SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ Films on the Seat at the Back playlist right now: KIDS IN LOVE; JUNE; CURVE; WILD, BARELY LETHAL; GODDESS OF LOVE; THE VATICAN TAPES .. What a night in!

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

THE REPTILE (1966) HAMMER HORROR SEASON/ HORROR CHANNEL (introduced by Kim Newman) Screened: 29/10/2011

*Some spoilerssss may lurk ahead - watch before reading*
I enjoyed this rare slithery beast of a movie a great deal and loved the introduction by our resident hex-pert in horror; Kim Newman, too - as part of the Horror Channel's ongoing 'Hammer Horror Season' (every Saturday, but also across Halloween).
The Reptile is one of the few Hammer horrors I've never seen (did it slither past my radar?) - maybe the only one I've never seen. I'm not sure why - it's rarely shown (but shown more often than others I know better and love more) and, perhaps because it lacks a Christoper Lee or Peter Cushing star turn, isn't especially fondly remembered by many. Of course, it's one of Kim Newman's favourites, which was good enough recommendation for me! Although I reckon that, seeing as he grew up in Somerset, just a jump across Devon away from Cornwall, where the action here takes place - he's a little biased. Either that or he's been hypnotised by an ancient snake cult on one of his recent research trips to Borneo.
The Reptile is dealt a plot that has a lot of (slightly bonkers) hissy-fit fun - rather like the similar 'wild female of the species beastie on the loose' movie The Blood Beast Terror, made by Tigon Films, one of Hammer's rival studios, a couple of years later and which has Peter Cushing battling a woman who turns into a killer moth. But a big moth, not a little fluttery pound coin-sized moth. That would clearly not be scary at all. Actually, The Blood Beast Terror isn't scary at all even when a big moth, but that's another movie! All such films can be traced back to the 1942 classic Jack Tournier movie Cat People, in which a woman turns into a ...well, you get the idea.
In The Reptile, Harry Spalding inherits a lovely little cottage in the Cornish countryside from his dead (killed by the snake lady) brother and takes his unsuspecting wife with him for a new life baking clotted cream cakes and drinking local scrumpy (rather than leave the poor lady behind in snake-free London as he probably should have done in retrospect). It's not long before something big and slippery (no - not that!) slithers in from the cold and looks to bite the new boy's neck. In the same way that Dracula always goes for the jugular or the pussy in Cat People goes for the ripping of the neck or the Female Vampire (as directed by Jess Franco in 1973's masterpiece of erotic horror) goes for the, ahem, you know what - the Blood Beast Terror goes for just about everything.   
Poor hapless Harry has help along with way in his quest to battle the local cobra goddess hanging out in the village from a sympathetic publican (also perhaps less sympathetic for Harry's plight than acutely aware that profits are always down when the snake's in town) as well as the resident 'mad local' - a man who would be carrying a coffin behind him to complete the effect if the film's budget allowed, and ..well, that's about it. Everyone else in the village hates Harry. They have all sided with the snake, and as Harry is just about the most yawnsome hero in a Hammer horror movie ever - frankly, I don't blame them. 

It was nice to find out how effective - and also stunningly pretty - leading actress Jacqueline Pearce is here in the role of the snake daughter with a daddy in despair (having previously mainly admired this actress for an unforgettable role in TV sci-fi classic Blake's 7 and from seeing her from time to time on the stage). Pearce’s subtle performance here is pure and captivating and haunted of heart; an innocent in snakeskin clothing gone deliciously bad to the bone. And yes - snakes do have bones, I checked!

Along with Hammer's Plague of the Zombies, Pearce really could have been a great 'Scream Queen' for the studio, but drifted into TV work; although very good and 'cult' TV work, including Dr Who, but especially in the aforementioned Blake's 7 where she gave her role of a lifetime as the iconic and over-steamed Servalan - acting the snake without actually having to turn into one. Funnily enough, The Hammer House of Horror episode that preceded the screening of The Reptile featured Paul Darrow, who was also Servalan's sparring partner Kerr Avon in Blake's 7.
The Reptile is a bit of an 'I've seen that face before' roll call all round with Dad's Army man John Laurie appearing too, and predictably quite wonderful, as 'Mad Peter'. Laurie, like Jacqueline Pearce, is an actor who also became far better known in later years for outstanding TV work than for the many great movies he often appeared in - his Dad's Army role as Private Frazer being another of those dreaded or longed-for (delete as appropriate) 'roles of a lifetime' that become either a cursed medallion or a proud trophy in an actor's resume. He also appeared in other great horror movies, including the quite legendary Vincent Price art deco-deadly masterpiece of camp cruelty; The Abominable Dr Phibes. I'd also like to find out more about Laurie's role in 1953's Strange Stories - but has this one been lost forever? 


The Reptile isn't Hammer's best movie for me. On the positive; the snake creature is effective and scary-looking and the bites are nasty (and the deaths suitably horrible and unusually realised) - you really fear for those bitten. When our leading man, Harry Spalding (Ray Barrett in a slightly dull but suitably concerned and vulnerable performance) gets bitten - I actually felt dreadfully scared for him. His survival here is the best moment of the movie. I've never seen a deadly bite in a movie before that I actually believed was deadly, and his words to his wife (Jennifer Daniel as the also slightly dull Valerie) on finding him lying there in pain: "Cut it out . ." - are chilling and cold. Character actor Michael Ripper is especially good as local landlord Tom, and steals the film from our 'Arry.
The Cornish setting isn't all that well used (or all that well faked!) as too much action takes place inside generic rooms in generic houses, shot pretty much in generic close-up and with little scene-setting, or establishing shots. The film needs to get out more, into the mysterious Cornish countryside! I loved one scene that took place at a quaint little local train station, and longed for more of the same. The local village pub had flashes of atmosphere - a drunken sing-along among the locals interrupted by a stranger reminded of later quaint and cranky public house horrors found in such movies as The Wicker Man (1973) or An American Werewolf In London (1981).     
The Reptile is Hammer treading water - but doing it very well, and is a real treat for fans of the unusual, the creepy and for the lovers of things that go 'hissss' - rather than boring old 'bump' - in the night.   
words: mark gordon palmer

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