Saturday, September 12, 2015

Whisky Heists, Phantoms, and Pirates: "Night Creatures"

Also known simply as Captain Clegg, Night Creatures somehow manages to be both a classic Hammer production and a rather unusual film for the studio. First of all, Night Creatures has all the right ingredients in the right places. It has Peter Cushing in the role of an anti-hero, Oliver Reed doing his best as a handsome leading man, the underrated and oh-so-English Michael Ripper supporting the entire cast, and a storyline that combines a pinch of darkness with adventure and an abject love for the common English villager. 

Night Creatures is not a horror film, however. Despite its title and advertising, this Anthony Hinds-scripted and Peter Graham Scott-directed venture is intended for general audiences and shouldn't be off-putting for the terminally timid. Night Creatures was also released during the height of Hammer's powers in 1962, so Arthur Grant's cinematography and Don Banks's music are very much top-of-the-line. 

Based loosely on Russell Thorndyke's Doctor Syn character, Night Creatures opens with a gruesome punishment. While serving aboard the pirate ship of the fearsome Captain Clegg, Mulatto (played by the Anglo-Indian wrestler Milton Reid) is accused of trying to assault the captain's wife. As such, the big hulk of a man has his tongue removed and is tied to a signpost on an abandoned island. His sign reads:

Thus perish all who betray CAPTAIN CLEGG

From here we transition to Romney Marsh, a lightly populated coastal area in East Sussex. The year is 1792 and King George III is very close to war with Revolution-era France. His royal ships patrol the English Channel frequently, but instead of fighting French sailors or any remaining pirates, the Royal Navy have their hands full with English smugglers. The people of Romney Marsh are themselves knee-deep in the smuggling trade, and in order to avoid the king's high taxes, the village has become a hub for illegal gin distribution. This is, in a nutshell, the conflict at the center of Night Creatures: Captain Collier (played by Patrick Allen) and his sailors versus the people of Romney Marsh.

Of course, our sympathies are never in question. While the sailors seem like a fun, if not a dangerous lot, Captain Collier is the sort of authoritative G-man that would rumple any self-respecting English (and for that matter American) feather. Keep in mind, Night Creatures is set during the age of the American and French revolutions and was produced during the 1960s, so the British government is depicted as an enemy right from the get-go. 

Also, it's easy to love the citizens of Romney Marsh. Besides their ingenious methods of avoiding detection, the local citizens come off as a merry band of drinkers and small craftsmen who just want to be left alone. From the undertaker Mr. Mipps (Ripper), who hides amber bottles in coffins and caskets, to the beautiful couple of Imogene (played by the very attractive Yvonne Romain) and Harry (Reed), Romney Marsh seems like a town addicted to a much better way of life. The only party poopers are the pompous squire (played by Derek Francis) and the lecherous barkeep Bosun (played by David Lodge), who tries to seduce, then rape his adopted ward Imogene. 

Above all is Parson Blyss (Cushing), a rousing Anglican priest with an independent spirit. When not leading his congregation in song and worship, Blyss is the head of the village's smuggling trade and is the man responsible for the town's unique approach to concealment. Like any good episode of Scooby-Doo, the citizens of Romney Marsh disguise their real activities by roaming the marshes at night in glowing skeleton costumes or by dressing up as scarecrows in order to act as lookouts. Thus the "Marsh Phantoms" are nothing more than tax evaders. 

The film's great reveal may not come as a complete shock, especially after Mulatto so viciously attacks Parson Blyss without reason, but it is still a great scene when Captain Collier pulls down Blyss's religious collar in order to show the scar of a hangman's rope. You see, Blyss is none other than Captain Clegg, who was supposedly buried in the churchyard after his public execution. Furthermore, not only is Parson Blyss Captain Clegg, but he is also Imogene's father. Therefore, he gives two blessings--one as a man of God and one as a father--when he quickly marries Imogene and Harry as Captain Collier's men close in. Finally, after sustaining a mortal wound at the hands of the vengeful Mulatto, Clegg/Bylss lays down to die in what was once his fake grave. 

Night Creatures is an incredibly fun film that contains all the joyous magic of Disneyland's Haunted Mansion. Combining bucolic nostalgia with high adventure, Night Creatures is a good example of Hammer filmmaking divorced from Dracula, Frankenstein, and other monsters. Night Creatures is still awesome to watch and observe like a good painting, and although it's the furthest thing from scary, it's clever, well-written, and moves with a purpose. In sum, it's popcorn fare for everyone. 

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