Thursday, 13 May 2010

The Reptile (1966)

Country: UK

The Reptile is a sturdy if somewhat underwhelming tread through gothic conventions from Hammer Film Productions. It has suffered (one might argue with good reason) in its comparison with the film it was shot back to back with The Plague of the Zombies (1966). While Plague has slowly but steadily risen to the status of cult classic (for some it is Hammer’s best film) its weaker sibling The Reptile has slithered along and struggled to raise its head into the sunlight. This was director John Gilling’s sixth bite at the Hammer cherry - in addition to this he had helmed The Shadow of the Cat (1961), The Pirates of Blood River (1962), The Scarlet Blade (1963), The Brigand of Kandahar (1965) and the aforementioned zombie classic. On this occasion his direction lacks passion and style, and this is partly due to a screenplay by Anthony Hinds that hampers any real opportunities for vision and inspiration. The Reptile suffers from a number of structural faults, most of which arise out of an attempt by Hinds to create a mystery. The problem is that the mystery isn’t all that mysterious.

The film opens in ambitious fashion with a poor chap meeting his death in an aristocratic and stately home. He is bitten by something and within seconds his face has turned black and he is frothing at the mouth. This is a strong start, but when his ex army brother Harry Spalding (Ray Barrett) and his wife Valerie (Jennifer Daniel) turn up to inherit his cottage we are in the familiar company of mediocre leads. The similarities with Plague began to build at an alarming rate - a Cornish setting (in this case the village of Clagmore), a plague or disease of some description wiping out the (tiny) populace, a shady and reclusive aristocrat implicitly linked with the tragic events, a colonial or imperialist undertone and even a grave digging sequence. But crucially what the film lacks is the brilliant dream sequence seen in the earlier film, a sequence in which all the elements of Hammer Horror fused into one perfect moment.

Naturally Spalding begins to root around and finds an unlikely ally in the shape of Tom Bailey (a larger than usual role for Michael Ripper) a publican and ex seaman. More deaths follow, including the demise of the only character in the film that brings any energy and vitality to the proceedings Mad Peter (John Laurie). Things begin to take a turn for the sinister when the Spalding’s are invited to the Franklyn’s estate and are witness to a strange and dysfunctional family. This culminates in the only decent scene in the film when Anna Franklyn (Jacqueline Pearce) plays a rather phallic sitar with an energy and a repressed passion that disturbs her stuffy father. Lurking in the background and up to no good is The Malay (Marne Maitland) a foreigner who controls Anna and dominates the Franklyn household. The Franklyn’s house is strewn with the ephemera of travels to the East, and it turns out Frankly is a doctor of Theology. Unfortunately he was a bit too nosy when it came to The Snake People (a rare and obscure eastern tribe), the revelation of their secrets is punished with a curse - Anna becomes a walking King Cobra!

The makeup by Roy Ashton is not a patch on say Curse of the Werewolf (1961), but it retains a creepy charm, and when first revealed is a nice shock moment. Unfortunately Pearce doesn’t really get much of an opportunity to show her acting talents, mind you it’s a bit difficult when you’re shedding your skin! Noel Willman is suitably sombre as Dr. Franklyn and brings to his role the weight of his responsibility and his inner torment at the results of his meddling. But there is another layer to his attitude to Anna, as its clear he fears her sexuality and seeks to contain it as best as he can (that means smashing her sitar to pieces and ranting and raving). The major difference between Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile lies in their attitude to the colonial question. In the former voodoo culture becomes the capitalist tool of an enterprising upper class rascal, in the latter the Franklyn’s find themselves ruled and dominated by it, and in many ways their punishment is very harsh. Neither film offer a particularly progressive view of colonialism, but that they both share these thematic concerns is intriguing and of value. Unfortunately The Reptile doesn’t quite pull it off because it suffers from weak atmospherics and an all too predictable fiery finale. Nevertheless the two Cornish set horrors from Hammer are distinctive, interesting and layered. Which is more than can be said about a lot of other films the company produced.

© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. I'm quite fond of The Reptile. I think Hammer's best movies were not their best-known ones such as the Dracula and Frankenstein movies.

  2. Nice review, thanks. For all its faults 'The Reptile' has a charm all its own.

  3. I liked Plague of the Zombies, the dream sequence you mentioned, the one that takes place in the cemetary, that scene is awesome, I pretty sure it inspired Sam Raimi for a similar scene in his first two Evil Dead films. The scene where Ash chops his girlfriends head off with a shovel.

    As for The Reptile, its one of those Hammer flicks that I have yet to see. I know it was recently released on DVD in a boxed set, so I think Ill need to give it a watch, just to complete my Hammer Films checklist.

  4. One of Hammer's most underrated in my own humble opinion! Perfect in a double with Plague of the Zombies.

  5. I have to say I have a fondness for The Reptile too. I watched it again recently when I got the boxset for Christmas and I was driven mad all the way through trying to work out where I knew Michael Ripper from. Turns out is was Jeeves and Wooster.

  6. Thanks for the comments everyone - I agree it makes an excellent double with PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES James.

  7. I enjoyed this one a lot, but theres no question that it is predictable as hell. It may not have been the most atmospheric, but I felt it delivered on enough of the Gothic dressings to give it a heavy mood


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