Night Creatures (1962) [Scream Factory Collector's Edition]

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2022-05-17 18:12

Night Creatures (1962)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: April 19th, 2022

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The movie:

Hammer Films thrived on formula: this isn’t so much a criticism as it is an obvious observation. At the height of its powers, the studio became a veritable movie factory, recycling sets, stars, and other creative talent on its production assembly line. The approach entrenched the Hammer brand into the public consciousness, and successfully created and catered to audience expectations: even now, over half a century later, you know what you’re in for when you settle in to watch a Hammer Horror. However, as is often the case with formula, any mold-breaking diversions tend to stand out, and even Hammer wasn’t immune to cranking out the occasional oddity. Consider the case of Night Creatures, a genre-bending effort that arrived in theaters as part of a double bill with The Phantom of the Opera, a more conventional Hammer Horror effort that continued the studio’s gothic resurgence. On the other hand, Night Creatures (aka Captain Clegg) owes far more to Hammer’s maritime preoccupation that yielded the likes of Terror of the Tongs and Pirates of Blood River. It was perhaps only natural that the studio would eventually blend its signature genre with its seaside jaunts, and, if nothing else, Night Creatures endures as one of Hammer’s most curious productions.

Inspired by Russell Thorndike’s Doctor Syn tales, Night Creatures opens in 1776, where mysterious pirate captain Captain Clegg (kept off-screen here for reasons that quickly become obvious) maroons a sailor. When the story quickly leaps ahead 16 years, a gravestone marks Clegg’s final resting place in a coastal village near Romney Marsh. Local legend insists the marshes are haunted by the marsh phantoms, ghastly midnight riders who terrorize the village. And, to be fair, the village itself is not quite what it seems: while parson Blyss (Peter Cushing) tends to a pious flock of parishioners, it’s mostly a front for a smuggling ring that illegally imports French wine. Rumors of the operation reach the ears of Captain Collier (Patrick Allen), a naval officer who brings his crew to investigate and threatens to unravel the truth lurking in Dymchurch Village—unless the nearby phantoms have something to say about it.

If I’m being completely honest, one of the reasons Night Creatures stands apart from its Hammer Horror brethren is because it’s mostly not much of a horror movie but rather more of a swashbuckling adventure film. Segments involving the marsh phantoms bookend an otherwise grounded (but suitably grisly) procedural, which finds Blyss and Collier playing a cat-and-mouse game as the two dance around the blatant subterfuge that only becomes more obvious when the one of the latter’s sailors—the same marooned mutineer from the prologue, now a deaf mute after Clegg’s tortures—acts in an aggressive manner towards the parson. Everyone is mystified because nobody can imagine anyone wishing any ill-will towards this man of god, much less this mute brute who’s never met him before. Or has he?

Of course, anyone who’s been paying any kind of attention (or anyone familiar with the Syn lore, which contemporary audiences would very much have been) knows where this is headed, and Night Creatures is eager to give up its various ghosts, both figuratively and literally. We learn the truth about the marsh phantoms about halfway through, when it becomes abundantly clear that nothing supernatural is actually afoot, leaving the rest of the film to account for the rest of the obvious truth. But this is not to say that Night Creatures is without merit. Despite its predictability, it thrives in the same manner as most of its Hammer brethren: with a sharp sense of purpose and style that accentuate compelling performances. Cushing anchors a stellar cast of Hammer staples, including a knavish turn by Oliver Reed and one of Michael Ripper’s most memorable performances as an impish undertaker. In his lone directorial outing for Hammer, Peter Graham Scott leans into the studio’s signature style, crafting a lush production design on a Technicolor canvas as the film moves along at a punchy clip. Hammer horror enthusiasts should especially dig the treatment of the title creatures: even though the marsh phantoms don’t sport supernatural origins, some nice trick photography and special effects bring them to spooky, ethereal life all the same, yielding one of Hammer’s most indelible images.

Meanwhile, Cushing delivers one of his more interesting performances, one that hinges on his utter versatility as an actor. By 1962, audiences were well aware that Cushing was equally capable at playing a righteous hero or a sinister heel, and Night Creatures allows him to tip-toe that line here. Publicly, Blyss is a virtuous pillar of the community, a kind vicar doing the lord’s work; privately, there’s something slightly shifty about him, especially once we learn he’s the ringleader of the bootlegging operation. Cushing delightfully treads that line, blending a dignified austerity with hints of pointed, playful malice that make it difficult to pin down if Clegg has truly reformed into Blyss or if Blyss is simply Clegg’s mask. This is the only thing Night Creatures isn’t in a hurry to answer, as the film sharply allows it to be the ultimate, most compelling conflict in the film. What starts as a film about uncovering a fiendish plot ends, as these things often do, with the mob coming for the monster, only to discover it’s not completely monstrous after all. It makes for one of the most thoughtful climaxes to a Hammer movie, as both the bloodthirsty crowd and the audience must reckon with what repentance truly looks like. Can a person atone for a lifetime of misdeeds? Do good intentions justify criminal activity?

Night Creatures has a bit more of a cerebral and moral dimension to it than many Hammer efforts—not that there’s anything wrong with the studio’s unrepentant monster movies and gothic fare. It’s just that this is very much not one of those movies, and only appears to be so because its U.S. title was mandated by Universal, who knew Hammer was producing an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend under the title Night Creatures. Obviously, that never came to pass, so when Captain Clegg was due to be distributed in America, Universal decided it would be easier to sell under this title. While the decision made financial sense (Hammer was mostly known as a horror studio in the States), it condemned it to an existence of defying expectations since it continues to fall under the umbrella of Hammer Horror. I can personally attest to that: it’s taken me about fifteen years to let go of the bait-and-switch tactics and accept Night Creatures for what it is instead of lamenting that Hammer never actually produced a full-on gothic horror movie about marsh phantoms. And while I’m sure I would have loved that hypothetical movie, I’m happy to say that I now appreciate Night Creatures precisely because it’s such an oddball entry in the Hammer canon. After all, it’s the jagged pieces that are the most difficult to fit—and that makes it all the more satisfying when they finally lock into place.

The disc:

Scream Factory’s decision to release Night Creatures will do little to disavow it of its Hammer Horror label, but this is no time to break precedent since the label has released all of the other films in the old Universal Hammer Horror collection dating back to the DVD era. In fact, this marks the final film of that particular collection, so at least Scream Factory did release the more “proper” horror movies first. At any rate, it’s another solid outing, one that’s very much worth the upgrade if you’re holding onto the older collections. For one thing, it sports a newly remastered transfer that looks more vibrant and detailed when compared to its predecessors, all while sporting less print damage and artifacts. It’s paired with an expectedly solid 2.0 DTS-HD MA mono track that boasts both clarity and a rich timbre, especially during some of the film’s more lively moments.

Scream has also produced an assortment of new extras, including a commentary from historian Bruce Hallenbeck and a trio of interviews. Kim Newman provides his typically erudite musings in “Pulp Friction,” a 22-minute lecture about the long, winding road Night Creatures took to the screen, starting with the original Thorndike novels and their original adaptations. Newman untangles the thorny legal issues that resulted in Hammer having to settle for making an off-brand knock-off thanks to Disney before delving into the production and reception of Night Creatures.

Film historian Jonathan Rigsby provides another lecture in “Peter Cushing’s Changing Directions,” a 28-minute exploration of the actor’s work in Hammer and beyond. Rigsby starts with the films Cushing completed in the years leading up to Night Creatures, framing the actor’s participation in the swashbuckler as an attempt to break away from the horror genre, an endeavor that was ultimately futile since he would continue to be a regular for both Hammer and Amicus for more than a decade. Cushing’s enthusiasm for the Dr. Syn stories is noted, with the revelation that he actually wrote a treatment for a Night Creatures sequel in the 70s that never went into production. Rigsby moves beyond Night Creatures, tackling some of Cushing’s lesser-known work and musing upon what his career would have been like without the gothic resurgence (in his estimation, Cushing’s screen presence was uniquely suited for this milieu more so than modern stories).

Rounding out the three new interviews, “Brian With Bowie” is a quick chat with effects assistant Brian Johnson, who details his time spent working as part of Les Bowie’s crew. While he does mention his particular contributions to Night Creatures (and a wonderful bit involving Cushing), most of the interview is anecdotal as he explains how he came to work for Bowie before describing some of the techniques his crew patented over the years.

To supplement its own extras, Scream Factory has ported over some previously produced material as well. “The Mossman Legacy” delves into one of the more interesting and unexpected chapters of Hammer lore: the various carriages that were used in the studio’s productions. Now housed at a museum celebrating the preservation work of George Mossman, these carriages remain mostly preserved as they appeared on-screen decades ago. John Carson acts as host and tour guide here as he shows off the various carriages and points out the productions in which they appeared (with accompanying still photos of those screen appearances). Carson also serves as the narrator for The 32-minute “Making of Captain Clegg,” which honestly feels like the centerpiece of these supplements. Even though it was produced eight years ago, it’s a thorough examination of the film’s production as Carson once again navigates the film’s tricky pre-production waters before delving into the cast, crew, locations, and other behind-the-scenes tidbits, much like the similar documentary produced for Plague of the Zombies that you may recall from Scream’s release for that film.

Once again, Scream has made this upgrade worthwhile for Hammer fiends looking to dive more deeply into these films, which have historically only appeared stateside as part of those aforementioned, bare-bones collections. While those more economical sets were crucial for their time, there’s no doubt that these collector’s edition releases are substantial upgrades in all respects, boasting improved presentations and an abundance of special features. Night Creatures ends this particular run on a fine note, but I’m hoping it’s not the last time we see Scream raid the Hammer vaults.
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