Hammer swashbuckles with a bit of horror and a lot of great actors in this 1962 land-based pirate movie.
After finishing Sea Devils I picked another pirate movie, one made by Hammer, one that unfolds mostly on land, one with horror elements like deadly piranhas (hence Blood River) and many familiar faces, and one I had a lot more fun watching. The story begins with Kerwin Mathews caught in an adulterous affair that ends tragically, in the best horror movie fashion, when the woman flees into a piranha infested river. Mathews is banished by his father Andrew Keir, the leader of the settlement, and condemned to hard labour in a penal colony. There we see him abused, starved and tortured until the day he makes a break, across a marsh and right into the clutches of a gang of pirates. Their leader Christopher Lee uses Mathews to get them into his old settlement, where Lee believes untold treasure is hidden. Mathews, horrified by the evil he’s brought back home, first tries to convince his fellow settlers to just give the pirates the gold, and then, seeing the futility of peacemaking, organizes to drive them out.
Lee cuts an elegant, dashing figure (as if this needs saying; he’s always awesome) with his eye patch and all black getup. His accent is a bit reminiscent of Inspector Clouseau, so try to imagine that as he enunciates and barks commands with chin held high and the bearing of an invincible leader. You’ll have a smile on your face the whole time you watch him and would be hard pressed to find a cooler looking pirate in any movie. Since he’s this imperious, ruthless and intimidating, it’s fun to see his disbelief when his crew finally revolts. Mathews is good as the put-upon hero with lots of action scenes well handled. Keir (last seen at this blog in Quatermass & the Pit) seems rigid and unbending as an authority figure but later shows a softer side and willingness to sacrifice himself to save the settlement. Oliver Reed always manages to steal scenes with the funniest choices, even in these minor roles (see also my review of The League of Gentlemen); here after losing in a blindfolded swordfight, he slides to the floor whimpering “Oh Mama” (I’d love to see the outtakes where everyone cracked up). He deserved everything he stole for having to suffer a real-life eye and ear infection after the scene where they all wade through the disgustingly dirty pond. Also among the huge cast are Michael Ripper, Glenn Corbett and Peter Arne, all fun, distinct characters.
The movie looks fabulous, and director John Gilling gives us action that’s nonstop and exciting, and turns limitations into effective results, whether it’s the montage of mistreatment at the slave pit, or the epic battle to prevent the buccaneers’ entrance into the village, both of which look like they were filmed at a gravel pit but it’s a setting that adds a lot of original visuals to the movie. The swarm of piranhas is completely based on suggestion but with the added terror of the actors and generous amounts of red dye, boy does their approach put a scare in you. Hammer even had to make cuts to the suggested gore to avoid an X rating (other changes included dubbing over the words “harlot” and “adulterer”). The many fights are all creative, differently staged and gripping, and the treasure hunt scene with the villagers’ lives in the balance gets extra suspense when the perceptive viewer starts to guess where the gold is hidden before the pirates do. Fun all around, which is exactly what you want from this kind of movie, with a memorable turn by Lee as the main attraction.