Tuesday, September 20, 2011

What Strange Power Made Her Half Woman - Half Snake?

The Reptile(1966)
Director: John Gilling
Cast: Noel Willman, Jacqueline Pearce, Michael Ripper

Unfairly neglected Hammer film is one of the studio's best, containing one of the studio's most creative monsters and sympathetic characterization and a fairly involving plot. The usual Hammer stars, Cushing and Lee, are absent from this and there's no Terence Fisher behind the camera, but this is as entertaining as any number of the studio's most well known and beloved classics.

After his brother had died mysteriously, George Spalding(Ray Barrett) and his wife, Valerie(Jennifer Daniel) go to live in the brother's cottage in the country, where they find superstitious peasants and an air of mystery. Only a friendly innkeeper, Tom(Michael Ripper) is friendly with them and rational. No one has any real information on how George's brother died and it appears that several such murders have been occuring frequently. The young couple learn first hand, when they find a loveable hermit named Mad Peter(John Laurie) bitten and foaming at the mouth, from some unknown animal. Dr. Franklyn(Noel Willman), a mysterious aristrocrat, investigates, but remains strangely aloof. He speaks cryptically about his daughter, Anna(Jacqueline Pearce) and alludes to knowing something about the murders. When Anna arrives at the Spauldings and invites them for dinner, Franklyn reluctantly agrees. The meeting is cordial enough and Anna appears both beautiful and stable, but when she is asked to play something from her sitar, Franklyn flips out and smashes it(easily my favorite scene). The couple suspect something is afoot and George asks Tom for help, who at first resists, afraid to get involved with something that's not his business, but Tom is no coward and helps figure out the mystery. Both Peter and George's brother, are dug up and reveal the same markings and discoloration, which both wordly men recognize as the bite of a large snake. Later, George goes to Franklyn's residence and is attacked from the shadows by a thing that resembles a snake. Luckily, Tom and Jennifer are able to aid him before the poison set in. It turns out that Franklyn has been cursed years before by an Indian cult and his daughter has been transformed into a half snake woman! A character called, "The Malay"(Marne Maitland) menaces the doctor and stays on to fulfill the curse. However, Franklyn eventually combats the Malay and throws him into a boiling vat in the basement, where his transformed daughter acquires heat. Valerie arrives, attempting to save Anna, and discovers the horrible secret. Franklyn has gone mad and traps her in the hosue as it burns, only to get bit by his own daughter. Tom and George arrive and rescue Valerie, smashing some windows, the cold killing the reptile. And yes, a little kitty is saved from the blaze. Yay!


Nicely atmospheric and creepy, The Reptile unfolds like a good mystery. Filmed on the same sets, with much of the same crew as The Plague of the Zombies(1966), this film manages to prove the same gothic magic can work twice. There's a lingering sense of dread throughout the picture, building to a fever pitch when that climax arrives and the monster is finally unveiled. Tension is well dispersed by director Gilling, who keeps the action moving along well. The beginning is one of Hammer's scarier pre-credit sequences, with a figure going down a dark hallway and getting attacked by a monstrous shape, leaving the man in a horrifying state. The restrain in this film is notable, the monster being quite effective, it's nice that they were able to keep the creature in the shadows for that long.
Noel Willman, who had previously played the lead vampire in Kiss of the Vampire(1963), once again menaces Jennifer Daniel, who was also in that previous film. This time he also brings some sympathy to his tortured character, who must live through hell, watching his lovely daughter become a demonic creature night after night. His character is not really an all out villain, but his demeanor and subsequent madness towards the end, makes him a menace.
Jacqueline Pearce is absolutely gorgeous in this film, bringing a warm and even, cute presence that makes her transformation all the more sad and disturbing. Known for her appearance in short hair as an alien on the sci-fi series, Blake 7, looks delicious with her long raven hair and green eyes and it's a pity that more screen time was not afforded her character in human form. Plus, she really knows how to fill out a sari! Another one of my favorite Hammer babes.

Ray Barrett and Jennifer Daniel are a better than average couple in distress and more likeable than such characters usually are in these kind of movies. They work well as audience identification characters and are engaging and sympathetic, adding immeasurably to the tense climax. Michael Ripper, a Hammer regular, gets the best role, though, as the heroic Tom. Michael Ripper was often a supporting character in many Hammer films, and it's nice to see him in a starring role, especially one so sympathetic. His character has the most dimension to him, showing shades of courage and likeability, coupled with apprehension and fear as he tries to rationalize the horror around him. The moment that he speaks of his travels around the word is absolutely compelling and he has the sort of delivery that makes you believe all that he has to say! It's a great character part.
John Laurie is a delight as the tragic, "Mad Peter" and it's shame that his colorful character is bitten off so soon(no pun intended) and Marne Maitland brings an oily sinister quality to The Malay that adds to the mystery and suspense, reminding one of George Pastell's villain in The Mummy(1959).

Perhaps, the lack of the name stars and the odd title monster has kept this one in relative obscurity, but The Reptile is an absolute delight and one of Hammer's finest horror pictures, as well as one of the best horror films of the mid-60s. It's a mysterious and unique film that is guaranteed to be a nice surprise for the uninitiated horror fan, searching for something a little different, but with some familiarity.

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