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Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Reptile

Review: The Reptile

Hammer, 1966

Anchor Bay- Special Edition Video

Producer: Anthony Nelson-Keys

Director: John Gilling

Screenplay: Anthony Hinds (as "John Elder")


Dr. Franklyn- Noel Willman
Valerie Spalding- Jennifer Daniel
Harry Spalsing- Ray Barrett
Anna Franklyn- Jacqueline Pearce
Tom Bailey- Michael Ripper
Mad Peter- John Laurie
Ourang Sancto- Marne Maitland
Vicar- Charles Lloyd-Pack

"Things are not as simple nor as straightforward as they seem."

When Hammer does it right, it does it like The Reptile. Filmed back-to-back with The Plague of the Zombies in 1966, The Reptile is better than Zombies; indeed it's a chilling little masterpiece of mood from open to close, never diverting from its thesis of familial shame, threatening and succeeding in bursting through the surface of society. The Reptile is one of the finest films Hammer made, and certainly the finest Hammer to involve neither Frankenstein nor vampires.

The Reptile, like its sister Plague of the Zombies, takes place in Cornwall, where a series of unsettling deaths have taken place and, just as in the sister film, the locals are fearful and hushed about the whole business. Victims are being found with their faces turned a sickly green and foaming at the mouth. After a local landowner named Spalding dies, his cottage falls to army officer Harry Spalding and his wife Valerie, who immediately move to Cornwall to take up residence.

The moment Valerie and Harry arrive, they are unwelcome. Harry's entrance at the pub prompts everyone to leave, and the only person who will talk to Harry is bartender Tom, a former Navy man who tells Harry that "they don't like strangers around here." Tom is played by Michael Ripper, a character actor who seems to turn up in about every Hammer movie (he was the police sergeant in Plague of the Zombies.

Soon the young couple meet the local lunatic, who goes wandering the streets crying, "This is an evil place! Corrupt and evil!" They also meet the mysterious Dr. Franklyn and his daughter, Anna.

Dr. Franklyn is a tight-lipped scholar of theology who spends his time looking for his daughter and telling her to stay in her room. He seems intent on remaining polite, as if something wretched and terrible were going on but he'll die before he lets anyone know. Anna, his daughter, is a sweet and lonely young woman who seems to regard Valerie as a much-needed friend, but her father keeps her on a short leash, and she, too, seems to be hiding something. Lurking in the background is a silent and imposing Indian man, ostensibly the servant of the two, but who is the only one among the three who doesn't appear trapped in some way.

As more people die and the mystery unfolds, we become aware that nothing is as it seems. Anna may not be as innocent as she appears, her father may not be as cruel, and that Indian guy is certainly not very subservient. I won't spoil the secret, although God knows it's not hard to figure out. I just think you should allow the film to play itself out. Director John Gilling has taken a simple little monster tale and made a haunting allegory for family secrets and abuse of all manner, common Hammer themes played masterfully here. Like Plague of the Zombies, we are faced with violations within the family and the community, and watch as people try to grasp and grapple with the details coming in- in Zombies, the young hero watches as his wife's grave is desecrated and her body mutilated, in this film, a brother's grave is opened on a rainy night, his body examined because it must be. In both, the heroes are left soiled by their involvement. No-one gets away clean, in Hammer.

At the heart of The Reptile is the sin of a father, and a great punishment visited upon his own daughter. Father and daughter deal with this great weight every day, closed away in their house, but the secret looms and threatens society itself. And in their eyes are terror and shame, especially when dealing with innocents like Valerie and Harry, a couple so young and sweet that Dr. Franklyn seems to feel constricted even talking to them. Dr. Franklyn is essayed by a curiously uptight actor name Noel Willman, who was the bizarre Vampire Prince in Kiss of the Vampire (which also starred The Reptile's Valerie, Jennifer Daniel. Isn't fun to see them crop up again and again? It's like watching the skits on The Carol Burnett Show. Who will Harvey Korman and Vicki Lawrence be this time?) He is expert at expressing, I know I am being rude. I wish it were not so. Leave us alone. Turn and run.

Anna, the daughter with one half or more of the family secret, is played by Jacqueline Pearce, a woman with a haunting face who sf audiences will remember as Servalan on Blakes 7. Here she is a pale, thin creature, the type that everyone has met at least once- a quiet, sweet person just aching to scream. Pearce also played the young bride in Plague of the Zombies.

So much of Hammer is about secrets- the theme of Family secrets, parents visiting punishment upon children, or hiding their "infected" children from the public, is struck again and again in Hammer, notably in Brides of Dracula and Kiss of the Vampire. In the nineties it is hard to imagine a world where every fiber of one's being might be wrapped up in protecting the world from the horror of what goes on behind closed doors. In The Reptile, there's a sense of inevitability to the whole proceedings; this is a hot night in a Tennessee Williams play, and our heroes have just wandered in to bring the facades crashing down. The tension is palpable and exciting, and Gilling makes certain that every scene moves the thesis of shame and hiding along, constantly contrasting light and shadow, allowing no-one to remain comfortable for long. Even the reptile itself, the monster in question, is hidden for a long time. It's a makeup effect, of course, and not particularly realistic in the sense that one might expect today, but not at all embarrassing. By the time you see the reptile, you feel so sad for it that it doesn't matter.

Many of these Hammer movies I write about are "retro treasures," good as studies of film or ideas. The Reptile is more- it's an unsung classic, good for any day against any other title you may feel like watching. Anchor Bay's Special Edition is remastered and presented in letterbox format, so here's an opportunity to discover a charming- and then chilling- classic for yourself.

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