The Reptile (1966)
Dir. John Gilling
Written by John Elder (Anthony Hinds)
Starring Noel Willman, Jennifer Daniel, Ray Barrett, Jacqueline Pearce, Michael Ripper
When a nice young couple moves to an isolated village (the same village set from PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES -- man, that town has had a rotten spell of luck) they find the townfolk surly and unwelcoming, partially because thats just how ignorant villagers roll, but also partially because lately there’s been some sort of mysterious “black plague” killing people. And not to stereotype but one might be inclined to suspect the shady aristocratic local doctor (Noel Willman, bit parts in DR. ZHIVAGO and THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH) has something to do with it.
This one is a bit on the dry and chatty side for Hammer, but it also pulls dry and chatty off quite a bit better than most of its ilk, so who can complain? Despite the lack of any of Hammer’s regular roster of stars, this one has a disarmingly charming cast, an unusual advantage over a lot of other Hammer productions and a real boon to keeping the movie highly watchable despite the somewhat slow pace. The husband here (Ray Barrett, THE AMOROUS MILKMAN*) is supposed to be ex-military and Barrett successfully gives him a manly, kinda square presence, markedly different from the usual Hammer heroes who tend to be octogenarian academics or bland pretty boys. His wife (Jennifer Daniel, KISS OF THE VAMPIRE) continues in the tradition of Diane Clare in PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES by turning a completely stereotypical victim role into something that seems feisty and alive in a way it probably has no business being. Plus, you gotta like the helpful local bartender (Michael Ripper, basically every Hammer film 1958-1970**) who turns out to really go above and beyond what you could reasonably expect a bartender to do in this situation. Seriously, this guy just keeps turning up and being helpful for absolutely no reason other than he’s a nice guy, kinda the opposite of the vindictive bartender from ABOVE THE LAW who ends up joining forces with the villains after Seagal smashes up his place. I know they don’t tip in Europe, but seriously guys, this is probably a good time to throw in the extra 15%.
|Hey you kids, his eyes are up here.|
The cast is good and director Gilling (PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, THE MUMMY’S SHROUD) conjures a nicely opulent and oppressive gothic atmosphere out of the same sets he used on PLAGUE the same year. Sharp direction keeps an undercurrent of tension present throughout the many long conversations in peoples' drawing rooms while you wait for that final reveal. When it comes, it’s worth it, because the reveal of what is actually going on is admirably weird and surprising. As we discussed in WEREWOLF OF LONDON and THE WOLF MAN way back in the day, Hammer is introducing a genuinely new cinematic monster here, with its own unique mythos and iconography. Creating a new horror staple is both kind of exciting because of the limitless possibilities and kind of worrisome because you don't have untold decades of folk storytellers to hone something until it really feels mythic and straight from the subconscious. It's risky, but after the 900th Frankenstein movie I'm pretty open to trying. Unless I’m forgetting something, this attempt is actually unique for Hammer --who typically relied on old staples (though sometimes rather radically re-invented) like Frankenstein, Dracula, werewolf, mummy, leprechaun, Jason, Ghoulies, Tyler Perry, etc -- the one and only genuinely new Hammer creation. The story behind the titular Reptile isn’t the strongest mythos in their catalogue, but it’s still satisfying, complete, and markedly different from anything else in their filmography (although admittedly a little un-PC in its attitudes about the Malay people of Southeast Asia, not to spoil anything). Plus, I defy you not to fall in love with the reptile design with its crazy eyes and skin-shedding goodness. It’s not the most convincing makeup work on the planet (not that Hammer was exactly renowned for their convincing makeup) but gotta give em credit for creating a striking design and letting you get a good look at it.
|Spoiler. Sorry, but I thought you should see this. It's on the poster for crissakes.|
All of this is more than enough to make for an enjoyable, well-crafted Hammer vehicle, if not quite enough to make you forget that its also a bit on the slow side. Writer Anthony Hinds (also arguably the definitive Hammer producer) manages a more complete-feeling screenplay than his early failures in EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN etc, though he also doesn’t quite reach the same heights of imagination/madness that his subsequent FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN would showcase. Gilling (who had directed at least one and usually two movies every year since 1948) would only make two more films in his career. THE MUMMY’S SHROUD (the third of Hammer’s Mummy series) followed this one the next year, and then presumably he retired to Spain for some much earned respite from monster makeup until someone managed to eventually coax him into one more Horror cheapie in 1975. The reason I mention this is that this last film, La cruz del diablo, is sometimes described as the unofficial fifth sequel in Amando de Ossorio’s BLIND DEAD series. Since I have been able to psychologically deal with one Blind Dead movie per year for the last three years (look for my GHOST GALLEON review sometime this century, I’m reviewing as fast as I can!) I think we can safely schedule that one for CHAINSAWNUKAH 2016: MARATHON MAN. So mark that on your calendar. Meantime, take a look at this one if it sounds good, it’s a competent and unassuming Hammer entry which rewards your patience with a cool monster at the end. I guarantee you it’s better than La cruz del diablo, so let’s enjoy it while we can.
*That oughtta win the prestigious SNAKES ON A PLANE award for most zen title, 1966 edition.
**In fact, though he doesn’t always have major roles, Ripper was apparently in more Hammer films than any other single actor.