What strange power made her half woman-half snake?
Following the death of his brother, Harry Spalding (Ray Barrett) moves to the small Cornwall hamlet where he died. Intent on discovering why and how his brother met his death, Spalding and his wife Valerie (Jennifer Daniel) have moved into his late brother's modest cottage. They are quickly befriended by the local barkeep, Tom Bailey (Michael Ripper). Armed with Bailey's help and information provided by the local madman before his own mysterious death, Spalding and company turn their attention to one Dr. Franklyn. Franklyn is a commanding and controlling man who rules his daughter, Anna (Jacqueline Pearce), with an iron fist that borders on fanaticism. Seems Franklyn is a doctor of theology who spent a great deal of time investigating ancient and strange religions in different parts of the world. As the film moves forward we discover that Franklyn once got too close to one of these religions. So close that he was punished by this particular sect. His daughter Anna was turned into a snake woman. Her change is overseen by the Franklyn's "man servant," Marlay (Marne Maitland), who is a member of the religious sect, and is truly the one who controls the Franklyn house.
Spalding finds himself attacked by the snake version of Anna, but manages to survive the experience. While recuperating, his wife takes it upon herself to investigate. This leads her to Dr. Franklyn's house, where she finds the doctor finally taking charge. After he has killed Marlay in a struggle, he sets fire to his manor. While waiting for the house to burn he explains to Valerie all that has happened to him and his daughter. Locking Valerie in a room, he attempts to escape. He is attacked and killed by his daughter, who then sets her sights on the trapped Valerie. Coming to her rescue are Bailey and a recovered Spalding. A window is busted open that allows the cold air to enter the locked room. Anna, now being a reptile, is affected by the cold air, which allows Valerie to escape. This being a Hammer film, the heroes are allowed to watch the manor burn to the ground as the credits roll.
As part of Anchor Bay's Hammer Collection, The Reptile is one of the crown jewels in the Hammer film library. As I have written before, Hammer horror was a vastly different style of filmmaking than what we are used to today. Slow moving and elegant, The Reptile offers its chills in a quiet and steady way.
Directed by John Gilling (The Plague of the Zombies) and written by Hammer veteran John Elder, The Reptile is a companion film of sorts to the above-mentioned Zombies. Filmed directly after Zombies so that Hammer could save money by using the same locations, The Reptile has its formula firmly in place: Start off the film with lots of mood and then a graphic death. Bring in the film's hero. Introduce the small village and its view of strangers. Throw in a local who is willing to believe and willing to help. Show the face of this film's evil. Put the heroes in grave danger. Face the danger. Burn down the house. It is almost note for note the same way The Plague of the Zombies is laid out, and like that film, it works.
Gilling's direction is steady and effective. Always keeping the danger in the background, he is able to maintain a great deal of tension all during the film. Never really exposing his creature until the end, Gilling is the model of restraint. Speaking of the creature, special mention must be made of make-up artist Roy Ashton. A veteran of over 40 Hammer productions, Ashton was a master of his trade. While rudimentary by today's make-up standards, what Ashton did with limited time and money is a marvel to behold. Sometimes crude to look at, his designs always possessed a certain elegance and logical nature. An unsung hero of the Hammer studio system, The Reptile was Ashton's last work for Hammer.
Performances in The Reptile are strong across the board. As the intrepid and curious heroes, Ripper, Daniel and Barrett are sturdy and true. They develop a sense of camaraderie that comes through and carries the film along. Maitland is quietly evil and manipulative. As Anna and her tortured father, Pearce and Willman offer dual layered performances. Not evil but very protective of his daughter, Willman makes us care for Dr. Franklyn and his plight. When feeling like herself, Pearce is sunny and bright as Anna, which makes her transformation all the more shocking and uneasy. Again, very strong work.
Anchor Bay has recently begun offering anamorphic transfers of all of its releases whenever possible, and The Reptile is no exception. After watching this movie several times over the years on late night creature features, what Anchor Bay has done with the image is nothing short of a revelation. Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, colors are very well balanced all the way through the movie. Fleshtones are natural looking, and color saturation is quite acceptable with no trace of edge enhancement. This being a horror film, there are also a number of nighttime scenes and the transfer comes through again. Blacks and shadow have great depth and detail with none of the moody lighting or fog effects lost. Outside of some minor problems associated with age, the film looks spectacular.
Sound is Dolby Digital mono and it is also a pleasant surprise. Quite full and almost opulent, The Reptile has probably not sounded this good since its initial release some 35 years ago. With no discernible hiss, dialogue and musical score came shining through.
Features on this disc include the original trailer as well as the television trailer for this and the Christopher Lee film, Rasputin—The Mad Monk. There is also another episode of the promotional series, "World of Hammer." This episode features various female vampires and creatures through the years. While not substantial, it does whet my appetite for future Hammer Collection releases.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Films such as The Reptile are not going to be everyone's cup of tea. Many will find it much too slow. There is almost zero blood and gore and, for a Hammer film, precious little cleavage is on display. If you are looking for a Friday the 13th style slasher fest, you are in the wrong place.
Extras are also on the slim side. While a number of the Hammer Collection have featured cast commentary tracks, The Reptile has none. For the time and trouble Anchor Bay is putting into these releases, it would be nice if there were substantial documentaries or featurettes made to help highlight and educate the viewer as to what made this little company so special.
Also Anchor Bay has not offered the option of subtitles for the hearing impaired on this disc. While this situation is said to be changing it is still a serious oversight on the part of the company.
As stated above, The Reptile is not going to be everybody's cup of tea. It is decidedly slow and methodical. But given the chance it does provide a fair number of chills in its short running time. The movie is also a prime example of a seemingly lost art in filmmaking: the perfect marriage of both style and substance. The film knows what it is and makes no pretensions otherwise. It opens, tells its story well, and gets out. Simple, elegant, and effective.
Outside of my above stated reservations, Anchor Bay continues to be one of my favorite companies in the world of DVD. The taste they show in materiel is both eclectic and fun. They truly are a company that cares about film and the film buff. I support them whenever possible and I would hope that everyone out there reading this would as well.
Hammer Studios is acquitted of all charges and is free to go back to making movies. Anchor Bay is thanked for their support but asked to make their releases friendlier to the hearing impaired. Otherwise, I've nothing else to say. Thank you and case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• "World of Hammer" episode entitled VAMP
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