Column: The Vault of Secrets: Night Creatures (1962)

By Orrin Grey

Night Creatures (1962). Directed by: Peter Graham Scott. Starring: Peter Cushing, Oliver Reed, Yvonne Romain, Patrick Allen.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. Tonight’s picture is a personal favorite of mine that may not be much of a horror movie, but that I think is very autumnal, and beautifully suited to the Halloween season. Originally released as Captain Clegg, it had its name changed to the less accurate but perhaps more evocative Night Creatures for American distribution. Since that’s the name that was on my DVD copy (which was a part of this excellent set), that’s what I’ll be calling it.

There’s actually a fun story behind the title. ‘Night Creatures‘ was originally going to be the moniker of the Vincent Price-starring Hammer films adaptation of Richard Matheson’s great vampire novel I Am Legend, before the project fell apart and re-formed at a different studio as The Last Man on Earth. Hammer kept the title on hand, though, and eventually ended up re-using it for the American release of tonight’s film. (In a clever bridge between the two titles, there’s a semi-fictitious psychobilly band, featured in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, named in honor of tonight’s film that’s called “Captain Clegg and the Night Creatures.”)

In spite of his name not appearing anywhere in the movie, Night Creatures is based on a series of books by Russell Thorndike that chronicle the adventures of a character called “Dr. Syn.” In the books, Dr. Syn is a vicar by day and a Robin Hood-esque smuggler who goes by the alias, “The Scarecrow,” by night. He also spent some time as a pirate, during which he went under the name ‘Captain Clegg.’ (Hence the original title of tonight’s film.)

In Night Creatures the Captain Clegg name stays, as does much of the groundwork of the story, but his daytime alias changes to ‘Parson Blyss’ in order to avoid crossing swords with a Disney version of the same story that was in production at the same time. (More on this later.) The two versions end up being very different, in spite of sharing a setting, a main plot, and the same basic characters. Night Creatures is still a Hammer movie through-and-through, capitalizing on the piracy elements of the books, and filling the area around the main plot with graveyards and mist-shrouded moors and forbidden loves. The “Scarecrow” persona has been dropped in Night Creatures. Instead, Clegg and his men dress up as “marsh phantoms.” They (and even their horses) wear glow-in-the-dark skeleton outfits, creating a visual that’s easily the most famous part of the film. The “marsh phantoms” don’t show up very much in the movie, but, when they do, they look great and very Halloween-y.

Night Creatures is written by Hammer stalwart Anthony Hinds (writing, as he always did, as ‘John Elder’), and directed by Peter Graham Scott, a prolific TV director. Hammer regulars like Peter Cushing, Oliver Reed, and Michael Ripper help ensure that, while it’s not necessarily as stylish as some of the studio’s more Gothic fare, you can never forget that you’re watching a Hammer film.

As a sort of Halloween bonus, I also caught the aforementioned Disney film for the first time. Variously called “Dr. Syn” or “The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh,” there are two versions of the movie: the three-part series that originally aired on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color in 1963 (right on the heels of Night Creatures) and another version that was re-cut as a feature film. I watched the former, though both are available together on DVD.

The Disney film is fondly remembered by lots of folks, but is perhaps best known for the fact that the costume of Dr. Syn’s Scarecrow persona is supposed to have influenced the design of the Batman villain of the same name. (Batman’s rogues gallery is full of figures drawn from old horror cinema, with the most famous being the Joker’s inspiration from The Man Who Laughs.)

That’s it for tonight’s program. Be sure to join us next time when our car breaks down in a storm and we have to spend the night in an Old, Dark House.