Thursday, June 30, 2011

In short: Captain Clegg (1962)

aka Night Creatures

1792. The impressively rude Navy Captain Collier (Patrick Allen) and a small boatful of his men enter the small British village of Dymchurch following information that has lead Collier to suspect the village of harbouring a rather effective smuggling operation.

Collier is quite right in his assumption too. Many of the village's upstanding citizens, including the jolly coffin maker (Michael Ripper confusingly not playing an innkeeper), the shady innkeeper (Martin Benson) and even the son of the local squire (Oliver Reed), are part of the smuggling operation, and given the way the representatives of royal authorities are presented throughout film, it's difficult not to sympathize with them. To top it all off, the local parson, a certain Dr Blyss (Peter Cushing) is the smuggler's ringleader.

A large part of the smugglers' success is certainly thanks to Blyss's organisational talents. Blyss uses people dressed as scarecrows and children as lookouts, and also lets the local legend about skeleton riders roaming the marshes come alive as a means of protection.

At first, Collier seems quite helpless against the wily villagers, but eventually, his combination of brutality, stubbornness and sheer good luck does pay off, especially once the innkeeper Rash, who is a rather nasty character, slowly starts to unravel. Things for Blyss are certainly not made easier by the strange fixation on killing him the navy men's nameless mascot and slave (Milton Reid), a mulatto (alas, here comes the racism fairy) who belonged to Captain Clegg's crew until he caused the death of the Captain's wife and lost his tongue and nearly his life for it, shows.

By 1962, the Hammer Studios were mostly known for their impressive series of gothic horror movies, but the Studios did still produce films in other genre, even though many of those films were and still are much less seen and talked about. It's a pretty unfair state of affairs when you look at the pure quality of a film like Captain Clegg.

Directed by Peter Graham Scott (who worked as a producer and director on many BBC TV shows we nerds and geeks love), featuring an ensemble of Hammer's stable actors lead by Peter Cushing in a very good mood, and showing off the lush and detailed look typical of Hammer films of this era (as usual, realized on a much lower budget than you'd expect), the film's pretty impossible for me to dislike.

Once you look closely at the movie, you'll realize how peculiar a film this actually is. Not only is Captain Clegg a pirate movie taking place predominantly on land, it also mixes its adventure movie tropes and techniques with elements of the whydunnit mystery and a few tasty moments of Hammer horror as during the night scenes in the marshes and in the character of "the mulatto". What's most surprising about this genre mix is how organically it actually feels when you are watching the film; Anthony Hinds's script makes the integration of disparate elements in a well-paced plot look easy.

The film's other peculiarity is its politics. Now, I'm quite used to the fact that any form of nobility does hide corruption and evil in a Hammer movie, but the sentiments towards the British crown Captain Clegg shows seem to go a step further. One can't help but see the parallels between a village of smugglers robbing a brutal government (the government here is represented by brutal thugs, a fat squire who does not seem to do anything but eat, and a king who doesn't hold to his promises) of tax revenues and a certain revolution in a certain former British colony. Who knew Hammer was that republican?


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