Movie Reviews 414 – The Reptile (1966)

While not one of the best of the Hammer Studios Victorian horror films, The Reptile has always been one of my favorites. While the renown ‘studio that dripped blood’s fame was founded on the many Dracula and Frankenstein epics starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, every now and then it strayed from those horror staples and The Reptile was one of those gambles.

The sentimental appeal for myself can be attributed to a number of factors including being one of the earliest horror films I ever saw on a full sized theater screen back in the early seventies – in French no less. It has what was then a fairly new concept for a creature blending in South Asian mystical folklore, also a rarity at the time. But the one reason above all others it made such an impact is that this was the first movie that really scared the living crap out of me! Not such much while I watched it – although I was on the edge of my seat and cringing to be sure – but later that night when I tried going to sleep and could not rid myself of image of “the monster” from my hyperactive nine year old mind.

Recently married Harry and Valerie Spalding (Ray Barrett and Jennifer Daniel) arrive in a Cornwall town to claim the cottage inherited from Harry’s recently deceased brother Charles. They immediately get the cold shoulder from the locals as word gets around that they intend to make the cottage their new home and while trying to get specifics on the circumstances of Charles’ death. The town has been victim to a spate of mysterious deaths, coincidentally beginning around the return of the Spalding’s neighbour Dr. Franklyn (Noel Willman) and his daughter Anna (Jacqueline Pearce) from a Bornean research trip. A theologian, Dr. Franklyn holds his daughter Anna on a tight leash while at the same time seeming to be under the control of his Malaysian butler who returned with them. The young couple have a tenuous relationship with their dysfunctional neighbours but befriend the local barkeep Tom (Michael Ripper) who has begun investigating the rash of deaths himself. While Harry and Tom know the Franklyn’s are at the core of the mystery, it takes the local town drunk’s ghastly death and a stray kitty to reveal the true horror lurking in the doctors house.

The opening scene depicting Charles’ death throes after being attacked in the Franklyn mansion gives the audience a taste of the quickly spreading, eerie green skin discoloration and rabid-like frothing at the mouth of the victims. But that great effect is nothing compared to the creature design of the reptilian morphing Anna. Sleek and serpentine except for one particularly glaring failing facet. The costume and makeup used separate plastic popping eyeballs that, unfortunately, are often misaligned from one another. Whether it was rushed shooting or a failed attempt at a chameleon-like independent eye direction, I do not know, but it is bothersome even in the many widely available stills from the film. Another aspect that drives the slimy atmosphere is the steamy basement snake pit with a bubbling heat spring, the setting for the fitting film finale. Another fine touch is the effective and appropriate use of a catchy snake-charmer influenced music score. A particularly unsettling scene is one in which Anna entertains the her new neighbours playing a sitar while staring down her father and building the tempo to a crescendo until Dr. Franklyn loses it and does his own Pete Townsend guitar smashing routine.

Not counting films in which reptiles stood in for fake dinosaurs this can be considered as the first true horror where the creature in question was undoubtedly truly reptilian, and the beginning of a trend that continued into the seventies with films such as Sssssss, and Frogs.

For a long time this was one of those titles inexplicably hard to find for North American region media players without paying a king’s ransom. So when Scream Factory finally got around to issuing a new, remastered Blu-ray this year I put in my order and anxiously awaited delivery. True to Scream Factory reputation for putting out quality reissues is evident with this print featuring vibrant colours in all but a few spots . The extra features go into detail how this film was one of four Hammer films that were basically shot at the same time with reused sets and actors hoping to save on production costs.

While it was not as well received at the time, this is one of those films that I think even non Hammer fans can enjoy. Just skip the Popeye jokes, OK?

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One Response to “Movie Reviews 414 – The Reptile (1966)”

  1. mikestakeonthemovies Says:

    What caught my eye in your write up is you have a fondness for the film based on seeing it as a kid where i point out that isn’t the case cause I didn’t see it at a young age. So true. I still like it but don’t carry that some love for it like I do say The Gorgon. Cheers and thanks fro saying hello over on FB.

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