*. Chances are you’ve never heard of the Reverend Doctor Christopher Syn, but he was a minor fiction franchise a century ago. In 1962 you might still expect a British audience to recognize the name.
*. There were, I believe, seven Dr. Syn novels, written by Russell Thorndike. This film is based on the first (which was chronologically the last): Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh (1915). That’s the book this movie is based on.
*. So why is Dr. Syn now Dr. Blyss? And why is this movie called Night Creatures (its U.S. title, in the U.K. it was known as Captain Clegg)? Because Disney had the rights to the Dr. Syn novels and the next year they would come out with a film based on the same book, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (1963).
*. I mention all this because knowing the story behind the character of Dr. Syn would have helped audiences in the ’60s. Without that background it’s a hard movie to square morally. Surely the gang of smugglers are a bad bunch. They’re criminals. They cut out the Mulatto’s tongue and leave him to die on a desert island. They kill snitches and dump their bodies in the marsh. Not nice people at all.
*. But Dr. Syn/Dr. Blyss/Captain Clegg (the U.K. title gives the game away) is a sympathetic figure. He wants to help the poor people of the town of Dymchurch and provide for his ravishing daughter. So is he alright?
*. I don’t think so, but he’s Peter Cushing and you always sort of like Peter Cushing. It’s the fact that he’s providing for his daughter by marrying her off to Oliver Reed that is probably the worst thing about him. As if that’s going to work out.
*. How good was Peter Cushing? I find him impossible to judge since he was in so many sub-standard, low-budget Hammer movies, directed by journeymen and working with potboiler scripts. He always seems to stand above the material, but that may be due to his natural air of dignity and refinement. You can’t help feeling he’s slumming it in these flicks, but on the other hand, they’re mostly what he did.
*. That’s not Oddjob, by the way, playing the Mulatto. It’s Milton Reid, who actually appeared in three Bond movies as a heavy (Dr. No, the first Casino Royale, and The Spy Who Loved Me). Reid wanted the role of Oddjob, and challenged Harold Sakata to a wrestling match to see who would get the part, but the producers wanted somebody different. Reid has a fascinating biography that’s worth checking out if you get the chance.
*. There’s a lot of stuff to like here. It’s a strong story, well-plotted and with some interesting characters. And the night riders look much better than they should in their glow-in-the-dark Hallowe’en skeleton costumes, apparently smeared with the same pitch the villains used to light up the hound of the Baskervilles (I don’t know what else they’d be using in the eighteenth century).
*. But aside from those riders there isn’t enough here that stands out. Like a lot of Hammer productions it’s a workmanlike (or, less charitably, unimaginative) production of a decent script. I don’t think anyone remembers the Syn novels today, and after the passage of another century I doubt anyone will remember this adaptation. But I guess both were fun at the time.