My notes on Hammer’s The Secret of Blood Island (aka P.O.W.) (1965)
The Camp on Blood Island was a considerable hit for Hammer in 1958, though it took a few years to get round to delivering a (semi) sequel – with this last gasp of Hammer’s gruesome war movie cycle (later, they considered casting Peter Cushing as a SS bastard in one of their famous unmade projects). It’s among Hammer’s most horrific films, with a cheery tealeaf (Bill Owen) and a likable Jew (Lee Montague) suffering protracted whippings, several major characters machine-gunned in the guts, the two major villains getting off scot-free and hero Sgt Crewe (Jack Hedley) dying with his eyes open and gore all over his face in an only marginally hopeful finish as downed spy Elaine aka Bill (Barbara Shelley) driving off in a stolen jeep supposedly to aid Chinese partisans in one of those missions which could turn the tide of the Pacific War.
The premise is that Elaine has to be hidden by the ragged prisoners of a Malayan work camp in 1944, though there are waverers in the hut – an embittered misogynist Irishman (Edwin Richfield) with facial scars tries to ‘kiss’ her and a gutless bloke (Peter Welch) who keeps wittering on about his wife and four kids (as it happens, dead in the blitz) is always on he point of blabbing to the guards. Charles Tingwell is the most stalwart and credible as the prisoners’ CO, but the film is detoured into camp – and, fifty years on, into near-unrevivable obscurity – by the casting of white actors with sing-song accents, rubber eyelids and pantomime villain poses as the Japanese villains: Patrick Wymark as the nasty commandant, Michael Ripper promoted from anonymous goon to prissy fiend as the sadistic corporal and (perhaps worst of all) David Saire as the ranting secret policeman in dark glasses and business suit. Even by the standards of yellowface casting – common at the time – these are offensive caricatures, but they’re also so absurd that they break up the prevailing grim tone of the whole thing.
Shelley looks great with cropped hair to pass as a young lad, but her character is feebly batted about the camp – spending a lot of time under the floorboards – and her romance with the sergeant is among the most perfunctory in cinema (it boils down to a shoulder-squeeze). It opens with the climactic escape, as grenades are tossed around Black Park dressed up with a few jungle ferms to unmistakable James Bernard ‘building tension’ music, then flashes back to the main story. Like even the least Hammers, it shows strength in casting in depth (with an especial holdover from Dracula – Prince of Darkness) as Philip Latham, Glyn Houston and others sweat and slouch through the pretend tropic heat. Scripted but not directed by John Gilling (who also served Shelley with a star turn in The Gorgon); directed by Quentin Lawrence, who’d made one of Hammer’s best films (Cash on Demand) but didn’t much get thanked for it.
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