Saturday, September 13, 1975: Terror of the Tongs (1961) / Dead Man’s Eyes (1944)


Synopsis: Captain Jackson Sale (Geoffrey Toone) is on his way from Singapore to Hong Kong, a route he travels frequently transporting freight for Britain’s East India Company. A passenger on his ship, Mr. Ming (Bert Kwouk) gives Sale a children’s book to give to his teenage daughter Helena (Barbara Brown). Unbeknownst to Sale, Ming slips a document into a hidden pocket of the book. After arriving in Hong Kong, Ming is killed on the docks and the body is carried away by his relatives — or so Sale is led to believe. In fact, the body has been spirited away by the Red Dragon Tong, a ruthless underworld gang that operates freely in Hong Kong.

Sale returns home, and the document hidden in the book is intercepted by Maya (Marie Burke) a maid in Sale’s household.


At a meeting of the Red Dragon Tong, leader Chong King (Christopher Lee) orders his men to secure the document Ming had carried. Sale’s house is broken into, and Helena is tortured and killed. Determined to find who is responsible, Sale visits the home of maid Maya, only to find that her fingers have also been brutally chopped off by attackers who ransacked the house, and the document is gone.

At the gambling club that serves as Chong King’s headquarters, we learn that the document is a list of Red Tong operatives in Hong Kong; had the list fallen into the hands of law enforcement, the Tongs would be forced to abandon their lucrative gambling, prostitution, extortion and opium rackets in the district. Chong King burns the document, knowing that everyone who might have seen the list is now dead with the exception of Sale himself, and he orders his men to find and eliminate him.

Meanwhile, Sale is just as determined to go after the Red Tongs himself, and he finds an unexpected ally in Lee (Yvonne Monlaur), a young woman who worked for the Tongs but has switched sides because she knows the terror they have inflicted on her people. But is the innocent Lee ready to face the brutality the Red Tongs would inflict if they knew she had betrayed them?


Comments: Terror of the Tongs was made in a more innocent time, when the world seemed much larger than it does today, and a when a western actor, through prosthetic make-up, could portray an Asian character and be accepted by audiences without a second thought. In fact, all of the large Asian roles in this film are filled by westerners, including Christopher Lee as Chong King and Yvonne Monlaur as Lee.

Christopher Lee actually does about as well as could be expected as the Fu Manchu-esque gangster Chong King, and his rich baritone carries the right notes of menace. Less effective is Yvonne Monlaur, who doesn’t even bother to disguise her French accent. As to her character — a pure-hearted, flower-of-the-Orient type — the less said the better.

The movie was written by Jimmy Sangster, who also wrote The Stranglers of Bombay two years earlier; and the similarities between the two make it clear that Terror of the Tongs is basically just a retelling of that same story, set in another exotic locale and name-checking another notorious 19th-century organized crime ring.


All this probably makes it sound like I’m panning the movie, but I’m not. If you’re going to recycle one of your previous movies, The Stranglers of Bombay is a good choice. This retelling has the added bonuses of a) being in color; and b) featuring Christopher Lee in the heavy role. While it’s a fairly low-octane Hammer entry it works well enough, and Sangster delivers a couple of unusual story elements. For example, I was genuinely surprised that Sale’s 16-year-old daughter Helena was killed by the gang (after having her fingers chopped off); teenagers are usually exempt from death and dismemberment in films of this era. And the bone-scraping torture scene later in the film, while tame by today’s standards, was probably walking the line with British censors of 1961.

As in The Stranglers of Bombay, the British East India Company is portrayed as the main civilizing force in the lawless Orient, and the stolid Geoffrey Toone plays pretty much the same role that the stolid Guy Rolfe played in the earlier film. Movies like this, with their keen nostalgia of the glory days of the Empire, were quite popular in postwar Britain — and the obvious exploitation elements didn’t hurt either.

Truth be told, you can’t really go wrong with a Hammer film on Horror Incorporated, and this one is no exception.

Dead Man’s Eyes

Synopsis: Artist David Stuart (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is working on the painting that he believes will be his masterpiece, the one that will establish him as a serious player in the art world. It’s a portrait of an exotic model named Tanya Czoraki (Acquanetta) dressed in what what we must accept, for the purposes of this film, as traditional Roma garb.

Men are constantly putting the moves on the sultry Tanya, but she isn’t buying. It seems that Tanya spends a lot of time in Stuart’s loft, posing for his masterpiece, and she has fallen in love with him.

Stuart himself doesn’t seem aware of this. He only has eyes for his hatchet-faced fiance Heather Hayden (Jean Parker). Heather’s a swell gal, and she wears a lot of interesting hats. As if that weren’t enough, her family loves him, particularly Heather’s father, whom Stuart has taken to calling “Dad Hayden”.

Whenever he takes a break from his painting, Stuart likes to soothe his eyes with gauze pads soaked in a boric acid solution, which he inexplicably keeps in a bottle on a high shelf right next to a nearly identical bottle containing highly corrosive acid. Because Tanya has moved the bottles around on the shelf while looking for something else, Stuart doesn’t realize that on this occasion he’s just soaked his gauze pads not with boric acid but with, well, acid.* As a result, his corneas are burned and he is now blind. The doctor tells him that a cornea transplant might succeed in restoring his sight, but then again it might not; in any event, donors are scarce and they are unlikely to ever find one.

His career in ruins, unable to complete his masterpiece, Stuart is morose and self-pitying, but he still refuses to blame poor Tanya, who feels terrible about it. Believing that Heather continues to stay with him out of pity for a blind man, Stuart nobly breaks off the engagement. When Heather presses him for a reason, he lies to her, insisting that he’s in love with Tanya.

Dad Hayden refuses to give up on Stuart, and tells him that he has willed his own corneas to Stuart upon his death.

But when Heather arrives home a few nights later she finds Dad Hayden lying dead on the floor. Standing over the body is Dave Stuart, with blood on his hands….

Comments: The Inner Sanctum mysteries used to turn up frequently on Horror Incorporated. I have to admit that as much as I’ve derided these movies as cheap, unconvincing time-fillers, I am glad to see them back.

Why the sudden burst of nostalgia? Well, we’ve seen a lot worse since Dead Man’s Eyes and the rest of the series were staples on the show. We have suffered through a lot of PRC and Monogram dreck, and indie productions that were, um, less than stellar. In retrospect, the lower rung of Universal’s talent pool doesn’t seem so bad. They are decently-paced little programmers, with passable writing and production values.

All the same, let’s not get carried away; they’re not great movies by any standard.

Inner Sanctum mysteries tend to pile on the plot contrivances, and Dead Man’s Eyes is no exception. Arranging the circumstances of Stuart’s blindness in such a way as to make us wonder about Tanya’s complicity has forced screenwriter Dwight V. Babcock to reach, with trembling hands, for the very highest bottle on the storytelling shelves. But no matter how you slice it, any guy who keeps his eyewash and his corrosive acid in matching bottles right next to each other is just asking for trouble.

The script is full of clumsily rendered coincidences and red herrings, all designed to keep the viewer off balance. In spite of this, it isn’t difficult to figure out who the real murderer is and, more importantly, who the real murderers aren’t.

Lon Chaney, Jr. deserves credit for the thankless task of carrying another Inner Sanctum trifle. But the truth is that in most of these films Chaney is simply too old for the character he’s playing. Part of this is Chaney’s appearance — he simply looked a good deal older than his 38 years — but it’s also clear that David Stuart, as written, is supposed to be much younger than 38 (the camera can be cruel in this regard, though never crueler than in Earthquake (1974) in which we’re asked to believe that 50-year-old Charlton Heston is an up-and-coming architect married to the boss’s daughter, played by 51-year-old Ava Gardner).

Aside from the usual faces from the Universal acting bullpen, we must also pause to consider the presence of fashion model Acquanetta, playing the role of Tanya. I will go easy on her performance in Dead Man’s Eyes, because to pillory the poor woman, even 70+ years later, seems like kicking a puppy. After all, it isn’t Acquanetta’s fault that some deranged producer got it into his head that she could be a star; nor is it her fault that, frankly, she has no talent.

Yep, she’s bad all right — not low-budget-Universal-contract-player bad, but really bad. High school theater bad. Ed Wood Productions bad. She recites her lines as if reading from a book of traffic ordinances. The woman is a knockout, but she doesn’t radiate any presence at all, certainly not the hungry sensuality that everyone in the movie ascribes to her (every mention of Tanya’s fiery, exotic demeanor is undermined when the camera returns to her utterly blank expression). To paraphrase the immortal Libby Gelman-Waxner, Acquanetta could not convincingly scream for water if her hair was on fire.

It’s often said (by Brunas and Weaver, among others) that Acquanetta’s career came to a screeching halt when it was revealed that she was not Venezuelan, as she had long claimed, but was in fact a light-skinned black woman from New York who was able to pass for Latina. There’s no reason to doubt that this revelation would have done significant damage to her career, the racial mores of the time being what they were — though I suspect a studio publicity shop could have effectively beaten such rumors back. All the same, it seems unlikely that the “Venezuelan Volcano” would have had much career longevity anyway, given that she had about as much screen presence as a bag of cement.

But she carries on gamely, as everyone in the movie does; and in its way Dead Man’s Eyes is likable enough: not ambitious or flashy, but it kills 65 minutes, and if you’ve had a few drinks you might even enjoy it.

But then, you could say that about a lot of things.


*Acetic acid, to be precise. A 5% solution of acetic acid is better known as vinegar, and mixed with a little olive oil it makes a delicious salad dressing. But in its undiluted form it’s highly corrosive, quite capable of burning your eyes out of your head if you treat it carelessly — as Dave Stuart clearly does.

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