The second of director John Gilling’s so-called ‘Cornish Classics’, shot for Hammer Films back-to-back with “The Plague of the Zombies” on the same Bernard Robertson & Don Mingaye-created sets (with production starting only a week after shooting on the latter had wrapped), “The Reptile” was released as a support feature to “Rasputin the Mad Monk” in 1966. With its more considered, almost languid style and pacing and its quiet but eerie elaboration of the macabre mystery at its core (a lure to keep audiences engaged at the time but transparent to viewers today, who will doubtless already be familiar with the big plot secret it harbours), the film often gets forgotten about in the wake of the more obvious delights of “The Plague of the Zombies” yet it comes with its own sinuous and subtle charms, and in a way is a far more disturbing watch – replete in tiny details and affecting images which become ever more significant with further viewings. It also now attains extra resonance from our being able to watch it in close proximity to “Plague …” -- the very recognisability of the latter’s re-used sets emphasising the play of continuities and variations that are evident in the two films’ shared period Cornish settings and their carry-over of themes involving the threat of corruption being visited upon a small community by a foreign-born ‘plague’ imported as a result of colonial meddling in an alien culture.
Anthony Hinds’ screenplay (the producer here working under his writer’s pen name John Elder) unfolds as a gentle Victorian period piece that develops into a Greek Tragedy; with much more emphasis being placed on character, but which is once again, like its predecessor, set in a Cornwall that revolves around the refuge of the village pub and the benighted cemetery; and just as “Plague …” proceeded like a variation on Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”, so “The Reptile” has its source in Stoker’s “The Lair of the White Worm” -- the structure of it also bearing some similarity with that of Gilling’s “The Gorgon”, which also deals with a sympathetic young female character (in that case Barbara Shelley) who is eventually revealed to harbour a duel identity as a mythical monster who unwittingly brings terror to her surrounding environment. For the Hammer fan, Gilling’s casting of Noel Willman as the mysterious and forbidding Dr Franklyn alongside Jennifer Daniel as the film’s traditional wholesome heroine, also throws up associations with the classic “The Kiss of the Vampire” (where Willman played the evil Dr Ravna opposite Daniels as another traditional wholesome heroine) that would have worked at the time to suggest Willman as the malefactor behind events, when in fact he turns out to be a much more complicated and conflicted character than we’re at first led to believe.
The film begins with married couple Harry (Ray Barrett) and Valerie Spalding (Jennifer Daniel) arriving in the idyllic village of Clagmoor Heath in Cornwall, where they have inherited the Larkrise cottage from Harry’s brother, who died in mysterious circumstances from a previously undiagnosed heart disease. In typical Hammer style, the locals are mute and unwelcoming apart from a friendly publican called Tom Baily (Michael Ripper) and they arrive at the cottage to find it has already been completely ransacked. The village is also in the thrall of a terrible malady which no one will speak of, and the local graveyard is filled with the corpses of those who have died gruesomely with their features contorted while they foamed at the mouth and their skin turned a putrid shade of black. Realising that his brother must have died from the same mysterious disease affecting the village, Harry joins forces with ex-sailor-turned-landlord Tom (‘I’ve seen a lot of things during my travels that your logic could never explain’) to investigate the mystery, meanwhile Valerie encounters the sinister Dr Franklyn (Noel Willman), who pushes his way into the cottage claiming to be searching for his errant daughter. Later, the daughter, a dark-haired beauty called Anna (Jacqueline Pearce) also appears at the cottage and invites the couple up to the mansion for dinner by way of apology for her father’s earlier eccentric intrusion and lack of manners, but an impassive Franklyn and his grim-faced Malayan manservant (Marne Maitland) then appear and angrily spirit her back home.
During the ensuing evening dinner up at the mansion, Franklyn reveals he has travelled widely in the east, documenting the obscure cults and religions among the natives of Borneo, Sumatra and Malaya. Anna is only allowed to join the group after it has already eaten, materialising dressed in an exotic Indian sari when she expertly plays a beguiling piece on the sitar for their entertainment which causes Franklyn to explode in an inexplicable outburst of fury while his Malayan servant looks on with a curious air of satisfaction. Later, a local eccentric who goes by the name Mad Peter (a delightful turn by John Laurie) visits the cottage and appears to imply that the deaths only started to occur when Franklyn took up residence at the local manor house, but he also later becomes a victim of ‘the Black Death’ after rushing from the cottage in fear when he hears a strange eastern melody piping over the moors; and when Harry rushes up to the manor to fetch the Doctor to tend to him, he finds Franklyn curiously stiff and formal and ill at ease over the matter, unwilling to help and reminding Harry that he is only a doctor of theology. When Tom later calls on Harry and reveals that he has dug up Mad Peter’s body to ‘have a look at him’, the two discover that the corpse bears the mark of a terrible secret: a bite which looks uncannily like that of a cobra; and after a note arrives from the manor in the dead of night written by Anna and begging for help, Harry decides to break into the place and find out once and for all in what way Franklyn is involved in the terrible events.
Once again an aristocratic patriarch who has brought forbidden secrets back home from abroad is ultimately responsible for bringing death to a small English village, just as was the case in “The Plague of the Zombies”. But Dr Franklyn is not the black and white representation of evil, decadence and exploitation John Carson’s squire Hamilton turned out to be in Gilling’s first Cornwall-set film. Instead Noel Willman’s character is at root a deeply tragic one, struck from the same mould as the Edwardian scholars who venture forth into areas of knowledge that should remain hidden so often found inhabiting the pages of the ghost stories of M.R. James. While he was busy thoughtlessly uncovering the hidden practices of a Borneon snake cult many years previously, Franklyn’s daughter Anna was kidnapped; and although returned to him three weeks later apparently unharmed, the cult had in fact taken a cruel revenge for his daring to interfere with their practices during his attempts to document their beliefs: Anna came back changed; as Franklyn puts it “she was now one of them” – a half-human, half-snake creature: seductive and innocent-looking in human form but cursed with the need to periodically transform herself into a serpent, with fangs dripping lethal cobra venom!
This faintly absurd premise (a female variation on the werewolf myth in which an instinct to entrap and destroy male victims is unleashed in the womanly antagonist) becomes a deeply strange and macabre idea made disturbingly real by the truthfulness which manifests itself in the joint performances of the cursed father and daughter duo at the centre of the intrigue. Franklyn is made to pay for the transgressions he has visited upon a foreign culture well beyond any harm he may have initially caused: his gimlet-eyed manservant (a stock role invested with horrific, gleeful spite by Marne Maitland) actually turns out to be his master and tormentor: a member of the exotic cult who has returned with the pair so that he may exercise his power over them with impunity while posing as a servant, since he controls Anna’s snake-woman transformations with an eastern-flavoured melody played upon a flute!
Franklyn is riven by guilt, but desperate to protect his daughter despite the many murders she has committed while in snake form, the sickly black fungal disfigurement of the plague’s victims being the main symptom of the cobra venom as it infects their nervous systems after her death-inviting bite. Jacqueline Pearce returns from having played a striking role in “The Plague of the Zombies” to essay an even more compellingly tragic one here: her exotic looks even more requisite to her portrayal of Anna than they were in her part as a woman who gradually declines until remade as an ethereal zombie automaton by voodoo ritual. Since the film is structured as a mystery (we are left in the dark as to Anna’s true nature and the cause of the village deaths until well into the film) Willman and Pearce are able to profer nuanced performances in which details of character become clues which add depth to the piece with further viewings. Franklyn seems at first to be an overbearing patrician with little feeling for the victims of the plague, yet he visits the village graveyard after each interment and lays a wreath on the resting place of every new victim. Only later do we realise that Franklyn’s punishment is to witness his daughter’s curse and be able to do nothing to stop it other than to try to control her movements in a way that makes him seem like an overbearing Victorian martinet.
The inevitable tinge of sexual allure Jacqueline Pearce brings to the role of Anna, in scenes such as the after-dinner sequence in which she defiantly stares down her father as her sitar playing becomes ever-more abandoned, inevitably accentuates those parts of Elder’s script that lead the viewer to conclude that this is a story of patrician attempts to regulate and control female sexuality. Franklyn’s disgust at his daughter’s plight and how she has become ‘a hideous parody of herself … a loathsome thing is using her body’ tends to back that idea up. But at the heart of this tale there is also a deep fear of ‘the other’ being vented -- and it takes perhaps Hammer’s most explicit form in a way that comes to appear almost xenophobic. Although one reading of the snake curse positions it as a punishing anti-western, anti-colonial retort, excoriating the unfortunate Franklyn for attempting to impose a western model of epistemological understanding on another culture, there is also a sense in which it actually conforms to a romanticised depiction of an exotic, unknowable, erotically-charged and potent foreignness which can itself be seen as a symptom of essentialist Orientalism.
There is also the more straightforward semi-racist sense in which the plague, Anna’s fatal curse, and the malign yet hidden influence the Malayan manservant is shown to wield upon the Franklyn household (and therefore the whole village) all represent a deep fear of an invasive and untrustworthy foreign culture -- and, more explicitly, the fear that “they” might change and corrupt “us” with their strange, exotic, unfathomable and disruptive ways: the cobra plague, after all, quite literally turns its victims black, and has them horribly foaming at the mouth, to boot. Anna is at her most exotically alluring in her human form when she reveals the influence that her childhood travels with her father have had upon her through her tendency to dress in traditional sari costume, but when fully transformed into the alien snake-like monstrosity, she reverts to an incongruous, old-fashioned, trussed-up, silken Victorian garb -- as if desperately trying to reassert some element of her own culture through the radical and all-consuming completeness with which she has been transformed by her previous mysterious three week immersion in her captors’ culture. Perhaps the most articulate exponent of the film’s fear of foreign otherness comes in the unlikely form of veteran character actor John Laurie, already a well-known face at the time, but about to become iconic as the saturnine Private Frazer in the classic sitcom “Dad’s Army”. Laurie plays the ostensibly comic role of Mad Peter – a local village eccentric who at one point comes to dinner with the Spaldings at their cottage, promising to reveal terrible secrets about the curse afflicting the villagers. After some well-executed comic business involving Peter gnawing away on a piece of chicken bone and burping at the table while trying to defer having to explain his fears lest he merely confirms his reputation as a local oddball, Peter eventually launches into a delirious, fearful revelry in which he proclaims the village ‘corrupt and evil’, claiming: ‘I can feel it draining the goodness from me!’ Wistfully he remembers back twenty years to when he first came to the village, when: ‘It was a good place. People were kind. Gentle, as God willed they should be. But then “they” came … bringing their vileness with them!’
The most chilling moments in Pearce’s performance come when she appears at her most deceptively human and vulnerable, and therefore appears sympathetically understandable: in human form, she reacts with playful delight when the Malayan presents then taunts her with a stolen kitten (actually, it’s the Spaldings’ abducted pet), but only later do we realise that this is not going to be a play pet for her: a much nastier fate is actually being planned for it and the countless other small mammals stored in the cages down in the cellar-cavern in which the cold-blooded Anna will be living during the winter months! At the same time, at the climax of the film, when Anna is at her most inhuman and serpent-like, we’re suddenly reminded that there is a sentient person somehow still dwelling in that scaly body when a window is broken in the study as she threatens Valerie, letting in the winter air from outside and causing an involuntary human-like shiver and a chilling child-like exclamation of ‘I’m cold!’ to issue from her lips.
John Laurie is actually just one of a complement of enjoyable secondary players who add nothing to the plot as such, but who inject a great deal of character, colour and idiosyncrasy into the film thanks to their thoughtful contributions. There’s a lovely little moment prefixed to Mad Peter’s foreboding speech about the evil and corruption in the village, when he tries to persuade his hosts that he isn’t really mad. It somehow tells us so much more about him than is ever required by the plot, and makes the later death of this otherwise non-important character much more affecting when it inevitably occurs. ‘They call me Mad Peter because I find it difficult to grasp some of the things which seem to be so important nowadays …,’ he confides, almost in shame; ‘like being able to make money.’ It’s a simple, delicately wrought moment that immediately throws a whole lifetime of isolation into stark relief, beautifully played by Laurie. Also finally getting his moment in the sun, here, is Hammer regular Michael Ripper. He’d already been given a noticeably much larger role in “The Plague of the Zombies” but here Gilling cast him again in a role that seems at the start like it’s going to be a another negligible pub landlord turn involving mere seconds on screen, but which actually develops into the most substantial role in Ripper’s Hammer career, seeing him becoming a semi-lead and deeply involved in the investigation that uncovers the unnatural nature of the plague deaths.
The same Hammer repertory reconvened once more under Gilling’s sure hand for what was actually the cheapest of all four of the back-to-back movies (the others all went over budget which rather negated the savings made from shooting them this way in the first place), with the music this time being handled by Don Banks who provides an imaginative and unusual east-meets-western influenced score. The film is unusually willing to take its time in revealing its hand, leaving much more space for character moments like those mentioned above; but when the horror comes it’s often both much more subtle yet so much more repellent in character than the usual Hammer fare. The hideous nature of the plague symptoms are bad enough, but when Harry and Tom disinter the corpse of Harry’s brother to investigate the true cause of his death, there is a disgusting shot of a discoloured, pustulating corpse, its necrotic flesh blackened by the disfiguring venom. At one point Dr Franklyn discovers his daughter’s creepy shed skin, still surreally clad in her nightie! And when Anna is taken to the cavernous cellar beneath the manor, her snake body is shown undulating in a truly repulsive fashion beneath a blanket. This was make-up maestro Roy Ashton’s last regular job on a Hammer film (although he would return occasionally on a freelance basis from time to time) and his snake face makeup is often seen as being something of a failure in comparison to his other work, yet it provides one of the Hammer cannon’s greatest shock moments -- made all the more effective perhaps because the film is relatively understated the rest of the time -- when Jacqueline Pearce’s snake incarnation is unexpectedly revealed with a sudden hissing close-up late in the film. Although the makeup work is slightly less effective when the camera lingers a little too long elsewhere on it, Pearce adds her own frisson of unease with her slinky performance, which is augmented by a faintly obscene flicking of the tongue.
“The Reptile” has always looked particularly uninspiring in previous DVD releases which have tended to look blurry and horribly faded, so it is a delight to be able to report that, apart from a few shots during the opening pre-credits sequence and the titles sequence itself, this is an absolutely stunning presentation: rich, deep, lustrous colour and beautifully defined contrast help give a whole new life to this often underrated film which, in this newly restored high definition presentation, now looks absolutely gorgeous. The double-play release features a restoration comparison and a theatrical trailer among its extras; and there is another episode from the World of Hammer series narrated by Oliver Reed (“Wicked Women”). Once again Marcus Hearn presides over an excellent making of documentary called “The Serpent’s Tale”, which is slightly shorter than its partner on “The Plague of the Zombies” disc and doesn’t feature any contributions from surviving Hammer cast or crew apart from art director Don Mingaye, but which does feature all the other regular contributors – Hearn himself, Mark Gatiss, Jonathan Rigby, Wayne Kinsey and David Huckvale – who provide personal impressions, analysis and information on the making of this wonderful example of Hammer at the peak of its powers during what were in fact the final days of Bray Studios. Needless to say, this is another essential purchase for the Hammer fan, to be purchased and watched alongside its equally excellent partner “The Plague of the Zombies”!
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