Hammer beats George Romero to the zombie punch by a year, but needless to say their effort, though perfectly respectable, was overshadowed by Romero’s groundbreaking classic. I went into this film with mixed feelings. On the one hand, all the stills I’d seen from it looked incredible. Very spooky and atmospheric. On the other hand, my most recent experience with Hammer studio director John Gilling was the dry as a mummy’s shroud The Mummy’s Shroud. But I’m a sucker for pretty much any and every Hammer film that’s been released, and I figure it certainly can’t be any worse than Zombie Lake. It turns out, in fact, that Plague of the Zombies not only isn’t any worse than Zombie Lake; it’s much, much better. Okay, maybe saying something is better than Zombie Lake isn’t saying a whole lot, so let’s revise the praise. Plague of the Zombies is a damn good film, maybe not the caliber of film that is Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead, but certainly on par with other great zombie films like Let Sleeping Corpses Lie and easily one of the best of Hammer’s non-Dracula/Frankenstein films. Is that a mouthful?
Ho hum, the mummy again. That wouldn’t normally be my reaction, as I’m rather a fan of mummies and the havoc they wreak upon the living, but this entry into the Hammer compendium of vengeful Egyptian crypt guardians manages to do very little beyond eliciting a yawn. The Mummy’s Shroud’s problems are several, and not the least of them is the fact that it fulfills what seems to be the mummy’s curse demanding that all mummy movies be more or less exactly like all other mummy movies. This was Hammer’s third mummy movie. There is practically nothing at all on display in this film that is surprising. The plot is a rehash of the tried and true and terribly over-used mummy movie plot involving an expedition that disturbs a mummy’s tomb only to have some mad Arab resurrect the mummy and send it out to kill those who desecrated the temple. Honestly, the things you can do with a mummy are rather limited, so the spark in the story must come from telling it in a unique fashion or injecting some new element into the proceedings to keep them, at the very least, fresher than the cloth-swathed ghoul delivering terror on the screen.
Although Hammer was best known for horror films, their entry into horror actually came by way of science fiction. Up until the 1950s, Hammer was pretty much your average low-to-medium budget production house, cranking out a lot of comedies, adventure, and war films. In 1955, however, the studio released a film featuring a popular sci-fi television series character by the name of Professor Quatermass. The movie, known as either The Quatermass Xperiment or The Creeping Unknown, was a blend of science fiction and horror, as was popular at the time, and it ended up being a big hit for Hammer. Encouraged by the film’s success, they dabbled in a few more sci-fi horror films, including X: The Unknown in 1956 and a second Quatermass film, Enemy from Space, in 1957. Like The Creeping Unknown, both of these films featured elements of sci-fi and horror. But then the studio released Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, and The Mummy in quick succession, and before you could blink twice, Hammer was the House of Horror. Their previous, largely successful forays into science fiction were all but forgotten as the studio repurposed itself to produce almost nothing but Gothic horror films for the next decade. Eventually though, even Hammer couldn’t ignore that the space race had sparked interest in science fiction.
As the only contributor to Teleport City who resides in the fine country of Great Britain (and it is fine, despite most of it seeming to be on fire as I write this), I like to be able to bring you the occasional bit of Brit weirdness. Of course the brilliant minds at T.C. are already familiar with much of the classic and cult cinema exported by the likes of Hammer, Amicus and others, but today I’m going with something a trifle more obscure. Today’s review subject is one of the few releases by an ill-fated outfit named Tyburn Film Productions.
Tyburn was the brainchild of Kevin Francis, son of Oscar-winning cinematographer and sometime genre director Freddie Francis. The elder Francis had already made successful films for the aforementioned companies, faring slightly better at Amicus. Here he directed a series of effective portmanteau horrors including Tales From the Crypt and Torture Garden, plus the excellent De Sade-themed feature The Skull (we’ll skip politely past The Deadly Bees and They Came From Beyond Space). His work at Hammer was more patchy; Paranoiac and Nightmare are good, Hysteria and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave less so, and The Evil of Frankenstein is largely awful. Kevin started out as a runner on his Dad’s Dracula sequel, which was seemingly enough to give him the film bug. Kev realised that with the help of contacts from Francis Sr.’s address book, he too could produce some Hammer-style gothic horrors. Thus Tyburn was born.
Sadly Francis the younger made a grave miscalculation: he tried to launch a rival to Hammer and Amicus in 1974, when both those studios were in their death throes. Hammer’s demise has been discussed extensively elsewhere on T.C. so I won’t go over ground that Keith has already expertly covered. Amicus was limping along putting out the occasional adventure film like At The Earth’s Core, but would fold soon afterwards as relations between the company’s founders broke down. Tigon, Hammer’s other main rival, had flirted with more modern, gruesome horror movies, but founder Tony Tenser wasn’t happy with this new direction. Tigon switched to distributing terrible (if successful) sex comedies for a few years, before Tenser retired from the film business.
I’m not entirely sure what Francis was thinking, since there’s not a whole lot of information about him. In the one interview I managed to find, he responded to the question of why he started Tyburn with a glib “I needed to earn a living.” In fact the biggest part of his motivation seemed to be the opportunity to work with Peter Cushing, a childhood hero and the reason Francis cites for getting into films in the first place. I can’t really argue with that; who wouldn’t want to work with someone as awesome as Peter Cushing? Certainly Cushing shows up in the bulk of Tyburn’s product, such as it is. Legend of the Werewolf was the third and final Tyburn film released in 1975, after which the company didn’t do much of anything for a decade. Their first production, Persecution, hewed closely to Hammer’s psycho thriller formula, even down to hiring a fading Hollywood female star in the Bette Davis mould (in this case it was Lana Turner). Their second film, The Ghoul, is a remake in all but name of The Reptile, with a full complement of former Hammer talent. By the same token, Legend of the Werewolf will seem familiar to anyone who remembers Hammer’s earlier Curse of the Werewolf, but more on that later.
The film opens with a voiceover by Peter Cushing, describing how races of people throughout history have been forced to flee their homes by persecution. And thus we see a couple of peasants doing just that in what we’ll later discover is France, the mother heavily pregnant. They are apparently Jews fleeing the Tsarist pogroms in Russia, though the film doesn’t really make this clear. She gives birth as Cusing informs us the child is being born at day-for-midnight on Christmas eve, when wolves are apparently compelled to look after newborns. It doesn’t stop them eating mum and dad, however. A few years later, the hairy feral child is found by Maestro Pamponi (Hugh Griffith, The Abominable Dr. Phibes), owner of the world’s most depressing travelling show. Since his only other attraction is a slightly-tattooed lady, Pamponi seizes the opportunity to parade the caged boy in front of local peasant folk.
But as the boy grows up he loses the excess hair and feral traits, making him largely useless to the show. Now he’s known as Etoile (David Rintoul), a handsome yet simple lad who unfortunately turns into werewolf, when he sees only in red-filter-for-night vision. One full-mooned night he kills Tiny (Norman Mitchell, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell), the travelling show’s general dogsbody. Horrified by what happened, Etoile runs away. He finds himself at a rundown zoo on the outskirts of Paris, which has few patrons because of the smell of the sewer running beneath. The zookeeper (Ron Moody, Oliver!) is impressed with Etoile’s affinity with the animals, especially the wolves, and gives him a job.
A group of local young ladies like to come and eat their lunch in the park, and Etoile takes a shine to one of them, Christine (Lynn Dalby). She’s also attracted to the handsome, guileless new arrival. She fails to reveal however that she’s actually a prostitute at a nearby brothel run by Madame Tellier (Marjorie Yates). Incidentally, one of the prostitutes is played by legendary nude model and star of Naked As Nature Intended, Pamela Green. Anyhow, Etoile goes along to the brothel to ask Christine out on a date, and gets turned away. He tries to sneak in and sees Christine with a rich client. Assuming she’s being ravished against her will, he flies into a wolf-like rage and attacks the client. This gets him thrown out and forbidden from seeing Christine again. Later that night in full-on wolf mode, Etoile attacks and kills the punter.
This death proves puzzling for police Inspector Gerard (Stefan Gryff) and judicial surgeon Professor Paul Cataflanque (Peter Cushing!). The signs on the body suggest a wolf attack, but the attacker was too large. More victims, all regulars at the brothel, begin to stack up. Paul investigates and discovers that all of them were clients of Christine. There’s also the body of a poor sewer man with no dialogue other than “Aarrgghh,” played briefly by Hammer’s eternal innkeeper Michael Ripper. Noticing Etoile’s behaviour around the wolves, and a handy sewer grate right by the brothel, Paul puts two and two together. But as his explanation is rather far-fetched, the local Prefect orders all the wolves at the zoo destroyed. Etoile is forced to do it, which causes him to fully wolf out. He escapes into the sewer. Paul follows and tries to help him, but the police are not far behind. Inspector Gerard, armed with a silver bullet on Paul’s advice, shoots Etoile. The hapless wolfman dies in Christine’s arms, along with Tyburn’s hopes of being a successful production company.
As I mentioned at the beginning, the idea behind Tyburn seems to have been to make something akin to classic Hammer. Unfortunately Legend of the Werewolf feels more like a latter day Hammer film, looking massively twee and out of date. Bear in mind it came out in the same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue, Frightmare, Black Christmas and The Wicker Man to name but a few. Even more unfortunate is how Legend of the Werewolf combines the elements of a mid-60s Hammer gothic (mild gore, no nudity) with the substandard production value and leaden pacing of one of their 70s duds. Sets were mostly recycled from stock flats in Pinewood Studios’ scene dock, and they look downright threadbare.
The script doesn’t do much to distinguish itself either. It comes from the familiar pen of John Elder, actually the nom de plume of former Hammer producer Anthony Hinds. The original idea was a combination of two treatments; Kevin Francis’ ‘Plague of the Werewolves’ and Hinds’ ‘Wolf Boy.’ Having read both I’d say most of the elements come from Hinds’ version, which included the Russian immigrants, the 19th century French setting, the travelling show, the zoo and the brothel. Interestingly, Guy Endore’s novel Werewolf of Paris is not cited as a source, which is surprising; this film is very similar in places to Hammer’s Curse of the Werewolf from 1961, also scripted by Hinds. That film WAS based on Endore’s book, despite the setting being switched to Spain to use the sets built for an abandoned Spanish Inquisition movie. According to Freddie Francis, the French setting in Legend… was inspired in part by John Huston’s Moulin Rouge, a film where Francis had served as camera operator. Probably the biggest innovation in the script, which has its roots in the Francis treatment, is the police procedural aspect. This at least gives Peter Cushing something to do.
Cushing is, inevitably, the best thing about the movie. Professor Paul Cataflanque is a typical Cushing hero; a brilliant, educated but compassionate man of science, but one with a mind open to non-scientific explanations. There’s not a great deal to distinguish him from Van Helsing or Sherlock Holmes, except that Paul has more of a sense of humour. Cushing was pleased about this and plays it with an amused twinkle in the eye. And let’s be honest; there’s nobody better at playing this kind of character than Cushing. As always, despite being able to phone it in, Pete gives it his all. It’s the fact that he’s consistently so good with such average material that Cushing is my favourite actor ever. On that, Kevin Francis and I are in full agreement.
The remaining cast members are a mixed bag. David Rintoul in his first film role isn’t bad, though he’s no Oliver Reed; he plays Etoile as largely innocent, almost a bit simple, but this works. It makes the character quite sympathetic, as he’s more of a victim than anything. Rintoul didn’t do much film work, but he’s had a long career on television. The most famous name apart from Cushing is Ron Moody, who plays the zookeeper as rather too broad comic relief. The remaining cast are drawn largely from TV guest-starring roles and don’t make much of an impression.
The direction by Freddie Francis is workmanlike, a far cry from his inventiveness on the likes of The Skull or The Creeping Flesh. Francis has a thing for shooting from the POV of the killer – he does it brilliantly in both of the aforementioned films – but here the werewolf-cam red filter quickly becomes annoying. The score is by another late-period Hammer regular, Harry Robinson (The Vampire Lovers), but doesn’t have much to recommend it. The whole thing was recorded in one day so it’s perhaps not surprising.
Legend of the Werewolf was released by Fox-Rank Distributors on a double bill with Hammer’s Vampire Circus, and the pairing actually did decent business. Quite what the audiences made of the stodgy and old-fashioned Tyburn picture in comparison to one of Hammer’s more inventive later works, I don’t know. Certainly Vampire Circus, along with the rest of Hammer’s output, has had the longevity; it recently had a blu-ray release. Meanwhile Tyburn’s films are almost impossible to find. My copy is sourced from an old, long-deleted VHS tape, the same as my copies of The Ghoul and Persecution. And Legend of the Werewolf was Tyburn’s last release for nearly a decade. According to Francis the company did pretty well out of these three films, so quite what happened behind the scenes that prevented any more productions, I don’t know. Fox-Rank’s deal omitted North America, and perhaps the firm’s financial backers had other problems. In any case, Tyburn returned briefly in the mid-1980s with a TV movie called The Bells of Death, starring a very frail old Peter Cushing in his last appearance as Sherlock Holmes. After that, nothing much.
It’s all a bit peculiar, but given the obscurity of the films and the company, I doubt the truth will ever come out. While volumes have been written on every aspect of Hammer, and there’s a decent amount on Amicus and Tigon, I only know of one book about Tyburn. Making Legend of the Werewolf was published by the British Film Institute’s Educational Advisory Service in 1976, as a textbook on a typical British film production for kids taking media studies at school! It’s a frustrating book, going into exhaustive detail about things like the production budget and shooting schedule, but contains scant information on the company itself. So the only conclusion I’ve been able to draw is the old ‘the British film industry was kinda fucked, as usual’ and leave it at that.
Hrm, I wasn’t expecting this review to go all serious and academic and stuff, with references and everything. But the film is a bit too glum to generate a whole mass of riffing, even with Michael Ripper as a sewer attendent.
Release Year: 1975 | Country: United kingdom | Starring: Peter Cushing, Ron Moody, Hugh Griffith, Roy Castle, David Rintoul, Stefan Gryff, Lynn Dalby, Renee Houston, Marjorie Yates, Norman Mitchell, Mark Weavers, David Bailie, Hilary Labow, Elaine Baillie, Michael Ripper, Pamela Green | Screenplay: Anthony Hinds | Director: Freddie Francis | Cinematography: John Wilcox | Music: Harry Robinson | Producer: Kevin Francis
After taking several years off, the 1950s saw the return of the pirate movie, thanks largely to the efforts of Walt Disney. In 1950, Disney produced a colorful, fast-paced, and smartly written adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure tale, Treasure Island. Two non-Disney sequels — the directly related yet immensely boring Long John Silver and the dubiously connected Return to Treasure Island — followed in 1954, and a TV series came out in 1955. Plus, it seemed like every other episode of “The Wonderful World of Disney” featured either pirates or kids in coonskin caps solving a mystery in a spot called Pirate’s Cove. Along similar lines, Disney released a classic version of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and in 1958, the first of the Sinbad films featuring special effects by Ray Harryhausen showed up. While these last two weren’t pirate movies per se, they still had the air of old fashioned high seas adventure and swashbuckling about them.
So someone at England’s Hammer Studios, possibly Anthony Nelson Keys or Michael Carreras, walks up to screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and says to him, “Jimmy, old boy, we want to make a pirate film, and we want you to write it.” Sangster, fresh off the astounding success of his scripts for Hammer’s most famous films — Horror of Dracula, The Mummy, and Curse of Frankenstein, among others, excitedly agrees. It’ll be fun to bring the Hammer style into the realm of swashbuckling pirate movies. Sangster’s mind is undoubtedly already formulating a story when Keys and/or Carreras adds, “Only here’s the thing: we don’t have any money for a boat, so don’t write a script that features a pirate ship.”
A pirate movie without a pirate ship? Sangster, by his own admission, was somewhat baffled by the whole idea. Of course, pretty much every pirate movie sets a good deal of its action on land. Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood spends at least as much time on land as he does standing in heroic poses at the wheel of a ship, yelling “avast” and “me hearties.” But he does spend time standing in heroic poses at the wheel of a ship, yelling “avast” and “me hearties.” And his films feature plenty of ship-to-ship action, raids, and cannon fire. Ditto the Disney films. Plenty of on-land action, but also plenty of ship-to-ship shenanigans. It’s hard to believe that even the tiny budgets within which the average Hammer Studio film had to operate couldn’t be stretched in some way to come up with a pirate ship for their pirate movie, since hard to believe that anyone would make a pirate movie without a ship. But no. Sangster’s task remained the same: write a pirate movie without a pirate ship.
By 1962, Hammer had become synonymous with horror films, even though the studio’s output before the release of the above-mentioned “big three” delved into pretty much every genre, as most studios would. But once Dracula, the Mummy, and Frankenstein were released, it was all about Hammer horror. Any other type of production was pushed to the back burner, both by the studio itself and by the public, who proved in those early days to have a near insatiable appetite for the lurid, colorful style of sex and blood Hammer routinely used to outrage critics and members of the decency police. But the desire remained, however flickering, to make sure Hammer didn’t become just a horror factory, and doing a period piece pirate film seemed like a nice fit. They could recycle most of the props and costumes from their other films. And although they weren’t horror films, pirates lent themselves to easy adaptation to horror film tropes, what with all the skulls and creeping about and stabbing each other that went on in them. They just couldn’t have a boat, although they were afforded a few seconds of stock footage of someone else’s boat to show during the credits.
In some ways, perhaps, this rather large restriction ended up helping Sangster, because the end result is a cracking good adventure story in which you barely even notice that the pirates never set foot onto a ship. Onto a raft, yes, but never a ship. I’d expect no less from Sangster, who is, in my opinion,easily one of the best screenwriters who ever entered the business. Unable to fall back on pirate movie standards like the cannon battle and a scene of guys with swords clenched in their teeth swinging from one ship to another, the harried screenwriter delivers instead a landlocked pirate film that, in many ways, plays out like an American western, albeit one with far more men adorned with a variety of colorful silk scarves.
American Kerwin Mathews — Sinbad in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad — stars as fiery young Jonathon Standing, the member of a Huguenots settlement on a remote island somewhere that I don’t think is ever clearly defined. The Huguenots were basically the early Protestants, frequently at odds with Catholic kings and churches and prone to being persecuted and going to war with dominant Catholics throughout the 1500s, well into the 1600s. The island settlement, then, is one of relative secrecy, and it is lorded over by a council of religious elders who dole out law based on strict Protestant interpretations of the The Bible. This apparently worked well for many years, but by the time Jonathon Standing comes around to make out with buxom Hammer glamour regular Marie Devareaux, the council has become largely corrupt, creating tension throughout the townsfolk, who feel that the elders have given in to petty power obsessions and greed rather than dictating the word of God. Jonathan’s own father is the head of the council, but even if some vestige of an honest and noble man still exists within old Jason Standing (Andrew Kier, actually the same age as Kerwin Mathews), he is too weak-willed against the other members of the council for it to matter. In fact, when Jonathan himself violates the rules of the town by comforting the abused wife of one of the council members, Jason condemns the popular young man to hard labor in the colony’s prison — a virtual death sentence, we learn. The conviction of Jonathan only serves to make the crowds angrier, but like most angry crowds, there is much muttering beneath the breath and complaining, but no one is quite ready yet to take up the torches and pitchforks.
In prison, Jonathan fares poorly, as his popularity with hoi polloi makes him a target of the sadistic guards. So it isn’t long after his clothes have been reduced to prison regulation tatters that he escapes, leading his captors on a wild chase through the island’s swamps before coming face to face with Count Dracula! Well, with venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee, here playing French pirate captain LaRoche and sporting a deformed hand and an eyepatch. LaRoche makes about as nice as a ruthless, cold-hearted pirate can and cuts a deal with Jonathan. In exchange for the Huguenots not telling anyone LaRoche and his crew use the cove as a rest stop, LaRoche will…actually, I sort of forgot what his end of the bargain was.
It doesn’t really matter, because as soon as Jonathan leads them toward the settlement, the pirates start killing and making demands about a treasure they claim is hidden within the town. Jonathan knows they are mad, that there is no treasure, but that doesn’t stop the motley band of cutthroats from laying siege to the town. The townsfolk rally to their own defense and seem to be holding their own for a while, but their wooden walls were meant to defend against wild animals and jungle critters, not well-armed pirates. LaRoche and his gang soon capture the town, promising to hang people until the elders give up the treasure. It’s up to Jonathan and his young friends to wage a guerrilla style war against the occupiers, culminating in a fairly unsurprising revelation about the alleged treasure and the giant statue of the town founder and a fairly exciting duel between Jonathan and LaRoche.
Despite the lack of a pirate ship, Pirates of Blood River has a tremendous amount going for it. Chief among its many assets is the cast, buoyed by a likable Kerwin Mathews and an exceptional venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee, who gets to stretch his acting chops a little more than usual in the role of LaRoche. Lee was a big star by 1962, but two of his biggest roles had been entirely speechless, and one afforded him like three lines and five minutes of screen time. He was known, therefore, far more for the characters he played than he was as venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee the actor. Pirates of Blood River lets him come out from behind the bandages, scar make-up, and fangs and, in their place, wear an eye patch and speak with a French accent. LaRoche is a good character, one that interests viewers because it’s obvious that there is much more to the him than we are ever allowed to discover. How did he lose his eye? What happened to his hand? How did he become a pirate? Why is he so haunted and determined?
None of these questions are ever answered, and that allowed LaRoche to be interesting without being over-exposed. We are teased with his mysterious past, but it’s never demystified for us. Free from the fetters of playing a creature, venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee seems to really be giving it his all, channeling perhaps Basil Rathbone’s backstabbing French pirate from Captain Blood. He also handles the swordplay well. The duel between he and Mathews is excellent, and even though he is tall and lanky and playing a guy with one eye and a gnarled arm, you never really doubt that venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee could whup you if he wanted to.
Propping up the pirate end of things are some of Hammer’s most reliable supporting players, including Michael Ripper in a rare non-innkeeper role. Here he is LaRoche’s supposed best friend, though it’s obvious LaRoche doesn’t consider anyone a friend. Ripper really gets to ham it up, speaking with a bombastic uber-pirate style that would make Long John Silver himself proud. Also int he cast of scalawags is a young Oliver Reed, though he’s not really around terribly long. The entire crew tears into their roles with joyous abandon, as merry and drunk as they are threatening and violent. On the other side of the fence is another set of villains: the town elders. Just as ruthless, just as greedy, only far more devious about it. Caught in between these two forces are Jonathan and the townspeople who respect him as a voice of reason and proponent of liberty. It’s very much a “freaks versus the squares” cultural battle and not unlike what we would see a few years later in Mario Bava’s Danger Diabolik: hip young people caught between two opposing yet similar monoliths of status quo society.
For Diabolik, it was a corrupt government and organized crime; for Jonathan, it is a corrupt theocracy and a bunch of pirates. In the end, neither side appeals to our free spirits, and they chose to reject them both. Hammer often found itself in trouble with religious authorities because of the content of their films. They usually weaseled their way out of it at the last second by having Peter Cushing clutch a Bible or something, thus proving that the film was good and moral. In the case of The Pirates of Blood River, despite the absence of a Frankenstein monster, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster really gets to lash out against religious intolerance and hypocrisy. The elders start out kind of jerky, and then you think maybe Jonathan’s father will have some sort of a change of heart at some point. But he only gets worse, and he is willing to see every single person in the town butchered rather than give up the treasure about which only he knows. In the end, he gets his just desserts, as does the dastardly LaRoche, leaving Jonathan to start society anew.
Although this was a decidedly non-horror adventure film, there are still horrific elements in the movie, as there would be in other of Hammer’s subsequent pirate movies. The opening sequence, in which Jonathan is discovered making out with a married woman, is probably the film’s most horrific scene. Pursued through the swamp by vengeful town elders, the poor woman stumbles into the titular Blood River, which happens to be infested with piranhas. As originally filmed, the poor girl screams and thrashes about as blood bubbles up all around her. The piranhas themselves are wonderfully realized by nothing more than having rapidly moving ripples spread out across the water.
Hammer wanted the film to receive a much more family friendly rating, in the spirit of increased returns and inspired no doubt by the exciting but family-friendly Disney pirate films. The scene was eventually cut down to remove the blood, and then restored years later for the film’s long-awaited debut on DVD. It’s a chilling scene, and director John Gilling plays it wise by letting the imagination do most of the work. The screaming and the blood is graphic enough. He doesn’t undercut the power of the moment by cutting to a shot of a rubber piranha. I do regret, however, that they don’t cap the scene with a shot of a perfectly intact, bleach white plastic skeleton bobbing to the surface. That’s always classy. But I guess Hammer was saving all their skeleton-related pirate hijinks for Night Creatures.
I don’t know what other cuts Hammer made to the film that have since been restored. The sword wounds are all pretty bloody. Not Lone Wolf and Cub geyser of blood bloody, but when a guy gets impaled, the sword on which he was impaled comes back all covered in grue. Still, I suppose that’s about as family friendly as Hammer was capable of being, and it’s family friendly enough for me. i don’t come from the school of thought that maintains all children’s fare must be bloodless, harmless, and never ever scare the wee ones. I’d much rather take my family to see Pirates of Blood River than a movie where a sass-talking CGI animal learns a skill that helps him win a contest while referencing pop culture.
That does bring us to another of the film’s sundry assets: director John Gilling. By all accounts, Gilling was difficult to work with even under the best circumstances. In the case of Pirates of Blood River, it seems he was nearly intolerable. Gilling wasn’t meant to be the director originally, but the man they’d assigned to the job had been in a spot of trouble with the American Un-Activities Committee, that embarrassment of a Congressional organization that spent so much time and money trying to ferret out commies and liberals int he motion picture industry. Kerwin Mathews was nervous about working with such a man, fearing that the long arm of stupidity would reach him even in England and ruin his career back home. Not that, by 1962, Mathews had much of a career.
But it was enough that the supposedly bankable American was uncomfortable, so the director was replaced by an unenthusiastic John Gilling. As a director, coming into a production for which there is already a script, a cast, a crew, and sets is usually thought to be rather an unenviable situation, and Gilling wasn’t shy about letting his displeasure be known. Still, however big a jerk he might have been on set, the end results were usually fantastic. That was certainly the case in 1966, when he directed one of my favorite Hammer horror films, Plague of the Zombies. And it’s the case with this film as well. Pirates of Blood River, even without a ship, is a fast-paced, well-made adventure tale. As cranky as Gilling may have been, there’s no doubt that he still put himself into making the best possible movie he could.
Released in 1962, it’d be a little disingenuous to claim that the movie was influenced by something like Vietnam, even though there is a definite counter-culture air about the story. More than likely, and as I alluded to earlier, the film was influenced both by previous pirate films and by Westerns. The Huguenot settlement, with it’s rough-hewn wooden walls, has the look of a pioneer fort. And the pirates laying siege to it is reminiscent of Western movie Indians doing the same. However, at some point in the film, the roles are reversed, and the pirates become the victims of hit and run warfare waged by Jonathan and his band of fighters who, despite being outmanned and outgunned, use their intimate knowledge of the jungle around them to pick the pirates off a few at a time, leaving the brigands harried, demoralized, and eventually, mutinous. That the pirates are French only supplies another link to the emerging conflict in Vietnam, but as Sangster has never mentioned this in an interview, I think it’s more a case of coincidence and hindsight equipping us with the ability to infuse the film with influences and meanings that aren’t there. Still, it’s kind of fun, and it keeps film studies professors in business and away from actual film work, where they would do untold amounts of damage with their crackpot experimental videos.
So make a pirate movie, they told Jimmy Sangster, one in which the only time the pirates are in the water is when they board a poorly made raft that sinks shortly after being launched. Whatever the challenges may have been, he pulled it off. And Hammer pulled it off. The Pirates of Blood River was well received by audiences, and in true Hammer fashion, that meant they would do their best to milk the popularity for as long as they could. Over the next couple of years, Hammer produced several more pirate films, usually with the same cast. They even sprang for a mock ship for one of the films, and they intended to recycle it for other pirate films until it caught on fire. Captain Clegg, also known as Night Creatures, was released in 1962 as well and continued the Hammer style of making pirate movies set entirely on land. In 1963 came The Scarlet Blade (the only Hammer pirate film that, as of this writing, remains unavailable on DVD). And in 1964, with The Devil Ship Pirates, they finally sprang for that mock-up of a ship, even though that film, like the others, takes place largely on land and sets. But that was about it for Hammer pirate movies. The ship accidentally caught on fire and thus couldn’t be reused (though the burning was incorporated into the film). As if that accident signified something more, production of Hammer swashbucklers more or less came to a close with that film as the studio focused itself almost entirely on horror films.
So while it may not have the panache of an Errol Flynn movie or the budget of a Disney live action film,and while it may not have a pirate ship in it, The Pirates of Blood River is still a solid adventure tale, with plenty of action, a dependable cast, and a look that fools you into thinking this is a much higher budget film than it actually is. It’s nice to see these old Hammer swashbucklers getting some attention.
Although England’s Hammer Studio made a variety of films, the trio of Horror of Dracula, Curse of Frankenstein, and The Mummy solidified the direction of the studio and its identity with the public for the remainder of its life. And not without good reason. In their heyday, and even long after the studio had fallen into disrepair, Hammer showed a panache for producing lavish looking Gothic horror that was simply unmatchable. America’s AIP came close with Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe inspired cycle of films starring Vincent Price, but no one could approach Hammer’s consistency and longevity in producing world-class horror. Starting in 1958 and continuing throughout the 60s, and into the studio’s final days in the first half of the 1970s, Hammer produced an unbelievable string of incredible horror films — almost every one of them a hit — buoyed by the one-two punch of venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee’s Dracula films and Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein series.
It’s understandable that Hammer would focus on the genre that helped define them as a major player on the global film production scene, but even as the monsters and madmen were overrunning the studio, Hammer was still doing its best to make non-horror fare, including some noir-style thrillers, war films, and a series of swashbucklers. Over the years, these films have been largely overshadowed by the horror product, and in fact most have been extremely difficult to get a hold of them, with very few being released on home video, at least here in the United States. Thus, they became all but forgotten, even though they often used the same directors, writers, and stars (specifically Cushing and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee) as the horror films and were often films worth remembering.
With the bulk of Hammer horror films now released on DVD (with the exception of Twins of Evil and Vampire Circus, both of which remain curiously MIA in the United States), and with these releases bringing in some new fans and revitalizing interest among the older fans, distributors have begun dipping into the vast body of Hammer’s non-horror work. Over the past year or two, two volumes of Hammer noir and crime films were released, along with some of the more obscure psychological thrillers. And in early 2008, it was announced that Hammer’s collection of swashbuckling pirate movies was finally going to be released. With any luck, the near future will also see the release of Hammer’s war films and the remaining caveman adventures.
The first of Hammer’s pirate films to make it to DVD in the US was Captain Clegg, a curious beast of a film that got released first primarily because it was marketed in the US, at the time of its original release, as a horror film. Appearing under the title Night Creatures, the movie found its way onto a recent double feature release with The Evil of Frankenstein. And while Night Creatures does contain an element of horror, anyone who goes into it looking for scares is going to be confused.
Hammer’s dalliance with pirate films began in 1961 with the release of The Pirates of Blood River, starring venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee, 7th Voyage of Sinbad‘s Kerwin Mathews, and Hammer bit player Michael Ripper in a rare feature role. Hammer’s production values were never higher than they were in the first half of the 1960s, where seemingly everything they touched came out looking astounding, and The Pirates of Blood River benefits from Hammer’s attention to detail — not to mention from venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee in one of his best Hammer performances and a chance to see Michael Ripper doing more than playing “the suspicious barkeep.”
It also starred young Oliver Reed, for whom 1960-1961 was an exceptionally good year. His first film as the lead — Curse of the Werewolf — came out in 1960, and he was charged with the task of supporting the film entirely on his own, in the middle of a Hammer horror frenzy that was defined almost entirely by Cushing and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee. For Oliver Reed, a totally untested leading man, to be trusted with the lead in Hammer’s first color horror film that didn’t star Cushing or venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee was both a tremendous opportunity and a huge gamble. It paid off, though, and although Curse of the Werewolf never attained the iconic status of the Dracula and Frankenstein films, it became one of the most respected. From there, Reed was paired with venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee for The Pirates of Blood River, and then, that same year appeared alongside Peter Cushing in Captain Clegg, the second of Hammer’s pirate outings. But while The Pirates of Blood River was a somewhat more traditional swashbuckler, Captain Clegg is a crazy mix of pirate, horror, and detective films.
Things start off piratey enough, with the mutilation and stranding of a crew member (big Milton Reid — one of those actors you know by sight if not by name) for attacking the wife of the captain, a mysterious and ruthless pirate by the name of Clegg. Leaving the dastardly crewman to his fate sans food, water, ears, or tongue, the film then skips ahead a number of years to the remote British town of Dymchurch, which is being visited by no-nonsense British Navy captain Collier (Patrick Allen and his magnificently manly chin — only Chuck Conners stands a chance against him) who suspects the small hamlet of being an offloading center for liquor smugglers. But Dymchurch hardly seems to be a den of smugglers and rapscallions, populated as it is by jolly coffin makers (Michael Ripper), upstanding squires (Derek Francis), upstanding squire’s sons (Oliver Reed), and the benign local parson, Blyss (Peter Cushing). Collier, however, is an experienced hand at flushing out smugglers, so he’s hardly taken in by innocent looks alone. However, a number of surprise inspections and raids lead to nothing but property damage and the ruffling of the town Squire’s feathers as Collier and his men accuse various townsfolk of ill doings only to come up empty handed every time. At this point, the film resembles a thriller or mystery far more than it does a pirate adventure.
Parson Blyss himself remains cordial with the captain, reminding the townsfolk that the man is just doing his job, but even the kindly parson is offput when he is attacked by one of Collier’s crew — the very man stranded and mutilated by Clegg, it turns out. Collier apparently discovered the man shortly after Clegg abandoned him, as Collier was hot on the trail of the pirate at the time. Since then, they’d kept him on as a crewman for heavy lifting, menial tasks, and amusement, even though the former pirate is prone to getting drunk and attacking people. Collier’s pursuit of Clegg, ironically enough, ended in Dymchurch, where the wily pirate was finally captured and hanged, Blyss himself delivering the final rites and convincing the local church to allow Clegg a proper burial in exchange for an apparent change of heart the pirate had while incarcerated. Plus, Blyss just likes to believe int he good of everyone.
Clegg isn’t the only dead man causing Collier. Legend has it that the marshes around Dymchurch are haunted by phantoms. In fact, a man was recently killed by them. Collier, ever the enlightened man of reason, sees little reason to believe in the phantoms, and in fact he is highly suspicious of them since the man most recently killed by them happened to be Collier’s own man, who had previously tipped the captain off to the smuggling going on in Dymchurch. And it isn’t very long before the viewer is clued in to the fact that smuggling is going on, and pretty much the entire town is in on it. Blyss is the brains behind the operation, coffin maker Mipps the operations man, and any daring-do that needs to be performed is handled by the Squire’s son and lookout, Harry Cobtree. Using a series of secret compartments and tunnels centering around the church and Mipps’ coffin shop, the town regularly runs illegal French wine, even under the very nose of Collier. The phantoms — glowing skeletal horsemen — are, naturally, just members of the local smuggling ring, who find the threat of ghostly marsh phantoms to be advantageous to the smuggling profession.
Things start to get complicated for our merry smugglers not just because Collier is so persistent in his investigations, but also because one of their member is lusting after a barmaid, Imogene (Yvonne Romaine), who is in love with Harry Cobtree. In a drunken rage, he attacks the young woman and, when rebuffed, reveals to her than she is actually the daughter of the notorious Captain Clegg, and that furthermore, he is willing to expose the smuggling operation to Collier. Imogene is terrified by the revelation that she is Clegg’s daughter, for fear that this knowledge will spoil her in the eyes of young Harry, who should already be forbidden from her on account of their different classes. But Harry is hardly phased by such outdated constraints, and Imogene discovers that he and Blyss already knew she was Clegg’s daughter. Blyss, sensing that Collier is close to unraveling their smuggling plot, begins arranging for Harry and Imogene to be wed then escape the town before the net is drawn closed around them. When Harry is wounded while serving as lookout for one of the operations, Collier launches an all-out attack on the smugglers, but Blyss and Mipps are his equal, and a game of cat and mouse ensues that comes to a dramatic end inside Blyss’ chapel.
Despite the fact that the revelation at the end of the movie is hardly a surprise, Night Creatures succeeds in being a cracking good yarn that draws its suspense not from the solving of the mystery — the smugglers are all named very early in the film — but by developing those people as characters then allowing you to revel in the race and maneuvering against Collier. Captain Clegg was originally meant to be called Dr. Syn, a remake of an earlier film which itself was based on Russell Thorndike’s novel, Dr. Syn. But by a strange coincidence, Disney happened to develop an interest in this otherwise forgotten novel and film from the 1930s at the same time as Hammer. Needless to say, Hammer wasn’t in a position to challenge Disney, who had already obtained the rights to the Syn title and character. However, Disney was willing to play ball with Hammer, and aside from requiring that they change the name of the title character, Disney was more than happy to allow Hammer to proceed with production.
Disney’s version, called The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh but also known as Dr. Syn Alias The Scarecrow, was released in 1963 and featured Patrick McGoohan (of The Prisoner fame, among other things) in the lead role. Being a made of television movie, it was decidedly more family-friendly than Hammer’s version, with its horse-mounted ghouls, exhumed bodies, mutilated pirates, and other such trappings. Still, there’s very little in Captain Clegg to prevent being a rip-roaring good time for young and old alike, and any foolhardy young lad such as I was would have been delighted by it (remembering, of course, that there was a time when children’s films could contain murder, shrieking ghosts, drunks, and Sean Connery punching people in the face).
I’ve not seen the Disney version, and I won’t dismiss it out of hand because Disney has been known to produce some damn fine pirate and adventure entertainment (such as the three Treasure Island films). Although Disney’s competing version kept Captain Clegg off the American radar, these days Hammer’s version is the one you can find on DVD, while Dr. Syn Alias The Scarecrow has become wickedly hard to track down. It was released on VHS a long time ago and played at some point on the Disney Channel (as bootlegs bearing the channel’s logo attest to). I know there has been some word of the old Wonderful World of Disney series — of which Dr. Syn was a part — finally finding their way on to DVD, so one can only hope that this little pirate adventure sees the light of day once again.
Night Creature‘s script by Anthony Hinds (one of Hammer’s most reliable producers-turned-screenwriters, having penned Curse of the Werewolf, Kiss of the Vampire, and a number of Frankenstein, Dracula, and Mummy movies) is expertly paced and hues closely to the original film. Even though it never really becomes a swashbuckling adventure (although Peter Cushing does get to swing from a chandelier) or a horror film, Hinds exploits the trappings of both genres to create a thrilling hybrid driven by strong characters and solid British acting. Although Cushing is the star attraction (and rightfully so), most Hammer fans are overly delighted that Michael Ripper gets such a meaty role. Ripper’s career is defined by tiny roles, almost always as a cranky innkeeper or barman who refuses to give our hero a room for the night, then makes a horrified face when someone says the name Frankenstein or Dracula. Despite the brevity of each of these roles, Ripper never gave anything that his absolute all. With Night Creatures, he gets a meaty role, and he makes the most of it. In fact, despite Cushing being the headliner, the bulk of the on-screen action is in the hands of Ripper and young Oliver Reed. Neither lets the film down, just as the script doesn’t let them down.
It’s hard to believe that Reed was so inexperienced an actor. He exhibits an easy charisma and likability that pulls you in and really makes you care about the character. Reed’s career was a rocky and uneven one, owing primarily to a fondness for the drink. In the 1960s, Hammer was hungry for someone young to augment the team of Cushing and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee. Reed seemed to fit the bill perfectly, and indeed after turns in Curse of the Werewolf, The Pirates of Blood River, Captain Clegg, and some of Hammer’s psychological thrillers, it seemed like Hammer had a winner on their hands. Good looking, athletic, and possessed of abundant charisma that could be channeled with equal skill into warmth, intensity, and pathos, Reed was a star on the rise. He was even on the short list (which actually seems to have been very long, given the number of people that are always mentioned as having been on it) to replace Sean Connery as James Bond, and the thought of Oliver Reed in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — well, I liked Lazenby, and I love that movie, but had Reed been allowed to bring that deadly combination of charm and smoldering intensity to the role, I think he would have done then what wasn’t really accomplished until Daniel Craig took over the role in Casino Royale.
Unfortunately for Reed, his professional successes were balanced with personal trials. Stormy marriages were one thing, but when Reed was forced to endure endless barrages of questions about his drinking. Such interrogation by TV hosts and reporters often lead to the actor losing his temper, and his reputation for a drunk and a hothead plagued him for years, even when he was still making quality films. Unfortunately for Hammer, Reed never became the pair of shoulders that could carry the studio through tough times, as he was by then on to different opportunities. The task of being Hammer’s “next big thing” then fell on the shoulders of Ralph Bates, who certainly had the chops. But by the time Bates was on the Hammer scene, it was too late, and nothing was going to stop Hammer’s collapse.
Reed enjoyed success throughout the 60s and into the 70s, but by the 1980s, his star had faded considerably. Reed seemed to take it in stride. Although he continued drinking, he seemed happy to settle down to a relatively quiet life with his wife, at least until 1999 when Ridley Scott came knocking and offered Reed a part in Gladiator. It ended up being one of those rare parts perfectly suited for reviving the career of an old hand who had gone through stormy times and emerged older and wiser, ready to take on the role of elder statesman. Sadly, it was not to be for Reed, and he died of heart failure during the making of the film. Still, it must have felt good to be in the saddle again, and although it is done so posthumously, his role in Gladiator ended up being one of his best.
Of course, none of this praise for Ripper or Reed is meant to sell the rest of the cast short. It’s just that, in the case of Peter Cushing, do you really need me to tell you how good he was? It’s Peter Cushing, for crying out loud! He was always good. As the resident piece of Hammer glamour (I spell it with a “u” for England), Yvonne Romain doesn’t have terribly much to do other than look pretty (which she does with ease — if not for Caroline Munroe, she might be the prettiest of all Hammer’s starlets), but I always found the Hammer beauties to be as able at acting as they were at being eye candy, and when she’s given something to do, Romain is as solid as the rest of the cast. She was already experienced with both period adventure films and horror, having appeared in such cult favorites as Circus of Horrors, Curse of the Werewolf (where she co-starred alongside Oliver Reed), episodes of The Saint (which, granted, pretty much every actor in England appeared in at some point), and Patrick McGoohan’s espionage series Danger Man.
And let’s not leave off poor ol’ square-jawed Patrick Allen as Captain Collier. It would have been easy for this film to make us root for the smugglers by making Collier a grade A jerk, but instead, Collier is ever noble, if a bit stiff, and the smugglers are forced to make us like them by force of their own character rather than depending on him as a foil. Collier is nothing other than completely honest and straight-forward, a model officer of the British Navy. And Allen is perfectly cast, not just because he has that incredible jaw and an air of authority. His accomplishments as an actor are too numerous to list, and long with Cushing, he’s probably the most experienced of the cast members. He even showed up in the Japanese sci-fi film Gorath!
Director Peter Graham Scott wasn’t a Hammer films regular, working primarily in television, but he does an excellent job here with a script that allows him to wander between creepiness (the marsh phantoms, the old windmill and the scarecrow) and adventure. This is really an actor’s movie, though, as many Hammer films were, and the chief function of the director in these cases was to know what he was doing and do it without getting in the way — which is exactly what Scott does. As such, he’s not a name a lot of people know, but sometimes the best director for a movie is the one who can make you completely unaware of the director. He does lend the film rather a unique look for Hammer films of the time by shooting on location and outdoors, rather than relying entirely on the Bray Studio sound stages.
I’m looking forward to the release of Hammer’s other pirate films, because while this one may be tangential at best to the swashbuckling genre, it still manages to be a superb adventure film with a real “boy’s own adventure” feel to it. What with long dead pirates, ghosts in the swamp, scarecrows, secret passages, and smugglers, it could have easily been a Hardy Boys adventure. I feel a bit guilty that I haven’t said more about Peter Cushing, but like I said, what more can you say? The man went into everything with total commitment, and Captain Clegg is one of his finest roles. The script plays wonderfully off Cushing’s slight appearance. When first we meet him in this film, he looks dainty and frail, and hardly the sort of man who could command a band of smugglers prone to dressing up like skeletons and galloping through the swamps. But when it comes time for him to take charge, the transformation is remarkable, and you absolutely believe him as the leader of men. “Absolutely believing him” is pretty much the very definition of Cushing’s film career, as he was remarkably gifted at making whatever was happening, no matter how outlandish, seem absolutely real.
Here, he benefits greatly from Hinds’ script, which affords him a degree of complexity and depth very similar to what he enjoyed and challenged audiences with in the Frankenstein movies. He is ostensibly the bad guy, heading up a smuggling ring, killing off informers, and foiling Collier’s attempts to do an honest man’s work. But if he’s a bad guy, Cushing’s Blyss is hardly evil, and his scenes with Oliver Reed and Yvonne Rainer allow him to radiate warmth and care. As with the movie itself, Cushing’s role here is not among his iconic performances, but it probably should be.
We’ll have plenty of chances to talk further about Peter Cushing. It’s not every day that you get to say more about Michael Ripper than, “he was excellent as the grumpy bartender.” Whether you call it Captain Clegg or Night Creatures is unimportant. By any name, it’s top notch adventure all the way around.
Last time we saw the prince of the undead, he was impaled on a cross and turned into that pink sawdust bus drivers sprinkle on the floor when kids throw up. For just about anyone, even the common vampire, that would signal the end, once and for all. But this is Dracula we’re talking about, and if Dracula Has Risen from the Grave proved to be a financial success for England’s Hammer Studio, then you could bet good money on the fact that they’d find yet another way to bring the Count back from the dead, even if he’d been impaled on a cross and even if series star Christopher Lee was back out on the streets again telling anyone and everyone who would listen that the Dracula movies were awful and he would absolutely, positively, under no circumstances ever play Count Dracula again. Anyone who knows the cycle knows that means that the next film in the cycle, Taste the Blood of Dracula, stars Christopher Lee as the titular count, and that in turns means we’d have to read even more quotes from Lee about how he was practically forced to do this film, but that he’d sure as heck never do another one.
There are two common paths of thought regarding Lee’s frequent and increasingly irritating complaints about Hammer’s Dracula movies. The first is that, well, Christopher Lee is just sort of cranky and overly pompous about the whole thing. The second is that he made these statements with the full blessing of Hammer and with every intention, despite what he was saying, of reprising the role so long as the movies proved profitable. Having the star of a film out there talking about how horrible it all is and how he never wants to do another one is a surefire way to get people curious. Certainly Hammer seemed to have suspiciously peculiar luck with convincing Christopher Lee to go back on his bold proclamations. So either Lee is was a talker who never lived up to his own assertions, or he’s just a cog in a clever Hammer marketing ploy, or Hammer has some bundle of pictures or other bunch of material that they use to regularly blackmail Lee.
In fact, Taste the Blood of Dracula was originally scripted by Anthony Hinds on the assumption that Lee would make good on his boasts and refuse to appear. Much like Brides of Dracula before it, Taste the Blood of Dracula was going to employ the threat of Dracula and his disciples without actually featuring the bloodsucker himself. As originally written Taste the Blood was going to be a showcase for Hammer’s great young hope, Ralph Bates, the man they hoped would serve as the banner star for a new era of revitalized Hammer output. It seemed like a good idea. Christopher Lee was becoming more difficult by the day, and one has to assume that despite the man’s marquee value, Hammer would be happy to just move on without him for a spell. And Ralph Bates was certainly an able man around which to structure the faltering studio. Where as Cushing and Lee and the previous generation of Hammer actors had represented an older, more distinguished presence, Bates was young and handsome and would appeal, Hammer hoped, to the younger kids who were fast becoming the bread and butter of the movie industry.
As the studio entered the 1970s, they were beginning to feel the weight of a faltering British film industry, a dearth of ideas for new movies that would keep Hammer fresh, and most of all, the feeling that Hammer films were simply outdated and old-fashioned. Behind the scenes, Hammer was rudderless and without any real leadership or idea of where the studio was going. As a result, Hammer’s output during the 1970s was notoriously uneven, though several high points managed to rise above the widening pool of substandard Hammer fare. One of the keys to Hammer succeeding in the 1970s involved a serious update of the stodgy and old-fashioned reputation. This meant, among other things, more daring scripts, less naive looks at life, and above all, some new blood in the acting department that would appeal to existing horror fans as well as those shaggy-haired hippies and burn-outs with their bell bottoms and their Sergeant Pepper albums.
Unfortunately Warner Brothers, who distributed the films in the important US market, wasn’t going to buy any of this. They didn’t know who Ralph Bates was, and more importantly, they didn’t care. If Hammer wanted their Dracula film distributed in the United States, then it damn well better have Dracula in it. American audiences wouldn’t put up with a bait and switch (the success of Roger Corman and Al Adamson disproves this assertion), and if Warner couldn’t have Christopher Lee in the film, then the film couldn’t have distribution in the United States. Hammer scrambled to appease Lee in the same way but for much less money than the producers of the James Bond films begged and bought Sean Connery back into the Bond series (at roughly the same time. Diamonds Are Forever came out in 1971, but given the speed with which Hammer films were made versus the more liberal schedule of a Bond film, it’s likely this sort of desperate buying back of established stars was happening at around the same time). With Lee on board again, under protest as he couldn’t stop reminding people, a hasty rewrite of the script was in order so that Dracula could actually appear in the film to see who it was that going around tasting his blood.
Taste the Blood begins with a clever intro that signals the film’s intention to put more work than usual into the process of reviving Dracula. A merchant traveling via coach with a couple of your standard issue gruff, superstitious villagers is bragging about the rare wares he has acquired during his recent antiquing sojourn through the Carpathian hills. While he may be proud of his knick-knacks, the villagers aren’t as impressed, and when the merchant mentions a certain village, they just haul off and kick him out of the coach. Stranded in the woods at night, the merchant begins to hear the standard “stranded in the woods at night” sound effects. Owls, scurrying, and a howl that may or may not be Oliver Reed from Curse of the Werewolf. When a blood-curdling shriek fills the air, the merchant realizes that some seriously foul things are afoot in this cursed forest. By and by he falls off a ledge and comes face to face with the thrilling climax of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. Once that movie finishes up, the merchant twists up his courage and sneaks down to collect the remaining artifacts, which include, as the title suggests, the blood of Dracula, or at least the powdered “just add water” variety we’re used to seeing once Dracula finishes dying.
Some time later, we meet three upstanding citizens of Queen Victoria’s England, and as you can guess, all three of them aren’t nearly as pious as they pretend. Ring leader William Hargood (Geoffrey Keene, who appeared in Cromwell every James Bond films beginning with The Spy Who Loved Me in 1977 and concluding with The Living Daylights) is the most despicable of the bunch as he beats and berates his daughter for smiling at a boy and engaging in other acts of harlotry while, the very same night, gathering his cronies together for a night of exotic pleasures at the local brothel. Hargood and his fellows form sort of a mini Hellfire Club, though their indulgences in the forbidden pleasures of the world consist almost entirely of going to same brothel every month under the guise of “charity work” and then sitting in a room, drinking liquor, and watching foreign women dance naked. I’m not saying that isn’t a fine night out on the town, but as far as experiencing the taboos from the farthest reaches of the globe go, it’s pretty pedestrian stuff.
Hargood seems to realize this, and their boredom with their panty-waist sin leads them to seek out eccentric dandy Lord Courtley (Ralph Bates), who is one of those broke counts who gads about town in the finest high society frippery, scamming free meals from expensive restaurants and mooching off exquisite looking women of loose morals and poor judgment as he twirls his walking stick, doffs his top hat, and snaps his hankie about. In other words, a perfectly fine role model. Courtley is rumored to have dabbled in the black arts of Satanism or voodoo or something sinister, and so the three upstanding gentlemen seek out his company, though they never stop insulting him — which seems to me a poor way to treat the madcap young fop you’re asking to initiate you into the next level of debauchery. Courtley sees in the gentlemen the perfect opportunity to get enough money to do something he’s always wanted to do: namely, visit that merchant from the pre-credit sequence, buy Dracula’s stuff, and mount a ritual to return the count to life. Reason? For the hell of it, it seems, which is as good a reason as any, I suppose.
As one would imagine, the ritual goes awry when Hargood’s friends balk at actually guzzling down the thick, foaming blood of Dracula milkshake with which Courtley presents them. The ensuing argument results in Courtley’s murder as he thrashes and writhes about after drinking the blood himself. Hargood and Co. high tail it out of the ruined old building in which the fun was taking place, and Courtley, not surprisingly proves to be just the vessel Dracula needs to return from the dead once again to wreak his unholy vengeance upon those who murdered his assistant, which doesn’t make a whole heck of a lot of sense when you remember that Dracula has no idea who Courtley is, and that Courtley’s death was necessary for Dracula to return to the land of the living. But what do you want when the script gets rewritten at the last minute?
The remainder of the film sees Dracula (Christopher Lee) gaining control over the sons and daughters of the three men against whom he bears this grudge, so that he can have them murder their own parents, which frees Dracula up to stand nearby in the shadows and count down the number of people against whom he has successfully extracted his revenge. Considering there’s only three of them, it’s not much of a countdown.
One of the things that sets this film apart from previous Dracula films is that Dracula is arguably the hero of the film. Though we still have to see him destroyed in the end, there’s little doubt that he’s no more vile than the men he’s hunting. When he manipulates Hargood’s battered daughter Alice (Linda Hayden, Blood on Satan’s Claw) into smashing her wretched father’s head in with a shovel, one almost feels like cheering, especially since this comes after a grotesque scene in which a drunk and leering Hargood viciously beats his daughter and looks on the verge of flat out raping her. Previous Dracula films have had gray characters — the self-righteous blowhard Monsignor from the last film springs immediately to mind — but those characters always had redeeming qualities. Hargood possesses no such qualities. He is despicable from beginning to end, and the audience has no problem feeling that he got what he deserved. The only thing wrong with his death, as I see it, is that it’s the first, leaving the other two far less revolting characters to carry the plot when, if you ask me, Hargood’s death should have been the climax of the story. Instead, we get Dracula hunting down the remainder of Hargood’s cabal while milquetoast Paul (yet another Paul — nearly as many of these in Dracula films as there are Kloves, or Hans’s in the Frankenstein movie) tries to save the soul of his beloved Alice Hargood and, in the process, send Dracula back from whence he came.
Taste the Blood represents a more savage critique of Victorian society than any previous Dracula film. There has always been an undercurrent in the films of the ongoing struggle between enforced morals and repression and the wild animalistic abandon represented by Dracula. But in previous films, the scripts always came down on the side of society, preferring its ordered repression to the lust and passion of Dracula. Here, however, the tables are turned and if Dracula’s lifestyle isn’t exactly championed, it’s at least shown as being no worse than the hypocrisy and deceit of modern society. The point is made in rather a heavy-handed fashion, but so it goes. Although a more counter-culture, youth-friendly message about freedom triumphing over repression was nothing new in 1970, Hammer was still a relative neophyte studio when it came to tapping into the anti-authoritarian trends that had defined and all but escaped Hammer during the 1960s. With Taste the Blood, they’re attempting to play a bit of catch-up, so one can forgive the ham-handed way in which they deliver the message.
Dracula is, once again, little more than a supporting player, a sort of shadowy puppet master with very little screen time who does precious little more than lurk in the shadows rattling off the body count like the Count from Sesame Street. But then at the same time, he doesn’t have any less screen time or involvement in things than he did in most of the previous films. What Taste the Blood does is the same thing that Horror of Dracula and Prince of Darkness attempted to do, which is to keep Dracula constantly present as a threat, an ominous atmosphere of dread, even when Christopher Lee himself is nowhere to be seen. Only in the finale, which is admittedly half-baked, does Lee get to do his crazed thrashing about, though one has to wonder if the lord of the undead couldn’t think of a better way to fight off a weak opponent like Paul than standing on a balcony and throwing garbage at him. It’s just one step away from having Dracula swoop down and whack Paul on the head, then flutter up into the rafters to taunt him.
The rest of the cast is spectacular. Paul (Anthony Higgins, Vampire Circus as well as a small part in Raiders of the Lost Ark) is more boring than the previous Paul, but no more boring than any of the other straights we’ve had on parade. Linda Hayden acquits herself well as the other half of the boring romantic couple. The real strength of the cast lies in everyone else, an impressive assembly of solid character actors that perform above and beyond the call of duty, with Geoffrey Keen and Ralph Bates in the lead. For the couple scenes where he’s allowed to spring to life, Christopher Lee is as good as he always is. Michael Ripper, who seems to have appeared in just about every movie Hammer ever made, gets promoted from the role of “suspicious barkeep” to “lackadaisical inspector.” It’s probably one of the best casts ever assembled for a Dracula film, and although it’s common to bemoan the lack of Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, there’s really no place for him thematically in this film, where the humans are generally so contemptible. Van Helsing’s compassionate authority figure would have stood out like a sore thumb.
Taste the Blood continues to take Dracula further and further away from Van Helsing’s theory that Dracula is is a perfectly explainable creature well within and soundly defeated by the powers of human reason. In fact, by Taste the Blood, Dracula is hardly even a vampire any more so much as he is some kind of supernatural demonic force. If ever he was the human-made monster, you wouldn’t know it at this point. The more secular means of dispatching a vampire — garlic, running water, so on and so forth — that were previously employed have, by this movie, been dispatched almost entirely in favor of religious iconography. Although Taste the Blood is as steeped in religious imagery as Dracula has Risen from the Grave, it doesn’t have any particular comment to direct toward religion the way that previous film did. Religion is simply a matter of necessity as Dracula has become less the prince of darkness and more the Antichrist himself. Or wait, are those the same? Whatever the case, Taste the Blood again presents us with a monster which, unlike Dracula as we knew him in the first couple of films, exists entirely within a religious — or sacreligious — realm where bravery and reason have less to do with destroying him than do faith and Christ.
Despite the weak ending, Taste the Blood is an exceptional entry into Hammer’s Dracula oeuvre. Director Peter Sasdy eschews the ultra-vivid palette that characterized the Terence Fisher films and goes for a more subdued hue to the film, something more akin to reality and less stylized. Buildings and street are dark rather than brightly lit, and there is a palpable sense of decay in everything. Even Christopher Lee grudgingly admits that it turned out to be a good film, though to this day he won’t stop going on about how corny the title is — and at least on this, one kind of has to agree with him, though I’d pay good money to see something under the same title debut on the Food Network.
When a creature is so vile, so evil, so much an affront to the nature of the world and of God himself as is the vampire Count Dracula, there is no easy way to destroy him and keep him down. So it is that in every episode of man’s struggle against this infernal prince of darkness, we mortals seem to succeed in wholly destroying this spawn of Satan only to see him find some way to cheat death yet again, as he has for so many centuries now, so that he may once again rise up and cast his long shadow of terror and bloodshed across the countryside. It seems this notorious bloodsucker has any number of ways he can reverse the effects of his apparent destruction, but the most powerful one by far is making certain that his movie provides bushel baskets full of money for the producers.
With the power to produce so much green, it was a given that Hammer Studio’s Dracula would find a way to resurrect himself after being trapped under the ice at the end of Dracula, Prince of Darkness. Death by running water seemed a more easily circumvented fate than actor Christopher Lee’s emphatic statements regarding his unwillingness to portray the caped one again. Lee made a big name for himself with his turn as the undead ghoul in Hammer’s ground-breaking Horror of Dracula, but he was determined that the name he made wouldn’t be Dracula. So he bowed out of the sequel, Brides of Dracula, and didn’t return to the role until he was comfortable that he’d established himself as something more than the vampire count. But 1967′s Dracula, Prince of Darkness proved that audiences were still bloodthirsty not just for Dracula, but for Christopher Lee as Dracula. That people were so quick to revert to identifying him solely with Dracula made Lee squeamish about reprising the role yet again, though the outstanding success of Prince of Darkness meant that Hammer could hardly pass on making another film.
So would begin a long and sometimes irritating cycle of Christopher Lee making a Dracula movie for Hammer, complaining about what crap the film was and how he would absolutely never, ever do it again, then appearing in Hammer’s next Dracula film a year later. Although Lee did have his viable points for being dissatisfied with the role — chief among them that it grew increasingly unlike anything portrayed in the original Bram Stoker novel — in the end his continuous complaining coupled with the fact that he’d always show up to do another one “under protest” kind of makes you want to tell Christopher Lee to shut the hell up. Hey, I like me the Christopher Lee, but it’s not like the man built for himself some legacy of impeccable artistic integrity. He did show up in Chuck Norris films and other things far worse than even the least of his Hammer Dracula films. But that’s Christopher Lee for you. Sometimes he’s just a bit of a blowhard, but that doesn’t make his turn in these films any less enjoyable.
So obviously, despite Lee’s public bellyaching, Hammer managed to sign him on for a sequel to Prince of Darkness. There was really no reason to tinker with a winning formula, and so they figured they might as well bring back Terence Fisher to direct and Jimmy Sangster to do the screenplay. Things didn’t quite work out that way though, and when Fisher was injured in an auto accident, Hammer turned to Freddie Francis to fulfill the directorial duties. Additionally, Anthony Hinds ended up writing the screenplay (under his frequent pseudonym of John Elder). As good as the Sangster-Fisher team was, there was nothing to mourn in having Francis and Hinds working on the picture. Both were solid company men with a lot of good work to their credit. In fact, Freddie Francis’ tendency to experiment more with dreamlike, experimental set-ups would be a nice change from Fisher’s meticulous concentration on realism and detail.
The film lets you know right away that it isn’t going to mess around, although this warning turns out to be a bit of a fib since the movie does end up messing around a bit. But we begin with one of the finest opening sequences Hammer would devise for a Dracula movie, as a young boy goes to fulfill his duty as the local church’s bell ringer only to find the corpse of a young woman, drained completely of blood, dangling inside the bell. It’s a fantastic image in a film whose main strength is going to be in its imagery. This all occurs, we are led to understand, sometime during the events depicted in Prince of Darkness. The film then picks up some months after that one ends, with the local priest a hopeless drunk and the church abandoned. When a loudmouth, obnoxious monsignor rides into town, he berates everyone for still being afraid of Dracula even though the fiend was indisputably destroyed by that rifle-toting monk in Prince of Darkness.
To prove his point, the Monsignor insists on dragging the parish priest up to Dracula’s now-vacant castle to exorcise the grounds and scatter assorted religious iconography about the place. Unfortunately, while he’s doing this, the drunken depressed priest takes a tumble off a ledge and cracks open his head right on top of the ice beneath which lies the perfectly preserved corpse of Dracula. As blood from the priest’s head trickles through cracks in the ice, it touches Dracula’s lips and, well, there you go. Instant vampire resurrection. This process of reviving the count seems a little, you know, unimaginative. Last time, someone had to be strung above his ashes and completely gutted before Dracula was revived, but this time it just takes a couple drops of blood and a convenient ignoring of the fact that, blood of a disillusioned priest or not, Dracula was still trapped beneath running water and should have just died again instead of being able to burst forth from his icy tomb to wreak terrible vengeance upon the world.
This method of bringing Dracula back would, however, look positively inspired by the time the series got to Scars of Dracula, where the count is brought back to un-life when a random rubber bat flies into his crypt and drools some blood on him without any sort of build-up at all.
The first thing one notices about this whole opening, which is really one of the best procession of images in any Dracula film, is the pervasiveness of religious imagery. Well, I guess the first thing you might notice is how the drunk priest’s head is gushing blood in one shot and is entirely healed mere seconds later in another shot. But the religious imagery is strong too, and indeed Risen from the Grave will emerge as one of the most potently religious of the films, continuing the progression of the series from the relatively secular adventures of Van Helsing (he pays lip service to God, but his primary faith is in science and reason, and he sees vampirism in terms of being a disease) to the “I’m religious but I’ll trust my gun to do the Lord’s work” view of Father Sandor in Prince of Darkness, and now into the realm of Dracula not as a plague, but as a supernatural force that exists apart from and in defiance of the laws of a rational universe.
The Van Helsing-esque voice of the enlightened man of reason comes, somewhat more pathetically than with Van Helsing, from the character of Paul, a student and avowed atheist who is in love with the Monsignor’s niece, though the Monsignor is none too thrilled to have a Godless screwball courting a member of his family. The battle between the forces of secularism and religion is almost more prominent than the battle against Dracula, who eventually discovers that the Monsignor has stuck a big golden cross on the castle door and thus seeks ruthless revenge on the Christian defiler by enslaving the weak priest and moving into the basement of the inn where Paul works. If you’re thinking this is kind of a lame ultimate revenge against all mankind, then you’d pretty much be right. But Dracula also enslaves a buxom bar wench, so it’s not a total wash-out.
Dracula plans to eventually get around to making a vampire out of the monsignor’s niece, but he doesn’t seem to be in any big hurry, which means that while he gets to spend a lot of time hanging around in the cellar being illuminated by eerie green lights, we have to spend a lot of time watching him hang around the cellar being illuminated by eerie green lights. It does indeed make for some frighteningly effective imagery, which seems to be the entire point of this film, but a procession of eerie images doesn’t necessarily assemble into a completely enthralling or entirely coherent film. Things do drag a bit in the middle as we watch Dracula push around the wench and the priest while Paul and his love engage in late-night rendezvous on the rooftop. We know that eventually Dracula is going to kidnap her and there will be a scene of horses wildly pulling a carriage toward Castle Dracula. We just wish there wasn’t so much dead time before that happens.
This movie does contain one of the scenes that really set Christopher Lee off to ranting about how awful all the films are. Paul manages to drive a stake — and quite a large one at that — through Dracula’s heart, which Dracula proceeds to yank out and throw at Paul. Turns out you have to stake the vampire, yeah, but it’s meaningless unless you also pray while you are doing it. Paul, being an atheist or perhaps somewhat versed in vampiric lore, refuses to pray. Who’s heard of such a thing? You just slam the stake in, cut the head off, and then you’re done for the day. This particular scene drove Lee nuts. He still brings it up even today. Everyone knows that once you drive a stake into a vampire’s heart, he’s done for, prayer or no.
Gaffs like that aside, this is really rather a better entry in the series than Christopher Lee would have you believe. The story, though uneven, benefits from greater depth than usual, with the battle between secularism and Christianity adding some real meat to the non-Dracula bits. Of course, any attempt to extract some sort of final message from the film is bound to be confusing. It’s religion’s fault that Dracula gets resurrected. If the Monsignor had listened to the superstitious peasants, none of this would have happened. And it’s Paul the atheist who must come in and save the day when Christianity fails to get the job done. But Paul also winds up perhaps more open to belief in Christ by the end of the film, which is full of redemption and vampires getting impaled on big golden crucifixes. So I guess the overall religious message of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is, “don’t be an asshole.” Don’t be intolerant or a zealot, because then you just open the door for Christopher Lee to go stand on your roof while enveloped in purple mist. And while it may be cool to have Christopher Lee on your roof for a while, eventually he’s going to start asking about eating some of your chips and stuff like that.
Appearance-wise, Risen from the Grave is the best looking of all the Dracula films to date, and really one of the best looking films Hammer ever produced. The atmosphere in the film seems to be heavily influenced by the more phantasmagoric look of Mario Bava’s films, and the result is a Dracula film awash in otherworldly colors and swirling camera filters. It gives the movie a more dreamlike, hallucinogenic mood, which is perfectly fitting to mark the series’ move toward more supernatural, less “man of reason” fare. The next in the series, Taste the Blood of Dracula (it’s salty!), would contain even more overt references to Dracula not as some sort of social disease that can be explained with and combated by science, but as a creature straight from Hell imbued with the powers of Satan himself and able to be both resurrected and defeated through a series of religious or sacrilegious rituals.
Lee’s appearance, likewise, is even more ghoulish than previous incarnations. Each film sees him get more pallid and cadaverous, while his eyes get more bloodshot. He’s in snarling animal mode here, throwing people around wildly and smashing windows. He even gets a few lines this time around. It was watching this movie that I finally had my little epiphany about Dracula’s behavior. I’m slow, so you’ll have to forgive me if this was obvious to everyone else long ago. I was always a bit annoyed by the fact that although he is four or five times stronger than a regular man, Dracula’s answer to a fight is to turn tail and run. I mean, Paul isn’t exactly an imposing figure. Then it hit me, and well, all I can say is “duh.” Dracula is a vicious beast, but a beast never the less, and even the most vicious beast in nature is more likely to turn around and run away than fight. It’s a simple animal reaction to being challenged. Unless he’s really hungry, Dracula would rather take off. Not that I’d recommend combating all vampires by waving your arms in the air and yelling, “shoo!” but it seems to work sometimes. Dracula is only fierce-acting around people he already knows are weaker than him.
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is a nice Gothic horror despite some slow spots. It’s got a decent cast, though as always Peter Cushing is sorely missed. It has a tremendous look, smart direction, the usual great James Bernard score, and a script that shoots for more meaning than usual. Lee is less of a presence here than in the last film, and his shadow doesn’t seem to loom as powerfully over everything when he’s not present as it did in Prince of Darkness. But when he does show up, he looks exquisite. Although Lee himself runs down these later films in the series, this one is actually quite good, and the next one would be even better.
Ahh, Sangster and Fisher. If you want my opinion, and you must or else you’d go read a much better website that this, that screenwriter-director team is as integral to the success of the Hammer horror films as the Cushing-Lee acting team. When you make a list of the best films Hammer produced, the Fisher-Sangster duo comes up quite frequently. The whole quartet is at it again with this, Hammer’s third reimagining of a classic Universal Pictures horror icon. By now, there was no real gamble involved in the Hammer formula. Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula had proven the effort, and Hammer’s only challenge now lie in maintaining the high standards set by those two films. With two Universal legends left, those being the mummy and the Wolfman, Hammer decided to go all old Egypt and bring the bandaged avenger of desecrated tombs into the Technicolor world of Hammer horror.