It's an adaptation of Russell Thorndike's Doctor Syn novels, with Peter Cushing in the title role. It's also a Hammer movie, but it's not bad and it's not horror.
Firstly, who's Doctor Syn? Answer: a vicar in an English coastal village who runs a smuggling ring, outwits the king's Excise men and used to be a pirate under the name of Captain Clegg. He's had three screen adaptations to date, if we ignore the similarities in Carry On Dick
. The first was in 1937 and starred George Arliss. This is the second and the third is a Disney version the following year, called The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh.
Is he a hero or a villain? Answer: an anti-hero, I think. His name's worrying, for a start. Here our first encounter with him is back in his pirate days. Someone gets their ears slit and their tongue cut out, then gets tied to a tree on a deserted island and left to die.
Cushing isn't playing him as a good guy, anyway. The character's dialogue is that of the ideal vicar, welcoming the Excise men with impeccable courtesy and being the soul of kindness... but Cushing's holding back. The usual charm is absent. There's a cold edge to this Syn. He's not in outright Frankenstein mode, but you can see he's got one foot planted in that territory, despite an almost Troughtonesque tone to some of his scenes with Patrick Allen's Captain Collier. He's nearly adorable and sometimes even funny, but Cushing never lets himself go all the way there.
However at the same time, he's not evil. He genuinely cares about his ecclesiastical duties, exhorting his congregation to sing more vigorously, and I believe him when he eventually talks about how his experiences have changed him. Then there's his relationship with Yvonne Romain's Imogene, a combination of the two Imogenes from Thorndike's novels, under the influence of which we can see him as noble. I love the way in which this film's "race against time" at the finale doesn't involve anything so mundane as sword fights or action, but instead a church service. Two people's happiness is at stake and Cushing puts his neck on the line to ensure that they get it.
He's a complex character. Cushing plays him as mostly a cold man, but sincere and wholehearted in what he believes in. He's a good friend and a bad enemy.
The rest of the cast's pretty good too. Patrick Allen is a strong foil for Cushing, while there's plenty of brooding intensity in Oliver Reed (yes, him) and Martin Benson. It feels like a juicy setting with characters you want to watch even when we're seeing Dymchurch's congregation in church, as the camera pans across everyone's faces for the first time. It's a great historical period and they've done it proud here. Michael Ripper gets a bigger role than usual as Mipps, a coffin-maker who sleeps in his work, while Yvonne Romain is a fine figure of a woman and sufficiently beautiful that I was looking her up to see what other movies she'd done. This is apparently her biggest role, but she's in quite a few British horror films, e.g. Corridors of Blood (1958), Circus of Horrors (1960), Devil Doll (1964) and The Curse of the Werewolf (1961). She later moved to Los Angeles and retired from acting.
It's a good film, I think. There's something staged and almost camp about Hammer's horror films, whereas I'm tempted to say that their house style has dated better with their non-horror output. I'd need to watch more of them to be confident in this assertion, but horror's trying to get under your skin. It feeds on realism in a way that other genres don't.
Hammer had trouble with the title, though. Firstly, they had to change Syn's name to Blyss because Disney were claiming exclusive rights to Thorndike's stories. Then, after that, the film got retitled as Night Creatures for its American release, because they'd already promised a film of that title when they were planning to adapt Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. Unfortunately the BBFC wouldn't let them do it (the swines!), so the promised title was slapped on to Captain Clegg instead. In fairness, though, it doesn't feel entirely irrelevant. Doctor Syn's smugglers pretend to be spectres on the marshes after dark.
The only thing I wasn't fond of was the mulatto (Milton Reed). He's straight from the novels and he's a key character, but I thought he got short-changed in the end and it's doubly unfortunate that they keep calling him "mulatto". That's a word we no longer use and good riddance. Anyway, Reed is a unique character and for the most part he's quite well served by the film. He's mute, but there's a reason for that. He wants revenge. We understand this. We know in our bones where his storyline's going to end up... but then when the film ends in the only way it possibly could, the moment's thrown away and Reed gets treated literally as a spear-carrier. We're not encouraged to feel for him in his big scene, or even to see him as anything other than a plot device. Had they got that moment right, I've have been full of praise for the character and I'd have had no objection to them calling him "mulatto" all the time.
Apart from that, though, it's good. It's more faithful to the novels than was the 1937 film, apparently, and it's a shame that it gets overlooked because it's not horror. It has a terrific cast, led by the mighty Cushing in a huge, complex role with lots of entertaining scenes up against Patrick Allen. It also feels vivid and dangerous, with the smugglers, the pirates and especially the king's Excise men all being people you wouldn't want to cross. The Excise men will beat people up, threaten to cut off body parts and merrily destroy your property while laughing at talk of compensation. If they catch you, they'll hang you. I'd recommend it.