Saturday, 4 January 2014


A small English village is beset by a horde of "phantoms" on horseback and it's up to the intrepid Captain Collier (Patrick Allen) to get to the bottom of things...

Author Russell Thorndyke hit paydirt in 1915 with the release of his book Dr. Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh.  The book proved to be so successful that he was able to revisit the character for further installments in the mid 1930s.  The story caught the attention of British filmmakers in 1937, when it was first adapted to the cinema as Dr. Syn.  The legendary stage and screen thespian George Arliss played the lead role(s): the mild-mannered parson Dr. Syn who is really just a front for his true, bloodthirsty persona of the smuggler, Captain Clegg.

The film was directed by the gifted Irish-born filmmaker Roy William Neill, who found success in Hollywood directing the superior Boris Karloff vehicle The Black Room (1935) before becoming identified with the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce series of Sherlock Holmes sequels at Universal.

When Hammer decided to take a stab at the property in the early 1960s, they did so without realizing that filmmaking giant Walt Disney had already optioned the Thorndike property for a film of his own.  Hammer eventually got wind of this, however, and decided to change the name of the central character in  order to avoid any possible legal woes.  And so it came to be that Captain Clegg (as it was known in the UK; the film would be released in America as Night Creatures) went before the cameras, in slightly revised form. The film would beat the Disney version to the punch by one year and for many, it remains the superior film.


The Disney production had a top notch cast, headed by the great Patrick McGoohan (just a year from his turn as TV's Secret Agent, and several from his most iconic role as The Prisoner), but felt a bit watered down and too mild for its own good.  The Hammer version may have lacked the studio's traditional emphasis on bodice-ripping and Kensington gore, but it made up for it with oodles of atmosphere.

The film is inevitably dominated by the presence of Hammer's top star of the time, Peter Cushing.  Cushing approached the role of Dr. Blyss (as he had been renamed) with tremendous enthusiasm. Indeed, he was so pleased with his work on the film that he yearned to make a sequel of his own.  He even took it upon himself to pen a script outline, but it never went beyond that.  Captain Clegg thus presented him with his only opportunity to play the challenging dual role and he certainly made the most of every opportunity.  Cushing's studious and kindly persona is well suited to the outwardly meek character of Blyss but, true to form, he is able to switch off the charm at a moment's notice and play it properly ruthless when he lets his mask down and reveals his true nature as Captain Clegg.  Cushing's dedication extended to participating in some potentially dangerous stunt scenes, whether it be grappling with monolithic Milton Reid or indulging in some bouts of Douglas Fairbanks-esque derring-do.

In addition to Cushing, the film is graced with an outstanding supporting cast.  The delightful Patrick Allen is, well, a delight as the rather thick-headed but brave Captain Collier.  Allen's latern-jawed good looks and imposing frame make him an ideal adversary to Cushing's wily anti-hero and the two actors play off each other beautifully.  The scene wherein Collier tries to get the upper hand on Blyss but is too dim witted to be able to follow it through to its logical conclusion is a master class in acting, with Cushing subtly conveying a condescending air of contempt while Allen bluffs and blusters without realizing just how right he really is.

Oliver Reed is cast in the somewhat less rewarding role of Harry, the young juvenile.  Reed's magnetic screen presence helps to bring the character to life, but it's a wet towel of a role and there's only so much he can do with it.  Hammer fans will no doubt get a kick out of seeing him performing some love scenes with the statuesque Yvonne Romain, however, given that the previous year the two had played - get this - mother and son in Curse of the Werewolf!  Romain is adequate in her role, but the real meat is to be found in the character roles played so beautifully by the likes of Jack MacGowran (in his only Hammer horror), Derek Francis, Martin Benson and, most notably, Michael Ripper.

Ripper had played his fair share of grave robbers, village drunks and inn keepers for Hammer - he'd even been uncomfortably cast as a Japanese officer in Camp on Blood Island!  Few of these roles gave Ripper a great deal of screen time, but that changed with his appearance in this film as Mr. Mipps.  Mipps is Clegg's right hand man, a loyal and faithful retainer who is willing to lay down his life to protect his master.  Ripper is heartbreaking in the role, which gives him far more to do than any of his other roles for Hammer, barring his juicy parts in John Gilling's The Reptile and The Mummy's Shroud

The film is very well directed by the late Peter Graham Scott, who made his one and only film for Hammer here - fortunately for the fans, it's a good one.  Scott paces the action very well, ensuring that it seldom gets bogged down in overly padded dialogue scenes, and working in tandem with director of photography Arthur Grant, he creates some stunning images of the so-called phantoms (in reality, disguised smugglers) riding through the swamps at night.

It's a brisk and entertaining film, milder than the norm for Hammer, but still well worth seeing. Cushing and Ripper fans will find it to be essential, in particular.

Review: Troy Howarth
Images & Artwork: Marcus Brooks 

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