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The final in an unsuccessful four-film experiment by producer Anthony Nelson Keys to make Hammer Film Productions’ operations at Bray Studios more cost effective, John Gilling’s The Reptile was produced back-to-back with the same director’s The Plague of the Zombies and released in the Spring of 1966 on a double bill with Don Sharp’s Rasputin: The Mad Monk. A small-scale horror produced with modest resources, The Reptile was the only of Keys’ four experiments to come in both on time and under budget, but it proved a case of too little success too late. Hammer Films’ operations at Bray Studios wrapped in October of 1966 with the conclusion of production on The Mummy’s Shroud, coincidentally also a Gilling film (this time under producer Michael Carreras), and scarcely four years later Bray was sold outright.
Though in scope only a minor Hammer horror, noticeably constrained by the limits of both time time and budget (the title for the original concept, The Curse of the Reptiles, hints at greater things, if by plurality alone), The Reptile ultimately rises above its modest ambitions through a keen sense for atmospherics and a generous helping of weird. More than that, The Reptile stands as a quintessential example of English Gothic horror cinema, replete with suspicious locals, strange happenings on the moors, and deep family secrets, and anchored with a downright Jamesian perspective on the dangers of venturing where one doesn’t belong.
After the unexpected, unexplained death of his brother in a small Cornish village, Harry Spalding (Ray Barrett, of Thunderbirds and Stingray fame) and his young wife Valerie (Jennifer Daniels, Kiss of the Vampire) take over his small cottage estate as their own, much to the consternation of superstitious locals. Suspicious as to the nature of his brother’s untimely demise Harry sets about investigating, and finds an unlikely co-investigator in friendly barkeep Tom (Michael Ripper, Hammer’s preeminent regular). It seems a regular spate of unusual deaths has the populace spooked, convinced that pestilence is afoot, but an examination of exhumed victims reveals things stranger still. The afflicted present with grotesquely swollen, blackened faces and, more bizarre, puncture wounds not at all unlike those inflicted by the King Cobra – a creature not exactly native to Cornwall.
Meanwhile the Spaldings become increasingly acquainted with Dr. Franklyn (Noel Willman, ), a domineering theologian who keeps a stranglehold on his beautiful daughter Anna (Jacqueline Pearce) with the help – or is it hindrance? – of a mysterious Malay servant (Marne Maitland). Dr. Franklyn, who spent his professional years investigating the obscure cults of Southeast Asia, keeps the temperatures within his sprawling isolated estate at tropical levels, perfect for the exotic plants that fill his greenhouse and fit, perhaps, for a reptile…
The Reptile certainly isn’t the first film to ponder the cinematic potential of people who moonlight as monstrous snakes (it’s a sub-genre especially well represented throughout Asia), but it may be the first to attach to them the principals of Gothic horror – and indeed, the transposition of such an alien thing upon Victorian English sensibilities is a deliciously odd one. More interesting still is the context for it all. Though far from loaded with subtext The Reptile‘s premise does offer a bit of intellectual bite by way of an oblique criticism of England’s colonial past. In his travels through Asia Dr. Franklyn trespasses where he isn’t wanted, presuming the sanctity of his own research in an invasive investigation of local rites, and finds himself cursed for so long as he lives by a feared and secretive snake cult. As repayment for his own assumptions of superiority he must now watch as his own beloved daughter is regularly transformed into a malignant inhuman beast, powerless all the while to control her murderous impulse.
For his part character player Noel Willman is superb in the role of the tormented yet dominating Dr. Franklyn, a man trying desperately, if ineffectually, to keep the family secret under wraps. It certainly helps that Willman’s character is the one most developed in the screenplay (courtesy of regular Hammer producer / writer Anthony Hinds), but the actor layers the part with genuine pathos, backing a cold and icy demeanor with a palpable sadness. Jacqueline Pearce’s Anna evokes a comparably conflicted nature, but underwriting keeps her from being truly memorable beyond her exotic looks (including those plastered so thoroughly on the film’s advertising, the intriguing if not entirely effectual creation of ace make-up artist Roy Ashton). Pearce had starred in Hammer’s previous production The Plague of the Zombies, but isn’t the only carry over here. Fifth-billed Michael Ripper takes a substantial second turn as well as the good-hearted barkeep, and seemingly the only friendly sort in town. Ripper remains one of Hammer’s most recognizable faces (and voices), and though never so prominent as mainstays Cushing and Lee he would go on to appear in more of the studio’s productions than either.
Hammer’s close-knit staff of artisans were masters of style in their time, and despite the limitations of its production The Reptile is a pre-eminent example of the same – no small feat given that director Gilling was veritably hounded to bring the film in as swiftly as possible. The set and production design of studio regulars Don Mingaye (They Came From Beyond Space) and Bernard Robinson (These Are the Damned) is stellar, dominated by sprawling Gothic interiors that belie the compactness of the production. Ace DP Arthur Grant (Quatermass and the Pit) treats Mingaye and Robinson’s work right, demonstrating again his keen understanding of the importance of shadow, while director Gilling (The Flesh and the Fiends) does his best to elevate a shoestring production to something more. By my estimation he and his crew succeed admirably. The Reptile may not always work, but it’s rarely if ever a bore.
StudioCanal disappointed with the lackluster video presentation on Dracula: Prince of Darkness, a particularly embarrassing development given its status as a flagship Blu-ray from the most recognizable of Hammer franchises, but to their credit they appear anxious not to repeat the mistakes of that release here. Quatermass and the Pit still reigns as the superior HD Hammer presentation, but The Reptile certainly isn’t far behind.
Restored from a fresh 2K scan of the original negative (with the exception of the ratty opening title sequence), The Reptile looks absolutely marvelous in its new Blu-ray edition. The 1080p 1.66:1-framed transfer isn’t entirely spotless, and still kicks up the occasional speck or vertical scratch, but a substantial effort has obviously been undertaken (as the included restoration comparison attests) to ensure that it appears as good as is reasonably possible. The fine film grain isn’t quite so well rendered as on Quatermass, but it does appear demonstrably filmic and goes blessedly unperturbed by the kind of egregious digital manipulation that ruined Dracula: Prince of Darkness – in motion it looks damned good. Otherwise, contrast is at robust levels and the level of detail is impressive, with some of the close-ups looking mighty impressive. I really have no complaints, and can’t imagine The Reptile looking much better.
Technical specifications are similarly impressive. The Reptile receives a strong Mpeg-4 AVC video encode at an average bitrate of 31.9 Mbps, with peaks reaching as high as 35.0 Mbps. The encode is stable and free of issues, thoroughly avoiding the issues of posterization and noticeable artifacts. Perhaps the best thing one can say about this sort of thing is that it’s transparent, and doesn’t obscure the strengths of a transfer. The Reptile‘s encode fits that bill, and I’ve no complaints. It’s more difficult to laud the audio presentation, though the issue rests soundly with the quality of the original mix and not with any error on the part of Hammer / StudioCanal. The Reptile simply sounds no better and no worse than other efforts of its place and time, and while the mix will rarely impress its 16-bit LPCM 2.0 monophonic rendering here is authentic and trouble free, and remarkably clean to boot. A set of optional English SDH subtitles is included, and as with the rest I’ve no complaints.
Supplements are a bit lighter here than with Quatermass and the Pit or Dracula: Prince of Darkness, but no matter – any love at all for this modest film is appreciated. Newly produced is the short documentary The Serpent’s Tale (22 minutes, 1080i / 25fps HD), featuring interviews with writer / actor Mark Gatiss (The League of Gentlemen), Hammer historians Marcus Hearn and Wayne Kinsey, critic Jonathan Rigby, film music specialist Dr. David Huckvale, Pinewood restoration manager Jon Mann, and The Reptile‘s surviving art director Don Mingaye. Other feature-related content is limited to a nifty theatrical trailer (2 minutes, 1080p 24fps HD) that wisely avoids showing Pearce’s make-up and a brief restoration demonstration (2 minutes, 1080p 24fps HD) that reveals the not inconsiderable work that has been done to restore the film. Rounding out the package is the World of Hammer episode Wicked Women (25 minutes, PAL SD), which is perhaps most interesting in that it doesn’t discuss The Reptile at all!
The double play package includes both the Blu-ray disc reviewed here and a PAL format DVD that duplicates its contents for standard definition viewers. The package is region locked, region B for the Blu-ray disc and region 2 for the DVD – as such viewers outside of those respective territories will need multi-region capable hardware in order to view it.
I have to admit that when I first saw The Reptile many years ago it didn’t do much for me, but with time the film has definitely grown on me. Imperfect as it may be it’s rarely less than interesting, and at times it manages to be quite an arresting Gothic horror experience. Words cannot express how much it pleases me to say that there’s nothing at all wrong with Hammer / StudioCanal’s Blu-ray edition, which so thoroughly trounces the mediocre standard definition representations of the past that they don’t even bear mentioning. Even with the distraction of region locking (which can be circumvented easily enough these days) this gets an easy recommendation – fans of the Hammer horrors are heartily encouraged to indulge.
Screenshots were captured as native resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.