The Reptile Review
Hammer’s Cornish cornucopia of the exotically fiendish continues with 1966’s The Reptile on Region B Blu-ray, courtesy of StudioCanal!
After unleashing the Plague of Zombies upon peaceful rural Cornwall, Hammer decided that their poor old stalwart, character-actor Michael Ripper and his mutton-chopped bumpkin-chums hadn’t had quite enough bedevilment and monstrousness for one ale-session. So, with added venom, the notorious studio flipped back the lid of the big Eastern wicker-basket, placed the mystical flute to its collective lips and commenced to charm The Reptile from out of its hidey-hole to cause much mayhem amongst the shrubberies and the hedgerows.
Shot back-to-back with Plague and utilising the same sets and crew and a couple of the same actors, The Reptile was once again written by Anthony Hinds under his screen-scribe alter-ego of John Elder. The film, which started life as The Curse of the Reptiles, and would have played host to a duo of cunning snake-people – male and female counterparts – hissing and spitting at the Cornish plebs, was part of Hammer’s bold marketing manoeuvre to get as much production value for their money out of four flip-flop projects that would be sent out into the world as two separate double-bill releases. I’ve discussed this endeavour already in reviews for Dracula Prince of Darkness and Plague. Although very visibly partnered with Plague, The Reptile would slither onto screens beneath Christopher Lee in Rasputin The Mad Monk, Hammer perhaps missing the trick of the double-whammy of a Cornish-themed horrorthon. Truth be told however, this was precisely what they were attempting to avoid. With the release schedule arranged so that The Reptile would surface several months after the Zombies had plagued the provinces and that audiences wouldn’t, therefore, notice the same sets and locations being regurgitated, head Hammer-honcho Anthony Nelson Keys was sorely underestimating the eagle-eyes of their fans and the critics, who spotted the same locale, the same pub, the same yokels and the same mansion house that would also serve as Dracula’s castle in Prince of Darkness and the Russian Tsar’s palace in Rasputin as well as the voodoo-practicing squire’s estate in Plague. But whilst some sneery snobs would denigrate the studio for such ill-disguised and perceivably cheapskate malarkey, others would revel in the vividly macabre familiarity of the moody visuals. For, by now in the mid-sixties, Hammer Films was a bonafide institution, and what its creative family lacked in budget they more than made up for in lurid, imaginative and nigh-on unstoppable output.
As with all of these vintage genre reviews, I see no point in discussing The Reptilewithout going into a fair degree of good-natured detail … so, as usual, you can expect considerable spoilers from now on.
The sleepy, dim-witted denizens of the rain-sodden Cornish village of Clagmoor fall prey to a mysterious malady that is passed-off, with rather horrific glibness as well as the curious lack of either a proper doctor or a coroner to prove otherwise, as the Black Plague. When his brother Charles (in a brief but doomed cameo from David Baron),becomes another victim, Harry Spalding (ruggedly played by crater-faced Aussie Ray Barrett) goes on extended leave from the Grenadier Guards and together with his new wife, Valerie (Jennifer Daniel), moves to the village and takes up residence in Charles’ cottage of Larkrise. Almost immediately, the new couple become isolated from the scared and distrustful townsfolk, but make a friend and a strong ally of the local landlord, Tom Bailey (the ever-wonderful Michael Ripper, who looks almost like a garden gnome here). Something very strange and malevolent has the area in a grip of cold dread, and when they make the acquaintance of the decidedly dysfunctional family of Dr. Franklyn and his distracted daughter Anna, who reside up at posh but inappropriately named Well House (all is most assured not well within its walls), the mystery only deepens. Anna (Jacqueline Pearce, fresh from the grave during the shoot of Plague of the Zombies but looking a whole lot lovelier with her head now re-attached!) is holding some terrible secret and yearns for escape. She latches onto Valerie in a desperate attempt to find solace and companionship. But her father, played with ferocious reserve by Noel Willman (who was a director, himself, winning a Tony Award in 1961 for his London and Broadway production of A Man For All Seasons) appears to be keeping her on a tight leash. Whenever she leaves the house, you can be sure that he’ll be hot on her heels and demanding that she return at once. And then there’s Marne Maitland’s sinister Malay manservant, who has a habit of looming up at windows, peering out from behind curtains and loitering in the bushes, eyes burning intently on Anna as a rule. If the hobbled, cane-assisted Dr. Franklyn can’t keep up with Anna … you be certain that he will.
Gradually, as more frothing-mouthed bodies turn up to spoil the countryside the Spaldings unearth the frightful curse that afflicts young Anna, turning her periodically into a vile serpent-woman, and deduce that it is the venom that she carries within her veins that is behind the spate of deaths. Somehow, the once good doctor of theology has incurred the wrath of a snake-cult whilst on his travels … and now he and his daughter are paying the awful price. But the valiant Spaldings and the resourceful Tom are not going to turn the other cheek when it comes to such repugnant affairs, and the scene is set for a typically fiery climax full of revelations and death.
Hammer’s weird and wacky relocation of mystical foreign black magic is still unique and quite disquieting. There is something darkly unsavoury about our meadows, our picturesque hamlets and our pubs being overrun by evil cult practices from distant lands – a sort of quasi-invasion that parodies the stuffy, starched and arrogant implications of red-jacketed British Colonialism, reversing the treacheries perpetrated by an Empire that had unwittingly brought the demons of its illegitimate overseas stampeding back home with it. In the States, they’d dabbled with monstrous snake-people already in Francis D. Lyon’s lurid Cult of the Cobra, and Sidney J. Furie had even delivered a clear forerunner to The Reptile with his 1961 British chiller The Snake Woman, but Hammer had been bringing back monstrous immigrants since 1959’s The Mummy and they’d certainly annoyed the natives who didn’t want the English meddling in their despicable rituals in The Terror of the Tongs and surprisingly vicious The Stranglers of Bombay. So it wasn’t all that mysterious that sinister foreigners or their rites and magic would turn up on our doorstop to undermine the values of our esteemed aristocracy.
I don’t think that Hammer was spitting venom at the notion of British Colonialism, as so many writers like to observe. I like to think that this dyed-in-the-wool, home-grown envelope-pushing genre foundry is, in fact, actually ridiculing the collapse of the Commonwealth and poking fun at its arrogant blue-blooded ego by constantly infiltrating its social mores and etiquette with nefarious foreigners who are able to twist, corrupt, mutate and murder its population from within. In many ways, Hammer was pre-empting our fears of terrorist cells existing on our own soil and the indoctrination and subversion of our population by extremists. You didn’t think you’d get that from a vintage creature-feature about a Cornish snake-lady, did you?
If remade – and with its broad spectrum of themes and metaphors, The Reptile is actually ripe for a reimagining – you could have underground serpent cults usurping the establishment like a fundamentalist cancer, coiling around government and the monarchy and slithering far away from the provincial meadows and village greens. With this and the equally cunning and subversive Plague of the Zombies, Anthony Hinds and John Gilling Hammerheaded something far more insidious, devilishly imaginative and forward-thinking than they possibly ever dreamed.
Where Universal often set their villagers up as merely torch-bearing vigilantes who only acted as a shouty throng at the end of the monster’s rampage, Hammer often had fun with their cloth-eared extras. Oh, some of them were quite vengefully sadistic, as those seen in the opening of Vampire Circus, merrily staking and slaying their way through the bloodsucker’s entourage. Or the cackling lunatics shredding the Baron’s latest abomination in Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell. They could even gain genuine character as seen with Ian Hendry’s sword-wielding thug, Kerro, in Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter. But here, both Hinds and Gilling seem to take great pleasure in revealing the citizenship of Clagmoor as being a bunch of virtually mute, ale-swilling scaredy-cats. Other than Valerie and Anna, we see no women in the village at all which lends a sort of panto-quality to the men’s seemingly semi-monastic existence. The locals, all stocky land-tillers to a man, also completely back-down on both occasions when Harry comes into the pub and confronts them. The first is merely to ask directions to Larkrise upon his and Valerie’s initial arrival, and the second is when he returns to the tavern and demands to know who amongst them has vandalised the cottage. Either time, their mass-reaction is the same. They simply put down their beer, get up from their tables and leave … as a single unit of sulky cowards. What kind of men are they? Compare this spineless crew to the irreverent, volatile and supremely violent gang who drink just down the Cornish road in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. Or the funky group of dart-playing, joke-telling occultists who frequent The Slaughtered Lamb in East Proctor.I genuinely think that Hammer was having a pop at masculinity in movies, particularly the Westerns they found themselves playing against in which saloon-brawlers and braggarts were such a common component they may as well have come with the fixtures and furnishings.
They were not only undermining the upper classes with curses and diabolism, they were uprooting that last stronghold of British solidarity and narrow-minded bigotry – the local pub – and showing that, for all its loud-mouthed bravado and ale-fuelled tempestuousness, it actually offered scant defence when the demons came calling.
The real snake in the grass.
The insidious set-up here is that it is the Malay manservant, who is never actually named, who is in control of the Franklyns and is the one pulling all the strings. He is the caretaker of the terrible curse that the foolish theologist has incurred during his ill-advised investigations into the secret snake-cult, but travelling over to England and moving in with his enemies to twist the knife in them on a day-to-day basis really does seem like he is taking his duties a little bit too far. Most curses are worked from afar, simply set in motion and then left to fester and cause damage to the recipient, but this guy wants to be there permanently, goading, threatening and relishing every exquisite agony that the doctor and his daughter are going through. He really is a nasty piece of work, and certainly the most overtly malevolent character in the story. Born in Calcutta, Maitland had a perma-sneer on his lean face and a conniving, furtive look in his eyes. Although he doesn’t actually do much more than leer and glower at people in The Reptile, he brings the necessary sense of dark mystique and poised evil to the role and, by implication, his influence is surely mystically potent.
Make-up man Roy Ashton was about to pack up his greasepaint and stick-on-wounds and make the break from Hammer. He’d served the House with bloody honours, sticking fangs into Chris Lee’s noble mush, coating Ollie Reed with fur, decapitating Jacqueline Pearce and turning folks to stone under the hideous glare of The Gorgon, and his effects were justifiably lauded for their flair and imagination given the lack of budgets and the time-constraints they were usually crafted under. It seems that those restrictions really hampered his creativity on The Reptile. His optimism is apparent and the design-work that went in to the look of the scaled, bug-eyed poison-spitter was quite audacious, and deliciously feminine, at the same time as being clearly cruel and horrific. The specially crafted fangs – made by a Hammersmith dentist – were laced with glycerine to give the effect of dripping venom, and Ashton did extensive research into the bone-structure and scale patterns and texture of real snakes to give his creation a supposedly authentic appearance. But the fact that the mask clearly runs out before it can provide the face with a fuller covering, and the eyes look just like two painted ping-pong balls stuck on and then swivelled outwards, betrays the detail that he has tried to put into the look. I know that the image scared me to death when I first caught the film on TV, and the original conceptual art design was fantastic – but then the first idea for the film had been to have more than one Reptile on the loose, and the snarling grins on their faces in that promotional poster were truly ghastly and intimidating – but nowadays the shortcomings of the film’s title predator are all too plain to see.
Wisely kept in the shadows for much of the time, Gilling nevertheless allows his monster to come out into the light for possibly too long during the final act, and the creature is reduced in menace quite considerably as a result. But, this said, the clever costume that Pearce is tightly wrapped inside is both fiercely feminine and sultry whilst being evocative of coiled snake-scales. I can’t quite decide if this figure-hugging slip issupposed to be taken as being her reptilian skin or just the dress that she slinks into when she transforms, but I like its earthy texture and oily shading. Interestingly, it seems to mimic the snug velvet valet’s suit that the Malay wears too, further linking their cult-connection.
Sadly, for Hammer, the deaths are a little lacklustre. Ashton makes some attempts to capture the dire consequences of venom coursing through the veins of the reptile’s victims with foaming mouths, blackening skin, livid eyes and bloated puncture marks, but the killings still seem to lack, well, bite. Partly, this is down to the rush job that Ashton had to undertake and the lack of funds to get the job done. With the first three films in the four-picture experiment each going way over budget, The Reptilewas inevitably left with little funds to play with. But this could also be a sentiment to that fact that monster, such as she is, is not wholly malign and hardly guilty of the crimes she is committing, thus we don’t have spurts of Kensington Gore or throats torn out.
What makes this film so effective in terms of the reptile creature is the tragic sexuality of the cursed girl, herself. An outsider in her homeland and a lonely figure, cut off and semi-despised even in her own home, Anna genuinely slithers through life even when in human form. Attractive in Plague, even with her face padded-out in a grim and ghoulish death-mask of rotting flesh, Pearce is at her most sensational here, with long sleek black hair framing a radiant face with blood-red lips and eyes that entrance more than any real snake could ever hope to do. Looking a little bit like fellow Brit scream-queen Barbara Steele, who would find everlasting fame in Euro-horror after her barnstorming appearance in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, Pearce haunts the film with an unpredictable vigour. The most famous and bewitching sequence has her playing the sitar at her father’s behest to entertain the Spaldings, and Pearce really goes for broke with a performance that ruffles taboos in a manner that seems extraordinarily bold, even for Hammer. “I like a good tune, yes” says Harry when Dr. Franklyn suggests his daughter play something, but he cannot comprehend the power and potency of Anna’s seductive finger-work. Anna, too, seems to get carried-away with the mystical rendition, but the daring thing is that her salacious and titillating display is directed at her father, albeit under the shadowy influence of the Malay. Gilling and returning DOP Arthur Grant (who worked with the director on Plague and would again on The Mummy’s Shroud) work wonders with the scene. It may be obvious that Pearce is not actually playing the instrument, but the editing and the close-ups, gradually building into a crescendo of both music and of intensifying facial expression, are marvellously sustained. One glorious tracking shot wheels around the gathering in a fluid movement that seems oddly dynamic and elaborate for such a cosy and intimate setting as this ornate parlour, but it genuinely draws you in, mesmerising you with Anna’s racy and unsettling spell. When her father suddenly erupts into a fit of uncontrolled rage, snatching the sitar from her and smashing it against the wall, the shock is palpable even for us. A line has been broken and even if we don’t quite understand what is happening at this point, we can appreciate that Dr. Franklyn has been horribly hurt by the situation and is suffering a combination of terrible anger, wretched guilt and incalculable shame.
Noel Willman plays all of this behind a po-faced mask of regal indignation, yet we still acutely perceive this inner turmoil he is going through.
There is clearly an unsettling sexual frisson in the scene that the Malay instigates, Anna insinuates and Dr. Franklyn, in shameful fury, castigates. In other hands, Anna’s seductive performance could have been directed at Harry Spalding, arousing his suppressed desires and inviting Valerie’s own jealousy – and this would have been quite interesting to watch, as well – but Hinds and Gilling go for something even more provocative and disturbing. The sins of the father are visited back upon him via the child ... who is, of course, now a very desirable woman. Think also of the later scene when Dr. Franklyn discovers Anna’s shed skin on the bed – amusingly still bedecked in her nightdress – and he rains blows down upon it with his cane … a phallic and incestuous strike from the depths of his own impotence. Well, it is doubtful that Hinds actually thought that deeply into it when he wrote the scene, but films do take on a life of their own, and this father/daughter relationship is undeniably one of the weirdest of situations. So much of what makes Hammer so well worth revisiting, even in their lesser-regarded movies, is down to the evolving interpretation of their imagery and their themes.
Another neat ploy has Anna being infatuated with her “pets” – cats and rabbits and birds that are kept in cages in a secluded room in the mansion. The inference is surely that, whilst in the form of the reptile, she eats them, V-style, yet Pearce reveals Anna’s distinct love for them when the Malay teases her with the Spaldings’ stolen cat, Katy. Suddenly, you realise that she, herself, probably doesn’t even know what ghastly things she gets up to once she has transformed into the snake-lady. Like the werewolf awakening in human form in the morning after a night on the prowl, she is probably horrified by anxious, fearful half-memories of terrible atrocities – all part of the Malay’s to-the-grave curse.
This was the moment when Hammer really broke the mould with their female characters. We’d had strong women before in their canon. Diane Clare may not have been the greatest actress they could afford, but she essayed a brave young lady in Plague. Barbara Shelley went from prudish Victorian shrew to pure wanton harlot from Hell in Dracula Prince of Darkness, really pushing buttons with a brazen sexuality that hadn’t been seen before. Pearce, with this performance, would pave the way for the likes of Valerie Leon and Martine Beswicke to portray larger-than-life female monsters in Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, respectively, but characters who would also be somewhat sympathetic. Pearce is outstanding here, though. She brought pathos and a sense of fatalism to her role of the doomed Alice in Plague, but this is a much meatier part and something that she could really get her serpent’s fangs into.
And, to go along with this, Gilling coaxes gumption from Jennifer Daniel. Not only does she side with Pearce’s Anna against her demonstrative father, but she bravely cuts the poison from her husband’s bite-wound with a knife without flinching or even stopping to question how it got there. I doubt my wife would be quite so understanding if I stumbled home late one night with a love-bite on my neck off some strange exotic lady! Then she makes the mercy dash down to the village to alert Tom … and, next, she’s off on a lone expedition to the serpent’s lair with ideas of liberating Anna from her familial shackles, unperturbed by the terrible price that Harry, himself, has just paid for undertaking the very same mission. And, for her part, Jennifer Daniel does very well, becoming another of Hammer’s curiously unsung heroines.
Another Ripping yarn!
But, as most ardent fans will already know, the film is veritably spirited-away from the leads by the redoubtable Michael Ripper, who brings a delightful charm to Tom Bailey. After finally getting a stronger role in Plague, in which he patrolled the very same cobbles and sets as the village copper, he is rewarded with even more screentime here, Hinds’ script giving him a much meatier character to play with. Tom Bailey seems almost as much a fish-out-of-water in Clagmoor as Harry Spalding. He may know all the locals intimately, but he is clearly not one of them. He makes apologies for their behaviour and their insularity and you can see how he regards them with a curious sort of distanced bemusement. The fact that he sides so easily and affably with the newcomers is borne out not so much by his laidback nature and generosity towards them, but by how quickly his initial reluctance to get involved in solving the spate of deaths is then swept aside. Soon he is preparing a plan of action, himself, and actually having to persuade Harry into the less-than-savoury particulars of that plan. But Ripper manages to convince as the seen-it-all, heard-it-all landlord who is also an ex-sailor who’s seen and heard even more, and the kindly, sage-like shoulder for Valerie to cry on when things go sour back at the cottage. In fact, here, in one diminutive, oddly whiskered form we have Willman’s Man For All Seasons!
And he gets to be a hero during the nick-of-time climax.
Ripper and John Gilling clearly got along very well as his director would ensure him another extended role in the following year’s fun bandage-rampage of The Mummy’s Shroud.
And, ably complimenting Ripper’s brave confidante, we have a superb turn from John Laurie as Mad Peter. Delivering what could easily be considered as a rehearsal for his famous portrayal of the doom-mongering Pvt. Frazer in TV’s classic comedy Dad’s Army, Laurie staggers around the dressed environs of Bray Studios bawling-out dire predictions of conspiracy, evil and murder afoot. The brilliant conceit of it all is that he isn’t wrong, and that all of his allegations are actually spot-on. In a rare moment of calm, he slyly informs us that he isn’t actually mad at all – it is just that he doesn’t “conform” like everybody else. Watch Laurie as he sits at the Spaldings’ table having conned his way into supper at the cottage – he’s twitchily and excitably excellent, chattering away with lunacy one moment and then, in the next, sermonising with a lucid, perceptive knowing. The weird thing is that as I enjoyed his demented performance as Mad Peter, I kept being reminded of David Tennant gurning his way through that same Scottish brogue, eyes afire with manic intelligence and tonsils working overtime with colourful dialogue. If there’s ever a remake … David, you’re up for the part.
I love the way that Tom Bailey insists that Harry accompanies him “after dark” (not in a Hammer film, though!) to open-up Charles Spalding’s grave so that they can have a look at whatever wounds he might have sustained before his death during a torrential downpour. Yes, I know that it might keep prying eyes away from their grim deed, but seriously … you would suggest holding off until another night, wouldn’t you? Even if you were a hardy Grenadier Guard. And just how long is this “extended leave” supposed to be for Captain Spalding? I mean he’s now moved into a whole new village presumably quite some distance from his garrison.
Maybe he can march there and back in a day.
I mean there is a strange distance-shrinking topography to Hammer’s rural Cornwall. It would appear that you can get to Well House from Larkrise simply by going down the cottage path and then turning right … right onto the front lawn of the mansion! This almost Lovecraftian geometry certainly comes in very handy when you have to race against time to save your wife from a snarling serpent-lady in the middle of burning house.
You should also watch the periphery of the frame for evidence of crew-members loitering too close to the action – especially in the opening prologue shot of Charles Spalding returning to the cottage and the black shadow of the Malay falls across the path behind him, and someone, possibly Gilling, himself, just moves out of the way over on the left. And then there’s John Laurie clearly breathing in the gruesome close-up angle of his corpse. “Oh, he’s quite dead,” says Michael Ripper. Altogether now … Oh, no, he isn’t!
Although there is a lot of fun to be had from The Reptile, the climax unfortunately goes some way to undoing the superb redolence that Gilling’s steady but economic direction and Hinds’ clever screenplay has achieved. Things become rushed and more a little contrived despite not a great deal actually occurring. It is an odd dilemma. On the one hand, we get the explanation of the mystery that we demanded, our sympathies are delicately diverted as we realise that the main villain is not who we really thought it was, and the film erupts into a time-honoured inferno. But on the other, the plot’s real baddie – the Malay – is rather brusquely dealt with, the film’s ostensible hero makes only a belated appearance and the “monster” is, at the end of it all, very swiftly dispatched.
Dr. Franklyn, in one of the genre’s most awkwardly timed and horrendously protracted moments of exposition, explains the necessity of the sulphur pit down in the basement (every home should have one) for Anna’s heat requirements during her hibernation period, but the sudden breaking of a window, which allows the cold Cornish air into the burning room in which she has cornered Valerie, still seems like a very shoddy means of eliminating the Reptile. The thing is – and this is how the film just about scrapes through without being terribly anticlimactic – is that becomes a tragic conclusion rather than a purely cathartic and victorious one. We have to remember that Anna, much like Lon Chaney’s Wolf Man, is as much a victim as a monster and that death, however sad, is actually a release for her.
Hammer did pathos very well … with surprising subtlety and without dwelling on such devices … and, to this end, Anna’s simple dying words “It’s cold,” actually linger in the mind with a haunting poetry long after the final credits have splashed across the screen.
Tremendously entertaining, The Reptile is still a lot less bravura or shocking than Plague, its pace deliberately slower and more measured, with fewer incidents to quicken the pulse. But with a steady mood of lingering menace, a pregnant sense of tragic destiny, a quasi-Eastern score from Don Banks, who would also work on Rasputin and for Gilling, again, on The Mummy’s Shroud, and a pervasive aura of cursed exotica, it delivers gothic shivers aplenty. It sits perfectly alongside Plague, making for a far more rewarding and shuddersome double-bill than alongside Rasputin.
Naturally, it comes highly recommended
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