Director: John Gilling
Twilight Time Movies

England’s Hammer Films were (and still are) best known for their horror and science fiction efforts, as their non-genre catalog is often neglected and little seen. Take for example THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER — a 1962 period costume adventure directed by the venerable John Gilling (THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, THE REPTILE) — an ambitious production which now makes its Blu-ray debut courtesy of Twilight Time.

In a Puritan village at the end of the 17th century, young Huguenot Jonathan Standish (Kerwin Matthews, THE BOY WHO CRIED WEREWOLF) is accused of adultery with a voluptuous woman (Marie Devereux, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA). After his lover perishes in a river full of hungry piranha, he's condemned to 15 years of hard labor in a penal colony. Tough as nails, Standish is able to escape but encounters a ship full of French pirates commanded by the eye-patched and arm-crippled Captain LaRoche (Christopher Lee, THE WICKER MAN). LaRoche makes a deal with Standish to take his men to his peaceful village, as he believes there is hidden treasure there. As soon as the pirates step foot on land, the pillaging and murdering commences, but this is not enough reason for the Puritans to tell them right off the bat where their gold is hidden.

In the capable hands of Gilling (who also had a hand in the screenplay), and other prime Hammer personnel such as cinematographer Arthur Grant, production designer Bernard Robinson and effects master Les Bowie, THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER is well-intentioned Saturday matinee fodder, looking way more expensive than it actually is, and giving us another worthwhile non-genre villainous character part for the great Christopher Lee. With an opening shot of a majestic vessel taken from another movie, budgetary limits have most of the action taking place on land. Making great use of Bray Studios and Black Park, the cast is a venerable “who’s who” of familiar British faces, with boyish SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD star Kerwin Matthews (under a Columbia Pictures contract) on as the lead, revealing that Hammer was still prone to using (sometimes fading) American thespians to assure box office appeal. Michael Ripper, Peter Arne (THE OBLONG BOX) and a young Oliver Reed (in one of his numerous 1960s Hammer appearances) all get to ham it up as LaRoche’s drunken sidekicks. Second-billed American Glenn Corbett (HOMICIDAL) is a clean-shaven hero type, Marla Landi (from Hammer’s HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES) is a damsel in distress, Desmond Llewelyn (“Q” from the “James Bond” series) is seen briefly as a villager and an adolescent Dennis Waterman (a decade before he would appear again with Lee in Hammer's SCARS OF DRACULA) are also on hand. With other great Brit character faces like David Lodge (CORRUPTION) and John Bennett (THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD) in the show, the oddest bit of casting is Kier portraying Matthews’ father since they’re exactly the same age. A very colorful film indeed, PIRATES contains significant amounts of blood that Hammer was known for (what do you expect with a sea full of piranha?) and there’s also some swordplay thrown in, most significantly when Lee and Matthews duel it out in the climax.

One of many Hammer titles distributed theatrically by Columbia Pictures, THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER looked good on DVD (when it was released as part of Sony’s “Icons of Adventure” Hammer collection) so its Blu-ray of course looks even better, but it’s not without inconsistencies. Presented in its original Scope 2.35:1 aspect ratio in 1080p HD, colors are well saturated even when they’re on the warmer end of the spectrum, and the image is clean and free of imperfections. Occasionally, the textures on facial features (especially in close-ups) exhibit a sort of waxy, too-smooth appearance, but thankfully there is still a decent amount of filmic grain on display on the whole. Black levels look properly deep and inky, and there’s nothing significant in the way of compression problems, but several of the darker scenes tend to drown out some detail. Audio is presented in an English 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track which is expectedly rather flat-sounding, but dialogue is clear and the music and sound effects are well pronounced. Optional English SDH subtitles are included and the rousing score by Gary Hughes is available on an isolated track along with the movie's sound effects.

Carried over from the 2008 “Icons of Adventure” DVD is an audio commentary with the late, legendary screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and art director Don Mingaye which is superbly moderated by Hammer Films historian Marcus Hearn. A wealth of information about the two gentlemen’s experiences with Hammer is recorded here, with many different film titles and various Hammer personnel being addressed during the course of the very busy discussion. Of the film, Sangster mentions executive producer Michael Carreras’ want to make a pirate movie, but that he had to conceive a story without a boat, as they couldn’t afford one! Among other things, Mingaye discusses his working relationship with the late Bernard Robinson, who Sangster also had a great deal of respect for (towards the end, Hearn reveals that the effect of the piranha in the river was created by tossing marbles in the water!). The original trailer is included, as is a booklet with liner notes by Julie Kirgo. The British poster art adorns the Blu-ray’s front cover, while the rather cartoonish American poster art is featured on the front and back of the booklet. (George R. Reis)