September 23, 2021

Rousting the Marsh Fellows: Night Creatures

Poster - Night Creatures, aka Captain Clegg, 1962
Now Playing:
Night Creatures (aka Captain Clegg, 1962)

Pros: Solid cast; Typically fine Hammer production values; Michael Ripper almost steals the show as a gleeful undertaker.
Cons: The marsh phantoms don’t get enough screen time; Oliver Reed and Yvonne Romain are consigned to bland secondary roles.

This post is part of the Rule, Britannia Blogathon, hosted by classic film buff, TV historian and author Terence Towles Canote at his blog, A Shroud of Thoughts. The rules are simple: simply write about any British/UK film made before 2011. That I can do!

Hail Britannia! During the 1950s and early ‘60s, when American B filmmakers couldn’t get enough of irradiated sci-fi menaces of every size, shape and description, and were reimagining traditional Gothic monsters by giving them sci-fi origins (Blood of Dracula, The Werewolf, The Vampire), the British film industry, and Hammer Films in particular, was gearing up to add fresh Gothic takes on all kinds of genres.

Hammer jumped into the ‘50s sci-fi craze like everyone else, but whereas American sci-fi thrills generally played out in broad daylight, much of Hammer’s output -- Four Sided Triangle (1953), The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), X the Unknown (1956) and The Abominable Snowman (1957) -- was shrouded in night and shadows, with surroundings that the classic monsters would have been very much at home in.

Then, starting in the late ‘50s, Hammer took those same monsters, lit them up in brilliant Technicolor (and Eastmancolor) and gave them new life. By 1962, Dracula, Baron Frankenstein, the Mummy and even a silver-haired werewolf had trod the boards at Hammer’s Bray studios.

"A Hammer Film Production" title screen
Back in the day, this set my geeky little heart to beating fast.

While Hammer is justifiably remembered for its colorful takes on the classic monsters, the studio delved into all sorts of genres in its bid to lure audiences away from the telly. Throughout the ‘50s, the studio churned out dozens of crime dramas, period pieces, war pictures and even a handful of comedies.

In the early ‘60s, the sensational success of Hitchcock’s Psycho set the studio scrambling to capitalize on the psychological horror craze with films like Scream of Fear (1961), Paranoiac (1963), and Maniac (1963).

And bless their hearts, even as the decade was advancing inexorably toward its date with the youth movement and flower power, Hammer was still greenlighting swashbucklers and pirate movies long after most other film companies had abandoned the genre.

Night Creatures (aka Captain Clegg, 1962) had more of a circuitous route to getting on the silver screen than most Hammer pictures, and partly as a result, the marketing emphasized its rather mild horror aspects. In the UK, it was released under the title Captain Clegg and was paired with Hammer’s version of The Phantom of the Opera; in the U.S. it became Night Creatures, and was the bottom half of a double bill featuring Hitchcock’s The Birds. (More on that later…)

The horror elements are frontloaded into this modestly budgeted swashbuckler. In the prologue (captioned 1776), a brutish sailor (Milton Reid) has been brought before the captain (whose face we never see), charged with having assaulted the captain’s wife. For this crime, he’s sentenced to have his ears slashed and his tongue cut out, and then banished to a remote island with no food or water.

Fast forward to 1792, where, back on the mainland, a lone figure is furtively making his way across desolate marshlands in the dead of night. He’s stopped in his tracks by the sight of demonic glowing skeletons on horseback, and in terror he flees and then trips and collapses in a heap in front of a scarecrow. The scarecrow suddenly opens its eyes and glares down at him. Now thoroughly freaked out, the man backs into a brackish swamp, which swallows him up.

"We only wanted to ask him if this was the way to Bray Studios!"

We soon learn that the unfortunate victim was an informer for the Crown who had been reporting on possible smuggling activities in the coastal marshes near the village of Dymchurch. The smuggling rumors bring a squad of the King’s men to Dymchurch led by the brash and cocky Captain Collier (Patrick Allen).

At this point, Night Creatures settles down (comparatively speaking) to a cat and mouse game between the villagers (who are definitely up to no good, at least from the authorities’ perspective) and the King’s agents.

Collier tries to intimidate the town by striding imperiously into the church where the dynamic vicar Dr. Blyss (Peter Cushing) is conducting services. Blyss invites him to stay for the rest of the sermon, if he will only remove his hat. Collier snaps back that while he serves the King, the hat stays on.

Outside, in a meet and greet with the Captain in the churchyard, Blyss plays to Collier’s ego by telling him what an honor it is to meet a hero of the empire. Standing over the grave of the notorious Captain Clegg (the merciless captain in the prologue), Collier puffs himself up:

Collier: I flatter myself that I gave him a run for his money.
Blyss: But you never caught him Captain.
Collier: Yes that’s true, but how did you know?
Blyss: He was hanged at Rye, I attended his last rites as prison chaplain.
Collier: Last rites? I suppose he repented all his sins at the last moment?
Blyss: He died a Christian. I proceeded to give him a Christian burial here at Dymchurch.
Collier: Well if I’d have caught him he’d have had a different end. I’d have had him hanged, drawn and quartered, publicly too.
Blyss: I’m sure you would, but then you didn’t catch him, did you?
Peter Cushing as Dr. Blyss and Patrick Allen as Captain Collier, Night Creatures, 1962
The first round goes to Dr. Blyss.

After the exchange, Blyss, who is in charge of more than just the church, meets with his right hand men, Mipps the undertaker (Michael Ripper) and Rash the innkeeper (Martin Benson), and coldly orders that the villagers deny Collier’s men any quarters.

Much of the movie consists of Dr. Blyss and his band leading Collier and his men around by their noses while unctuously pretending to serve them. They employ secret passages, Mipps’ coffins to ferry around the contraband, men disguised as scarecrows to spy on outsiders, and of course, the eerie marsh phantoms to scare off would-be informers and distract the King’s men.

But Collier is not without brains and resources, including the brute man seen in the prologue, whom he uses like a drug-sniffing dog (!!) (The man had been rescued from the island by a passing English ship. While he is crude, mute and repulsive to look at, he’s not entirely unsympathetic, and he figures prominently in the rousing denouement.)

Night Creatures is slowed down somewhat by a bland romantic subplot involving foppish Harry (Oliver Reed), son of the wealthy squire, and Imogene, the tavern maid (Yvonne Romain). The two had been used to much better effect the year before in Curse of the Werewolf. At least Harry has the honor of being wounded in the line of duty.

Oliver Reed and Yvonne Romain in Night Creatures, 1962
"I now pronounce you a mundane romantic subplot."

A somewhat harsher fate awaits Rash, who is aptly named. In the time-honored tradition of B-movie creeps, Rash, who is also Imogene’s guardian, stumbles on a secret involving the blushing, beautiful maid and decides that he wants her for himself. Although he is Blyss’ lieutenant, the good doctor becomes suspicious of the fretful innkeeper, and the question of whether Rash will stay true to his comrades or give them up provides additional suspense.

Michael Ripper, who was a standard fixture at Hammer, almost steals the show as the slyly servile undertaker Mipps. With unnaturally rosy cheeks not unlike a fresh cadaver made up for an open casket funeral, Mipps wears an all-knowing grin while he misdirects Collier and spars with the dour innkeeper. There’s a great scene where Rash rushes into the undertaker’s workshop to warn him that Collier and his men are approaching, and is startled when Mipps suddenly sits up in the coffin where he’d been sleeping.

Michael Benson, Michael Ripper and Peter Cushing in Night Creatures, 1962
"Let's get to it men! We've got to deliver those kegs to the fraternity house before nightfall!"

Of course the main event is the battle of wits between the duty-bound Captain and the wily vicar. It’s a credit to the film that both characters have their talents and faults (huge egos among them), and neither is a cardboard bogeyman. For much of the movie, Blyss is the chess master moving his pawns around, always several moves ahead of Collier, who seems to be more of a checkers kind of guy. But the Captain’s perseverance forces a final, fateful confrontation (and an opportunity for Cushing/Blyss -- and his stunt double -- to demonstrate buccaneering skills by swinging from the rafters and engaging in a lengthy, thrilling fight scene).

While some might wish the film had done more with the creepy marsh phantoms and less with the verbal repartee, it’s still a good adventure yarn with a cast of talented regulars and the studio’s signature production values. Hammer had a knack for making its modestly budgeted Gothic horrors and historical dramas look like a million bucks.

Where to find it: Streaming | Blu-ray (8 film collection)  

Secrets of the Marsh Phantoms #1: Night Creatures’ path to getting made had more twists and turns than a smuggler’s secret passageway. Major Pictures, which had secured the rights to a 1937 film adaptation of Russell Thorndike’s novel Doctor Syn -- A Tale of Romney Marsh (1915), came to Hammer with a proposal to do a re-make. Hammer promptly got into a legal dispute with Disney, which had gotten the rights to Dr. Syn directly from Thorndike’s publisher to do their version, which aired in the U.S. as a 3 part mini-series, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, on The Magical World of Disney in Feb. 1964.

As Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes relate in The Hammer Story, “[Hammer] arrived at a compromise with Disney in mid-September: Hammer could make their version of Thorndike’s story, but they were forbidden to use ‘Dr. Syn’ as either the name of a character in the screenplay or as the title of the film itself. [Producer] Anthony Hinds cancelled an imminent holiday and hastily rewrote [the] first draft, removing all references to Dr. Syn and naming Thorndike’s undercover pirate Dr. Arne. (Peter Cushing was so enthused by the project that he also wrote a screenplay, Doctor Syn, based on the books.)” Further delayed by union troubles, the production finally got underway in September of 1961, with Dr. Arne renamed Dr. Blyss in the final draft. [Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes. The Hammer Story: The Authorized History of Hammer Films, Titan Books, 2007, p. 70]

Secrets of the Marsh Phantoms #2: Hearn and Barnes again: “The film was lent a supernatural atmosphere by the inclusion of the ‘marsh phantoms,’ which were heavily promoted in the film’s publicity. ‘We painted black body suits for both the horsemen and the horses with codit reflective paint,’ recalls special effects assistant Ian Scoones. ‘Two film spotlights were placed either side of the camera lens, giving a bright, luminous effect…’

Scoones loaned Hammer ‘François,’ a human skull he discovered in ‘Dead Man’s Island,’ unconsecrated Kent marshland where the Admiralty buried French prisoners of war: ‘It is François, illuminated with codit paint, zooming up to the lens that drives the fleeing Sydney Bromley [the unfortunate informer] into the swamp…” [Ibid., p. 71]

Secrets of the Marsh Phantoms #3: Night Creatures, the title that Universal-International used for the U.S. release, was previously attached to a Hammer project to adapt Richard Matheson’s novel I am Legend to the screen. The British Board of Film Censors nixed the project, and since Hammer had promised Universal a ‘Night Creatures’ movie, Captain Clegg got stuck with the title. 

Milton Reid sniffs around for contraband brandy in Night Creatures, 1962
"Are you sure this is going to be enough for the party?"

September 6, 2021

Don't Tempt Fate: I Bury the Living

Poster - I Bury the Living, 1958
Now Playing:
I Bury the Living (1958)

Pros: Brilliantly builds mood and tension; Top notch performances; Great visual design and music score.
Cons: The pat, conventional ending spoils the mood for some people.

This post is part of the “No True Scotsman” blogathon hosted by the inimitable Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews. The purpose of the blogathon is for participants to present, for good or ill, a movie or TV episode featuring a Scottish character played by a non-Scot. I jumped at the opportunity, since one of my very favorite B horror films of the ‘50s, I Bury the Living, features an Austrian by birth, Theodore Bikel, playing a sly old Scottish cemetery caretaker for all he’s worth. But more on that later…

My wife thinks I need a hearing aid. I can hear just fine -- it’s not so much a hearing problem as it is a case of selective attention. I hear what I need to and filter out the rest. Okay, so I don’t always zero in on the important stuff the first time, but is it really that hard to repeat things once in a while?

She also hates it when I turn on the soundbar with the TV and crank it up. But I keep insisting that the sound engineers on these movies and TV shows have labored mightily at their craft, and it would be doing them a great disservice not to catch every nuance of their work.

Soundbar or no, hearing loss or no hearing loss, lately I’ve had to admit that I may not be the greatest at picking up on those subtle auditory nuances. Even acknowledging that “U.S.” entertainment production is (and pretty much always has been) an international enterprise, with financing, management and talent coming from all parts of the globe, I still have those “well, duh!” moments, especially when an actor I assumed to be American on a domestic show is revealed to be a Brit or Aussie or some other nationality.

I love mysteries and crime dramas. For example, I’ve seen almost every episode of the original Law & Order, some of them multiple times. For the last three seasons of the show, Linus Roache played Assistant DA Michael Cutter with what to my untrained ear was a flawless New York accent. (I suppose the name Linus was a big clue that he wasn’t raised in the U.S. -- what American kid could possibly have survived into adulthood with a name like that?) I was channel surfing one day, and came upon an interview with Linus, who responded to questions with his born and bred Manchester English accent. Surprise!

Vintage photograph of an enhanced ear trumpet
The Acme Accent Amplifier allows you to detect fake accents in movies, TV shows and real life.

More recently, I somehow missed the memo about Tom Payne, the star of another late, lamented show, Prodigal Son. It was deja vu all over again as I stumbled upon one of his interviews and realized that I’d been fooled by yet another Brit with a great American accent. Huh. I’ve got to get out more.

On the flip side, professional actors whose job it is to get these things right butcher accents all the time. If you Google “worst movie accents,” you’ll find a lot of American actors there, but a fair number from other countries as well. Here, in no particular order, are a few of the more regrettable examples that pop up in multiple lists:

  • Dick Van Dyke’s legendarily bad Cockney accent in Mary Poppins
  • Keanu Reeves’ surfer-dude English accent playing Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker’s Dracula
  • Kevin Kostner’s English accent that comes and goes in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
  • Tom Cruise’s far from adequate Irish brogue in Far and Away
  • Sean Connery, a Scot playing a Spaniard, and Christopher Lambert, a Frenchman playing a Scotsman, in Highlander (commence head-scratching)
  • And of course, in keeping with the No True Scotsman theme, Aussie Mel Gibson’s take on Scottish legend William Wallace in Braveheart. Gibson’s Scottish accent is so bad that true Scots voted it the second worst in cinematic history, edged out only by Lambert’s attempt at being a Scots Highlander.
Mel Gibson in Braveheart, 1995
Is Mel Gibson the worst fake Scotsman of all-time, or just the second worst?
Here he is pictured hurling abuse at his critics. 

Which brings us to our faux Scotsman of the hour, Theodore Bikel, born in Vienna Austria in 1924, playing cemetery caretaker Andy McKee with a thick Scottish accent in I Bury the Living (1958).

McKee, who has been the caretaker of the Immortal Hills town cemetery for 40 years, has a new boss. Bob Kraft (Richard Boone), the manager of the local department store, has been strong-armed by his uncle and the other town elders into taking over chairmanship of the community cemetery.

Kraft, who insists that he’s too busy for the added responsibility, reluctantly stops by the cottage on the cemetery grounds to get an orientation from McKee. McKee shows him a very large and detailed map of the grounds, explaining that plots marked with black push-pins are already occupied, and those with white ones are reserved for the not-yet deceased.

When Kraft learns of Andy’s longevity on the job, he informs him that he will be retired with a full pension, and offhandedly asks him to look around for his replacement. After some mild protest, Andy seems to take the news in stride, but in an ominous passive-aggressive gesture, he takes a pistol from the desk, telling Bob that it’s available in case of an emergency.

The tension is defused when a young newly married couple, Stu and Elizabeth Drexel, drive up to the cottage. Stu happily informs Bob that one of the stipulations of his trust fund was that when he got married, he would buy his-and-her cemetery plots (!?). After the deal is done, Bob casually grabs some pins to mark the newly sold plots -- black ones.

The next day, Bob is shocked to learn that the couple have been killed in an accident. He meets up with Andy and Jessup (Herbert Anderson), the local newspaper reporter who is on obituary assignment. When Bob asks Andy to change the Drexel plot pins to black, the caretaker observes that they were already black. Kraft admits to the error, and also to an eerie feeling about the incident. McKee drily observes that it’s as if he’d marked the couple for death.

Still bothered by the eerie coincidence, Kraft distractedly puts a black pin in a random plot on the map and draws the white pin out. The plot owner, an elderly toymaker, soon collapses and dies in his workshop.

Now thoroughly freaked out, Kraft tells his uncle George (Howard Smith) that he’s quitting the chairmanship immediately -- he’s put 3 black pins where they shouldn’t be, and 3 people have died. George laughs off Kraft’s concerns, and to show him there’s nothing more to it than coincidence, he drives his nephew out to the cottage to have one more go at the map. George takes out the white pin of one of the other cemetery committee members, Henry Trowbridge (Russ Bender), and persuades Bob to put a black one in its place.

Later that night, in a cold sweat Bob calls Trowbridge’s house. His wife answers and goes to get her husband. After several suspenseful seconds, she’s back on the phone, panicked, saying that her husband isn’t breathing.

Trowbridge’s untimely death sends Kraft reeling, convinced that somehow, with his black pins, he has the power of life and death over the town. He goes to the police, but with no evidence of foul play, there’s nothing they can do.

With one of their own dead and their chairman spiraling towards a nervous breakdown, Uncle George and the surviving members of the cemetery committee, themselves rattled by events, nonetheless double down and insist that Bob put black pins on their plots to prove once and for all that it was all just a series of terrible coincidences. Needless to say, this is a very bad move.

Even as Kraft is descending into madness and the town elders are questioning their own sanity, Andy, the grizzled caretaker, is seemingly a rock of stability and sanity, always at the ready to with a piece of advice or to help with things like locating a space heater for the bitterly cold cemetery cottage.

At the beginning, in the light of day, the old Scotsman seems genial and genuinely helpful. But as the pins work their black magic and things turn dark and anxious, Andy, with his mop of nearly white hair and cemetery pallor, becomes a ghost-like presence, as if he were haunting Kraft to remind him of his sins.

As the bodies start to pile up, Andy is happily chiseling names into the tombstones, softly singing old English folk tunes to himself. Soon, Kraft starts hearing the clinking of the chisel everywhere he goes.

At the point where Kraft is obsessed and possessed, unable to tear himself away from the map as he broods over its (his?) powers, Andy shows up in the middle of the night at the cottage door, just a portion of his face bathed in eerie light as Kraft blocks his entry. His thick Scottish brogue cracking with anxiety, he pleads with his boss to let it go:

It’s quite an effective little monologue, reminiscent of previous famous horror film warnings to not dabble with things better left alone, but with its own unique, spooky spin. If there was ever an actor who could make your skin crawl with a fake Scottish accent, it was character actor-extraordinaire Theodore Bikel.

Born in Vienna to Jewish parents who had the presence of mind to emigrate when Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, Bikel started acting in his teens, and attended London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in his early ‘20s.

His first big break in the theater came in the London production of A Streetcar Named Desire with Vivien Leigh, when one of the actors he was understudying came down with the flu. The multitalented Bikel, who was also a great singer, would go on to establish the character of Captain Von Trapp in the original production of The Sound of Music, take over for Zero Mostel as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, and record dozens of folk and contemporary albums.

Theodore Bikel and Charles McGraw in The Defiant Ones (1958)
Theodore Bikel (left) earned an Academy Award nomination for his
portrayal of a Southern sheriff in The Defiant Ones (1958).

As a folk singer, Bikel was able to sing in 21 languages, and in the movies and TV, he became a specialist in portraying characters from all kinds of places and backgrounds.

“[O]n television Mr. Bikel played an Armenian merchant on 'Ironside,' a Polish professor on 'Charlie’s Angels,' an American professor on 'The Paper Chase,' a Bulgarian villain on 'Falcon Crest,' the Russian adoptive father of a Klingon on 'Star Trek: The Next Generation,' and an Italian opera star on 'Murder, She Wrote.'

He also played a Greek peanut vendor, a blind Portuguese cobbler, a prison guard on Devil’s Island, a mad bomber, a South African Boer, a sinister Chinese gangster, Henry A. Kissinger and a misanthrope who gets his comeuppance on 'The Twilight Zone.'

In movies he played several German officers, beginning with 'The African Queen' (1951); a compassionate Southern sheriff in 'The Defiant Ones' (1958), for which he received an Academy Award nomination; the king of Serbia in 'Moulin Rouge' (1953); a Russian-speaking submarine commander in 'The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming' (1966); and an effusive, overbearing Hungarian linguist in 'My Fair Lady' (1964).

… Some time later he told The New York Times: ‘Some actors are what they are no matter what name you give them. Clark Gable looked, walked and talked exactly the same in every picture. I like to change shape, accent and gait. That way I never get stale.’” [“Theodore Bikel, Master of Versatility in Songs, Roles and Activism, Dies at 91,” New York Times, July 21, 2015]

Such a talented chameleon was a natural to take on the role of the crusty old Scotsman -- not only did Bikel deliver a creditable Scottish brogue, but he was also only 34 at the time, playing a character easily 30 years his senior.

Of course, I would be remiss not to mention the other stars of I Bury the Living. Tough guy Richard Boone is in almost every scene, and his descent from an upright, no-nonsense businessman to a terrified, gibbering madman running and stumbling through a graveyard in the middle of the night is something to behold. The film, which starts out with brightly lit office scenes and affectionate exchanges between Kraft and his fiancee (Peggy Mauer), steadily gets darker as an uncanny dread takes over, and the locale shifts exclusively to the cemetery and the cottage, which becomes a waiting room in Hell.

Bob Kraft (Richard Boone) answers the phone in I Bury the Living, 1958
Bob Kraft learns the hard way never to answer the telephone in a horror movie.

At this point in his career, Boone, who had specialized in movie tough guy and villain roles, was transitioning over to leading man roles in TV. He had just finished a stint as Dr. Konrad Styner in the TV series Medic, and he was just getting started as the suave Old West PI/gunfighter Paladin in Have Gun Will Travel.

Boone is perfectly cast -- it’s doubly interesting to see such a rock-solid, tough character unravel through the course of the film, and it’s a bravura performance.

Also noteworthy is the team of producer/director Albert Band (father of Charles Band, of Full Moon Pictures fame) and production/visual designer Edward Vorkapich (son of pioneering filmmaker and montage master Slavko Vorkapich). It’s not easy to make an inanimate object into a terrifying monster, but they pull it off with a sort of surreal panache.

As the film progresses, the cemetery plot map starts to take on a life of its own. We increasingly see it, and the dread black pins, in extreme close-up as Kraft becomes more and more obsessed. By the climax, it’s burning with its own demonic light, and in some striking long and medium shots, the details are obscured with only the roads running through the cemetery standing out, looking like abstract eyes glaring at Kraft. If there was a B-movie hall of fame for frightful inanimate objects, the map would be a founding inductee.

Kraft (Richard Boone) sets fire to a stool as the cemetery map looks on in I Bury the Living, 1958
"I can't shake the feeling that somebody's watching me!"

I Bury the Living was one of Band’s first credits, and he would go on to produce and direct dozens of highly entertaining B’s and direct-to-video releases under the Empire Pictures and Full Moon banners. Vorkapich joined Band for one more film, the excellent but very obscure horror drama Face of Fire (1958; based on a Stephen Crane short story), before going on to other things.

Kudos too to composer Gerald Fried, whose score sets an ominous mood from the get-go and pulls out all the stops, including refrains from the folksong that McKee merrily sings, to ratchet up the tension. Fried, who got his start composing for such ‘50s B horror and sci-fi movies as The Vampire, The Return of Dracula, and The Flame Barrier (not to mention collaborations with Stanley Kubrick on Killer’s Kiss and Paths of Glory), has over 140 credits, and is still composing!

Some people think that I Bury the Living’s uninspired ending breaks the mood and suspension of disbelief that was so carefully built up. The first time I saw the film, I was inclined to agree. However, with my latest viewing, I now think that the ending is actually quite brilliant. It’s so drearily pat and conventional that you could see it, and not the preceding supernatural events, as all in Kraft’s mind, a desperate attempt to explain the unexplainable and hold on to his sanity.

Whichever way you look at it, I Bury the Living is a wild, surreal ride, unlike any other B horror movie of the 1950s.

Where to find it: Streaming | DVD/Blu-ray  

Theodore Bikel gets a chance to do a little folk singing in I Bury the Living: