In the thick of it we open as we spy the fate of Charles Spalding (Baron), whose evening walk in the Cornwall countryside takes a fatal detour when the siren call of ethereal music lures him into the darkened palatial mansion of Dr. Franklyn (Willman), where the owner dispassionately watches from the shadows as the intruder is attacked by an unknown assailant. And with his face now blackened and swollen, and a thick white froth spewing from his mouth, Spalding tries to escape but tumbles down the steps before self-suffocating to death in the foyer. Once he expires, Franklyn’s Malaysian man-servant (Maitland) attends to the body, clandestinely dumping it in the local churchyard.
You definitely get the sense that ‘Jeeves’ has done this kinda thing before. And you’d be right. Apparently, this wasn’t the first person in these parts to succumb to this strange malady. Dubbed the “Black Death” by the suspicious locals, the most superstitious feeling their town has been cursed, with more bodies destined to follow, the body is quickly put to ground just like all the others. Enter Harry Spalding (Barrett), the deceased’s brother, and his new bride, Valeria (Daniel), who’ve inherited Charles’ cottage in which they intend to take up permanent residence. But the couple get the cold shoulder from everyone except the local pub owner, Tom Bailey (Ripper), who explains how everyone is on edge and mistrustful due to the glut of mysterious deaths plaguing the area.
Finding the cottage in shambles, Valerie stiffens her upper lip and starts to piece it back together while hot-headed Harry heads back into the village looking for a donnybrook with whoever did the deed. Alone, Valerie is visited by Dr. Franklyn, currently on a search and destroy mission for his wayward daughter, Anna (Pearce), and his rude behavior and visible scorn for his offspring sends up all kinds of red flags for Valerie.
Later, Harry invites the town eccentric over for dinner, hoping to learn more about all the deaths. But all they get is a warning to leave, and the sooner the better. With that, Mad Peter (Laurie) leaves, but his seat is still warm when he comes back, banging on the window, his face blackened, his throat swelling shut, and foaming at the mouth. Harry is sent to fetch Dr. Franklyn for medical assistance but turns out he’s a doctor of theology. And even if he was, the arrogant Franklyn and his ever-lurking servant make it quite clear that the dying man is none of their concern. But Peter is no longer dying, he’s already dead. Just like all the others...
In an effort to save costs, the always cash-strapped Hammer Films set out on a four film experiment in 1965, shooting The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile back to back using the same sets and sharing most of the same crew and part of the cast -- doing the same with Dracula: Prince of Darkness and Rasputin the Mad Monk. Originally on the slate as The Reptiles in 1963 as a co-production with Universal, it was pushed back to 1964 as The Curse of the Reptiles before shoring up as just The Reptile and finally went into the ersatz assembly-line production in 1965, destined to be released in the States by 20th Century Fox, and one of the last films Hammer shot at Bray Studios before the company pulled up stakes and moved to Elstree.
John Gilling was tagged to direct both Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile. And while the second film put into production lacks the dynamic flare of the first, I think the more subdued approach, except for a couple of shock crashes and zooms, adds another layer of intrigue to this murder mystery. And if you’ve seen both films you probably also noticed that on top of sharing nearly everything else they also, kinda, sorta, share the same plot.
Five years earlier, due to similar budget constraints, Hammer couldn’t afford to hire a screenwriter for the upcoming Curse of the Werewolf (1961), so producer Anthony Hinds, under the alias of John Ender, stepped up and pounded one out on his own. The son of studio co-founder, Will Hammer, Hinds took over his father’s position when he passed away and would play a pivotal role in Hammer’s resurgence in the late 1950s with their Technicolor Gothic romps of blood, fangs, and tensile-cleavage, out of this world sci-fi, and a macabre string of black and white psychological thrillers. Hinds had already done an uncredited rewrite of Brides of Dracula (1960) and would go on to pen 19 more films for his studio [Phantom of the Opera (1962), The Mummy’s Shroud (1967), Frankenstein Created a Woman (1967)], and essentially took over the two main franchises (Frankenstein and Dracula) when Jimmy Sangster moved into the director's chair.
Here, Hind’s tale of family skeletons and blood curses is a nice throwback to the works and pretzle’d mysteries of Edgar Wallace and Arthur Conan Doyle. And this mystery begins to unravel a bit when Bailey unearths Mad Peter’s corpse and discovers two puncture wounds on the back of the neck that everyone missed in the haste to bury the body and contain the contagion. He lets Harry in on this discovery and asks if he’s ever seen resulting symptoms like this from that kind of bite mark. They both have: the victim of a King Cobra. Needing collaborative evidence, the also dig up Charles and find the same puncture marks.
When he returns home, Valeria shows Harry a note left under the door. It’s from Anna, begging for help to escape from her wretched father. The night before the Spaldings had spent an uncomfortable evening at the Franklyn residence, having been invited there by Anna for supper. Things went from uncomfortable to downright sinister when Anna is asked to play some music on a sitar, a charming tune that sounds awfully familiar, which causes a violent reaction from her father, who smashes the instrument and forces Anna out of the room. Thus, fearing for the girl’s life, Harry heads to the mansion and attempts to stealthily extract Anna but, just like his brother, he is attacked. Only this time, Franklyn raises an alarm so Harry does not receive a lethal dose of venom, escapes, and makes it home, where Valerie is able to perform some emergency first-aid and saves her husband’s life.
At this point the audience knows there’s something wrong with Anna, and this is confirmed when we spy her squirming in her bed as the Franklyn’s servant seems to hold her in a thrall, which explains away most of Franklyn’s squirrely behavior concerning her. And we also learn that this servant isn’t really a servant at all but a manifestation of Franklyn’s hubris, who constantly rubs the doctor’s nose in his past sins that the film isn’t quite ready to reveal just yet. When Franklyn enters the bedroom, all he finds is Anna’s night dress and a huge sheath of shed skin, which he angrily and impudently thrashes with his cane! He then heads into the bowels of the mansion, where a transformed Anna (basically a were-cobra) sleeps and warms herself by a bubbling sulfur spring.
Having hid her terrible secret for too long, Franklyn’s homicidal intentions are clear but he must get through her Malaysian body guard first. Unaware of all of this, Valerie, in her disabled husband’s stead, takes up the misguided task to rescue Anna. And she finds her way to the basement just in time to see Franklyn toss the faux butler into the sulfur pool. She screams and retreats, with Franklyn right behind her, knocking his lantern over in the process, setting the mansion on fire. Upstairs, Valerie is caught before she can escape and locked into the study, where Franklyn finally confesses his sins. Seems while he was on a missionary tour of the East Indies, he became obsessed with a certain snake cult but pried a little too hard, which resulted in Anna being kidnapped. She was eventually returned but she had been corrupted by the cult and cursed to turn into a murderess cobra woman. After, Franklyn always kept them on the move to stay ahead of the cult and the authorities, and he chose this place to winter for the sulfur springs. Seems Anna needed the heat while she hibernated or would perish in the cold.
With that, and the house burning down around them, Franklyn leaves the only witness to burn but while trying to escape, a revived Anna attacks and poisons him. She then breaks into the study and zeroes in on Valerie. Luckily for her, a recovered Harry and Bailey have sussed out what she was doing and come to the rescue. From outside, Bailey breaks out all the barred windows of the study and the blast of cold air is enough to cause Anna to seize up, allowing Harry enough time to reach his wife and they escape, leaving poor Anna behind to die for her father’s sins.
You know, it’s not very often you have a movie where the nominal hero sleeps through the climax. As for the rest of the tale, Gilling and Hinds had a few prickly details to iron out to get The Reptile past the censors, who threatened it with an X-rating based on the script alone, which they found to be “horrid and repulsive.” On top of the ghastly murders, the censor’s biggest hang-ups over this “nasty rubbish” were the incestuously charged sitar session, where Dr. Franklyn is obviously aroused by his daughter’s sensuality as she plays (-- Anna is fully aware of this and spitefully pushes her father’s buttons) and the later scene where Anna sheds her skin, laying down an edict of no nudity allowed. To appease them, Gilling redid several lurid set-ups and, through implication, let the audience see what they wanted to see.
As for the monster itself, Roy Ashton’s make-up looks fantastic in low light and at a distance but kinda falls apart in the close-ups. (At least they never used the forked-tongue that showed up in a few publicity stills.) In a making of documentary, it’s revealed that what we saw was the second attempt at the monster as Gilling had to re-shoot many of Jacqueline Pearce’s scenes as the were-cobra when producer Anthony Nelson Keys was dissatisfied with the initial results. Apparently, Pearce detested wearing the make-up and vowed never to take a role that would call for that kind of mask ever again.
Now, as much as I love Cushing, Lee, and Fisher, some of my favorite Hammer product doesn’t involve any of them. From the erotic charge of the title creature, to the morbid little details (-- I love how Anna’s collection of animals turns out to be not a menagerie but a larder, and how her father laughably lets them all loose before he tries to kill her), The Reptile has always been one of my favorites. And I hold out hope that someday the myriad copyright claims will calm down enough that Hammer will start re-releasing more of their films on digital platforms again. I mean, have you seen what those 15 year old out-of-print copies of these things are going for?
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The Reptile (1966) Hammer Films :: Seven Arts Pictures :: 20th Century Fox Film Corporation / P: Anthony Nelson Keys / D: John Gilling / W: Anthony Hinds / C: Arthur Grant / E: Roy Hyde / M: Don Banks / S: Noel Willman, Jennifer Daniel, Ray Barrett, Jacqueline Pearce, Michael Ripper, John Laurie, Marne Maitland