A diamond in the rough, The Reptile was afforded even less of a budget than Plague of the Zombies, the film it was shot back to back with in 1966, but over the years the film has become a cult item among Hammer fans, the fine performances, engaging screenplay and a strong visual sensilbiliy mark this as one of Hammer's stronger horrors of the 60's.
A newly wed couple arrive in a small town in Cornwall in less than happy circumstances. The husband, Harry Spaulding has inherited a cottage after the mysterious death of his brother, due to what locals call the "black death". Unconvinced Spaulding along with the villiage publican Tom (played by Hammer regurlar Michael Ripper) investigate the recent fatalities which leads to an encounter with a snake woman with cobra-like fangs and a deadly venoumous bite... Any discussion on The Reptile inevitably gets round to the thorny issue of the make-up design for the creature, which tends to polarise Hammer fans. Admittedly, FX artist Roy Ashton’s work is modest, but hardly disastrous as some have decided. On paper, the creature with its bug-eyes and paper mache scales doesn’t bear much scrutiny, but when seen in the film, is far more effective, director John Gilling restricting the creature to 2 or 3 scenes. Ken Russell must have been impressed; the creature has a definite resemblance to Amanda Donohoe's vampire from Lair of the White Worm, a film which takes an affectionate nod towards a very British picture that is Hammer Horror.
As with Plague of the Zombies, John Gilling displays a keen sense of the macabre, and the film is punctuated with little moments that chill the bone, like a shot of the reptile writhing underneath a blanket, or in a scene where the reptile's discarded skin is discovered. If Zombies was steeped in atmosphere, The Reptile is even more so, with Gilling pushing the visuals even harder than its companion piece. Another graveyard scene appears in The Reptile but ups the ante somewhat by having its intrepid investigators going about their grim business in pouring rain and soggy earth. For once the funereal gloom has more substance than mere visual dressing, and plays a significant part in the climax of the film. Tony Hinds’ intelligent screenplay is a statelier affair than Plague of the Zombies, and has a certain Stoker-esque quality; Anna’s transformation into a snake-woman is due to a curse placed upon her by her father’s dogged pursuit of a Borneo snake-worshipping cult, her suffering overseen by an ever watchful and sinister valet.
Jacqueline Pearce one of Hammer’s rare jewels steps out of the cast of Plague of the Zombies, to play the ill-fated Anna. Even under makeup, she’s terrific and brings a surprising poignancy to the role in the finale of the film, when she utters her only line as the reptile, after exposure to a sudden rush of cold Cornish air, ending the film on a strangely melancholic note. Look out for the scene where Anna taunts her father by playing some discordant notes on an oversized sitar – truly one of Hammer Cinema’s oddest moments. Also, among the cast is Michael Ripper, one the studio’s most beloved supporting players, here given one of his most substantial role, and is quite wonderful too.
Optimum's DVD of The Reptile is a weak effort. The 1.85 transfer looks okay in daytime scenes but as soon as the image becomes dark, a faint green tinge is noticable - playing around with your TV settings might help. The print used is rather faded too, the black levels are very shallow. Soundwise the disc is fine, but is completely bereft of extras. If you can find it for a decent price, the OOP US Anchor Bay disc features a superior image (but still somewhat lacking it must be said), a trailer and another episode of the World of Hammer series focusing on vampires...