The Reptile (1966)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: July 30th, 2019
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
By 1966, Hammer Films was rolling. Not only had it successfully revived literary favorites like Dracula and Frankenstein, but it had parlayed that success into hugely popular franchises. Those sequels kept the lights on and allowed the studio to churn out numerous other productions, to the point where producer Anthony Nelson Keys envisioned Hammer as a literal movie factory. In an effort to streamline production, he hatched a scheme to quickly produce a quartet of movies at Bray Studios in close conjunction to keep the money train rolling. Among these productions was The Reptile, a curious, grotesque outlier for the studio that warps Hammerís familiar aesthetic around a macabre mystery. It looks and feels like a typical Hammer effort, but its schlocky payoff sets it apart from much of its brethren.
The only problem? That payoff is spoiled by the title and marketing. I know: the film is from 1966 and would likely have been spoiled by now anyway, but I canít help but think Hammer might have had a minor coup on its hands had it simply leaned into the mystery and delivered this cool riff on a familiar theme without completely giving up the ghostóer, reptile.
Its setup is so familiar that it might have well leapt off the pages of Hammerís previous scripts. Harry Spalding (Ray Barrett) is summoned to Clagmoor Heath when his brother Charles (David Baron) dies under mysterious circumstances. After learning that heís inherited Charlesís estate, he makes plans to move in with his wife, Valerie (Jennifer Daniel). The cagey locals insist heíd best not since his brother is just the latest in the long line of mysterious slayings that have left victims with hideous deformities. Even more cages is his neighbor, Dr. Franklyn (Noel Willman), who lives next door with his daughter Anna (Jaqueline Pearce) and a Malaysian servant. Harry and Valerieís brief encounters with the doctor leave the impression that something is amiss at the Franklyn household, which may also hoard the secret behind the townís rash of grisly deaths.
Anthony Hindsís script reveals these secrets with a steady drip of innuendo and speculation. The prologue makes it clear that something monstrous lurks in Clagmoor Heath, paving the way for Hammerís usual brand of sleepy, small town paranoiac intrigue. In many ways, the script preys on the audienceís familiarity with vampire and werewolf tales before upending expectations a bit for the climax. Between the shifty locals and Annaís erratic behavior, the script thrives on a familiar sort of mystery, right down to the discovery of vampiric fang bites on the victimsí bodies.
Itís old hat for Hammer devotees, but itís buoyed by some interesting performances from actors inside and outside the studioís typical circle of familiar faces. Aussie Ray Barrett, is sturdy as the filmís lead, anchoring the tale with a dogged skepticism. Pearce and Willman are the two most memorable presences as the mysterious father-daughter duo, with the latter proving to be particularly shifty as his true motives surface. At times completely sympathetic and at others quite abhorrent, Willman brings an uneasy sort of menace to the screen with both his guarded demeanor and his violent outbursts.
Hammer favorites John Laurie and Michael Ripper are also noteworthy as town drunk Mad Peter and local barkeep Tom Bailey, who becomes a sympathetic ear as Spalding begins to suspect something horrible lurks next door. Itís arguably Ripperís finest Hammer horror hour, as heís given a rather meaty role as a man haunted by a town secret that heís spent years trying to uncover. He practically takes the film over, especially once Barrett I sidelined for much of the climax; typically, such a story turn might feel a bit awkward, but itís welcome here since Ripper emerges as the filmís sympathetic center.
The somewhat eclectic cast mirrors the The Reptileís eccentric flourishes. While the story takes some familiar turns in spinning Hammerís signature small-town conspiracy yarn, it takes some offbeat steps in doing so. Yes, it finds characters exhuming graves and finding familiar looking bit marks, but itís also the only one of these things that features an entire sitar interlude. Likewise, itís the only one where Marne Maitland plays a vaguely menacing Malaysian butler, foreshadowing the filmís yellow peril-tinged horrors.
And, of course, this is the only Hammer movie with a goddamn human reptile as its monster. Despite the title and overt marketing, the film itself keeps this hidden for much of the runtime before unleashing the filmís most indelibly horrific images during the climax. Hideous makeup obscures Pearceís face as an unsightly affliction ravages Annaís entire body, causing her to shed her skin in the sulfuric bowels boiling below her house. The Reptile truly uncoils to life here, as Bernard Robinsonís production design works in concert with the remarkable makeup effects to create a brief funhouse atmosphere, complete with a last-minute exposition dump to explain just what the hell is going on.
Itís not the most graceful of endings, particularly when the script hastily disposes of its title creature in anticlimactic fashion. Even by Hammerís standards, The Reptile is unusually abrupt and creates the sensation that itís ending just as it was getting really good. Still, itís hardly an outright dud by any means; as Brett H. noted in his review of the film many moons ago, Hammerís output was marked by a certain consistency thatís exemplified here. At the very least, you can almost always expect solid craftsmanship in the service of memorable performances, striking imagery, and moody atmospherics. The Reptile has a little bit of all of this, and I suppose you can forgive if it feels a tad formulaic. It did practically roll off of an assembly line, after all; whatís more important is that Hammer managed to make it just distinctive enough to make it worthwhile. Never underestimate the power of sitars and gross reptile makeup is what Iím saying.
The Reptile arrived on DVD two entire decades ago, when it was among the first titles in Anchor Bayís legendary Hammer collection. After resurfacing in a double feature re-release with The Lost Continent, itís been long absent from physical media in North America. Lucky for us, Scream Factoryís mission to upgrade many of Hammerís titles to Blu-ray has arrived at this title, which benefits from a pristine high-def makeover and a decent amount of supplemental material. An audio commentary featuring film historians Steve Haberman, Constantine Nasr, and Ted Newsom headlines the new extras, which also include an interview with assistant director William Cartlidge.
During his 20-minute chat, he recounts the circumstances that got him into the film business before touching on his time at Hammer and his work on The Reptile specifically. Another feature, ďThe Serpentís TaleĒ has been ported over from a U.K. release and gives a fine overview of the filmís history. Not only does it cover the filmís interesting production history, but it also briefly explores the process of transferring the filmís print to a digital scan, a painstaking process that involves tough decisions about correcting color timing. Itís a fascinating look that reminds us of how intricateóand miraculousóthis process can be.
Scream has also included the film in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, a stills gallery, trailers, a TV spot, and the ďWicked WomenĒ episode of World of Hammer thatís popped up on various releases now. Like The Reptile itself, this release is very solid and very much of interest to the hardcore Hammer crowd. The uninitiated might find it a bit less essential, especially when compared to the studioís more prominent work; however, theyíll have a fine intro to this tier of Hammerís work with this excellent release.
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