Thursday, May 30, 2013

Peter Cushing at 100--Night Creatures/Captain Clegg

Peter Cushing, who would have turned 100 this week were he still amongst us, was an actor I came to appreciate for his two very different levels of acting. He could be ultra-intense as in his Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein or Tarkin roles or he could be sweet and pleasant as in his appearances as the only big screen Doctor Who to date. One film in which he is given the chance to play to both extremes is Hammer Film’s NIGHT CREATURES from 1962.

NIGHT CREATURES is the US title of CAPTAIN CLEGG. The picture is based on—or perhaps one should say inspired by—the Dr. Syn novels of Russell Thorndyke that had been previously filmed with the once popular George Arliss as far back as 1937. Not long after Hammer’s version, Walt Disney entered the field as well with a three part television version that would be memorably nostalgic to a generation of Americans—THE SCARECROW OF ROMNEY MARSH. Patrick McGoohan, already a well-known face with DANGER MAN in the UK, was Disney’s star and his version was released theatrically in Europe in an edited down form. It would be released theatrically in the US a decade later.

But it’s CAPTAIN CLEGG...NIGHT CREATURES...that perhaps remains the most faithful in some ways. Hammer had not yet settled into its reputation as mainly a horror studio and, in fact, in spite of its marketing in the US, NIGHT CREATURES owes more to the old-fashioned pirate films the studio had been turning out such as THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER and DEVIL SHIP PIRATES than to CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN or THE MUMMY.

In fact, Peter himself had only recently done one such film, 1961’s FURY AT SMUGGLER’S BAY. By the time of CAPTAIN CLEGG, he was coming off of what many consider one of his best performances of all in the bank robbery thriller CASH ON DEMAND. It had been two years since his last horror film, BRIDES OF DRACULA.

In my opinion, there are a number of things that set NIGHT CREATURES apart from the typical Hammer costume adventure/drama of this period. First and foremost is the fact that it’s a better story. Equally important is that it’s better cast and therefore presents better performances including a particularly nuanced one from Cushing. There isn’t as much blood as one might expect in a Hammer offering and thus the whole thing has a bit of an almost family-friendly boys’ adventure feel to it with just the right number of shocking moments.

And shocking they are. When one catches the first eerie sight of the so-called marsh phantoms, a genuine chill is raised even on a smaller screen. I can only imagine what it was like to see these skeletal horsemen (and their equally skeletal horses!) on the big screen without warning!

Another unique aspect of this picture is that there are NO real villains! The antagonists are the King’s sailors, working as revenue agents. Even Cushing’s character refers to their leader as a famous hero. Are they a tad rowdy and violent? Yes, but probably nowhere near as rowdy and violent as sailors were in real life in those days. Our sympathetic characters are, for the most part, smugglers and ex-pirates and yet we know them to be kind and helpful to the villagers. Even the wrestler-like killer “mulatto” is shown in a sympathetic light. See? No villains. No bad guys in the traditional sense.

What you DO get right out of the gate is atmosphere...and loads of it. Some excellent photography all around is accented greatly by a very Hollywood-like musical score.

In the beginning, we see the Mulatto being tortured and left alone on an island to die with a note of warning from the pirate, Captain Clegg. Cut to some years later, 1792 to be exact, in the coastal village of Dymchurch. We see a frightened man pursued through Romney Marsh by the supposed supernatural marsh phantoms, a local legend. The very next day finds Captain Collier and his men pursuing a lead that smugglers are bringing in French wine without paying the exorbitant taxes. 

It’s Sunday and everyone is at church so that’s where they head. But first we see the Vicar, the Reverend Dr. Blyss, a charming but forceful man, leading the hymns and the service. Suddenly a signal travels amongst some of those present and various of them up and leave. Although the King’s men find nothing we see soon enough that there IS smuggling going on after all and that the smugglers are simply cleverer than expected.

Much of the rest of the picture is a cat and mouse game between the Vicar and his men and the Captain and his sailors. Things take a turn for the worse when the mute mulatto, long-since rescued from his island by the Captain’s men, recognizes the Vicar for his former self, Captain Clegg the pirate! His attempts to kill the man who had his tongue cut out lead eventually to one of our sympathetic characters unexpectedly betraying his friends and ultimately, Dr. Blyss’s secret is revealed to one and all.

Unlike the Disney version and the books, the only scarecrow here is used as a lookout, with the marsh phantom costumes being genuinely off-putting hooded, glow-in-the-dark skeleton costumes. We only see them a couple of times but that works. Once in the beginning as an initial shock and then again toward the end in a longer scene where all is revealed.

Peter Cushing gives a nuanced performance that highlights both extremes of his acting as noted above. Note the side by side comparison where Clegg sees his antagonist arrive but seconds later it is Blyss who exits from behind the curtain, almost Jekyll and Hyde-like, to greet him. Throughout the film, even though we aren’t explicitly told at first, it’s clear that Blyss is Clegg and watching Peter’s face as an exercise in subtle acting is quite enjoyable as we can read his feelings throughout if not his actual thoughts.

Michael Ripper, Hammer’s “good luck charm” who appeared in more films for the company than either Cushing or Christopher Lee, is given a more substantial role here than normal and makes the most of it. As Blyss’s right-hand man, he is clever, sneaky and sarcastic, always with a little smile very nearly creeping onto his face as if he takes great delight in getting away with things the King wouldn’t like.

Although he has little to do for the first half of the movie, Oliver Reed, just coming off his triumphant CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (still the best werewolf film in my opinion!) turns out to be playing a bigger part than the viewer initially suspects. Reed is so amazingly charismatic on the screen, so young and handsome. It makes one sad to think of the abuse he would cause himself in time before a much too early death.

Reed’s leading lady, a girl with a secret even she doesn’t know at first, is played by the lovely Yvonne Romain who had also appeared in CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF although she had no scenes with Reed. Romain was, at the time, the real-life wife of singer/songwriter Anthony Newley’s frequent lyricist, Leslie Bricusse.

Patrick Allen and David Lodge are excellent as the Captain and his Bosun, with Martin Benson as the innkeeper, all familiar faces in British films and television. The thankless role of the bald, monstrous, nameless mulatto went to Milton Reid who actually WAS a wrestler as well as an actor.  He appeared throughout a long and varied career in films ranging from the high end—DR. NO and RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER—to the low end—non-sex scenes in some hardcore loops. According to IMDB, he went to Bollywood and died there in the late eighties.

Oddly enough, one other standout performance comes from the great Irish stage actor Jack MacGowran in a brief but showy role as a man allegedly frightened by the phantoms. The actor’s final film would be THE EXORCIST a decade later. He died shortly after shooting his scenes for that picture.

Starting with THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN in 1964, in which Peter Cushing returned to the role of the insane doctor for the third time and the first since 1958’s REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN, 10 out of his next 11 released films were horror or science-fiction. The rest of his career would largely follow suit and magazines such as FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, which canonized him “Saint Peter,” raised him to the pantheon of genre stars alongside Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney, Price and Lee. His appearance in the original STAR WARS took great advantage of Cushing’s reputation as able to portray a type of pure evil and undoubtedly introduced the actor to millions of new fans as well as assuring him a major spot in the history of twentieth century films.

Throughout his career, Cushing would make quite a few films with Christopher Lee both for Hammer and elsewhere and the two names have long since become entwined to film lovers. But make no mistake—Peter Cushing was a brilliant screen actor who on his own created dozens of unique characterizations highlighting even lesser films. CAPTAIN CLEGG/NIGHT CREATURES may not be one of Cushing’s best-known films but it really is a great vehicle for his acting talents as well as a splendidly filmed and enjoyable adventure story.

This article is part of the PETER CUSHING CENTENNIAL BLOGATHON. You can go here to find details and links to many more articles celebrating Peter Cushing on what would have been the occasion of his 100th birthday this week!


1 comment:

  1. Steven: Wonderful posters. I have never seen this one. The Disney version disturbed me when I was little. Thank you for sharing.