Pirates, Hammer Style
PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER (John Gilling, 1962)
Although it boasts Christopher Lee (doing an odd Franco-Romanian amalgamated accent) as La Roche, a black-clad, brooding pirate, 1962's PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER's genuine (if fading) star is actually Kerwin Matthews (THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD). He portrays an adulterer-turned-temporary-pirate accomplice who must use his strengths to escape from a penal colony and his smarts to counteract the double-dealing, roguish pirates once he gains access back to Huguenot territory.
Matthews is put through the paces early on, forced to watch his (married to somebody else) lady love (buxom beauty Marie Devereux – and in a Hammer Production, is there really ever any other kind?) devoured by hungry, flesh-eating piranha (a heavily trimmed sequence that gets by on bubbling, bloody red water instead of any real grue involving Devereux and her hefty chest).
Set to rot in a penal colony, Matthews escapes, takes refuge with pirates (including Hammer stock company player Oliver Reed, in a virtually silent role as -- what else -- the drunkard of the group), and then ventures back to his home territory with pirates in tow, providing a safe place for all to reside while they seek out elusive treasures.
Lee’s the force to be reckoned with, your eyes unable to look anyplace else when he’s on the screen. On the commentary, moderator/author Marcus Hearns (author of “The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer Films”) reads a concise passage describing Lee's initial appearance from screenwriter Jimmy Sangster’s script:
“A strange and fascinating creature, but the fascination is evil. At first glance, he might be called handsome, with his bone structure good. It’s the face of a man without a heart. He has wit and intelligence, and even a sense of humor -- but his heart is nothing. The way he moves is so elegant that we may forget he’s a cripple; his hand held close to his body and his hand an upturned craw.”
John Gilling, the British journeyman whose best-known work may be Hammer’s 1966 gothic production of THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES [also discussed on the commentary], offers up appetizing, panoramic vistas on an extremely miniscule budget (largely shot at Bray Studios). The so-called “Megascope” process looks splendid in this glistening new transfer, and it’s unquestionable that this hasn’t looked as good since its first run more than forty-five years ago.
Recently released by Columbia on a four-disc set entitled “Icons of Adventures” (with THE DEVIL-SHIP PIRATES [Don Sharp, 1964]; THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY [Terence Fisher, 1960]; and THE TERROR OF THE TONGS [Anthony Bushell, 1961]), the significant extras on BLOOD RIVER include commentary by the aforementioned Hearns, writer (and long-time Hammer employee) Sangster, and art director Don Migaye. Hearns navigates different avenues of discussion, jogging the memories of the elderly Sangster and Migaye (oftentimes the duo who worked on the picture confess to not knowing who in the hell Hearns is talking about, even as they appear onscreen; an adolescent Dennis Waterman, for instance), from cast histories to other Hammer projects. It’s a worthwhile listen.
A curious, non-horror Hammer entry -- landlocked from the start, a pirate film without a boat (a mandate handed down by Hammer heads) -- chock full of satisfying and stirring action, albeit not so much substance in the way of its somewhat abandoned revenge plot, PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER is nevertheless a rousing good time. It was followed by a loose prequel: 1964’s THE SECRET OF BLOOD ISLAND (written by Gilling, but directed by Quentin Lawrence). Gilling (and Hammer) favourite Michael Ripper was the only cast member to return, albeit in a different role.
*Note: Screencaps taken because the cover art for the “Icons of Adventure” set is bloody awful. Take a look!