BRITISH CULT CLASSICS: The Reptile / Blu-Ray Review

Hammer's four films shot back-to-back production experiment came to a conclusion with John Gilling's The Reptile in September 1965. Virtually a week after completing principal photography on The Plague of the Zombies, Gilling was already shooting the film on the same back lot and with two of the same cast, Jacqueline Pearce and Michael Ripper.

Originally titled The Reptiles and announced in 1963, it was intended for production partners Universal. It resurfaced on Hammer's schedule in 1964, as The Curse of the Reptiles before finally going into production at Bray in 1965. Gilling directed from a John Elder script (that's Anthony "Mr Elder" Hinds as he was known to the director) that was completed in August of that year and submitted to the BBFC for their approval.

Like its bedfellow, The Reptile was set in Cornwall and follows the arrival, in a small, isolated village, of Captain Harry Spalding and his wife Valerie after the mysterious death of his brother Charles. The villagers reject the new arrivals and Harry has to rely on the help of local landlord Tom Bailey to discover the real reasons behind the series of mysterious deaths that occur in the village and understand the involvement of theologist Dr Franklyn and his daughter Anna. It is eventually revealed that they harbour a terrible secret - a Malay curse that transforms Anna into a human reptile.

"This nasty rubbish will be an 'X' if we allow it. I am in no doubt about this horrid and repulsive story," was the verdict of the BBFC reader Newton Branch as noted in Wayne Kinsey's Hammer Films - The Bray Studios Years. Again, the script was accused of pandering to the "horror-comic" and the demand was that it should be re-scripted so that the horror elements were less lurid and "more by implication."

The response to Hammer from John Trevelyan's office was to address the lead character's transformation into a snake and that Hammer needed to take care about how they depicted this on screen and to avoid any nudity. They were also concerned about Franklyn's discovery, in one of the film's very charged scenes, of the skin sloughed off by his afflicted daughter and the depiction of her venomous bite on her victims. "I believe that the victims of cobra bites do not in fact turn black or suffer convulsions and these shots may easily be too strong, even for an 'X'" argued their correspondent, Frank Crofts, displaying a singular lack of imagination.

As well as the re-dress of the existing village and churchyard sets last used on The Plague of the Zombies, production designers Bernard Robinson and Don Mingaye employed the four stages at Bray for cottage and pub interiors and the various rooms of Franklyn's home, Well House Hall. The production also went on location to cover the moorland scenes at Frensham Ponds and returned to Oakley Court, standing in for the Hall. Robinson and his team also transformed Grainger's Farm, a disused cottage near Woking, for the exteriors of the Spalding's home, Larkrise.

Joining Pearce and Ripper were Noel Willman and Jennifer Daniel, who had previously been paired in Don Sharp's The Kiss of the Vampire for Hammer in 1963, Ray Barrett (a rugged looking Australian actor who was probably more familiar to television viewers from The Troubleshooters, Doctor Who and Emergency-Ward 10) and John Laurie (a prolific Shakespearean actor with an equally impressive track record in British film, including a number of Powell and Pressburger productions and who would later become immortalised in Dad's Army).

This was also make-up designer Roy Ashton's last assignment for the studio after a decade working with the company. For The Reptile he had to again deal with Jacqueline Pearce's claustrophobia and her instinct to rip off the mask he had devised for her reptilian transformation. As Ashton recalled in Greasepaint and Gore, "A lot of research went into the appearance of the Reptile. Again I consulted anatomical authorities, drew snakes many times and constructed a model adapting the plate-like build up of reptilian scales to the bones of the human head." The mask he created was made from laminated paper and built around Pearce's head, weaving strands of hair into her own hairline. The scales on the mask were elaborated from a cast of a Boa Constrictor's skin and sections were also used on Pearce's cheeks and neck. He also fitted her with a set of acrylic fangs that dripped glycerine to simulate deadly venom. To aleviate Pearce's claustrophobia he built the mask with removable eye sections that could be put into place just before she went in front of the camera.

Although Gilling was working with almost the same crew from The Plague of the Zombies, his approach here is less elaborate and almost understated compared to some of the dynamism he injected into the previous film. As noted in the documentary by Marcus Hearn, Gilling had to call Pearce back to re-shoot many of her scenes when she was in Ashton's make-up because the producer was unhappy with the quality of what he'd already filmed. Apparently, Gilling was also unimpressed with the script by "Mr Elder" and undertook to re-write it during shooting.

However, he excells in building atmosphere and mystery right from the start when the pre-title sequence discloses the fate of Charles Spalding as he is lured to Franklyn's house, wanders its ornate corridors bedecked in tropical flowers and ends up bitten by an assailant, tumbling down a flight of stairs while frothing at the mouth. It's an arresting opening that establishes the nature of the threat and the antagonistic relationship between the haunted Franklyn (Willman) and the mysterious Malay servant (Marne Maitland) who attends to Spalding's body by dumping it in the churchyard. Here Gilling, in one of his typical flourishes, expands from a close-up of the corpse to a vertiginous wide shot of the Malay scuttling away down the village streets.

Of note here is Don Banks's score. Literally brimming with Eastern promise (and alluding to the sounds generated by Gamelan orchestras mentioned by David Huckvale in this disc's documentary), the themes are sinuous and exotic, its atonalities and glissandos suggesting that the Franklyn home is a nexus of colonial guilt about the attempts to civilise 'the foreigner' and know their secrets. It certainly embellishes the film's themes and for good measure Banks encompasses claps of thunder into the title theme.

Despite the tried and tested formula of having Harry Spalding (Barrett) and wife Valerie (Daniel) struggle to make an impression on the locals, who naturally "don't like strangers in these parts" according to the pub landlord Tom Bailey (Ripper), their relocation from city to countryside neatly dovetails with Franklyn's own rather disastrous intrusions into the sub-continent and his guilt at the deaths that are an inevitable outcome of the curse on his daughter. Gilling, early on, plays this horror off against a lovely comic turn from Harold Goldblatt as a solicitor reading Charles's last will and testament, who bluntly informs Harry and Valerie that "his shareholdings... hmmm... virtually worthless", and John Laurie's physical comedy when he has supper with the Spaldings.

From here we see their trials and tribulations as they attempt to settle down to village life in the cottage bequeathed to them. They encounter Laurie's 'Mad Peter', an itinerant eccentric capable of sucking chicken bones dry and given to eye-rolling warnings about the village being a "corrupt and evil" place. Laurie supplies a wonderfully off-kilter turn (and you almost wish he would utter "we're doomed" for old time's sake) as a man regarded as 'mad' only because he finds it difficult "to grasp some of the things people find important nowadays... like making money." Clearly for Peter the capitalist and colonial enterprise is over and the British have been left to deal with its effects and in the aftermath the Spaldings themselves have only a cottage to their name despite the army service Harry and Charles have both contributed to HRH Victoria's colonialist project.

Symbolically, British society has been corrupted and poisoned by association with this undertaking and this is illustrated in the various attacks on key patriarchal figures - Charles, Peter and then Harry. Gilling makes the most of the body horror here as the victims' faces bloat and blacken and he typically uses Peter's demise to ramp up the abjection and frames the man's poisoned visage through the mullioned glass of a window after he disturbs the Spaldings late one night, the shot distorting John Laurie's already twisted face even more. When Harry is himself bitten by Anna (Pearce) in her snake form, miraculously he seems to survive the ordeal but again Gilling underlines the horror of it by having Valerie cut out the poison. He then supplements the process of 'cold turkey' delirium that Harry undertakes with a series of slow dissolves and that find a parallel in the later scene between the Malay and the metamorphosing Anna.

At the core of the film is the relationship between Franklyn, his daughter Anna and the Malay who form a triumvirate that explore the themes of burgeoning and emerging female sexuality, a proto-feminism in some respects, as the result of an ancient patriarchy's meddling with 'foreign' knowledge. Imperialism has unearthed dark forces that have come home to roost and to punish Franklyn's arrogance through his daughter. The Malay holds the true power over both Anna and her father and the film moodily disinters repression, guilt and Anna's growing female power. This comes to the fore in several powerful sequences in the film.

When Anna Franklyn invites the Spaldings to the house, she is at first punished for daring to leave the family home, speak to them and then invite them to dinner. Her unfettered sexual bloom is perhaps symbolised in the exotic flowers that she fills the cottage with when Valerie returns home, an explosion of fecundity in counterpoint to the married woman's somewhat more restrained femininity. It's also notable that Valerie finds Anna's father "intimidating" and that Anna sees this as a symptom of his fall from grace with her hesitant response, "but he was a very good man... I mean he is good."

At the house that evening, the tension between Anna and her father is brilliantly conveyed in a sequence where Frankyln requests that she play for them. Anna, in traditional Indian sari, plays the sitar and under the Malay's influence, uses this as an opportunity to flaunt her growing sexuality and dissent towards his role as patriarch. As Roderick Heath expertly summaries in his review, "This abuts a second more acutely troubling metaphor, one of incestuous patriarchal panic and attraction to emerging female sexuality. She travels into a deep, predatory trance while playing, she and her father staring at each other in fixation until the doctor erupts in disgust and smashes her instrument."

Later, this eroticism is powerfully signified in a brief moment where we see the Malay, singing some incomprehensible lullaby, coaxing and charming the writhing figure of Anna, in her bed, to shed her skin. It's a rather unsettling scene that Gilling masterfully and economically employs to heighten the feverish atmosphere of the film. As Heath notes, this disgust at himself and his daughter's brief freedom from repression is relayed again by Franklyn's abhorrence at the shed skin, still wearing her nightie, that Anna leaves in her bed and which he then thrashes to pieces with his cane. Willman expertly conveys both this dammed up frustration and his resignation at the curse that haunts the family, especially as it also troubles his religious hubris as a theologist. This line continues when he summons the courage to kill his own daughter as she lies dormant but slowly writhing beneath a carpet (which gives a whole new meaning to 'brushing things under the carpet' when it comes to Victorian repression) in a sulphurous cavern beneath the house.

While Harry Spalding recovers, it is Valerie who actually returns to the house at the film's conclusion and extracts a confession from Franklyn about his activities in Borneo and how his curiosity for the primitive religion of the area was the origin of the curse on Anna and its corruption of her innocence. However, the climax of the film is perhaps its least effective section. There is a rather ludicrous final scene where, as Franklyn is about to kill his daughter in the cavern, he pauses to free all the caged animals, that are presumably her bedtime snacks, and thus allows the Malay to wrestle him to the floor and prevent Anna's death. Naturally, the Malay is carrying a lantern which then sets the place on fire - all Hammer characters really should undertake a fire risk assessment when it comes to wielding torches and lanterns - and Franklyn then proceeds to blame Valerie for his own failure to murder his daughter. Well, if he hadn't stopped to let all the fluffy bunny rabbits free and then hurl the Malay into a sulphurous pit perhaps he might have achieved his goal.

Maybe it just underlines the character's hypocrisy because he also prepares to leave Valerie to burn to death in his sanctum-like study but then gets his just desserts (as did Squire Hamilton at the hands of his zombie workers in The Plague of the Zombies) when Anna turns on him, injecting her venom into her own father. It's very difficult to sympathise with the Franklyn father figure at this stage as the house turns into an inferno and he attempts to leave.

We do get a final and visually arresting encounter between the revived snake form of Anna and the trapped Valerie before Tom Bailey and her husband rush to the rescue. Pearce still suggests something of Anna's vulnerability, generating some audience sympathy too, as Tom smashes the windows and lets in the cold night air. The ferocity of her snake persona melts away, she hugs herself and then withers and dies from the chill.

The Reptile has plenty of pleasing moments but lacks some of the visceral qualities of The Plague of the Zombies, relying more on a slow build up of mood to reach a somewhat traditional climax. It does have some strong performances, notably Willman, Pearce and Barrett, and offers Michaeal Ripper his most satisfying role in a Hammer film. Jennifer Daniel, even with very little to do, is effective as Valerie and gives a much more naturalistic performance than Diane Clare in Gilling's The Plague of the Zombies. Roy Ashton's snake make up for Pearce is a still iconic monster design even if its lack of mobility, particularly the eyes, diminishes its effectiveness for today's audience.

About the transfer
The opening titles could briefly raise a few alarm bells as they are soft, excessively grainy and lack sharpness as it would appear the opticals to generate the titles have had an impact here but once you get into the start of the film the quality of the transfer really does shine. The detail on faces and clothing is sharp, the image is full of depth and good contrast and colour reproduction is very satisfying. There are occasional flecks and specks and one quite prominent 'cigarette burn' is still intact towards the middle of the film. Transitions are handled well and only a few of them see a very brief decline in the quality of the image. Overall, it is a very handsome looking picture. The mono soundstage handles Banks's music and the dialogue with no problems at all and is crisp and clear.

Special features
The Serpent's Tale (21:50)
Not quite as comprehensive as the documentary that accompanies The Plague of the Zombies and mystifyingly it doesn't feature Jacqueline Pearce where the other does and her comments are greatly missed. What we do get is Marcus Hearn, Jonathan Rigby, Mark Gatiss and Wayne Kinsey all bringing their expertise and comments to bear and offering us a behind the scenes exploration of the film and, particularly from Rigby, an astute analysis of the film's themes. David Huckvale is also on hand to unpick Don Banks's score for us and Don Mingaye is appropriately lauded for his contributions to set design at Hammer and his work with the legendary Bernard Robinson. There is also a visit to Pinewood to see the film's restoration in progress. 
World of Hammer: Wicked Women (24:54)
Rumbling Oliver Reed narrates another episode from the series and this time looks at Countess Dracula, The Nanny, The Anniversary, Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde and The Reptile amongst others.
Restoration Comparison (2:17)
Another 'before' and 'after' comparison of the restoration. Probably better to compare this to the murky DVD transfer from Optimum a few years ago to get a better idea of how the restoration has improved the look of the film as these comparisons seem to be a bit of a false economy to me.
Trailer (2:02)

The Reptile
Hammer / Seven-Arts
StudioCanal Double Play Blu-Ray & DVD Special Edition / Cert: 15 / Catalogue No: OPTBD0633 / Released 18 June 2012

Blu-ray tech specs: Region B / Total Running Time: 90:06 / Feature Aspect Ratio: 1.67:1 / Colour PAL / Video Codec: MPEG-4 AVC 1080p / Audio Codec: LPCM dual-mono soundtrack / Feature Audio: LPCM / English Language

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