Friday 28 February 2020

Topography of terror… The Reptile (1966)

Horror connoisseur Kim Newman describes this film as one of his favourite Hammer horror films whilst The Monthly Film Bulletin review described its "… unusually controlled dignity for a Hammer production; instead of the customary blood-lettings ... Altogether, a film of quite some merit." Yet Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times was most definitely not impressed; "the script is too silly for all but the most uncritical."

It’s been said many times but Hammer films were made on the tightest of budgets and in the shortest time possible with many having no more than a six week shoot which was strictly 9 to 5.30 and with no time spent working at weekends. The cast and crew were all highly professional and could work with minimal retakes, having to nail these scenes as quickly as they could.

The stories were often pulp fiction but the film-making skills involved in their making is often admirable. So it is with The Reptile which despite a plot located firmly in the depths of the region of daft, manages to be both atmospheric and interestingly human with characters you care about.

The tightly-arranged location; pub, church and graveyard all in one place
Part of this is down to director John Gilling making a positive virtue out of his restricted budgets and the inventiveness of his production designer Bernard Robinson aided by Don Mingaye’s art direction. Together they create a intimate world that you soon work your way around; they seem to have taken the corner of an old house and used it to create a corner of a village with a pub and nearby a Church and graveyard with which we become very familiar. It’s quite a feat but most of the action takes place in this set with the exception of the moors that separate the mysterious mansion from the cottage in which our main protagonists try to work out the mystery and survive.

Few films have The Reptile’s sense of place, you know exactly which direction the danger is at any time and Gilling must either have had an unerring sense of direction or a compass. Into all this are placed his players and, as with a theatre production, he moves them around with such skill as well as getting the upmost from their reactions and anticipations. This is not a gory film but it is decisive and quick with moments of death, just like the viper in question and with those characters constructed as carefully as the narrative, sets and movements the whole thing is an enjoyably unsettling journey into nostalgic unease.

Jennifer Daniel and Ray Barrett
The film was actually shot directly after The Plague of the Zombies, also directed by Gilling who using many of the same sets, including exterior shots in the grounds of Oakley Court near Bray, Berkshire…  The only two actors in both were established character actor Michael Ripper – here playing local publican, Tom Bailey – and a relative newcomer, Jacqueline Pearce, beloved of many as Blake’s Seven’s Servalan, and an actor of real depth and technical prowess (trained at Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio in Los Angeles).

The story begins with a young man, Charles Edward Spalding (David Baron) investigating strange goings on at a mansion owned by a Doctor Franklyn (Noel Willman), who wears an expression caught somewhere between fear and arrogance and who, we don’t doubt, has paid the price for meddling in Eastern practices that cross the line between mysticism and science… He is unable to prevent Spalding climbing the stairs and confronting a creature that runs at him faster than the eye can follow leaving him instantly poisoned and dead within seconds.

John Laurie and Michael Ripper two superb character actors
He is not the first to die under such circumstances in the village and when his brother, a soldier named Harry George Spalding (Ray Barrett) arrives with his young wife Valerie (Jennifer Daniel) to make their home in Charles’ humble cottage, he is soon confronted by a wall of silence, emptying Tom’s pub as he casts aspersions on the frightened clientele. Tom’s a good lad, but he’s travelled far and thinks he knows well enough to leave well enough alone… he advises Harry to forget the mystery of his brother’s death and to leave.

There are many types of military men and, in this case, Harry is certainly not one to cut and run and neither is his wife, Valerie being made of stern stuff – perhaps Hammer wrote some female parts better than they were ever credited with? There’s certainly a lot of meat for both the women in this film to get their teeth into.

Talking of chewing, that’s exactly what John Laurie does to the scenery when he arrives at the Spalding’s cottage as Mad Peter, on the cadge for some food and full of tales that clearly hint at the truth of what’s going on. Before he arrives, Valerie is greeted by a beautiful young woman called Anna (Ms Pearce), the daughter of Dr Franklin and as vivacious and delightful as he is rude and repulsive. She and Valerie hit it off over flower arranging before a mysterious oriental figure The Malay (Marne Maitland, playing to type here… he was born in India and of mixed heritage but he was schooled in the UK, attending Bedales School and Magdalene College, Cambridge). Anna returns to the big house with his prompting… who is The Malay and what is his hold over the Franklyns?

While her sitar gently weeps...
Before we find out Mad Peter proves not to be that mad but certainly 100% dead which inspires Tom to finally offer to help the Spaldings. Events move at a place especially when the Spaldings are invited over for dinner with the Franklyns and Anna gets carried away with the sitar… Clearly something happened in the Orient which has bound The Malay, the Doctor and Anna together and the reveal is not overplayed as suspense and sympathy is maintained with admirable restraint.

Dusty Verdict: Well acted and very well directed, The Reptile is a treat and shows the underlying skills involved in Hammer filming: disciplined expression and generous, theatre-honed ensemble playing. Enough to make almost any plot believable.

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