Welcome to the Hammer Factory. This month we dissect The Reptile (1966).
While Hammer Studios has been in business since 1934, it was between 1955 and 1979 that it towered as one of the premier sources of edgy, gothic horror. On top of ushering the famous monsters of Universal’s horror heyday back into the public eye, resurrecting the likes of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy in vivid color, the studio invited performers like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Ingrid Pitt and so many more to step into the genre limelight. Spanning a library housing over 300 films, Hammer Studios is a key part of horror history that until recently has been far too difficult to track down.
In late 2018, Shout Factory’s Scream Factory line began to focus on bringing Hammer’s titles to disc in the US, finally making many of the studio’s underseen gems available in packages that offered great visuals as well as insightful accompanying features. Over the course of this column, I will focus on these releases, gauging the films in context of the Hammer Studio story as well as analyzing the merits of the release. It’s time to highlight the power, impact and influence of Hammer Studios and ignite new conversation surrounding some forgotten classics.
In an effort to quell concerns surrounding inflated costs, budgets and the ever broadening financial burden that was maintaining their own homestay of Bray Studios, Hammer producer Anthony Nelson Keys proposed a bold solution. Condense the production of four films into a matter of weeks, maintaining the sets, crew and casts across the productions and subsequently splitting them apart in release so that audiences would not recognize redundancies onscreen. Keys proposed that with this strategy in mind, the studio could keep production costs to 100 thousand pounds per film and create a sustainable assembly line for their particular brand of low cost, high production value horror entertainment.
Of course, the production schedule and scope of the pictures posed their own challenges, leading to three of the four efforts going over time and budget. Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), The Plague of the Zombies (1966) and Rasputin the Mad Monk (1966) had all reached completion by the time director John Gilling set out to make The Reptile (1966), having completed his work on The Plague of the Zombies only one week prior. A filmmaker already known for his brackish attitude and lack of patience on set, Gilling was under more pressure than ever before to complete his assignment on time and not a pound over target.
Beginning life in 1963 as an option once pitched to Universal, the movie was originally titled The Curse of the Reptiles before becoming The Reptiles and eventually dropping the “s” for what most likely boiled down to cost reasons. The script was written by Anthony Hinds, under his oft used pen name John Elder, and concerned the dangers of colonialism and the somewhat progressive feminist portrayals and ideas that films like The Gorgon (1964) and Frankenstein Created Woman (1967) were absorbing and reflecting from the cultural zeitgeist at the time.
Although the film was a B picture, paired with the Christopher Lee starring Rasputin the Mad Monk, Arthur Grant’s eerily beautiful cinematography, Bernard Robinson’s staggering efforts in production design and Don Banks’ innovative spin on eastern tropes in his stirring score helped to make The Reptile one of John Gilling’s best efforts and one of Hammer’s most memorable genre outings. With affecting performances from Hammer greats like Michael Ripper and Jacqueline Pearce and unforgettable makeup effects by Roy Ashton, it’s a film that stands shoulder to shoulder with Hammer’s remarkable reimagining of Universal’s classic monster stable, a feat all the more impressive when considering that this particular monstrous creation was all their own.
“‘This is an evil place. Corrupt and evil. I can feel it taking the goodness from me.”
Craggy trees distort the view of a small township as Don Banks’ percussive score thunders menacingly. A man arrives home in the darkness and discovers a letter. He eyes a nearby manor through his window and, cautious of being seen, makes his way to the neighboring mansion. After some uneasy exploration, the man encounters Dr. Franklyn. Dr. Franklyn shouts desperately for the intruder to get away, but it’s too late as a shadowy creature bites down on the man’s neck while the doctor looks on in horror. The man’s skin blackens with rot and he froths at the mouth as he tumbles down a staircase. The Malay, Dr. Franklyn’s manservant, runs to the body and provides an unholy smile. Dr. Franklyn looks on with disdain, picking up the man’s letter and reading it with obvious concern. Meanwhile, the Malay deposits the corpse in the graveyard and abandons it there as thunder claps and a storm settles in.
So concludes the pre-credit sequence for The Reptile, a monster movie altogether uninterested in concealing the grotesque effects of its creature’s unholy bite from the very beginning. Written by Anthony Hinds, screenwriter of The Brides of Dracula (1960) and The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), the film takes Hammer’s typically conservative view of British colonialism and follows it to its logical, unpleasant outcome for those arrogant enough to tread so heavily on the grounds of other cultures. Moody and atmospheric, The Reptile both fits the mold of the classic Hammer monster movie and bucks some of the studio’s more consistent trends, resulting in one of Hammer’s most original and striking features.
The story concerns Harry and Valerie Spalding, newlyweds who have recently inherited Harry’s brother Charles’ estate. Charles was the man who perished by the bite of the creature before the credits began to roll and its his death that sparks Harry’s investigation into the deadly goings on of the small town and the “Black Death” plaguing its inhabitants. Ray Barrett plays Harry with a level head and the appropriate confidence. Jennifer Daniel (The Kiss of the Vampire (1963)) appears as Valerie. With a delicate beauty that juxtaposes well against her self-assured and assertive nature, Daniel serves as the bedrock for the lead couple’s relationship and a source of empathy against the backdrop of the repugnant and disgusting.
The film hits the typical Hammer beats right down to the heavy use of day-for-night shooting. The couple arrive at their idyllic home only to discover it has been ransacked. Harry seeks comfort and kinship at a local tavern only to be shunned by its patrons. There’s even a mad, drunk local who serves as an early signifier of the harbinger trope, stammering about the evil ever-present in the town and spouting cryptic warnings. John Gilling unfolds these events with a steady hand and leverages the immense abilities of cinematographer Arthur Grant to great effect, ensuring that shadows play as much a part of the story as any character.
As the film opened with the death of Harry’s brother in Dr. Franklyn’s manor, there’s little surprise or wonder in the set up of the mystery. Whether by design or accident, this creative decision balances much of the tension on what the creature is and why it attacks as opposed to who is perpetrating the crimes. Dr. Franklyn himself leans more toward foe than friend throughout, emerging from the shadows to frighten Valerie upon their first encounter and consistently insinuating abusive and controlling attitudes toward his daughter Anna.
The supporting cast is remarkable. Noel Willman perfectly stalks the film as the firm Dr. Franklyn, a tragic character whose overt cruelty and crassness is a symptom of his family’s doomed plight. Michael Ripper plays Tom Bailey, the initially reluctant owner of the pub, in one of his best onscreen roles. Although a supporting player, he quickly changes his attitude and joins the fight, emerging as one of the film’s most effectual heroes while bringing the kind of pathos and wordless understanding only the finest actors can translate to screen. John Laurie plays Mad Peter with equal parts silly gaucheness and deeply felt solemnity, creating a lovable fool that raises the story’s stakes even in death. Jacqueline Pearce plays Anna, having just performed for Gilling in The Plague of the Zombies, expressing beauty and a haunting vulnerability that betrays her smiling exterior. Pearce’s turn as Anna is one of The Reptile’s greatest assets, infusing the cursed figure with otherworldly authenticity that elicits empathy and intimidation in equal measure.
Anna’s subsurface sensibilities are the subject of much examination in the film. One scene has her performing the sitar for the Spaldings and her father. Beyond the nature of the instrument, there’s an exoticness that pervades Anna’s actions. Her stare darkens and her eyes lock onto her father’s. The music swells and quickens as the intensity shared between them evolves beyond normal familial antagonism. All the while the Malay, played by Marne Maitland, watches from the shadows. Gilling composes this scene beautifully, its eruptive conclusion dutifully earned and further solidifying the Spalding’s mistrust for Dr. Franklyn while further distorting Anna’s true intentions.
Before long, Harry himself is lured to the house by a letter and, much like his brother, meets the bite of the title creature. The reptile emerges from the darkness with green, scaly skin, a flat nose and long, sharp fangs, hissing and moving over shadows so fluidly it gives the impression the thing might be gliding through water. Roy Ashton’s makeup is effective and frightening, although better served when bathed in shadow as one brightly lit shot makes abundantly clear. Luckily, the remainder of the film takes that into consideration and the monster remains generally bathed in the kind of darkness that compliments rather than reveals.
Harry is bitten and incapacitated for the bulk of the film’s remaining runtime, subverting the expectation of the affluent male hero and pitting Valerie and bartender Tom against the venomous threat. With Jennifer Daniel’s Valerie amplified in Harry’s absence and the villain embodied by Jacqueline Pearce’s fantastic, alluring and yet wholly horrifying snake woman, The Reptile inhabits a far more narratively progressive space than many of its contemporaries, even in Hammer’s own catalogue.
The truth of the threat lies in the complicated ideologies of British colonialism. Dr. Franklyn spent his life traversing the far east, attempting to uncover the secrets of hidden religions and cultures in an effort to capture, contain and distribute them for the world’s digestion. One group, known only as the Snake People, took offense and cursed his daughter Anna with the secret he had sought, turning her into a murderous monster. The Malay was sent to control her and ensure the doctor’s punishment was inflicted, embodied by a secret pit beneath the mansion where a sulfur pit keeps the writhing, snakelike girl warm against the deathly cold.
While this does suggest a guilty conscience on the part of British colonialists, The Reptile also shows a lack of sympathy for the impacted indigenous people who have weaponized their vaguely pagan religion to a place of evil. Like Hammer’s The Mummy (1959) before it, and even Gilling’s own The Plague of the Zombies, Hammer’s perspective toward British Christian expansion comes off more conservative than not, despite its attempts to scratch away at the perceived status quo.
The story concludes with the implosion of Dr. Franklyn’s immaculately constructed world. His home, so beautifully put together and carefully decorated with all of the totems he had collected through the years, is engulfed in flame as he throws the Malay into the sulfur pit and seeks to rid himself and his daughter of their shared curse. Shades of The Curse of the Werewolf swim to the surface as the snake woman shivers pathetically in her dying throws, her humanity eking through her terrifying exterior. Deep down, she’s an innocent, twisted due to the ramifications of her father’s arrogance, the embodiment of a family secret that had festered to rot and eroded away those that had forced themselves to keep it.
While it’s Valerie who manages to disrupt Dr. Franklyn’s plans and lures the snake woman to her death, she still finds herself as the stereotypical damsel-in-distress as the large manor burns down around her. Tom and Harry arrive in time and the day is saved, but there’s still something evocative in the air as the group watches the towering flames lick the walls of the once unsullied estate. There are things in the world not meant to be harvested, places not designed to be explored and wonders never designed for discovery.
The Reptile mines the dangers of curiosity while serving as an exciting foray into the monster movie milieu. With smart, pointed visual storytelling, unforgettable effects and top-tier performances, it remains one of Hammer studio’s best efforts from some of their greatest minds. Like the note which lured Charles to his garishly corrosive ruin, the film is an ever unraveling enigma whose dark conclusion is as inevitable as it is undeniable.
The Special Features
This release comes equipped with an updated scan of the transfer completed by Studiocanal in 2012. Shout! Factory presents the film in both its 1.85:1 and 1.66:1 aspect ratios, improving motion and color grading. While detail is much the same, the day for night photography is better balanced and contrast is more nuanced. The DTS-HD Master Mono track is incredibly clear, presenting dialogue well and doing justice to Don Banks’ striking score.
Audio Commentary, by Author/Film Historian Steve Haberman, Filmmaker/Film Historian Ted Newsom and Filmmaker/Film Historian Constantine Nasr
(New: 2019, produced by Shout Factory)
Returning from their commentary track on Shout! Factory’s The Plague of the Zombies, Steve Haberman, Ted Newsom and Constantine Nasr bring their incredible depth of knowledge and appreciation for Hammer studios and this particular film to an essential commentary track. Covering everything from the film’s strenuous production, the geographical realities of its locales and the believability of John Gilling’s claims that he rewrote the movie during production, the track is an entertaining and informative listen. No crew member’s filmography is left unturned and The Reptile is thoroughly explored. As is usually the case, for anyone looking to unearth a comprehensive look at the picture, this is the feature to seek out.
Interview with Assistant Director William P. Cartlidge (21:39)
(New: 2019, produced by Shout Factory)
An in depth, candid interview with William P. Cartlidge, Assistant Director on The Reptile. He talks about nepotism being his way into the business and his connection to the Carreras family. He admits that he was uninterested in working on The Reptile having just completed work on Alfie (1966) and only took the job because they called his bluff and paid his exorbitant asking price. Admitting disdain for John Gilling and picking apart his own rushed work on the film, the interview is funny and truthful, offering surprising insight into the tough realities of the production at the time.
The Serpent’s Tale — The Making of The Reptile (22:45)
(2012, produced by Studio Canal)
A making of feature ported over from the UK disc, the segment features prominent Hammer historians as talking heads who walk through the high level ins and outs of The Reptile’s production. Marcus Hearn, Mark Gatiss, David Huckvale, Jonathan Rigby and others appear to talk about the performances, thematics and budgetary constraints, serving as a short, digestible version of what the commentary offers more fully.
The World of Hammer — Wicked Women (24:52)
A standard definition episode of the short-lived Hammer series exploring their catalogue of films. Narrated by Oliver Reed this episode features clips from The Anniversary (1967), Black Widow (1951), Countess Dracula (1970), Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), Fanatic (1965), The Nanny (1965), Stolen Face (1952) and The Witches (1966).
A collection of trailers featuring the events of the film overlaid with a writhing graphic of a snake as the narrator tells of a quiet village transformed into writhing Hell on earth. Additional commercials feature Rasputin the Mad Monk as its double feature, advertising free Rasputin beards (blue for boys, red for girls) at the theaters showing the pictures.
TV Spot (00:23)
A quick, condensed version of the double feature trailer shown on the disc, edited for television.
Still Gallery (3:48)
A collection of production and publicity stills, makeup and on-set photography and character headshots.
Poster and Lobby Card Gallery (4:51)
A collection of theatrical one sheets, lobby cards, international posters and artwork, magazine covers, advertising materials and sales kits for The Reptile.
Finding the balance between practicality and lavishness was something that Hammer all but perfected in its heyday of genre movie making. Still, after the box office disappointments of some of their most elaborately crafted productions like The Phantom of the Opera (1962) and The Curse of the Werewolf, it became all the more important to stretch their resources and concoct imaginative innovations in motion picture creation that would enable the studio to assemble features for as long as people were willing to watch them.
Anthony Nelson Keys’ four picture assembly line approach was never replicated, and for good reason. While the idea seemed sound, the tight budgets ballooned and the on-set stress became exacerbated. And yet, out of that stress, confinement and rushed mentality came a handful of some of Hammer’s best, most striking pictures. Oddly enough, the most original, memorable and hauntingly beautiful of the group were not the A picture titles, but the secondary movies: The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile.
Shout! Factory offers a wonderful presentation of the film, preserving the picture for generations to come. While the ported making-of is appreciated and the interview with William P. Cartlidge is fascinating, the true gem of the disc is once again the commentary track. Steve Haberman, Ted Newsom and Constantine Nasr are the kinds of authorities Hammer fans deserve and they bring their insight with context and a sense of liveliness that makes for a listening experience that is not only enlightening but enjoyable.
A kind of spiritual successor to The Curse of the Werewolf, The Reptile combines some of Hammer’s most lauded ingredients and brews something entirely new. Blending a familial curse, occult mythologies and even a vampiric, two fanged penetration to the neck, John Gilling’s creature feature injects new life, blood and venom into Hammer’s canon of mythic monstrosities. Fused together with a slew of Hammer’s top talent on and off the camera, the resulting film is an atmospheric classic bathed in fog, blackened wounds and seeping with unspoken malice that deserves to be mentioned alongside the studio’s most celebrated works.