Hammer’s attempt at a budget monster romp for 1966 isn’t quite as good as its sister film Plague of the Zombies, but it has fine atmosphere and a couple of worthy grace notes, namely its fine actresses Jennifer Daniel and Jacqueline Pearce. Although the title monster bites some fans the wrong way, it works for this reviewer — it’s every appearance is a surprise, and for me it’s convincingly… reptilian.
1966 / Color / 1:85 + 1:66 widescreen / 91 min. / Street Date July 30, 2019 / 27.99
Starring: Noel Willman, Jennifer Daniel, Ray Barrett, Jacqueline Pearce, Michael Ripper, John Laurie, Marne Maitland.
Cinematography: Arthur Grant
Film Editors: James Needs, Roy Hyde
Production Design: Bernard Robinson
Makeup: Roy Ashton
Original Music: Don Banks
Written by John Elder (Anthony Hinds)
Produced by Anthony Nelson Keys
Directed by John Gilling
Here’s something fresh for this reviewer, a noted Hammer picture to enjoy that I’ve never seen in its entirety until now. You know how it is with some movies that somehow slip by… there were several films that I always seemed to land in the middle of during channel surfing. And The Reptile is always one that I wanted to see from the beginning. Its sister production The Plague of the Zombies, also directed by John Gilling, is one of my favorites from the Hammer stable.
The Reptile shares qualities with other Hammer offerings that we love yet realize have… limitations. The slow story retraces familiar material, taking almost half the film’s running time to set the scene and establish the characters, in a setting that seems identical to the Zombies movie. If the two female leads and Michael Ripper weren’t playing different characters, the storylines could well be running concurrently. With too many Hammer films we must wait patiently, only to arrive at a rushed climax, where everything wraps up without doing enough with the (often very good) central idea.
Strange killings are cropping up in the tiny hamlet of Clagmoor Heath. When Charles Spalding (David Baron) dies, his brother Harry (Ray Barrett), a veteran, arrives to live in Spalding’s cottage with his new wife Valerie (Jennifer Daniel). But the superstitious locals are rude, the town looney Mad Peter (John Laurie) disturbs them with talk of the ‘Black Death,’ and their only neighbor is the imperious and remote Dr. Franklyn (Noel Willman of Kiss of the Vampire). The only friendly face in town is that of Tom Bailey, the publican (Michael Ripper). Mad Peter staggers into the Spalding cottage in terrible pain, his mouth foaming and his face blackened, and Dr. Franklyn seems not to care. A visit by the doctor’s unstable daughter Anna (Jacqueline Pearce) briefly lightens Valerie’s spirits. The Spaldings are invited to dinner at the Doctor’s stately home, only for Franklyn to urge them to move away. Anna wears a sari-like Indonesian dress and plays the sitar. Franklyn treats her horribly, bursting forth in rage for no good reason. Well, we can tell that plenty is wrong up at the Franklyns’ — they’re attended by a sinister Malay (Marne Maitland), who seems to have both father and daughter under his control.
Marcus Hearn tells us that Hammer’s film Zombies went over budget, so the difference had to be made up here. Clagmoor is woefully underpopulated, and much of the film’s action consists of pickup shots — trips to town, back home, to the Big House — to visit, to fetch help, etc. The distances between these places seems to shrink as the show goes on. Like many Hammers of the time, the story almost seems paced to keep things from happening. A teaser opening gives away the reptilian supernatural threat, after which it takes the entire running time of the movie for our leading characters to find out what we already know, that there’s a monster up in the doctor’s house. The pleasant Spaldings mainly react to things … or under-react. The locals hate them, Mad Peter is disgusting and the neighbor doctor oppressively cold, but neither Valerie nor Harry seems deeply concerned. Even after Mad Peter comes in looking like he’s carrying bubonic plague, they maintain their basic composure: ‘let’s think about it in the morning.’ Neither is outraged by the doctor’s awful behavior toward the sad Anna. But even after Harry and Tom dig up a couple of graves to confirm their suspicions about horrible poison killing, Harry and even Valerie go strolling at night, alone. Are these people ‘period picture quaint,’ or insensate? When Valerie finally decides to liberate the persecuted Anna, she expects to just walk into the manor house without opposition.
Only the best horror movies can bring up strange concepts, leave them in a fog of doubt, and still satisfy. There’s a difference between intriguing ambiguity and a stack of unusual elements, and this screenplay introduces ideas that it does not integrate. Anna collects and loves animals, including Valerie’s pet kitty cat — does the monster eat them? Why on Earth are the locals behaving like peasants in the Dark Ages — this is supposed to be early 20th century Cornwall.
Director Gilling makes events clear enough, but keeps character nuances purposely vague. The Franklyn household introduces an intriguing family dynamic of shared guilt. It appears that Dr. Franklyn is frustrated and conflicted for what has happened to Anna, and both he and Anna are the pawns of the evil Malay ‘servant.’ But the story shows zero interest in explicating the odd relationships. Franklyn appears to be a semi-mad Roderick Usher type, with his outbursts of violence against Anna a misplaced rage at his misfortune. That’s not interesting unless it leads somewhere. Story-wise, the film marks time until the expected violent final act. The womenfolk need to be rescued, although they’re the only ones with any backbone. A leading character is attacked, and the two villains wrap things up by suddenly deciding to fight each other.
Ah, but there are more than enough saving graces, mostly performance-related, to make this a good monster romp. Australian Ray Barrett enjoyed a lively UK career (Revenge, voices in TV’s Thunderbirds) but his non-proactive Harry Spalding is the least interesting character. Noel Willman lays on the aristocratic remorse/abuse fairly thick but also generates an interesting aura of mystery. John Laurie (The 39 Steps) tries to make the unpleasant Mad Peter interesting, but he just comes off as disgusting. And most Hammer fans agree that the dependable Michael Ripper is a always a standout — his Tom is both likable and underplayed. Ripper holds up the mechanical end of the drama almost singlehandedly, filling functions that in any other movie would be covered by four characters.
The focus ends up being on the women, who are much more interesting. Jennifer Daniel transcends her under-written character — Valerie Spalding seems sane and reasonable even when calmly accepting impossible situations. Horrible unexplained deaths are occurring daily, yet she sees no problem being left alone in the house. The nasty neighbor all but murders his helpless daughter before their eyes, but it’s just a cue to end the evening early. Yet Daniel shows us a strength of character behind Valerie’s complacency, which compels her to walk into the Lion’s Den. It’s a case of actor personality prevailing against long odds.
The reason to see the movie is the performance of Jacqueline Pearce, whose mystery woman communicates anguish and compels our concern. She’s the pawn of the two men up in the house, and has severe identity issues (beyond the obvious). Dad studied Eastern culture and Anna absorbed it enough to learn the marvelous stringed instrument. I daresay that most kids of my generation found out about sitar music only when George Harrison took it up, and The Reptile gives us a couple of minutes’ worth of a pleasing sitar recital. Anna reminds us a bit of Edith Scob’s Christiane in Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face… she wanders among animal cages, and has a strange protective/abusive relationship with her domineering father.
Although we aren’t given many details on how the film’s cobra monster came to be, what we see is pretty interesting. Pearce cuts a fine, lithe figure when transformed, faring better than did Faith Domergue and Susan Travers, both of whose scaly shape-shifters seemed derived from the Val Lewton classic about a cat woman. One detail that stirs our imagination is a scene where the father comes upon Anna’s shed skin. We never see one of her transformations. Can she close her snake eyes, as shown, or is she in mid-transformation in those shots?
We get to meet the Reptile up close & personal only when the film has but six or seven minutes to go. A contractually-mandated conflagration ignites to tidy up loose ends. The Anna-Cobra offers plenty of intriguing opportunities for monster characterization that are not pursued. It talks … if only just to say that it can’t stand the cold air rushing in from a broken window. Do the words mean that ‘human’ Anna is conscious of her killings, or is she just a helpless pawn of The Malay? He has no stated motivation except a presumed vengeance against hated Englishmen. Why else would he turn Anna into a deadly freak in the first place? We don’t know of Dr. Franklyn committing any violent colonial crimes, as did Vincent Price’s Sir Julian Markham in the later Imperial apology The Oblong Box.
The least interesting aspect of The Reptile is its ‘primitive Eastern religion’ angle. Hammer had just spent a decade making stories that were at least ambivalent about colonial politics and native vengeance — The Mummy, The Stranglers of Bombay, etc — but here in Cornwall, poor Dr. Franklyn is dominated by a completely evil Malay fiend, a master of supernatural cult powers. The Malay grins as he works; he seems happiest when disposing of a corpse or gloating over Anna. I’m not saying the show needs psychological excuses, it’s just that it accepts bald Yellow Peril awfulness at face value: all those Orientals and Indians are, you know, intrinsically Evil. Writer Anthony Hinds shows his insensitivity when he just tosses off the alien culture with the repeated slams about ‘primitive religions.’
But hey, Anna’s attacks are swift and sweet, the makeup design is sufficiently compelling to overlook its execution (as opposed to, say, The Gorgon) and John Gilling directs those scenes with style and discretion. The Reptile stays firmly in the upper half of Hammer horror achievements.
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of The Reptile looks great, as soon as one gets past the prologue and title sequence, which are soft and indistinct. The encoding may be same as was used on a Hammer Studio Canal disc we analyzed in an earlier Hammer disc round-up article. The body of the film is just fine. Director John Gilling’s blocking of scenes isn’t too expressive outside the action sequences, which use nicely-judged lighting to lend the title monster a proper aura of mystery. Hammer manages some halfway good foggy mist effects as well, which show up nicely on Blu-ray.
You’ll notice I’ve gone overboard with images of Jacqueline Pearce. I need to add that Scream’s disc looks far better than these images I’ve gathered from the web. The presentation gives viewers a choice of framing, both 1:85 and 1:66. There’s nothing worse than aspect ratio vigilante violence, so Scream Factory’s diplomacy should go a long way to avoid bloody havoc in the streets. Or maybe I can stir up more trouble: Gary Teetzel reminds me that Bob Furmanek and my knowledgeable Brit projectionist contact Dave Carnegie say that in 1966, the standard U.K. flat-matted ratio was 1:75.
The good folk at Scream Factory round up some quality usual suspects for its extras. Marcus Hearn contributes to the making-of docu, and the current triumvirate of Constantine Nasr, Steve Haberman and Ted Newsom takes on commentary duty. Hammer-era survivors are becoming scarce, and the talk by AD William P. Cartlidge comes off as a collection of amusing anecdotes. The World of Hammer episode on wicked women is as hard to take as ever, but the disc rounds out with a stacked set of galleries, of trailers, TV spots, and still galleries. Much of the publicity bundled Reptile together with Christopher Lee’s starring feature Rasputin the Mad Monk.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Good +plus
Video: Excellent except for the first five minutes.
Supplements: Audio commentary with Steve Haberman, Constantine Nasr And Ted Newsom; Interview with assistant director William P. Cartlidge; The Serpent’s Tale — The Making Of The Reptile; ‘World Of Hammer’ episode ‘Wicked Women;’ trailers, TV spot, still galleries.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: July 23, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson