JUNE IS TWILIGHT TIME MONTH
Anyone who’s been following this column for the past few years knows all too well that few studio movies get me more revved up than Hammer Films. Yep, I grew up on those grand (guignol) Technicolor goths that sprinkled their expertly told tales of terror with a pinch of adult themes.
Well, Hammer didn’t just produce horror pics. They made some really good noirs, post-Psycho thrillers (what Hammer cofounder James Carreras termed “mini Hitchcocks”), and historical action-adventure folk tales. While these colorful, exciting forays into our past generally took a back seat to the supernatural stuff, they definitely need to be acknowledged for the top-notch entertainments that they are. Many feature cross-over stars from the higher profile ghoulish flicks, up-and-coming newly signed talent (most prominently, Oliver Reed), Old Vic attractions on hiatus (Richard Pasco), plus the occasional participation of directors like Terence Fisher, who helped make Hammer an international success during these formative years (the late 1950s-early 1960s). Twilight Time, in conjunction with Columbia Pictures, has chosen to release two excellent examples of this Hammer sidebar genre, 1960’s SWORD OF SHERWOOD FOREST and 1962’s PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER. While these vest pocket epics usually supported the Dracula and Frankenstein movies, they nevertheless borrowed much of the mojo that put Hammer on the map: beautiful photography, graphic violence and monstrous villains (albeit human ones). So grab a flagon of ale, retreat to the library room, and journey back to the days of yore.
1960’s SWORD OF SHERWOOD FOREST cinematically defines a fun way to pass the time on a rainy weekend afternoon. While it will never seriously give Errol Flynn anything to worry about, it tells its tale quickly (80 minutes), professionally and with enough popcorn thrills to make viewers merry men and women. All the legend elements are here in Alan Hackney’s script, heightened by excellent color photography (in scope, too) by Ken Hodges (Eastmancolor in the States, Technicolour across the pond).
The movie stars Richard Greene as the fabled rogue, whose last name became lovingly adopted in the criminal world. While Greene, by 1960, was a bit long in the tooth to play Robin, it was stroke of genius in other ways. The actor had portrayed the bandit in a wildly successful internationally syndicated television series that ran between 1955-1959. Bringing him back (reruns were still playing here when the movie was in theaters) in his most famous role was inspired (he coproduced the pic with Hammer and Sidney Cole). The idea of seeing TV’s Robin on the big screen, and in color (still a big draw in 1960) was, for fans, too good to pass up.
But there are other reasons to enjoy this retelling. The cast is pure Hammer, with costar Peter Cushing (as Nottingham) doing an increasingly rare return to villainy (I never thought his Frankenstein was truly evil). Sarah Branch, so beguiling in the Hammer noir Hell is a City makes a pretty good Maid Marian (nicely athletic as well; she is definitely doing her own riding). Old Vic star Richard Pasco is particularly slimy as the never-to-be-trusted Earl of Newark and other noted thesps (many who appeared on the Greene series, but in other roles) also elevate the proceedings, including Niall MacGinnis, Dennis Lotis, Jack Gwillim, Nigel Greene, Vanda Godsell, Desmond Llewelyn, and Derren Nesbitt. A special nod must go to an unbilled Oliver Reed, just beginning his celebrated Hammer tenure, as a sinister French assassin. Interesting sidenote: Reed played his character (Lord Melton) as a lisping fop; once the rushes were screened, studio execs nixed the interpretation, but not enough to order retakes. A voice actor was hired to redub Reed. Best of all is the breezy direction by Terence Fisher, taking a brief respite from the goths (his renowned 1961 Stranglers of Bombay would be another foray into history’s violent past, and one of his non-horror triumphs).
The Twilight Time Blu-Ray of SWORD OF SHERWOOD FOREST looks just dandy in its 1080p evocation. The mono audio, featuring Alun Hoddinott’s score, sounds fine, too.
A colony of ex-pat Huguenots, living on the secluded isle of Devon, becomes a sanguine-drenched battlefield in 1962’s spirited THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER. The movie, a trim 87 minutes, hits the ground running – literally with a fleeing adulterous couple being chased to the shoreline of the title body of water. The lady in question (Marie Devereux) is liquidated by gnashing jaws, as the pond is infested with piranha (giving Hammer the op to stack this adventure pic with elements from its best known genre). The male lover, son of stolid fanatical religious leader, is banished to fifteen years in swamp-bordered prison so horrendous that even a ninety-day sojourn is tantamount to a death sentence. He escapes, is captured by pirates, and is given a ride home on the proviso that they allow the Huguenot sanctuary to double as their hideout. Of course, there’s an ulterior motive: Captain LaRoche, the leader of the sea-faring bandits, is convinced a great treasure is hidden by the populace. And, since this is a Hammer Film, there are always the bodacious women as an ancillary booty/booty incentive. The captive, Jonothon Standing, quickly realizes his mistake, and with childhood friend Henry and his fiancée Bess (Jonothon’s sister), stage a rebellion that makes most actioners look like an Our Gang birthday party (of course, one doesn’t tip one’s hat to a piranha-filled lake early-on without returning to this delicious device, which helps write the climax).
THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER is “rousing” with a capital “Rrrrrrrrrrr.” Many thanks are in order, firstly to the fantastic cast, led by Christopher Lee (as the nefarious LaRoche, his second Hammer pirate role), plus Kerwin Mathews and Glenn Corbett (unnecessary but welcome Yanks signed to cinch the American market, the former of 7th Voyage of Sinbad fame, the latter, late of William Castle’s Homicidal, both Columbia titles); the remainder of the thespians include such faves as Andrew Keir, Peter Arne, Marla Landi, Jack Stewart, David Lodge, Dennis Waterman (as a kiddie), Oliver Reed and Michael Ripper. Quite an array. The MegaScope (billed as HammerScope) color photography is top-notch as well, so additional kudos to Arthur Grant. And John Gilling’s and John Hunter’s script (story by Jimmy Sangster) is fast-paced-proof to allow for no dull moments (piranha and prison gang life aside, there’s a blindfolded sword fight to sweeten the pot).
The lion’s share of credit, of course, must go to cowriter/director Gilling, an underrated craftsman, who helmed one of my favorite horror pics (Flesh and the Fiends) and a couple Hammer ghoul classics (Plague of the Zombies, The Reptile). Gilling, it must be said, was sort of the UK version of Andre de Toth (as if one wasn’t enough); he, apparently took sadistic pleasure putting his actors in peril, as PIRATES ably proved. The lake used in the pic immediately tipped off the company of players that something wasn’t kosher from the foreboding pond scum surface and stench. Sure enough, it was dangerously polluted – and the forced treading through the thick germ soup resulted in several post-shoot cases of eye and ear infections and other debilitating diseases, including a severe muscle disorder for star Lee, who claimed it was a full half-year before he could properly walk a flight of stairs (it did not endear the star to Gilling, as he spied the director laughing throughout the entire debacle; for a more detailed account, I suggest seeking out a copy of Wayne Kinsey’s excellent book, Hammer Films: The Bray Years. An interview with Michael Ripper on BLOOD RIVER is harrowing, to say the least).
The Twilight Time Blu-Ray is everything Hammer fans could ask for: crisp, colorful scope visuals and a buoyant mono soundtrack (featuring Alun Hoddinott’s me-hearties pirate-friendly score). A funny note: when Sangster pitched the idea to studio head Michael Carreras, the mogul was instantly intrigued (no doubt, the piranha aspect), but warned the writer to not include a pirate ship (too much money); the shots of LaRoche’s vessel are all stock footage.
SWORD OF SHERWOOD FOREST. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.
THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.
Both Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries. SRP: $29.95@.
Limited Edition of 3000. Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment www.screenarchives.com .