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.