Last Wednesday, in this very spot (give or take a couple of inches), we looked at Doctor Syn, a 1937 adventure tale based on Russell Thorndike’s novels set in late 1700s England, with George Arliss starring as Captain Clegg/Rev. Syn, the pirate captain-turned-country vicar who oversaw a band of smugglers. Get ready to hoist the Jolly Roger again, dear readers, because this week I’m going to tell you what happens when a British film company that at the time was specializing in vampires and mad scientists decided to take a crack at putting the good reverend and his outlaw exploits on the big screen.
The studio was Hammer Films, which had been in the moviemaking business since the mid-1930s and enjoyed modest success in the early ’50s with noir-flavored crime thrillers. After their sci-fi-themed The Quatermass Xperiment became an unexpected hit in 1955, Hammer decided to go full tilt frightmare with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958), using the basic elements of the Universal horror classics from the 1930s and ’40s but tossing in generous helpings of color, décolletage, and blood…more blood than moviegoers had ever seen to that point. Featuring the dynamic acting duo of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, this terrifying twin bill would be followed by a string of successful sequels over the next two decades, and would lead Hammer to bring to life other iconic fiends: The Mummy (1959), Curse of the Werewolf (1961), Phantom of the Opera (1962), and more.
Not content to put all its eggs in the horror basket, Hammer also applied this formula to mystery with 1959’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and seafaring adventure with 1962’s The Pirates of Blood River, and later in ’62 decided to combine all three genres with their own take on the Thorndike stories. That movie, known as Captain Clegg in its native Britain, was re-titled Night Creatures (a name Hammer had planned to use for a film version of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which later got made by another company as 1964’s The Last Man on Earth, with Vincent Price…but I digress) for U.S. distribution. Under either name, Night Creatures is an effective thriller that ramps up the action over its ’30s predecessor and, like that film, is driven by a wonderful lead performance, in this case by the aforementioned Peter Cushing.
As Dr. Syn did in 1937, Night Creatures’ first sequence features a seaman (only later referred to as The Mulatto) condemned for treason and left to die on a desolate island, tried to a tree with his ears hacked and tongue cut out (hey, c’mon, Hammer, where was the blood in this scene?). This time, however, the crime that warranted such a gruesome fate is detailed: attacking and attempting to sexually assault the wife of his captain, the notorious pirate Captain Clegg. The movie then jumps ahead 16 years and shifts to southern coastal England, where a bedraggled man is running in terror (and in fast-motion; I half-expected him to look at the camera and say “It’s…” ) along the marshes ahead of his unseen pursuers. And when said pursuers do catch up to their quarry…
No wonder he was running so fast. It’s clear these spectral riders and their skeletal steeds–as well as a scarecrow that opens its eyes as the man runs into it–aren’t after him to throw the poor fella a surprise party. Let’s leave him for a moment, though, because we’re next introduced to Captain Collyer (Patrick Allen) of the Royal Navy, who arrives with his men on longboats for a surprise visit to the sleepy hamlet of Dymchurch, suspected of being a hotbed of smuggling activity. Collyer has it on good authority that contraband liquor from France is making its way here, but everyone assures him that’s not the case, from the local squire (Derek Francis) to tavern owner Mr. Rash (Martin Benson) to Mr. Mipps (Michael Ripper) the coffin maker, who obligingly shows the captain his latest “customer”: the man who ran afoul of the “Marsh Phantoms” and is now revealed to have been one Tom Ketch, an area resident who was working with Collyer.
The most vocal of Dymchurch’s defenders is its vicar, the kindly Reverend Blyss (Cushing). That’s right: Blyss, not Syn. A certain Hollywood studio with a mouse for a mascot also had an eye on adapting Thorndike’s stories, you see, and a wary Hammer decided discretion was the better part of avoiding costly copyright suits (which may also explain why the original source material wasn’t credited in Night Creatures) and thus changed the name of the lead character…well, one of his names, anyway. It’s hardly a spoiler alert to tell you that early in this movie the bespectacled, bookish Blyss is shown to be the ringleader of the elaborate smuggling operation, moving the illicit spirits in Mr. Mipps’ coffins, dressing his underlings in luminous skeleton costumes to chase any onlookers or revenue officers, and dispensing fatal justice to anyone who, like Ketch, threatens to expose them. Further, it’s also shown through the reactions of one of Collyer’s crew–the mute and now half-savage Mulatto (Milton Reid)–to Reverend Blyss that the good vicar is (wait for it) none other than Captain Clegg, thought to be hung and buried in the church graveyard but alive and eager to atone for some, if not all, of his earlier misdeeds.
One way that Blyss attempts to put things right is to help the squire’s son Harry (Oliver Reed), who serves in the smuggling racket by posing in a scarecrow costume and serving as a lookout on the marsh, run away with comely tavern maid Imogene (Yvonne Romain), who has problems of her own fending off the lascivious advances of her guardian, Rash. A less-than-trustworthy member of the conspiracy, Rash stumbles onto the truth of Blyss’ true identity at the same time that the Mulatto has escaped the chains Collyer kept him in (thanks to Rash killing the sailor holding onto the key) and is looking to avenge himself on his former captain. With everyone out to get him, an intimate church wedding for Harry and Imogene should be the last thing on the vicar’s mind…but once it’s explained that the bride-to-be shares her name with that of Clegg’s pirate ship, and that she was an orphan left in the care of the Rashes, it becomes clear why Blyss is willing to stick his neck–a neck with hangman’s scars on it, no less–out to marry the couple, even as his various enemies close in on him. Can Blyss/Clegg make one more escape, or has his criminal past finally caught up to him?
While I’m glad that Night Creatures was finally released on American home video in 2005, its inclusion in a DVD boxed set entitled The Hammer Horror Series really does the movie a bit of a disservice. True, the scenes with the skull-masked Marsh Phantoms are appropriately creepy, but they’re few and far between, and while Reid’s hulking, harpoon-toting Mulatto offers a couple of moments of menace, the film–much like its pre-WWII ancestor–is more of a straight adventure saga, with scary bits in the Hammer style stirred in. Cushing, who took to the role with great relish (he wrote parts of his final “sermon” himself and was said to have penned a screenplay for a sequel which never materialized), is a livelier and more energetic protagonist than George Arliss. Cushing’s Bliss is sharp-tongued (“There’s no need to think,” he tells Rash and company. “I’ll think for all of you.”) and keeps a twinkling eye behind his spectacles, but as Clegg he can also fight and swing from a church chandelier with the best of them. And while he’s not given a lot of screen time, a 24-year-old Oliver Reed shows off the magnetic presence that marked his early film career as Harry, while Yvonne Romain (who co-starred with Reed in the previous year’s Curse of the Werewolf), is very fetching as Imogene. Other Hammer mainstays round out the cast, with veteran supporting player Michael Ripper a particular standout as the sardonic Mipps, who served at sea with Clegg. The location footage was another plus, as was the atmospheric camerawork by the studio’s top cinematographer, Arthur Grant.
As was the case in Dr. Syn, Night Creatures may seem a little slow to viewers looking for a rousing swashbuckler. And the scares (and, certainly, the blood) Hammer film buffs accustomed to the more sanguinary exploits of Count Dracula and Baron Frankenstein have come to expect may be in short supply. Taken for what it is, however–a land-locked pirate tale with plenty of double-crosses, secrets and suspense–it’s definitely a fine example of Hammer’s ’60s costume dramas. As if any 1962 audience members were left wanting to see more of Syn and the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, they would only have to wait a year for Thorndike’s anti-hero to make his U.S. TV debut courtesy of Walt Disney, which we will examine here next week.
This post is part of the Hammer Halloween Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film & TV Café and frequent MovieFanFare contributor Rick29. Go to www.classicfilmtvcafe.com to view the complete blogathon schedule.