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November 2009     Web Edition     Issue #3

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Ron Garmon's Consideration of Hammer Studios' British Empire Films



Imperialist Studies

No. 1

Terror of the Tongs

by Ron Garmon

The glory years of Hammer coincided not only with what film critics now recognize as a golden age of British cinema, but also the final fadeout of the British Empire. That this played out by proxy on U.K. cinema screens has been taken by for granted by critics and cultural observers since the first James Bond movie, so it isn’t surprising that we see this specter of a subtext haunting the Studio That Dripped Blood, particularly their historical adventure films. While major studios and international production companies spent floods of cash recreating the short life of T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), the Battle of Roarke’s Drift (Zulu), “Chinese” Gordon’s dramatic demise (Khartoum), Tennyson’s deathless ode to upper-class incompetence (The Charge of the Light Brigade)—Hammer took the predictable route of creating violent, lurid, character-driven melodramas out of the more exploitable elements of colonial exploitation. Calling Hammer’s end of this genre “U.K. Grindhouse” or “Mondo Bray” or even “Empiresploitation” wouldn’t be wide of the mark, except the latter term is more than a little redundant.

The year is 1910. The era is stuffily Edwardian and the scene Hong Kong, a shining beacon of civic morality for patriots longing to keep China British. Just beneath the surface of everyday colonial rule is an embryonic but ruthless counter-government, the Red Dragon Tong. This proto-Red Menace is hinted to hold undisputed sway on the mainland and openly regards local police as little better than scarecrows. The pre-cred shows Tong hatchetmen mutilating a man’s hand to teach him fear and first-reel proceedings take in further mayhem, including murder of the beloved daughter of Captain Jackson Sale (Geofrey Toone), a rough and resourceful sailor who storms about the city shoving and threatening until he gets some unpleasant answers.

The Tong is depicted as being to early 20th century China what the vampire cult is to the 19th century middle Europe of the company’s horror films—an entrenched, voracious Ultimate Evil that looks just cracking projected on a screen in 35 mm. In reach and ruthlessness, Chung King’s organization is an existential menace in the grand old Hammer tradition of Dracula, the Karnstein family or the exhumed alien spaceship in Quatermass & the Pit. Jimmy Sangster’s script—a reworking of his own far superior imperial fantasy of the previous year, The Stranglers of Bombay—varies the formula a bit by giving Christopher Lee’s Omar Khayyam-quoting crime boss a few shards of humanity unusual in a Hammer villain. The unusual sympathy we feel for the devious, well-read, dope-dealing bastard is reinforced by the racist snubs we see him take from Englishmen and it’s hard to sympathize with most of the addled criminals we see him lead to ruin and death. In the Hammer scale of morality, pleasure, material desperation and a few long pulls on “the pipe of dreams” kill one’s humanity as every bit as thoroughly as vampirism, class snobbery or plagues from space.

What undoes the antiheroic Chung King is what undoes the movie—a series of unbelievable blunders in dispatching a protagonist as stonedheaded as any in Hammer’s history. Captain Sale, fearless, determined and not overly freighted with brains, is of excellent use to anti-Tong oppositionists (represented by Marne Maitland giving his usual strong performance) who exploit his tragedy for their purposes. Though we hear him warned not to “underestimate the Oriental mind,” the captain is easily drugged, mislead and manipulated and clearly a man for whom questions of mind scarcely matter. As is the way in Hammer films, the whole thing goes hugely to smash at the finish, serving the audience an object lesson in the difficulties inherent in mucking about looking for payback in someone else’s country. Ex-President George W. Bush lacked Toone’s sturdy profile, meaty fists and devil’s luck but only the latter deficiency answers to why the United States came off much worse in a similar catastrophe.

Marne Maitland

Terror of the Tongs has few defenders even among the kind of Brit horror diehard that made Norman J. Warren a name in a very bizarre kind of household indeed. Nevertheless, the movie shows a great many of Hammer’s house virtues to excellent advantage, from Arthur Grant’s exciting, imaginative color cinematography to Bernard Robinson’s plushy looking sets to a rousingly creepy score easily among James Bernard’s very best. Even without wizard-like Terence Fisher at the helm, his team scores in nearly every department. One feels pity for makeup man Roy Ashton, tasked with the horrible necessity of passing much of a large cast off as Chinese. That this is done with somewhat greater skill than in a Roland Winters-era Charlie Chan movie isn’t much of a compliment. Then again, Mickey Rooney’s makeup as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s released the same year is more embarrassing than pretty much anything in Tongs.

The cast is full of familiar Brit horror stalwarts like Charles Lloyd Pack, who was in seven films for Hammer from Quatermass 2 (1957) to Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974), with his highest-profile role being Dr. Seward in the 1958 Dracula. His bland, benign features fitted him for playing English vicars, professors, committeemen—basically anyone but a crafty Tong poisoner, but he’s memorable just the same. Yvonne Monlaur, who graced Hammer’s far superior The Brides of Dracula the previous year, excels as a runaway “half-caste” slave girl, easily stealing her few scenes with Toone. Though recognizable in several exercises in imperial nostalgia—notably Khartoum (1966) and March or Die (1977) —Calcutta-born Marne Maitland won screen immortality as screw-crooked Dennis Price’s equally dodgy Middle Eastern business partner in the landmark 1959 Peter Sellers satire I’m All Right, Jack. He turns up in Fellini’s Roma (1972) and The Camp on Blood Island (1959), Passport to China (1961), The Phantom of the Opera (1962), The Reptile (1966) and the aforementioned Stranglers for Hammer. His presence in Tongs is a sympathetic one, as is that of Burt Kwouk, who went on to win both the signature role of Cato in the Pink Panther series and an OBE, which puts him not far from Sir Christopher himself as pop culture icon.

Christopher Lee partisans count Terror of the Tongs among their man’s triumphs and so it is. Despite heavily immobilizing character makeup, Lee commands Lugosian levels of charismatic fear and respect in the kind of oversized melodramatic menace at which very few excel. He’s a graceful and athletic physical actor and that deep pipe-organ voice gets a Shakespearean workout. As the comic-book franchise movie becomes the industry norm, expect this type of pre-green screen supervillainy to move closer toward critical respectability. Meanwhile, we have this throwaway movie to document Lee at the height of his considerable powers as actor and movie star; his Chung King fit company for Dracula, Saruman, Scaramanga, Lord Summerisle and the rest.

These considerable merits do very little to render the demerits invisible. Tongs is the last and best-known of three feature outings by director Anthony Bushell, a Deco-era male ingénue devoted Turner Classic Movies buffs cherish as the featherheaded young lord in the 1929 version of George Arliss’s Disraeli and Thirties horror fans recall more sourly as the gratingly upper-class hero of The Ghoul (1933) with Boris Karloff. His proto-Sloanie screen character was already outdated by wartime and downright offensive by the early Sixties (when even Tories wished to appear working-class) and he reportedly retired to run a golf club after work directing TV dried up. The Hammer house style as practiced by Terence Fisher was elegantly swift and romantic, but Bushell’s helming of Tongs is frenetic and slapdash, recalling a feature-length truncation of a Forties Hollywood serial, only without twelve chapters of slambang action to draw from and the space normally reserved for Ralph Byrd or Rod Cameron filled by an ambulant hole. Captain Sale was the one lead role of this square-jawed, handsome player whose best-remembered screen appearance is probably an effective bit part in The King and I (1956) as dashing Sir Edward Ramsay. Toone simply fails to radiate any kind of warmth, star power or charisma, despite rather close resemblance to Rod Taylor. An Old Vic veteran who specialized in incisive character roles on the London stage and continued on the boards into his eighties, Toone never found any real footing in movies, despite a five-year stint in Hollywood.

If Jimmy Sangster’s script’s only deficiency was the historical blooper of blaming the Chinese for the opium problem the British forced them to acquire, we could perhaps charge the whole movie off as a byproduct of “civilization clash” not dissimilar to such later cultural phenomena as torture videos and cartoonists riddled with bullet holes.

Yvonne Monlaur
But it gets worse from there. Along with containing a bigger than usual dose of Anglo-Saxon paternalism, Sangster’s script is as blunt-force dumb as a Todd Slaughter barnstormer, with its reliance on the pulp detective trick of having a hero too lamebrained to function and too tough to die becoming wearisome at a paltry seventy-six minutes. Ironically, the plot’s basics were retooled scores of times in Hong Kong-produced crime films of the Eighties and Nineties, as legions of outsiders (many of them Chow Yun-Fat) stylishly blew away a wide assortment of gangsters.

Tongs may be seen as a curtain raiser for the five Fu Manchu films made later that decade by Harry Alan Towers with Christopher Lee as the evil doctor, a man with more plans to take over the world than the Koch Bros. and a keen sense of what was possible in the pre-digital era. The Fu Manchu series were updates of the Sax Rohmer character with the Yellow Peril quotient dialed down and the Bond/Batman camp cranked until the knobs began to snap off well after 11. The franchise passed through multiple hands as papier-mâché surrealist Jess Franco succeeded pulp technocrat Don Sharp as Towers’ favorite director. Franco at his worst was the kind of idea-a-minute hack who would’ve made even Terror of the Tongs into the comic book movie it so yearns to be.


Imperialist Studies

No. 2

The Brigand of Kandahar

by Ron Garmon

In every movie they make, every time an Arab utters the word “Allah” something blows up—Eyad Zahra

This lurid cheesebomb from the Studio That Dripped Blood is buried under several layers of obscurity. Aside from One Million Years B.C., a pair of pirate movies with Christopher Lee and Terence Fisher’s vivid, oft-copied The Stranglers of Bombay, Hammer’s period adventure films enjoy little fannish constituency. Not many new-minted cultists keen to check out The Nanny, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde or the uncut When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth know of this 1965 low-budget bloodbath and few cheer news of its existence. Anchor Bay’s lavish and meticulous DVD releases of potboilers like The Viking Queen and The Vengeance of She did very little to stimulate interest in non-horror Hammer on this side of the pond and that’s a pity since The Brigand of Kandahar is superior to both of those turkeys. Never mind your dogeared video guide or some crap consensus you’ve read online; the worst criticisms usually leveled against this film—a paltry 81-minute runtime and the substantial amount of footage borrowed from another movie—are actually virtues and far from covert ones.

As noted in my Mondo Cult essay on Terror of the Tongs, though the British film industry came to its zenith not long after the British Empire folded for good, the former size and heft of Britannia’s fist was too much of the stock-in-trade of UK popular fiction for filmmakers to abandon merely because of socialism, Suez and the hugely uninspiring sight of Harold MacMillan’s blocklike behind, parked where once sat Churchill and Disraeli. In between better-remembered productions like Alfie, Look Back in Anger and the emerging Bond franchise, the UK film industry ground out one retrograde imperial fantasy after another, each with its own (often dubious) critique on Where It All Went Wrong. Lawrence of Arabia, Zulu, Khartoum, the Tony Richardson Charge of the Light Brigade and a dozen other big budget spectacles—not to mention a bevy of blockbusters spun from both World Wars—dealt with the morality of empire building, with most concluding it a nonspecifically rum sort of business.

As fans know, Hammer films are bounded by a stringent interior morality with little use for the kind of blurry King and Country ethics so beloved of fans of 007 and Bulldog Drummond. Nor is this house style at all sympathetic to barracks-room bullies like Kipling’s Mister Atkins, who held it fair to loot temples and blow civilians apart with artillery because a swig of water waits in Hell from Gunga Din. Such jolly psychosis belongs to the whitewash-bucket universe of John Ford and not the sexy stark-naked starkly Manichaean Hammer aesthetic as created by Terence Fisher and maintained by most of the directors that followed him at the studio. Being a red-blooded palpitating political cartoon that winds up in an entertaining series of mid-Victorian melodramatic explosions, Kandahar is down with this program. The era is well within Hammer’s comfort zone and the place is the North-West Frontier of what was then British India (or much of present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan) but that makes little difference in the seduction-by-evil theme that was Hammer’s stock-in-trade. Though unusual for an imperial melodrama of the era, Kandahar’s insistence that empire and flag offer no shelter from (and every opportunity for) violence and chaos is firmly within the studio’s narrative tradition.

The movie opens full of ugly foreboding. Out in the trackless border wastes of the Raj, the British army is beset by bandits and forbidden passion alike. Handsome, absurdly virile Lt. Case (Ronald Lewis), a brave and capable though “half-caste” soldier, succumbs to the considerable charms of Elsa (Catherine Woodville), willful wife of a brother officer. Another filmmaker might’ve played up Case’s failure to behave as a gentleman ought with a few twists of bourgeois guilt for the carriage trade but Gilling wisely doesn’t bother with such time-wasting guff and withholds our judgments for later.

When husband doesn’t come back from a patrol with Case, our man takes the goat’s measure of blame at the inevitable court martial, along with the old lifted eyebrow from beefy bully Col. Drewe (Duncan Lamont at his loudest), before getting banged off to prison. Bally bad show allowing such cowards and lesser breeds as the gonad-driven Case to get themselves up as officers and all that. Her (exclusively) Britannic Majesty has her standards and we soon see how low those get when the embittered Case escapes, ties in with bandit leader Ali Khan (Oliver Reed), whips his cadre of cutthroats into soldiers and leads a nationalist revolution on behalf of a couple of vague references to Allah. The political content of this movement is slight but one glance at brazen beauty Ratina (Yvonne Romain), sister to the wily, Western-educated Khan, is more than enough to make Case enlist out of werewolf-like lust, the only creed we see him ever actually practice. Needless to say, once the magic word of “Allah” is loosed, the effect onscreen is cataclysmic.

Soon there’s war with most of its thrilling, murderous spectacle edited in from another, bigger-budgeted film in much the same way Ken Berry was depicted as winning the US Civil War every week in the opening credits of F-Troop. Unlike TV’s hapless Wilton Parmenter, everyone here scowls realistically before the back projector and Gilling piles on a satisfying deal of mid-1960s grade Hammer ultraviolence for smash-cuts and shock moments. Atrocity begets atrocity in the time-honored manner, as first one, and then another, then almost every cast member dies a dog’s sweaty death under the cheerless skies of mock-Afghanistan. Highly gratifying if you like such things and brutally funny if you don’t. Attracted to the rising tide of death, crusading liberal journalist Marriott (Glyn Houston) hotfoots it to the source, taking over as the customary Van Helsing/Quatermass/Father Sandor moral compass but arriving too late in proceedings to do very much more than groan ruefully. By the finish, imperialism looks to be as wholesome and improving an occupation as the Karnstein vampire cult, with the Fire Next Time as unavoidable as the last reel of the next Hammer film.

As Morant (Edward Woodward) remarks to Handcock (Bryan Brown) while on their way to execution by firing squad at the end of Breaker Morant (1980), “Well, Peter, this is what comes of empire-building.”

L-R: Bryan Brown as Handcock and Edward Woodward as Morant
in Bruce Beresford's masterpiece
Breaker Morant.

All the skill and cunning one expects in a Hammer production combine to point up the scenario’s inherent melodramatic lunacy. The heavy dark “exotic” makeup slathered on much of the cast is reminiscent of some soggy provincial matinee pass at Othello but the worn desert clothes and informal battle gear of Khan’s men are startlingly close to those of Pashtun gunslingers familiar to us now from their decades-long engagement on CNN, first as “Afghan freedom fighters,” then the Taliban, then as one regional “moderate” or other. These details either add to the humor or heighten the horror depending upon taste.

Cast values are far higher than all this claptrap needs as well. Though far better known as Lord Peter Wimsey’s valet Bunter on the famed mid-Seventies BBC series, Glyn Houston brings heft and conviction to his brief turn as the journalist. Still alive as of this writing, the Welsh-born Houston capped over forty years in UK film as Mr. Grewgious in the 1993 version of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Third-billed Duncan Lamont inhabits Colonel Drewe with all the theatrical ferocity and malice of a great Hammer villain. A younger version of this familiarly burly, gravelly voiced character man turns up in a number of significant 1950s UK and Hollywood films like The Man in the White Suit, Quentin Durward, and I Was Monty’s Double. Lamont’s romancing of Anna Magnani in Jean Renoir’s The Golden Coach (1952) is an enviable piece of an acknowledged classic of world cinema. He aged with surprising quickness into the tough, heavy-faced sailor writhing and dying of seawater poisoning in the 1962 Marlon Brando version of Mutiny on the Bounty. From that career peak he went on to a variety of major Hollywood and UK productions including Stanley Donen’s Arabesque (1966) and the all-star World War II epic The Battle of Britain (1968) plus such crazed later entries in the British horror boom as The Creeping Flesh (1973); a Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee vehicle that is one of the more outré examples of imperial blowback in horror film history as blood cells drawn from bones taken in Papua New Guinea wreak demonic havoc in mid-19th century London. Lamont scowls with gravid authority as a police inspector. Wild. He took easily to TV after the UK film industry started to slow and dropped dead of a heart attack in 1978 while shooting an episode of Blake’s 7.

Lamont’s best-known Hammer appearance is probably the alien-possessed Sladden in Quatermass & the Pit (1967), though he glowers memorably in The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964) and his bravura performance as a condemned prisoner in Frankenstein Created Woman (1966) nearly steals the film before Peter Cushing’s Baron even glides into camera range. One of the minor regrets of Hammer fandom is that this first-rate player’s largest, showiest role for the studio comes in this under-screened howler. His Drewe is a gravelly, growling, snobbish bastard and heel out of William Makepeace Thackeray and far less sympathetic than oily, sadistic Ali Khan, overplayed to bored perfection by Oliver Reed.

Reed’s nine Hammer films served as an apprenticeship prior to his long reign as an international movie star and a subsequent career as the highest-profile film industry drunkard since John Barrymore, a malicious fate in the era of the TV talk show. During his 1960-65 tenure at the studio, Reed took major roles in some of its best-ever productions, including The Curse of the Werewolf, Pirates of Blood River and These Are the Damned, leaving within each touches of the mercurial anger, Teddy Boy arrogance and sly humor that made him a durable screen presence. He soon took up with Ken Russell and Michael Winner and his tenure as a leading man outlasted the glory days of British cinema, but just barely; by the Eighties, he was topping the bill in the likes of Dr. Heckyl & Mr. Hype when not staggering out before TV cameras to say something amusingly liquid. Reed was already half a legend when he fell over dead in a Malta barroom with most of a splendid performance in Gladiator (2000) in the can.

In this last outing for Hammer, Reed leans on star power and hunkiness in the manner of Christopher Lee in similar non-horror roles but doesn’t quite get away with it here. He’s simply too slack to counterbalance Lamont’s testy arrogance, throwing the film’s already off-kilter melodrama into widdershins lurches. Even with Reed’s charisma banked, a 21st century viewer will have a hard time missing some of the film’s stealthy parallels to mid-1960s insurgents like Che Guevara and Patrice Lumumba and a harder one not giving Ali the benefit of any comparison to Osama bin-Laden.

Elsa, the ruin of two of Her Majesty’s officers, is played by Catherine Woodville, an aristocratic beauty then finishing a string of UK film appearances begun in youth-oriented Kitchen Sink melodramas like The Wild and the Willing (1962) and The Party’s Over (1964). Her one fling at Hammer Glamour is brief but well up to the mark as she inhabits her vapid young thing with an elegant economy of inflection and gesture. Soon after Kandahar, she moved to Hollywood, began spelling her first name with a K and enjoyed a second career on US television, winning immortality among Star Trek fans for grace notes sounded as all-powerful Natira, lover of Bones McCoy in “The World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky.” Her later film career was highlighted by superior pulp like Black Gunn (1972) and Posse (1975) and she was still getting regular work when she left the industry at the end of the decade. Ms. Woodville died in 2013.

Yvonne Romain has the splashier role of Ratina, Ali’s sex-bomb consort. The London-born actress started in films in her late teens with one of her first roles (billed under her birth name Yvonne Warren) a bit part in Charlie Chaplin’s A King in New York (1957) before going on to an assortment of vamps, temptresses and serving wenches. Her pre-Hammer genre credits include superior fare like Corridors of Blood (1958) and Circus of Horrors (1960) and Elvis fans remember her in Double Trouble (1967). Her other Hammer credits include Captain Clegg (1963) and a brilliant performance as the mute servant girl whose rape produced accursed Oliver Reed in The Curse of the Werewolf. Her cameo as the titular gossip columnist in the 1973 all-star whodunit The Last of Shelia was as dignified an exit from the film business as any. As of this writing, Ms. Romain is alive and still makes the occasional convention and autograph-signing appearance.

L-R: Ronald Lewis as Lt. Case and Oliver Reed as Ali Kahn in
The Brigand of Kandahar.

Lt. Case is tougher and ballsier than many another Hammer hero and Ronald Lewis makes something almost credible out of the motivational hash the script hands him. Like other Hammer rebel angels, outsiders or “half-castes,” Case is on his own in a world where respectability wants nothing to do with him. This was a new type of British movie hero; one far removed from the cricket pitch but with all the toughness of the fabled Bulldog Breed. Like sensitive, temperamental Edward Judd, stalwart Ronald Lewis should’ve gone farther up the 1960s British cinema ladder. This rugged fellow is no doubt better known by Hammer enthusiasts as the chauffeur in Scream of Fear (1961) but vintage horror fans in general likely also know his noble doctor in William Castle’s Mr. Sardonicus (1961). His film career all but dried up after Kandahar and work on television grew ever harder to come by. He reportedly went bankrupt before committing suicide by barbiturate overdose early in 1982. The Carry On comedian and diarist Kenneth Williams noted with shock that Lewis was “a kind boy & people used him. He was 53.”

Not to get all auteurist but John Gilling has more good horror and SF titles to his credit than even the most obsessive fans realize. The Gamma People (1956) is an engagingly barmy Cold War science-fiction satire, The Night Caller (1965) an underrated alien-invasion thriller and Flesh and the Fiends (1959) an early boutique item in the Peter Cushing cult. His Hammer titles The Pirates of Blood River (1962) and the George Baxt-scripted Shadow of the Cat (1961) have staunch defenders but nothing like the fannish love for his twin 1966 projects Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile. Critics dissed these “Cornwall classics” for their shriveled budgets and lack of star power but the reputations of both rose sharply during the digital era and Gilling’s may yet notch upward with them. Both are imperialist horror fantasies concerning evils brought home from Britain’s global adventures not to roost, but ravage. What did peaceful Cornwall (or the familiar Bray exteriors standing in for same) do to deserve an influx of cheap zombie labor or the lethal caresses of a lizard woman? The Brigand of Kandahar preemptively answers that question in a way even the dumbest yob in the back row can understand.

Gilling runs though Kandahar’s narrative twists with his accustomed reckless speed and spares every expense in conveying the distant locale. The few desert exteriors are heavily reminiscent of England’s mountains green with addition of a few pasteboard boulders. Though the judicious may balk, the back projection sluicing Lamont and Lewis into cavalry charges from Zarak (1957) and back into Kandahar is no worse than bad CGI, an amusing sleight-of-hand in its own right. At this point in the film, the sense of momentum Gilling’s already established rolls right over objections and lightning-fast cutting covers most of the seams so the effect is as much gosh-wow as risible. Zarak, an Albert Broccoli-produced imperial extravaganza directed by Terence Young and starring aging muscleman Victor Mature, did fair business on first-run but proved a post-release bonanza for Gilling, since the crafty director recycled the sets into the very similar The Bandit of Zhobe (1959), or yet another drop in the luckless Mature’s descent from the Hollywood A-list. Mature wound up selling TVs in Hollywood but Gilling, after signing The Mummy’s Shroud (1967) for Hammer, eventually retired to Spain and died in 1984.

A scorched-earth morality tale and a war film whose war was mostly swiped from another film, The Brigand of Kandahar is certainly one of Hammer’s oddest movies but all in a few weeks’ work for the director of Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (1952). Few in the 21st century can help but regard this movie as hideously dated and un-PC as a Tijuana Bible or an Ub Iwerks cartoon but shows remarkable vigor. Its lack of illusions about the nature of Western conquest and exploitation is commendable and quite rare for a Great Game adventure movie genre then yet to cough up such big-budget White Man’s Burden apologetics as Dark of the Sun (1968) and John Milius’ The Wind and the Lion (1975), the latter with Sean Connery cutting a sorrier figure as a Berber chieftain than almost anyone playing almost anything in any Hammer film. The last-named flick plays like a recruiting poster for the First World War but Kandahar, despite all the quaint déjà vu, doesn’t leave the viewer with the sensation of having just drunk a quart of snake-oil.