The Pirates of Blood River (1962) Blu-ray Review: A Dish, Out of Water

Twilight Time unsheathes an enjoyable Hammer Films outing with ex-Sinbad Kerwin Mathews and a smoothly sinister Christopher Lee.
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Your friends might argue a pirate movie won't float without water. Or an actual pirate ship. Heck, even an award-winning 2005 pornographic cash-in of Disney's Pirates of the Carribean had a boat, for porn's sake! But then again, so did Renny Harlin's Cutthroat Island and Roman Polanski's Pirates ‒ a pair of box office failures regularly cited as two of the worst pirate films ever made today. And, while forcing your friends to watch those two flicks may provide an easy win to such a foreseeable argument. Ultimately, however, the best way to succeed in winning a disagreement over whether or not a pirate movie needs to be set on the water is to sit any naysayers down to show them The Pirates of Blood River ‒ a fun little 1962 adventure classic from Britain's crowned kings of horror, Hammer Films featuring a very dapper villainous role by the late great Christopher Lee.

Here, the company that would single-handedly reshape the face of monster movies by reviving most (if not all) of Universal's classic creature features runs aground in a most unusual fashion. American actor Kerwin Mathews (no stranger to swashbuckling action, having previously starred in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, and Jack the Giant Killer) takes the lead (directly above a second-billed and seldom-seen Glenn Corbett, presumably cast to sell tickets to American audiences), playing the disgraced son of Huguenot zealot Andrew Keir (Quatermass and the Pit) on a remote island colony. Sent to a godforsaken penal colony on the other side of the island for foolin' 'round with a married woman (who is eaten alive by piranha in a memorable early moment), the determined young man successfully escapes the prison ‒ only to be promptly captured by pirates.

But what a band of pirates they are! Docked nearby (a recycled long shot of a ship and the inside of the captain's cabin are about all we see of their vessel, since the budget wouldn't allow one), the gang is led by a mysterious ‒ but completely and utterly smooth ‒ Christopher Lee. Replete with the required skullcap, eyepatch, and silky black pirate wardrobe, Lee's French-born baddie Captain LaRoche is as formidable as he is fashionable; as elegant as he is evil. Were Lee's presence not enough to float a boat-less pirate picture, he's in exceptionally fine company here, commanding over such great British character actors Peter Arne, Michael Ripper, and Oliver Reed (The Devils, Oliver!) ‒ the latter of whom had his impressive first starring role the previous year in another Universal Monster reboot from Hammer, The Curse of the Werewolf.

Foolishly taking Lee's word that he and his roaming marauders aren't at all up to something shady, Mathews agrees to lead them back to his home village ‒ only to discover the definition of "naïve" a little late in life, perhaps. Alas, Lee and his mercilessly merrie men are there for a reason ‒ a rumored treasure of vast wealth ‒ and it looks like Kerwin's dear ol' dad Keir (who, interestingly, was actually three months younger than his on-screen son!) may be the only person who knows where the loot is concealed. John Gilling (The Flesh and the Fiends, The Plague of the Zombies) directs from a story by Hammer scribe Jimmy Sangster for prominent Hammer producer Michael Carreras. Marla Landi (The Hound of the Baskervilles, which starred Lee and his famous horror film partner, Peter Cushing) and Desmond Llewelyn (a year away from his career-defining role as "Q" in the James Bond series) also appear.

Originally released Stateside by Columbia Pictures in '62 a month after its UK premiere (where it part of a very successful double-bill with another archipelago adventure, Mysterious Island, also available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time), The Pirates of Blood River has already seen two DVD appearances in the US. It was first included in Sony's 2-Disc/4-Film Icons of Adventure (one of several Icons of... sets produced in the late 2000s) with a bonus audio commentary with writer Jimmy Sangster and art director Don Mingaye. It later resurfaced ‒ sans the extra movies and extraneous bonus materials ‒ as a Manufactured-on-Demand release from the Sony Pictures Choice Collection lineup. Here, however, Twilight Time gives classic and new fans of Hammer cinema alike the opportunity to get caught-up in this minor cult classic via a truly stellar High-Definition presentation.

Twilight Time presents this largely ignored actioner from yesteryear in a MPEG-4 AVC 1080p encode. Shot in 2.35:1 "MegaScope" widescreen (Hammer's low-budget answer to Panavision) by expert cinematographer Arthur Grant (who lent his skills to more than two dozen Hammer films over a 15-year span), the lush Eastmancolor photography (which often proved problematic, though you'd never know that here!) has never looked better, where it is served up in a crisp and clear presentation from an HD master produced by Sony. Said video is a little softer than one might expect it to be, leading me to wonder if the High-Definition scan Sony loaned to Twilight Time for use here wasn't the same one they had used nearly ten years before for the film's first digital home video debut in the Icons of Adventure set. I won't gripe, however: it's still a significant step up in quality.

In fact, this Blu-ray blows all previous home video incarnations of the movie clear out of the water ‒ a clichéd analogy, I'll admit, but it really makes that whole "land-based pirate movie" thing all the more appropriate in this case.

Likewise, Twilight Time's Blu-ray offers up a superb upgrade in audio with a lossless DTS-HD MA English 2.0 Mono soundtrack. English (SDH) subtitles are included with this Region Free release, as are a few extra goodies. First up is the aforementioned audio commentary from the previous DVD releases with Jimmy Sangster (who passed away in 2011) and Don Mingaye. Moderated by historian/writer Marcus Hearn, the track is a little dry at times (I mean, they areBritish after all, right?), but there's a lot of interesting history to be learned here, and you'll absolutely cringe over the sight of Lee and Co. wading through murky pond water after you discover what they went through!). An isolated music/effects track presents composer Gary Hughes' work in English DTS-HD MA 2.0, and the original (domestic) theatrical trailer is also included.

Lastly, Julie Kirgo lends her thoughts on the film to another well-written set of liner notes. The Limited Edition release from Twilight Time is reserved to only 3,000 copies, and is recommended to fans of its various iconic stars (yes, even that Glenn Corbett guy), Hammer Films, classic historical adventures, and anyone who loves seeing a good blindfolded sword fight between drunken pirates. Plus, The Pirates of Blood Island's brisk 87-minute runtime permits you to jump in and out of these cool waters (just so long as it's not the same pond the film's pirates were forced to wade through, that is) while your friends who dared to argue with you are still screaming in agony trying to make it through Renny Harlin's Cutthroat Island and Roman Polanski's Pirates. Why, you might even have time to watch that 2005 adult pirate movie, too, if that's the sort of thing that floats your boat.

Highly Recommended.

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