Andy Boxall takes a look at Hammer Films’ 1966 movie The Reptile as more of the great British studio’s films are released on blu-ray. How does The Reptile shape up?
Along with Plague of the Zombies, The Reptile is one of four movies shot back-to-back at Bray Studios in the 1960s, in an effort to keep costs low and continue to produce atmospheric horror films that played well with audiences.
Except it doesn’t seem quite right calling Hammer’s The Reptile a horror film, although that is the genre for which the studio is best known, because for the most part it’s a mystery thriller with a supernatural edge.
Harry Spalding inherits all his brother’s worldly possessions, including a cottage in Cornwall, where he and his new wife intend to set up home. When he arrives, he is shunned by the locals due to the way his brother died — a strange affliction they call the Black Death.
The Spalding’s soon meet Anna, the daughter of Dr. Franklyn, who owns the neighbouring mansion. She’s a troubled girl, and after a visit to her house, get a mysterious note begging them to help her. But when Harry and his new friend Tom, the local pub landlord, make a startling discovery about the possible origins of the Black Death, things take a turn for the supernatural.
For the first hour, The Reptile is a slow-burning thriller, with some well-crafted tension and a suitably creepy atmosphere. It culminates with Harry and Tom grave digging in the pouring rain, as they exhume Harry’s brother to check for the presence of bite marks on his neck.
They don’t suspect Dracula though, as both have seen similar bite marks caused by snakes on their travels around the world. While the neck-biting antics may suggest The Reptile is influenced by Hammer’s many vampire films, it owes more to The Wolfman than it does any cloaked Count.
As Dr. Franklyn and his daughter become the film’s focus, so it begins to lose its way. One by one, each character has to wander around the Franklyn mansion, and all the tension built in the first two acts slowly ebbs away. It’s a shame, as the characters are all likable, and until then you are invested in them enough to not want them to die. But by the time they’ve opened another door, or crept down another passageway, you wish fate would just deliver whatever it has in store for them.
This aside, The Reptile makes excellent use of its actors, who all deliver performances that are far more genuine than in other Hammer films, making this very much a character-driven story, with the creature responsible for the deaths only becoming important later on in the final act.
While Harry, Tom and Dr. Franklyn have plenty to do, the character of Harry’s wife Valerie is everything that’s wrong with women in horror from this period. Yes, she really does turn down the offer of joining her husband and Tom for a friendly drink with the line “I have an urgent appointment, I must get home and prepare Harry’s dinner.” Then she spends the remainder of the film getting in difficult situations from which she must be rescued.
Finally, then, we come to the creature itself. It’s wisely kept in the shadows, but when it does emerge the make-up is good, especially for 1966, but when viewed in 1080p high definition in 2012, the enhanced image doesn’t do it many favours. Still, it does offer some shocks as the film reaches its climax, and its existence is far more horrific than other classic monsters.
The Reptile is considerably more atmospheric and a far more rounded movie than Dracula: Prince of Darkness, which was also reissued on Blu-ray recently. It’s completely free of the campy nonsense so often associated with Hammer productions, and is instead a creepy and surprisingly compelling supernatural thriller.
Ignore the dodgy pacing and try The Reptile, it’s exactly the type of film for which Hammer should be remembered.
Directed by: John Gilling
Written by: Anthony Hinds (aka John Elder)
Starring: Noel Willman, Jennifer Daniel, Ray Barrett, Jacqueline Pearce, Michael Ripper
Released: 1966 / Genre: Horror / Country: UK / IMDB