Written by Anthony Hinds
Directed by Peter Graham Scott
Starring Peter Cushing, Yvonne Romain, Patrick Allen, Oliver Reed
US Release June 13, 1962
RT 82 min.
Home Video Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Classic Horrors rating = 6 (out of 10)
Warning: review contains plot spoilers.
After always reading and hearing rave reviews for Night Creatures (aka Captain Clegg), I suppose I was destined be disappointed when I finally watched it. Assigning movies to specific genres is an arbitrary task, but in this case, it’s particularly baffling to call this a “horror” movie. Perhaps I’m more disappointed that it wasn’t the kind of movie I expected than I am in the quality of the movie itself. I appreciate it a little more if I consider it a “bridge” between Hammer horror and Hammer adventure.
Night Creatures feels more at home with the latter; it is, in essence, a pirate movie. In 1792, when the King sends members of the Royal Navy to the Romney Marshes to investigate reports of illegal smuggling, their behavior is barely different than that of the pirates who invade similar villages in The Pirates of Blood River or The Devil-Ship Pirates. They get rowdy and tear up the place looking for evidence, then insinuate themselves into the lives of the townspeople.
Here, though, they’re supposed to be the good guys… that is, if you think bootlegging and smuggling kegs of wine and brandy across the shore to France is bad. The Reverend Dr. Blyss (Peter Cushing) warns his congregation as if the King’s men are the bad guys, but he’s also secretly running the illegal operations. Blyss hides other secrets, as well, but none that ever surprised me. If the twists and turns of the plot are intended to surprise, they failed.
Let’s flash back 16 years to 1776, where the movie begins with a brief prologue. The unseen Captain Clegg signs a death sentence for Mulatto (Milton Reid). His tongue is cut out and he’s left chained on shore. In 1792, Mulatto accompanies the Navy, albeit as a prisoner. Captain Clegg’s grave lies in town; Reverend Blyss was witness to his hanging when the notorious pirate was finally captured for his crimes. However, when Mulatto catches a glimpse of Blyss, he violently attacks him for seemingly no reason.
The spirit of Clegg is always present in the movie, but the “supernatural” threat comes not from him. Instead, it comes from the phantom horsemen that ride through the marsh at night. Harry Cobtree (Oliver Reed) has seen the phenomenon and describes the horses’ feet as if they don’t touch the ground, and the riders’ faces as if they’re on fire. From a distance, the glow-in-the-dark bones of their skeletons do look creepy. Up close, though, you see that they’re simply men in black hoods and masks.
They’re men with a purpose, a purpose that, again, did not surprise me. The phantom riders are more fun than scary, as is the scarecrow that opens its eyes to witness their work and to signal the smugglers when the Navy approaches. If this all sounds familiar, Captain Clegg is loosely based on the character of Doctor Syn, created by author Russell Thorndike in 1915. I vaguely remember the Disney movie, Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow, where the scarecrow was the mystery, not an entire band of phantoms.
There are several fun things in Night Creatures. One is the giant keg that hides a secret passage to the coffin shop run by Jeremiah Mipps (Michael Ripper). Another is the method of transportation: hiding small kegs in the coffins. Another is when Collier shoots at the scarecrow and finds blood on it. (The subsequent reveal of the man behind it is clever. OK, it’s the one thing that surprised me.) These things aren’t connected, though, by what feels like one overarching story.
There’s also the obligatory romantic subplot of a lopsided love triangle among Harry, Imogene (Yvonne Romain) and Mr. Rash, the innkeeper (Martin Benson). Harry and Imogene are truly in love, but Mr. Rash keeps throwing himself at Imogene, especially when he learns a secret about her past. The silliest part of the movie is when everything stops during the action-packed climax for a quick wedding. In 1792, I guess marriage is a prerequisite for a young couple running away together.
If story doesn’t hold the whole thing together, then you can always rely on the performance of Peter Cushing. My favorite scenes include him ruminating over the nature of good and evil, especially when you consider his true identity and the fact that the lines between the two are blurred. Ultimately, he claims everything he did was for the good of the townspeople and it’s enough to rally them at his side. I need a motivating speech from Cushing to rally me to the side of Night Creatures.