The Reptile, 1966.
Directed by John Gilling.
Starring Noel Willman, Jacqueline Pearce, Ray Barrett, Jennifer Daniel and Michael Ripper.
Following the mysterious death of his brother, Harry Spalding (Ray Barrett) and his wife Valerie (Jennifer Daniel) move to an inherited cottage in small Cornish village with a dark secret.
It is always refreshing to see a film launch straight into the action. No opening narration, no subtitles, no easing us in gently. From the word go, we’re stepping into dangerous territory, as some poor devil wanders about a darkened stately home, a letter in his hand, fear in his eyes. A smiling Malay waits at the foot of the stairs, watching as a shape emerges from the shadows, and sinks its teeth into our man’s neck. He runs, falls down the staircase, foaming at the mouth, his wound turning all sorts of colours you just know skin shouldn’t be.
The Reptile is set well over a hundred years ago, but director John Gilling trusts us to get that for ourselves from the clothes and the decor and the creatively shaped sideburns. He’s telling us exactly as much and as little as we need to know; this is a director in command of how his story unfolds. That’s what you want to see from an opening scene.
This isn’t the monster’s first victim. A marvellously unhinged local tells the pub landlord: “They found him this morning. Just like the others.” It’s none other than John Laurie, ably demonstrating why they picked him to be the constant harbinger of ‘dooooom’ as Private Frazer in Dad’s Army. He fires off a bushy eyebrow, warning there’ll be more, mark his words. “This is an eeeeevil place.”
Elsewhere, newlyweds Harry and Valerie Spalding (Ray Barrett and Jennifer Daniel) are informed of an untimely passing and a humble inheritance down in Cornwall. Charles Spalding is dead, and nobody knows why. Harry, a gung-ho, rugged ex-Army type with a jaw you could bounce bricks off, is determined to find out what happened. And maybe take up the free country house offer too.
They arrive in the village to the customary “we don’t like strangers” welcome, emptying pubs and streets wherever they go. Only Tom Bailey (Michael Ripper), the kindly and shrewd pub landlord, extends a friendly hand (and a friendly pint of bitter). He warns them; don’t go down to the cottage. There’s danger in these here parts, don’tcha know. And it never happens far from the mansion on the hill.
Soon enough we meet Dr Franklyn, the man who lives in that mansion. Noel Willman plays him as cagey and domineering, looking strangely gaunt and aged beyond his years. Ray Barrett is no push-over, but there’s no question who’s in command when Willman enters stage left; there’s a certain severity of manner and power of presence that sets him apart from his co-stars.
It’s when the Spaldings get a dinner invitation to the Franklyns that Gilling gets the best performances from his cast. We finally get to meet the stunning Anna Franklyn, practically kept prisoner by her father in this museum of a house, kept oddly warm for a summer evening. Jacqueline Pearce is perfectly cast as the sensitive young dreamer, exuding all the warmth and vitality her father cannot. Then there’s something else in her performance; something broken, some hidden secret even she can’t quite get at that.
It emerges that Dr Franklyn has travelled deep into the Far East; to Java, Sumatra, Indonesia. Swords, skulls and suits of exotic armour aren’t the only souvenirs he brought back. Anna herself has more than a hint of the East about her; nobody picks up the sitar and plays it the way she does from a mere trip abroad. Her sitar playing goes beyond fascination, verging on hypnotic trance, all watched unblinkingly by the smiling Malay manservant. The more we see of this smiling Malay (the superb Marne Maitland), he seems less and less like the kind of man who takes orders, and more the kind who gives them.
Enough hints. The Reptile deserves to be enjoyed by a whole new generation as others did before; solving mysteries without any clues, looking for signs in these troubled faces. Don’t expect a lot from the monster itself; time, budget and lighting were all against Roy Ashton’s make-up design from the start. Besides, the real charm of The Reptile is in the performances.
This small, gifted cast turn a fairly decent script into something dark and fey and mystic, bristling with Eastern intrigue. Each actor compliments the others’ performance; Jacqueline Pearce’s green eyes dancing with terror and disturbing desires are just the thing to inspire Noel Willman’s ferocious outbursts. As men stirred into action by injustice, Ray Barrett and Michael Ripper keep us rooted in the very human dilemma our heroes face – should they seek out this deadly creature and risk death in agony, or do nothing and just hope they’re not the next victim?
The Reptile has it all: the cursed village. Superstitious locals. The sinister foreigner. For a story steeped in so many familiar horror-isms, you’d expect this story to be more predictable. Not so. John Gilling isn’t one of those horror directors who lets you off with quick jump shocks every other moment. With plenty of Eastern atmosphere provided by James Bernard’s eerie, lingering score, he winds up the tension, prompting new questions just as soon as he’s answered the ones you had before.
He leaves all the right kind of gaps for us to fill in for ourselves, letting the story take on a second life of its own, never boring us with pointless specifics. We’ll never know just what the Reptile is, just as we don’t need to know the name of the smiling Malay. That gloating, knowing expression on his face is all the imagination needs or wants to think up new nightmares.
EXTRA FEATURES: Resident ‘making of’ documentary feature ‘The Serpent’s Tale’ welcomes back Hammer aficionado Mark Gatiss, erudite as ever, full of praise and blame alike. It’s always clear that he loves his Hammer horrors, but he’s not blind to their faults either. For him as well as every other Blake’s 7 fan, Jacqueline Pearce is the undisputed highlight, bringing a depth and mystery to her role that belied her tender years.
Bernard Robinson, Roy Ashton and Don Mingaye are paid homage, as the respective production, make-up and set designers with an unequalled love of their work that translated into masterful attention to detail. Ditto for our boys at Pinewood Studios, who show us once more the painstaking process of cleaning up the old prints for these new Blu-Ray releases. With any luck, the love and affection so many still have for these films will see to it that we’re still enjoying the likes of The Reptile in another 40 years or more.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.