Given the success of their horror and fantasy films, it is easy to overlook some of the more “realistic” offerings from Hammer Studios like Night Creatures. (The qualifying quotes are virtually de rigeur.) While Night Creatures initially seems to be setting us up for a horror story, as ghostly apparitions known as the Marsh Phantoms run down a vagrant, that proves to be a ruse. While the Phantoms put in another couple of appearances, their existence is quickly shown to be anything but supernatural. They are secondary to the main story which, while violent, is not horrific.
The Phantoms are effectively horror decor at the edges of a clash between a group of smugglers in an English coastal village and a contingent of Royal Navy sailors come to investigate. The situation is unusually plot heavy for a Hammer film, with several major characters and a lot of extraneous action that is more confusing than involving. (When the shipment of illicit French grog that motivates the sailors’ presence eludes their grasp, for example, it feels almost like an afterthought.) Perhaps the most interesting thing about the story is that neither the villagers nor the sailors are particularly attractive. With no larger-than-life villain like a Dracula threatening everyone, we do not automatically sympathize with the main characters in sheer fear. Instead, Hammer hyperbole is lavished on abundant human perfidy, cruelty and weakness.
Set in the late 18th century, rich period atmosphere cushions action pitched as a series of screeching exclamation points, underlined by a thunderous, declamatory score. The results are about as subtle as an avalanche, but then Hammer films live by their bravura brush strokes of vivid, colorful action. That the director (Peter Graham Scott) and technicians execute their swirling canvas amidst the seemingly placid charms of rural England rather than against a roiling backdrop like a Transylvania testifies to the studio’s seemingly inexhaustible invention.
The ever reliable Peter Cushing once again excels as Reverend Blyss, perhaps because his character requires a degree of dotty, feigned affability that allows him to play against the turbulence surrounding him. His antagonist, Captain Collier (Patrick Allen) also plays against the hysteria, although his occasionally brutal stolidity inevitably lacks the charms of Cushing’s performance. Collier isn’t helped by the story’s requirement that he and his men do a lot of pointless to-ing and fro-ing that not only makes them seem rather stupid, but adds to the sense that the movie is standing in place.
For while a lot happens in Night Creatures, very little develops until a pretty predictable and obvious conclusion. The Sturm und Drang that precedes the ending feels more like delaying tactics than the plausible outcome of the situation and action. Still, if the results do not cohere into one of Hammer’s most memorable efforts, they at least are reasonably diverting while you watch. Fresh, plausible and subtle Night Creatures is not, but it still entertains.