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Reptilicus

Saga Studio and
American International Pictures
[1961/1962] 92′ / 82′
country: Denmark / United States
directors: Poul Bang and Sidney Pink

cast: Asbjorn Anderson,
Ann Smyrner, Mimi Heinrich,
Carl Ottosen, Bent Mejding,
Bodil Miller, Dirch Passer,
Marlies Behrens
Order the US release version of
this film from Amazon.com

Deep in Lapland a strange discovery is made – the disembodied tail of some enormous prehistoric reptile is found by a mining expedition, perfectly preserved in the icy muck underground.  The remains are flown to Copenhagen, where a freak accident allows them to thaw.  Scientists and authorities alike are stunned when a full creature begins to form from the tail, which was thought to be dead.  Precautions are taken to ensure that the beast doesn’t escape, but not nearly enough it seems.  The monster, dubbed Reptilicus, goes on a rampage, attacking Hamburg and Stockholm.  But Reptilicus soon returns to Copenhagen, where the Danish military is waiting . . .

REPTILICUS is a terribly serious affair – hence the terribly serious synopsis above.  And I can’t stress enough how terribly seriously it was taken by those responsible for making it.  Co-produced between Denmark’s Saga Studio and Pittsburgher Sidney [BWANA DEVIL, THE TWONKY, THE ANGRY RED PLANET] Pink, with international distribution rights handled by legendary schlock house American International Pictures, REPTILICUS was a big deal for all involved.  The production received unprecedented cooperation from the Danish armed forces, and there’s no end to shots of tanks rolling through fields or anti-aircraft cannons lining deserted city streets.

Experienced Saga Studio director Poul Bang got first crack at Danish-American Ib Melchior’s screenplay, producing a reasonable [compared to what was to follow] if entirely unremarkable blend of science fiction, romantic drama, and comedy that was marketed with much fanfare as ‘the first Danish science fiction fantasy film in Eastman Color’.  But thanks to the particularly awful failing of its inexperienced special effects crew [more on that in a bit] the film was met with a mix of indifference and incredulity by Danish audiences, who must have wondered what all the fuss had been about.

Sidney Pink had the second round, directing an alternate English language version of the Melchior screenplay to be distributed world-wide by A.I.P.  Unfortunately Pink was far less experienced [or talented] than his Danish counterpart, and the cut he presented to American International executive Sam Arkoff was reportedly awful to the point of being unreleasable.  Never one to let a bad film go to waste, Arkoff set about re-working Pink’s abysmal production into something approaching marketable.  The dialog was re-looped and the narrative edited considerably, but the most noticeable difference was in the special effects department.  Arkoff must have spent a good chunk of change here, as the finished American REPTILICUS is loaded with new optical work, notably in the addition of the titular monster’s ability to projectile-vomit globs of bright green glop.  It’s a stupid effect to be sure, but just the sort of thing the film needed to get its school boy demographic talking about it.

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Additional optical effects, like the inclusion of flames or smoke in the foreground, seem to have a dual purpose – to make the original shots more exciting and cover up at least some of their inherent limitations.  What limitations, you ask?  The miniature work utilized for both the Danish and American versions of REPTILICUS is easily some of the least effective ever to grace a major motion picture.  The buildings of the table-top Copenhagen sets rarely appear fully detailed, more often looking like the squat and misshapen cardboard boxes they are.  That the setups are, without exception, photographed in a full-on flood of light only makes matters worse, showcasing every one of a seemingly endless supply of defects.

Bad as the miniature city scapes may be, REPTILICUS’ biggest failing is definitely in its depiction of the menace for which it is named.  Forget the magical space buzzard of THE GIANT CLAW, Reptilicus beats it hands down for the title of Worst Monster Marionette.  While interesting enough in the design department, seemingly inspired by the mythological sea serpents of old, its implementation leaves a lot to be desired.  Reptilicus wriggles and wobbles as though propelled by a single technician holding a single string and, thanks to standard speed photography, has about as much visual weight as one imagines a puppet a scant few feet long would.  A more detailed hand puppet of the monster’s head fares only slightly better, its manner of manipulation all too obvious.

American International did much to refine REPTILICUS in regards to its special effects, but for every step forward the company seems to have added a new technical blunder to the pile.  Chief among these is a truly awful process shot meant to show Reptilicus devouring a poor Dane.  Just one glimpse of a static photo of the victim disappearing down the monster’s hatch is enough to illicit howls from even the most jaded of bad movie veterans.  More obnoxious to me is A.I.P.’s tendency to repeat close-ups of the beast ad nauseum, and more often than not in awful step-printed slow motion.  The optical slime effect also grows tiresome through over-use, losing its initial “neat” factor early on.

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Sidney Pink [the man responsible for JOURNEY TO THE SEVENTH PLANET] liked to claim that American International ruined his picture through their meddling, but the dollar signs certainly add up in A.I.P.’s favor.  Business for REPTILICUS was good, in spite of its stilted dramatics and awful effects, and it continues to be a cult favorite here in the states.  American International’s release made it to VHS courtesy of the defunct Orion, which is how I first encountered it many years ago, and was released on DVD as part of MGM’s Mignight Movies series in 2001.  That disc looks to have since been discontinued.

As for myself, I’ve become rather partial to Poul Bang’s Danish version of the film.  There’s no questioning that the dramatic aspects of Ib Melchior’s screenplay are better handled here.  The emphasis is shifted away from the titular menace in favor of the romances that form around its discovery.  Considerable time is spent fleshing out the relationship between Svend and the young Karen Martens [there’s some wonderful subversive dialogue early on, like Karen asking her father for permission to thaw Svend out], though the conflicting love interests of General Grayson are left largely unexplored.  Too bad, as Grayson is the one person in the picture who could have benefited the most from expansion of his character, and the Danish trailer reveals that at least some material in that regard was produced.  The only note on Grayson’s love life to be had is when we see him embrace Lise Martens at the end of the picture, just before it dissolves to an underwater shot of Reptilicus’ twitching disembodied foot.

Nearly all of the romantic footage is either excised in the A.I.P. cut or was never re-filmed by Pink to begin with, including a couple of scenes in which Svend and Karen frollic at the beach [stills of which were circulated by American International].  Replacing such material in the American cut are lengthy spools of travelogue footage, including an extended tour of Tivoli [limited to the Tivoli Nights musical number in the Danish release] and pontification on the bike-riding habits of Danes.  The main cast is the same through both versions with the exception of potential General Grayson love interest Connie Miller, who is played by Bodil Miller in the Danish cut and the considerably [ten years] younger Marlies Behrens in the A.I.P. release.

Still, the Danish REPTILICUS plods along at a tedius pace, and you’ll find that half of the film has passed before the monster finally makes a living, breathing appearance.  Once the beast does enter things, there’s much less of him to be seen here than in the A.I.P. cut [not necessarily a bad thing], though a good amount of what is here is alternate footage not found in that cut.  Most notable amongst this special effects footage are the infamous flying sequences, in which Reptilicus awkwardly attacks Hamburg and Stockholm in the night before sailing into Copenhagen.  Arkoff was probably wise to cut them from his release [I can only imagine how they must have dragged on in Pink’s original cut as compared to here], even if some of his own additions proved just as ridiculous.

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Then there is the odd case of Dirch Passer, the Danish comedy legend who plays a night watchman named Mikkelson [renamed Peterson in the A.I.P. release].  Passer is much better represented by the Bang film, obviously being more comfortable working in Danish than English,  with the egregious exception of his show-stopping song-and-dance number.  Passer meets up with a gaggle of school children in a park and tells them, through the magic of song, about the terrifying monster ‘Tillicus [the joke here is that the kids aren’t scared in the least, and call Passer a little baby for being afraid].  I don’t find this to be nearly so bad as many other reviewers seem to and really quite enjoy it, though its placement here is questionable all the same.  The rest of the Sven Gyldmark musical score for the film is pretty good, the somber opening theme in particular.  Only the unfortunate inclusion of a slide whistle to the orchestra detracts from things, making the “intense” monster scenes even more ludicrous.  Gyldmark’s score was augmented by Les Baxter [PANIC IN YEAR ZERO] for the A.I.P. release.

The Danish version of REPTILICUS was once quite hard to come by, but Sandrew Metronome Video and Saga Studio did much to rectify that by releasing it to region 2 PAL DVD in 2002.  The transfer on display is a fine full screen and progressive one.   Colors seem a bit faded at times and there are instances of minor damage, but the source elements look to have been in otherwise good shape.  Contrast and detail fair very well and the single layer encoding is solid [the compressed screen caps really don’t do it justice], though I did detect some edge enhancement.  Audio is presented in a strong Dolby Digital monophonic track in the original Danish.  Dialogue and sound effects are clear and the Gyldmark score has definite punch. The track is augmented with Danish SDH subtitles, but there are, unfortunately, no English subtitles to match.  Extras are limited to an original Danish trailer [which wisely opts not to show the monster], some text biographies, and a text history of Saga Studio.  Both the menu and the packaging are adorned with a huge cartooney logo announcing REPTILICUS as a Dirch Passer Film – that he would be of more appeal than the rest of the film to potential Danish customers isn’t really surprising.

The Sandrew Metronome Video / Saga Studio disc is currently readily available from a variety of online Danish video retailers, and I purchased my copy through dvdoo.dk.  While the checkout was a bit difficult to navigate, being in Danish only, prices were good [I paid only $18 for the dvd, shipped] and service was impeccable.

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I hated REPTILICUS when I first saw it as a child, and wondered for days about just why I’d shelled out my hard-earned change on a VHS of it in the first place.  Since then it’s grown on me, and I’ve even added it to the long list of terrible films I commonly screen for friends.  Bad as both versions may be, there’s something undeniably amiable about this monster opus born out of international co-production hell.  Odds are it won’t thrill you or chill you, but you might just find yourself entertained in spite of it.  I’m giving it an overall recommendation, and heartily encourage fans to take the time to track down the Danish release version.

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