Saturday, 23 April 2011

The Reptile
(John Gilling, 1966)

Given my particular fondness for Hammer’s ‘Plague of the Zombies’ (which you may recall I declared my 13th favourite horror movie of all time), it’s surprising that up until a couple of weeks ago, I’d never seen that film’s companion piece, ‘The Reptile’.

As every fool know, these two films were shot back to back in 1966 as part of some sort of two-for-the-price-of-one economy drive at Hammer, utilising the same director, the same crew, much of the same cast, the same sets, and the same temporal/geographical location (an isolated village in 19th century Cornwall). As a result, the two are generally considered as a peas-from-the-same-pod deal by Hammer fans, and furthermore they tend to receive the same critical thumbs up, being jointly regarded as among the more unusual and successful low-key horror pictures produced by Hammer in the mid-’60s.

Clearly I know all this, so I don’t know why I’d never got around to watching ‘The Reptile’, to be honest. I guess it’s just that age old problem of marketing: when I find myself idly browsing the DVD shelves in some insalubrious second hand shop or desperate high street clear-out sale, and the mood takes me to pick up a few new Hammer titles, this one just kept getting overlooked. I mean - ‘The Satanic Rites of Dracula’, ‘Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb’ - these sound like things worth five pounds of anyone’s money, right? ‘The Reptile’ - not so much.

I mean, what can you expect is gonna happen in a movie like this, y’know? Guy in a reptile mask wonders around. People are alarmed. Footage of guys exploring some fake swamp sets pads things out, a girl in a nice nighty gets menaced, Michael Ripper serves the drinks, and when the clock hits 78 minutes everyone breathes a sigh of relief and goes home. Not that that’s a bad way to spent an evening by any means, and not that I was actually *adverse* to watching ‘The Reptile’, but… you know what I mean. I’ve seen enough second rate ‘50s monster movies to know that a plot synopsis like “there is a reptile – stuff happens” is not exactly a foolproof recipe for cinematic fun-times, and I kind of figured ‘The Reptile’ would probably be the throwaway b-side to ‘Plague..’s heavenly pop hit – something I’d get ‘round to eventually, but I’d wait ‘til I tripped over a copy or saw it on TV (some hope) rather than making a special effort.

Well needless to say, the time to watch ‘The Reptile’ finally arrived, and, as I would surely have realised if I’d thought about the matter for five minutes or paid more attention to the critical consensus on the movie, ‘The Reptile’ is pretty brilliant. I’m ashamed it took me this long to get around to it.

Whilst it apparently doesn’t stop dur-brains like me from selecting their Hammer priorities based on how cool the title is, it has long been acknowledged that by the late ‘60s, the movies Hammer made with marquee stars and recognisable monsters were often cruising by on auto-pilot, whilst their cheaper, more off-beat productions had to try harder to find an audience, and as such more frequently hit the bullseye.

If the Christopher Lee Dracula movies – which locked into a one-a-year treadmill after the character was revived in ‘Dracula: Prince of Darkness’, also released in ’66 – arguably represent Hammer at it’s most lacklustre (none of them are unwatchably terrible, but at the same time none of them are really all that great), then ‘The Reptile’ is at the other end of the spectrum – a classic example of what you might call ‘Jacques Tourneur Syndrome’.

Taking a tip (whether deliberately or otherwise) from the well-worn playbook of Tourneur classics like ‘Cat People’ and ‘Night of the Demon’, ‘The Reptile’s production team obviously realised that when you’re lumbered with making a horror movie that has no distinctive stars, no attention-grabbing new concept, and a special effects budget that doesn’t stretch much beyond one questionable monster suit, your best bet is to fall back on more old fashioned virtues. Y’know – like tight scripting, solid acting, and that old chestnut… atmosphere.

And sure enough, ‘The Reptile’ has atmos by the bucketload, pushing the fecund, mist-shrouded Cornish backwater feel of ‘Plague of the Zombies’ to even greater heights of decrepit eeriness, adding additional location shots of barren moors and bogs to the mix and working with an extra smaller cast to create a locale that feels so isolated and bypassed by civilisation, the village in ‘Plague..’ starts to seem almost cosmopolitan by comparison.

Like ‘Plague..’, ‘Reptile’s storyline involves a form of ‘evil’ migrating from an exotic foreign location and taking root with worrying ease in this benighted corner of England, and both films convey a heavy, strangely tropical atmosphere that makes this transition seem entirely plausible. How they manage to make it seem tropical and freezing at the same time, I’m not sure, but somehow that’s the idea that comes across. Rather like the weirdly tainted rural locales in some of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, a different, rather unhealthy, sort of climate seems to apply here.

Plot-wise, ‘The Reptile’ seems to owe a certain debt to Bram Stoker’s sublimely weird ‘Lair of the White Worm’, but you probably wouldn’t guess as much from the first two thirds of film, which concentrate instead on building a sense of mystery and vague unease that is rare indeed in a Hammer production. Pity they had to give the game away with a clunking title like ‘The Reptile’.

Usually I very much appreciate Hammer’s “does exactly what it says on the tin” approach to naming their movies. Barring a few vague ‘Curse of..’s and ‘Evil of..’s, they were steadfast in their dedication to giving you what you paid for – ‘Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb’ does actually feature blood coming from a mummy’s tomb, and even with those aforementioned Frankenstein sequels, you kind of get the feeling that was just the marketing department dusting up scripts called ‘More Frankenstein’ or ‘Frankenstein Again’ or something.

For ‘The Reptile’ though, I kind of wish they’d taken a chance with a different approach. If this film had been made on the continent, they’d probably have called it something like ‘Seven Scales on the Neck of Venus’ (in Italy), or maybe just ‘Bloodbath of the Sorceress’ (in Spain), and we’d have had a gloriously creepy opening hour, in which assorted items of strangeness – an unidentified plague, a rumoured killer on the loose, a suspicious and aggressive doctor and his largely unseen daughter – are woven together into a fabric of mysterious creepery. But no, ‘The Reptile’ it is, no doubt prompting cries of “where the god damn hell is this reptile, anyway? I’m bored!” throughout the civilised world.

Another thing that serves to push ‘The Reptile’ closer to the realm of European horror is the ambiguity of the character relationships in the film. In yr average Hammer film, characters’ actions are determined almost entirely by their social or familial position. Be they the protective husband, obedient wife, devoted servant, philanthropic scientist, ignorant working class lunkhead or whatever, even the villains usually seem to at least acknowledge this sense of social propriety.

The power relationships which hold sway in the country estate where most of the action in ‘The Reptile’ takes place though remain somewhat uncertain, right up to the film’s conclusion. Is the silent Malay man-servant working as an enforcer for the shifty Dr Franklyn, who is attempting to scare off outsiders and keep his daughter Anna locked away from the world? Or is Anna actually exercising control over her unstable father, slowly driving him crazy as the servant implacably looks on? Or, is the servant dominating both of them, silently keeping them in line using dark powers or threats, as they squirm like rats in a trap? It is this kind of ambiguity – like a very, very distant echo of Pinter and Losey’s ‘The Servant’ – that helps make ‘The Reptile’ such compelling viewing.

In my favourite scene in the movie (which I dedicate a paragraph to for no other reason than that I think it’s really great), Dr Franklyn (played with perfect twitchy obstinacy by Noel Willman) suddenly decrees that Anna (Jacqueline “OMG, Jacqueline Pierce from ‘Plague of the Zombies’!” Pierce) shall play some music for their guests (Ray Barrett and Jennifer Daniel as our straight/normal protagonists). In keeping with her father’s apparent preoccupation with Eastern culture, Anna sits before the fire and proceeds to let rip on a sitar.

(This in itself is a surprisingly timely inclusion and rare example of a Hammer film giving a nod to contemporary pop culture – The Beatles ‘Norwegian Wood’ and The ‘Stones ‘Paint It Black’ had both charted in the year prior to ‘The Reptile’s release, making the previously little known instrument flavour of the month in the popular consciousness.)

As the tempo and intensity of Anna’s fiery raga increases, she fixes her father with a burning stare, the editing hitting montage-speed in time with the music until, in an absolutely extraordinary outburst, the doctor leaps from his chair, cries “ENOUGH!”, and grabs the instrument from his daughter’s hands, smashing it to pieces and throwing the remains into the fire! I may be spoiling the moment for any readers who’ve not seen the film, but if you ask me the internet is somewhat lacking in images of enraged Victorian patriarchs destroying sitars, so here’s a quick visual summation;

Fantastic. If not quite on a par with the spine-shivering erotic dread of Pierce’s emergence from the grave in ‘Plague..’, this is still a scene I don’t think anyone’s going to forget in a hurry.

Perhaps even more subversive within the Hammer universe though is the prominence ‘The Reptile’ assigns to good ol’ Michael Ripper. After working solidly for years as Hammer’s resident barkeep/mortuary attendant/police constable, ‘The Reptile’ is one of the only films in which Ripper’s character is actually allowed take a more significant role in proceedings. This alone is reason for celebration for Hammer fans who have learned to appreciate Ripper’s distinctive presence, and the obvious relish with which he has delivered his few lines in innumerable movies. But Ripper’s role in ‘The Reptile’ is noteworthy for more than just giving some much-deserved screen-time to a consistently underappreciated actor – it’s an implicit blow to the status-quo of the Hammer class system.

As usual, Ripper plays the pub landlord, and as usual, he’s the only local to act courteously toward our protagonist Captain Spalding (Ray Barrett) after the superstitious locals shun him by deserting Ripper’s pub en masse. Unlike previous movies however - in which Ripper would probably have said “take my advice, get out of here before sunset mister” and turned his attention to giving his pots a thorough scrubbing - here the landlord actually establishes a pretty good rapport with Spalding, and insists he call him by his first name, Tom, giving every sign of being ready to help the Captain and his wife out, should they ignore the vague warnings of ‘trouble’ from all and sundry and persist in their attempt to set up home in Spalding’s late brother’s cottage.

When the weirdness does start to hit the fan, so to speak, the Spaldings seem to be practically crying out for assistance from the contractually obligated Van Helsing/noble doctor character, to reassure them, explain what the hell is going on, and help them fight back against whatever evil turns out to be afoot. Initially they turn to the aforementioned Dr Franklyn, dragging him down from his mansion to examine a vagrant who is dying from the mysterious ‘black death’ in their cottage. Franklyn though turns out to be grouchy and rude – not a very helpful character at all in fact - and leaves the couple feeling even more helpless than they did before. Seeing their plight, and apparently realising that there’s no Peter Cushing on the horizon to take care of things this time around, the rural working class innkeep finds himself stepping up to the plate and reluctantly taking on the Van Helsing role, at least to a certain extent.

Ripper is superb in the role of Tom, building him into a far more rounded character than he has ever been allotted before, and Barrett too makes for a far more interesting leading man than the usual forgettable dolts who constitute Hammer’s ‘straight men’, his pock-marked face, cauliflower ears and slightly pugnacious military demeanour lending him a welcome dose of personality.

One of the movie’s best scenes is the one in which Tom and Spalding meet on a stormy night to discuss their predicament over a glass of brandy. Neither of them are scientists or experts in the occult or whatever, but both give the impression of being men whose military service has taken them to ‘far off lands’ where they have seen ‘many strange things’ - including the fate of a man bitten by a King Cobra. Broadly speaking, they've got an inkling of what's going on here, and what needs to be done about it. Even when faced with a scenario as patently ridiculous as a village being menaced by a blood-thirsty cobra-monster, Ripper brings a real gravitas to his character’s situation, as he reflects that having finally come home from a lifetime at sea, he doesn't want to risk the future of his cozy pub, and confesses to Barrett that “..for the first time in my life, I’m frightened”.

As mentioned, this is really where the pleasures of ‘The Reptile’ lie – slow-building atmosphere, convincing character scenes and some extremely good acting (John Laurie – Frazer from ‘Dad’s Army’ - is a good laugh too as the ill-fated hobo Mad Peter). If I say that the film’s denouement / obligatory reptile rampage is perfectly satisfactory, that doesn’t sound like much of it compliment, but it is – it’s exactly what is expected of a film like this, and it’s fine – nothing special, but because by this stage we’re committed to the characters, deeply immersed in the story and it’s peculiar atmosphere, it is all very effective.

Plus: no trekking-through-the-swamps padding, no lady in a nighty being menaced, no pitchfork n’ shotgun wielding villagers. What lingers in the mind after ‘The Reptile’ is a disquieting mixture of Asian splendour and overgrown English hedgerows, jewelled tiaras and grey corpse mud; roaring fires, caged birds and plywood coffins; mugs of cocoa and bubbling subterranean geysers – a strange and rich palette of jarring imagery, quietly reflecting the underlying angst of colonialism and imperial decline that informs so many British horror and adventure stories.

Solid as a ship’s biscuit, rousing as an Irish Coffee, but with a welcome strain of woozy, taboo-breaking European weirdness clawing up from beneath the surface, ‘The Reptile’ is as high quality a piece of idiosyncratic mid-century British horror as you could hope to find.


Soukesian said...

Excellent review. Had passed this one up for pretty much the same reasons you outline here, despite having been impressed by the still of the reptile make-up in the Hamlyn "Pictorial History of Horror Movies" as a kid. Will definitely check it out at the earliest opportunity.

Gregor said...

Like a few Hammer horrors, I feel afraid to watch this because I saw it when I was a teenager and there was a haunting presence to it which lingers in my mind. Afraid if I see it now, it might just seem overly stagey and cliched, but thanks for the interesting review.

Ben said...

Thanks guys!

I guess 'the Reptile' probably IS pretty stagey and cliched to be honest - as usual, I think I probably exaggerated it's goodness in my review, because of my initial low expectations.

Interesting that it seems to have made a big impression on people at a formative age... I would have thought it was probably one of the least impressive/scary/memorable Hammer films, monster-wise...

Artog said...

Bit late, but: I don't like horror films though I find myself wanting to watch everything I've read about on your blog (with the possible exception of Possession). Anyway, like Soukesian I remember freaking myself out staring and staring at a photo of the Reptile in some horror movie anthology type thing. Not sure why out of all the monsters in there. The eyes possibly.