The Reptile Review
If you experience a sense of deja vu watching The Reptile, it would be less likely that you were experiencing some sort of hemispheric synaptic latency, and more likely that you had recently seen Hammer's other 1966 production, The Plague of the Zombies, for the two films share the same director, some of the same cast, and even much of the same set.
This situation was borne out of Hammer's continuing drive to adhere to their thrifty principles, releasing cost-effective British horror productions despite their considerable success rate in the genre at home and abroad. Producer Anthony Nelson Keys hatched a cunning plan to cut costs further by producing a batch of four films in 1966; two central features (Dracula: Prince of Darkness and Rasputin, the Mad Monk), and two supporting films, with The Plague of the Zombies assigned to accompany Dracula..., and The Reptile pencilled in as support for Rasputin.... The frugal-minded initiative revolved around the concept of shared resources, with the two supporting features slated to use much of the same Cornish village set (Bray Studios), the same director (John Gilling), and the same actors in the form of Michael Ripper and Jacqueline Pearce, both of whom were given increased wage packets thanks to their expanded roles. Of course, this budget-conscious approach would be craftily obfuscated from the audiences by splitting the supporting features between the two major features, and by the judicial spacing of release schedules.
By the time Gilling's second supporting film, The Reptile, came to be made, Keys' financial masterplan was off track, and the first three of the four films had come in over budget. Keys was determined that this final film would be delivered on target financially; with suitable pressure applied across the production, the film did deliver below the assigned budget, although not sufficiently under to deem the entire project a success. With this historical backdrop in mind, The Reptile is something of the poor relation in this set of four films.
It's because of this that John Gilling and his crew deserve much credit; despite the inevitable stylistic and locational similarities, The Reptile doesn't feel like a film that inhabits the same space as The Plague of the Zombies; these are two films which are crafted in such a way that they are entirely individual, and viewings of the two within a short period of time don't detract from or colour the overall viewing experience negatively.
Gilling's film is a slightly colder and harsher film than The Plague.... The characterisations are certainly more difficult to warm to, with Noel Willman's Dr Franklyn presenting an intimidating and austere figure, Jacqueline Pearce's troubled Anna proving enigmatic and distant, and lead Ray Barrett performing a decent enough yet largely humourless role as the moneyed outsider Harry Spalding, who brings his wife to Cornwall to inhabit the house where his recently deceased brother used to live. The only real relief comes in the form of John Laurie's delightful Mad Peter, and we are afforded the opportunity to see Laurie in action before his role in TV's Dad's Army.
On a subtle level, these rather uptight performances are actually quite fitting. The cold and unwelcoming Cornish village is desperate to hide its business from the outside world (the outside world in this case being Harry and his wife), and the excessively brusque Dr Franklyn in particular has business which he is keen to ensure stays disguised and repressed from the prying eyes outside - in true Victorian fashion. The Reptile also makes some interesting observations about the enduring British culture of manners (Harry is unerringly polite, even in the face of Dr Franklyn's sitar-smashing outburst), and taps into the period's fear of distant foreign cultures, with the Doctor recounting tales of his exploits in far flung lands, and the terrifying religious ceremonies and practices engaged in by these strange cultures.
Whilst The Reptile may prove somewhat colder than some of its Hammer counterparts from the period, one area that is almost indisputably fitting is the approach to the horror. In this respect, Hammer do what they do best; after an early shock, they build tension, they build a storyline, and they build to an engaging climax. What's particularly intriguing about this picture is that the first 'finished' edition of the film was deemed insufficiently shocking, and Keys instructed the crew to reshoot a number of the horror sequences. By the standards of nowadays, there isn't a vast number of horror sequences, but this is Hammer horror from the sixties, and the story builds carefully, with the shocks only injected at measured and calculated intervals. The end result of this steady approach and Keys' forced elevation of menacing scenes and general gruesomeness is a film which is modest with its volume of shocks, but when the shocks do rear their reptilian heads, the effect is particularly impressive. Indeed, there are a couple of scenes which virtually guarantee a jump, and another few which guarantee your disgust.
Keys' cost-busting adventure may not have been especially successful in its key objective of saving money, but what do we care? The resultant output of his scheme showcases some impressive filmmaking, and whilst The Reptile may have suffered the most from the tight purse-strings of the Hammer authorities, Gilling protects his film effectively, and delivers a film that is atmospheric and shocking, and one which remains well worthy of a viewing.
Studiocanal release this Blu-ray and DVD combi of John Gilling's The Reptile on the same day as its set-sharing counterpart, The Plague of the Zombies, and as such, the two releases bear a number of similarities and some reassuring consistency. The encoding is region 2 (DVD) and B (Blu-ray) for European audiences, and the film is faithfully presented in its native aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Note that this release carries a BBFC certificate of '15', whereas The Plague of the Zombies received a '12' certificate.
If you're expecting a similar level of quality to that of Studiocanal's The Plague of the Zombies release, you will be largely satisfied with the quality here. As with its partner release, the image quality benefits from a strong and stable transfer which is respectful to the source material, ensuring a pleasing level of colour and detail in the 1080p resolution, without compromising the look of a film which is over 45 years old, and without resorting to hideous levels of over-processing. Where this transfer does suffer is during the opening scenes. The first scene, for instance, presents a fairly high level of extraneous noise on the black background, and the shots of the Cornish landscape in the 'darkness' (which, with this being Hammer, isn't actually darkness at all) prove both anaemic, and subject to substantial sweeps in shading. The subsequent credits also suffer greatly from poor image quality and a substantial glow around the yellow font, but after this section, the film settles well, and the image proves consistent and detailed throughout. The only other minor point I would mention around the image is that a couple of cue marks are still present at one point in the film, whereas in The Plague of the Zombies, the restoration comparison of that feature demonstrates the removal of those marks on that respective restoration. Whether this is an oversight, or perhaps due to some technical restriction, I am unsure.
There are English subtitles for the hard of hearing, which are sensibly sized and intelligently done.
The mono soundtrack is presented in LPCM 2.0, and sounds remarkably clean and clear throughout, with no distortion that I could detect other than the very occasional and minor 'pop'. Don Banks' score sounds vibrant and lively, but as with The Plague of the Zombies, the limitations of the period mean that the higher ends of the treble and certainly the bass notes are less apparent and strong, which results in a sound that is abundant in 'middle' tones, which can be quite harsh at higher volumes.
As with Studiocanal's The Plague of the Zombies, the release of The Reptile benefits from a handful of extras which are higher on quality than quantity, which is, I guess, the preferable weighting.
A piece called The Serpent's Tale: The Making of The Reptile is a well presented assortment of commentary from various experts and people involved with the film. Mark Gattis and Jonathan Rigby make the usually measured, thoughtful, and informed contributions, and this is an enjoyable enough way of spending 21 minutes.
An Oliver Reed narrated episode of World of Hammer is included, with the chosen specialised subject of this instalment being Wicked Women. Whilst I can see the connection between The Reptile and this subject matter, the film itself isn't included. The episode is nonetheless very engaging, lending us a glimpse into the skewed cerebral matter of some of Hammer's most unhinged and unbalanced females, including the extremely disturbing performance of Bette Davis (who else?) in The Nanny. Davis also brings her acerbic venom to The Anniversary, and these two films in particular afford us a different perspective on the Hammer catalogue, which became virtually synonymous with British horror of the sixties due to its global success in this genre. Naturally, some classic Hammer gothic horror action is covered here, and it's delightful to see the much loved, much missed, and very beautiful Ingrid Pitt playing the evil Countess Dracula in typically stylish fashion, as the vain countess reaches her desperate nadir in front of the shocked assembly.
A short (2.17) Restoration Comparison presents side-by-side moving images of the pre and post-processed film to demonstrate the effective work that the team have put in to restoring the feature.
Finally, a grainy Trailer rounds up the relatively small set of extras, and even trailers from this era show far too much of the main feature in their efforts to reel in as wide an audience as possible.
Anthony Nelson Keys' master plan to shoot films back to back using the same sets, director and selected cast only produced one output which delivered below budget, but despite that, The Reptile remains a film that unleashes some effective shocks beyond its modest funding. Studiocanal do the film justice with a mainly high quality transfer which settles down after the grainy and inconsistent opening minutes, and this Hammer horror picture is also supplemented with a handful of quality extras.