DVD has done many good things for the Hammer back catalogue, and the best surely has to be its ability to dust off forgotten films like Captain Clegg and restore them for a new generation of viewers. Tucked away on Side B of the second disc within Universal’s superior The Hammer Horror Series set, Captain Clegg might have none of the lustre that comes with the studio’s Dracula or Frankenstein features but that doesn’t make it inferior. Give it several minutes to warm up and this swashbuckling tale of south coast skullduggery - disguised as horror fare - is incredibly good fun, moves with the pace of a densely layered plot stuffed into 82 minutes, and features some cracking performances.
The tale of how Captain Clegg made it onto the screen is legend in itself. His story is part of the adventures of the Reverend Doctor Christopher Syn, the lead character in a popular series of novels by Russell Thorndike. Anthony Hinds was forced to make changes to his screenplay for the film once it transpired that Disney had bought the rights to adapt Thorndike’s books for the screen, and sure enough the tale was dramatised in a mini-series starring Patrick McGoohan (edited for cinema audiences in the UK). The main amendment in Hammer’s version saw Clegg become Parson Blyss, removing any reference to Dr Syn in the process. The character’s mythology remains, however, almost in its entirety, as does the supporting cast. Some of the dialogue between Blyss and Mipps in the film hints at a back story that could only mean anything to followers of Thorndike’s novels and, as luck would have it, gives Captain Clegg a lot more depth than it might otherwise achieve.
In America, the film was released as Night Creatures, and indeed this is what it’s called on the R1 set. According to its Wiki, Hammer has promised their American distributor a picture based on Richard Matheson’s novel, I am Legend, which would be entitled Night Creatures. They were warned off continuing the project because the subject matter would make it too strong for the certifiers. A contract was a contract, however, and Hammer offered Captain Clegg instead, emphasising the spectres that haunt the marshes in the story in order to justify the title. A shame, as the story was strong enough when focusing on the derring-do of the smugglers. Ultimately, it was this that really differentiated Hammer’s picture from that produced by Disney, the latter released as a straightforward family offering whilst Night Creatures was marketed to a more mature audience.
The ‘night creatures’ - men on horseback wearing skeleton costumes with luminous paint - are actually the weakest element of the film. Of far more interest is the good Parson (Peter Cushing), who in his first scene admonishes his congregation for their half-hearted hymn signing. It’s clear that Cushing is having a whale of a time in this picture. Whether playing the angelic Blyss or flipping his character fluidly to become the leader of the smugglers (and Cushing is subtle enough to make his change look absolutely natural), he’s in imperial form and runs rings around Patrick Allen as the virtuous Captain Collier. Collier is in Romney Marshes to investigate a claim of smuggling but finds next to no evidence. Fortunately for him, the community is flawed enough to give him sufficient motivation to stick around, and then there are the erratic actions of his captive Mulatto (Milton Reid) to consider. Why does the mute giant, who was rendered so and left for dead by Clegg, take such a deadly interest in the Parson? What lies behind the legend of the marsh creatures? Something’s not right, whether it’s in the scarecrow that appears to be in various places at once, and might even make the occasional gesture, or the bottles of fine wine that turn up in the cabinets of the Parson and the spineless Squire (Derek Frances).
In reality, all Collier ever needed to do was look into the background of Imogene (Yvonne Romain), the village tavern’s serving wench. Nobody that exotic should be anywhere near the Suffolk coast and there’s an easy connection between her and Clegg - alleged to be hanged and then buried in the churchyard - that any investigator worth his salt would explore. But not Collier. Like much of the audience, he sees Imogene as nothing more than eye candy, lovely eye candy for sure but that’s where her story ends. Or does it?
Neither does Collier bother much with the Squire’s son, Harry (Oliver Reed), Imogene’s lover and a key member of the smugglers. Reed is fantastic in Captain Clegg. Even though his role is that of a callow youth, the young gun to Clegg’s old hand, the actor has far too much smouldering intensity to be boring. Watching Reed in these early roles, it’s clear why he still commanded so much attention during his ‘Wild Thing’ years. The charismatic talent was there. Bags of it. Of the remaining cast, Michael Ripper is his usual likeable self, thoroughly enjoying himself as Mipps, a jolly jack-tar if ever there was one. Everyone knows that Hammer films are onto a winner when Ripper ‘rips’ up the stage. The man gives a full-blooded turn, as ever. And then there’s Collier, who is turned into a surprisingly sympathetic character by Allen. Despite his squarest of jaws, the good Captain has some depth in the hands of this fine actor whose brief was surely just to make a two-dimensional authority figure of his part.
The smugglers’ attempts to dodge the authorities are what make this movie such good, roister-doistering fun. In one scene, a villager sends Collier’s entire company deep into Romney Marshes on a search for the night creatures, a diversion while his mates arrange a shipment of continental wine. It’s so high-spirited that you could forget smuggling was nothing like the knockabout high jinks portrayed here and personified in Mipps’s easy laughter. There’s nothing of the desperate cut-throatery of real life where these fellows are concerned. The smugglers are the good guys, and if there is a concern that we aren’t cheering them on enough it transpires Clegg is doing it all to put money back into the community, stealing from the rich - the government - and giving to the poor. Bless.
But then, Hammer’s mandate was rarely to offer a slice of gritty, hard life in their work but rather to entertain, and Captain Clegg delivers on that front. It might have been forgotten if not for the efforts of a group of loving restorers, and it’s certainly deemed to be among the lesser works of the studio’s catalogue, but the film represents nothing less than Hammer at its considerable creative peak.