The Reptile (1966) ***
So what we’re seeing here, basically, is that for Hammer Film Productions, 1966 was sort of the opposite of 1964. In ‘64, even their best ideas came off half-cocked and cocked-up, but in ‘66, even the worst-laid plans seldom went astray. Compare The Gorgon to The Reptile as a case in point. Both movies foolishly took a nifty and underused monster— each monster some kind of unholy melding of woman and snake, no less— and proceeded to spin absolutely the most generic and unoriginal gothic horror tale imaginable around her. But while The Gorgon met with exactly the results that such an undertaking deserved, The Reptile astonishingly turned out very nearly the equal of its sister production and frequent partner in double features, Plague of the Zombies.
Charles Spalding (David Baron) is out for a nighttime walk in the vicinity of Larkrise, his cottage outside the Cornish village of Cleghorn Heath; someone is stealthily following him. When Spalding returns home, he finds a note on his parlor table, asking him to the home of Dr. Franklyn (Noel Willman, from The Kiss of the Vampire and The Vengeance of She), the closest thing he has to a proper neighbor, who lives in the mansion across the moor in the direction opposite the town. Strangely, though, there’s no sign that Franklyn is actually expecting him. True, the front door is unlocked, but the doctor is not awaiting Charles in the foyer, nor does anyone respond as Spalding roams from room to room, calling out to his ostensible host. Only when Charles approaches the closed door at the end of an ill-lit upstairs hallway does Franklyn appear, urgently warning him not to go any further. It’s much too late for that, however. No sooner has the warning escaped Franklyn’s lips than someone lunges out to seize Spalding, biting him hard on the throat before taking flight into the gloom. Spalding is swiftly overcome with convulsions, his face blackening and his mouth foaming, and minutes later, he is dead. Dr. Franklyn’s Malay manservant (Marne Maitland, from The Stranglers of Bombay and First Men in the Moon) collects the body, and drives off to dump it in the village cemetery.
Spalding had a younger brother (Ray Barrett, of Terror from Under the House), until recently an officer in the Royal Grenadiers, and Larkrise is the principal part of the small inheritance that Charles’s will grants to Henry. This is most convenient for the heir, as Henry has lately married, and Larkrise, for all its modesty, is nevertheless rather more property than he and Valerie (Jennifer Daniel, also in The Kiss of the Vampire) could realistically afford if left to their own devices. The welcome that greets these new Spaldings in Cleghorn Heath is far from warm, however. Tom Bailey the publican (Michael Ripper, from X: The Unknown and The Creeping Flesh) assures Henry that the standoffishness of the villagers merely reflects a general aversion to strangers (and as a former sailor who settled in Cleghorn Heath relatively late in life, he should know a thing or two about that), but the condition of Larkrise suggests something markedly more specific— and markedly more sinister. Someone has broken in and trashed the place in the few days since Charles’s death. Every man among the gang of sullen rustics who hang out at Bailey’s place in the evenings resentfully asserts both innocence and ignorance in the matter, but Henry is justly not persuaded. Meanwhile, back at the cottage, Valerie is interrupted in her straightening-up by the sudden arrival of Dr. Franklyn, who virtually sneaks into the house, supposedly in search of his daughter, Anna (who’ll be played by Jacqueline Pearce, from Plague of the Zombies, when we eventually meet her in person). Franklyn openly refuses to accept Valerie’s word that Anna is nowhere around Larkrise, or to leave until he’s made a thorough search of the place himself.
Then, on the way home from his unsuccessful effort to call the locals to account for the vandalism, Henry is ambushed. His attacker turns out to be Mad Peter the village loony (John Laurie, of The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Devil Girl from Mars), a normally harmless old man. Spalding is unable to get a truly satisfactory explanation out of him, but there seems to have been a case of mistaken identity. In any case, Henry brings Peter home with him, and plies the old nutcase with food, coffee, and whiskey in the hope of obtaining at least some clue either to his brother’s mysterious death (“heart failure,” Henry’s ass!) or to the locals’ equally mysterious hostility. All Spalding can get out of him, though, is an assertion that Cleghorn Heath was a good, welcoming place before “they” came. At that point, Mad Peter is frightened away from the cottage by (of all things) the sound of pipes playing an Indian melody wafting across the moor.
Peter returns late that night, only this time, he’s foaming at the mouth and his face is all swollen and greenish-black. The only word he can force out before lapsing into unconsciousness is “Franklyn,” which the Spaldings reasonably take as a plea to run across the moor and summon Dr. Franklyn for help. But as Henry discovers when he barges into the mansion on this vital mission, Franklyn is a doctor of theology, not medicine. And whatever divinity school awarded him his degree clearly didn’t put much stock in instilling its graduates with the spirit of Christian charity, because it is only with great reluctance and much aggrieved kvetching that Franklyn agrees to accompany Spalding to Larkrise to provide whatever limited help might be within his power. Peter is dead by the time the two men arrive, so that help takes the form of making “all the arrangements” for burial— which is to say, sending the Malay around with a wagon to (once again) pick up the deceased and dump him unceremoniously in the boneyard.
Naturally, the night’s events leave Henry more determined than ever to figure out what the hell is going on in Cleghorn Heath, but even Tom Bailey, his one likely ally, bows out on the grounds that he has too much to lose by poking his nose into matters that involve risking Mad Peter’s fate. All he’ll say is that the condition is not unknown in these parts, and that the villagers have taken to calling it the Black Death. Whether or not that means they identify it with the great plagues of the Middle Ages is beyond Bailey’s ability to say. Valerie has her own mystery to untangle, too, for the next afternoon, Anna Franklyn does sneak into Larkrise uninvited. All she wanted was to surprise the Spaldings with a big-ass flower arrangement as a cheering-up gift, but her demeanor when Valerie catches her putting it together is more than a little weird. Even weirder is her father’s demeanor when he calls once again to collect her. Franklyn treats his daughter like a wayward six-year-old rather than the grown woman she is, apparently objecting to the mere fact of Anna leaving the house without his permission. Furthermore, he acts as if he were afraid that at any second, Anna will do or say something that would embarrass him— and not just in a social faux pas sense, either. More like the “oh, by the way— here’s where the bodies are buried” sense. But if Franklyn wants to keep Anna isolated from contact with the outside world, she’s just found the perfect way to scuttle those plans. Before her father arrived, Anna invited Valerie and her husband to have dinner up at the mansion that night, and there’s no way Franklyn can rescind that invitation without looking like an even bigger psycho than he already does.
As it happens, Franklyn manages to come across as a complete psycho anyway come dinner time. It starts when he announces that Anna will not be participating in the meal itself, on the grounds that she’s being punished. So again with the freakishly age-inappropriate parenting. Then there’s a subtle but persistent false note in the conversation around the table, as if for everything Franklyn says about the years he spent in the Indies researching the natives’ “primitive religions,” there are a dozen or so points on which he remains studiedly silent. When Franklyn does finally permit Anna to come downstairs and join the fun, it’s clear that he does so solely as a pretext for separating the Spaldings for a bit, so that he can lean on Henry to sell Larkrise and leave the village. And while that’s going on, Anna is laying her own brand of cryptic weirdness on Valerie, imploring her unspecified help in a room filled with tier upon tier of small, nervous animals in cages; the latter are supposedly Anna’s pets, but they look to me more like a stock of feed critters such as a pet store might keep for the owners of fussy-eating predators like snakes, birds of prey, or Scolopendra centipedes. Finally, Franklyn orders Anna to entertain the guests with her sitar-playing, but gets so freaked out by the song she chooses that he eventually leaps from his chair in a rage, and smashes the instrument to bits against the sturdy pillars of the fireplace mantle. That’s when the Spaldings sensibly decide that they can’t take it anymore. Franklyn’s party sucks, and they’re outta here. Imagine how much more disgusted they’d be if they knew that while all that was going on, the Malay was breaking into their house to abduct Valerie’s kitten for incorporation into Anna’s strange menagerie!
That’s about when Tom Bailey has a change of heart. Setting aside his fears, he tells Henry to meet him at the pub as late as possible— as in, “why the fuck aren’t you in bed already?” late. They’re going to be robbing graves, you see, and it obviously wouldn’t do to have spectators for that. Specifically, they’re going to dig up first Mad Peter and then Charles Spalding, and give the bodies the once-over for anything the notoriously lazy-ass county coroner might have missed. Would you believe he missed what appears to be a big honking snake-bite somewhere on each man’s neck? Now remember that Henry used to be a soldier. Remember too that Tom used to be a sailor. And remember further that both of them are British, in the 19th century. So of course they’ve both been to India, and of course they both know what the bite of a king cobra looks like. Now the first thing that jumps to my mind at this point is all those caged rodents that Anna keeps, but something still doesn’t fit. Obviously neither Tom nor Henry was around to see Charles’s death, but we were, and we know that the deceased Spalding brother wasn’t bitten by any snake. And really, why would Franklyn be so over-the-top twitchy if nothing more were going on here than the periodic escape of his or Anna’s pet cobra? How about a were-cobra, though? Or more to the point, how a were-cobra that spends its daylight hours as Franklyn’s daughter?
You see what I mean? It really is like The Gorgon transposed onto the sets for Plague of the Zombies, with a few of the characters gender-switched, a few of the relationships revised, and a riff on the good-guy grave-robbing scene from the latter movie spliced in to act as the turning point of the story. Opening-scene slaying of a purely instrumental character? Check. Relative of the dead man comes to town and becomes fixated on finding out the truth of his suspicious demise? Check. Locals receive relative with monolithic hostility for no discernable cause? Check. Unmistakably creepy local authority figure tied in mysterious ways to a woman who turns into a snake monster that we don’t get to see nearly often enough? Check. Snake monster’s sympathetic human alter-ego seeks bond with protagonist? Check. Ostensible hero isn’t actually good for much, and has most of the hard work done for him by an ally much smarter and more resourceful than he is? Check. Emphasis throughout is counterproductively placed on a mystery which any reasonably intelligent viewer will untangle, in outline if not in detail, within moments of its being established? Check that, too. And yet for all that, The Reptile works anyway. For one thing, the details of the story are easier to swallow than they were in the earlier film. Instead of an immortal monster from Greek mythology migrating to East Prussia for no apparent reason and behaving in ways completely at odds with the ancient legends, The Reptile gives us a made-up but plausible-seeming Indonesian snake cult, plugged into exactly the sort of anti-colonial revenge plot that drove so many of Rudyard Kipling’s horror stories. Even in that, it’s nothing original, essentially grafting together elements of the premises behind two earlier were-snake movies: Cult of the Cobra and The Snake Woman. It is, however, tightly plotted and internally consistent, with some interesting subtextual touches— the latter visible especially in the person of the Malay, whose relationship with Dr. Franklyn turns out to be virtually opposite to what it initially seems. Perhaps surprisingly, I think it helps, too, that the cast is composed wholly of second- and third-stringers. To raise again the Gorgon comparison, the titanic classiness of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing was starkly contrary to the crass silliness of everything else, and drew unflattering attention to that silliness at every turn. Ray Barrett and Noel Willman don’t have that problem, though; they’re good enough to get the job done, but they’re never in any danger of overwhelming the material with the force of their personalities.
But even more importantly, neither Barrett nor Willman is the star of The Reptile, no matter what onscreen billing order might claim. The real star of this show is Michael Ripper, whose character grows steadily in importance until he’s plainly leading the fight to lift the curse hanging over Cleghorn Heath. In some other review a long time ago, I called Ripper “the Dick Miller of the British Isles.” If so, then The Reptile is Ripper’s A Bucket of Blood, and he acquits himself here at least as well as Miller did with his unaccustomed turn in the spotlight. This movie establishes beyond any doubt that Ripper had the skill and the screen presence to carry a film without much aid from younger, taller, and prettier performers, and that he could have been much better remembered than he is today if he didn’t look so damned much like a character actor. Furthermore, there was simply no one else among Hammer’s mid-60’s regulars who could have done the part such justice. It was a minor stroke of genius for screenwriter Anthony Hinds to give the Van Helsing role to a mere publican, inverting for all practical purposes the standard perspective of the gothic horror story. But casting Ripper was an even smarter move, since he’s exactly the person a savvy viewer would expect to see as Tom Bailey without knowing beforehand that Bailey is to be The Reptile’s true hero.