John Gilling, 1966
Starring: Noel Willman, Jennifer Daniel, Ray Barrett, Jacqueline Pearce, Michael Ripper
In Clagmoor Heath, a village in Cornwall, dead bodies turn up with what seems to be a kind of plague: they are green and horribly distorted. When Harry Spalding’s brother becomes the latest victim, he and his new bride, Valerie, inherit his cottage and move to the village. Among the only locals to talk to them is a friendly barman, the village madman, and an aloof doctor who lives in a crumbling estate with his beautiful daughter. Harry and the barman learn that the deaths are not caused by a plague, but by a strange, snakelike creature and all evidence for the monster’s existence points right towards the doctor’s mansion…
The Reptile’s director, John Gilling, also helmed The Plague of the Zombies (1966) and penned The Gorgon (1964). In many ways, The Reptile acts as something of a bridge between the two. Though this film was written by Anthony Hinds, it has nearly the same plot structure as The Gorgon: mysterious deaths occur in a closed off, xenophobic European village. When a man’s family member is killed, he investigates and finds a beautiful woman and a cruel doctor to be at the center of the mystery. SPOILERS: In both cases, the monster turns out to be the beautiful woman, who transforms against her will and murders villagers. The Gorgon and The Reptile are both at the beginning of Hammer’s fascinating turn to female antagonists, which includes films like The Vampire Lovers, Frankenstein Created Woman, Hands of the Ripper, and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde.
This minor classic not only improves upon the themes of The Gorgon — primarily by fleshing out the female characters for probably the first time in Hammer history — but it also incorporates some elements of The Plague of Zombies, such as the disastrous effects of colonialism. The Reptile and The Plague of the Zombies were actually filmed back to back on the same sets and both included substantial roles for Hammer regular (and personal favorite) Michael Ripper and the lovely Jacqueline Pearce. She stars here as the darkly beautiful, if somewhat tragic Anna. Like The Gorgon, this features a cold, humorless doctor controlling a younger woman in his life, but this has more weight because that woman is the doctor’s own daughter. While I would call this film restrained, its female protagonist is far less so than in The Gorgon. Anna’s sexual awakening is an act of monstrosity for which she receives no redemption and is ultimately punished for her father’s misdeeds.
Though I preferred The Gorgon for many years, I think The Reptile has eventually come to surpass it in my estimation. It certainly improves upon earlier snake-monster films like Cult of the Cobra (1955) and succeeds with a blend of moody atmosphere, Gothic visuals, and domestic tragedy. Hammer often did their best at exposing dark family secrets and rotten inheritances and also admittedly makes the most of another tried and true plot device: innocent newly weds who have arrived in a strange area and are thrown into horror. The film starts off briskly, leading us right into a murder mystery where the victims are found distorted and green and sustains an air of paranoia and claustrophobia with the use of some unsettling supporting characters. Again, like The Gorgon, the backwards, superstitious rural community is seemingly stuck in the past and are thus unable to solve the crimes on their own.
Despite a few unintentionally campy moments — and a somewhat disappointing grand finale — this is B-monster movie making as it was rarely seen in the ‘60s. The weird use of Eastern occultism that doesn’t quite work, but adds a flavor usually missing in Hammer’s staunchly British productions; another element that pairs it with The Plague of the Zombies. And though the monster makeup is cheap and cheesy, it is also somehow effective, particularly in the dark manor hallways when the creature unexpectedly strikes. Jacqueline Pearce gives a compelling physical performance and there is something garish but also terrifying about her creature.
Personally, I love all of Hammer’s films that delve into magic, ritual, and occult horror, and The Reptile is no exception. It comes recommended and you can find it on DVD from Anchor Bay or on Blu-ray with some nice extras. I would say not to watch it with The Gorgon or The Plague of the Zombies, as the films can feel too similar, but it’s an unusual treat that monster movie fanatics and Hammer fans alike will not want to miss out on.