewe (Lamont), is on his trail and has his own plan to contend with the rebels.

Though obviously shot on sets at Elstree and hampered by the uncomfortable casting Caucasians exclusively as Indians, this film does have its heart in the right place for what amounts to a boys' adventure type of tale with a message about the danger of persecuting people solely on the basis of their race. There's a lot of action and story turns galore, and Lewis's inherent dangerous quality (something not unknown to his real-life persona) The Brigand of Kandaharserves him well here as he becomes more tortured and dogged as the story progresses. The film's vibrant approach carries through in the transfer here, which looks quite solid with some lustrous bursts of red and blue The Brigand of Kandaharin particular throughout. No issues here really, and it's a great step up from the so-so British DVD released back in 2013. A new commentary by Pratt notes from the outset that this wasn't a beloved film by its creators or by Hammer fans, but he has a lot of affection for it and mounts a solid defense for its existence while doling out plenty of info about the production including the use of footage from Zarak and Reed's rambunctious behavior that continued here). In "Hammer’s Women: Yvonne Romain" (7m39s), film historian Melanie Williams offers insights into the actress's career from her breakthrough genre role in Corridors of Blood through her parade of "exotic" roles in other Hammer films (including this one, which neither she nor Reed wanted to make) and one-offs like Devil Doll. An intro by Laws (8m16s) places the film within the larger framework of Hammer adventure films around the same time and notes its visual spectacle when seen in proper scope, while "Adventures in Filmmaking" (19m42s) with writer Neil Sinyard revisits Gilling within the context of the history of Hammer itself alongside other filmmakers like Terence Fisher. Finally, "Afghan Ostinati" (12m45s) features Huckvale going into Don Banks' score as another variation on the military march approach with subtle commentary on the racial tension mixed into its fabric. The disc also features the British trailer and an image gallery, while the insert booklet contains liner notes by Narman Ramachandran and publicity materials.

Reviewed on March 26, 2020.