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The horror genre is overflowing with male monsters and macho demons but female fiends and she-creatures have always been a minority fringe group. Hammer Studios certainly tried to correct that imbalance with numerous gothic horror tales such as The Brides of Dracula (1960), The Gorgon (1964), Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), Countess Dracula (1970) and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971). But one of the most overlooked and underrated of the Hammer Horrors featuring a female monster is The Reptile (1966). It was filmed back to back with The Plague of the Zombies using the same period settings in Cornwall but at the time of its release, it was unceremoniously dumped on a double bill with the low-budget historical melodrama Rasputin, the Mad Monk. It deserved better and is now considered a minor classic by most horror enthusiasts.
In many ways, The Reptile harkens back to the films of Val Lewton (Cat People, 1942) and the Universal horror pictures in both its atmosphere and tone. It opens with a grisly, half-seen murder; Charles Spalding (David Baron) is attacked and bitten by "something" in a dark room within the manor house of Dr. Franklyn (Noel Willman) and dies a horrible death, foaming at the mouth and turning a sickly shade of green. His brother Harry (Ray Barrett), accompanied by his wife Valerie (Jennifer Daniel), soon arrive at the village to investigate the cause of death. What they find there is an inhospitable community that's suspicious of strangers and is obviously hiding some terrible secret. Harry eventually links his brother's mysterious death to Dr. Franklyn's unusual daughter Anna (Jacqueline Pearce) and a strange snake cult in Bornea that Dr. Franklyn was researching.
The Reptile was filmed on the Bray lot where many Hammer horrors were shot but director John Gilling was able to disguise that fact through inventive camera angles and exterior shots of nearby Oakland Court (a stand-in for the Franklyn manor). Jacqueline Pearce, who was the only Hammer actress to play two monsters (The Reptile and a resurrected corpse in The Plague of the Zombies, 1966), is best known among sci-fi fans for her role as Servalan on the British TV series, Blake's 7. In The Reptile, her dark, sensual beauty is used to chilling effect, particularly in the scene where she writhes on the bed in response to the strange chanting of Malay, her Indian manservant.
The title creature is something of a throwback to the fifties and may remind some horror buffs of Cult of the Cobra (1955) in which Faith Domergue played a shape-shifting snake woman who was stalking a group of G.I.s. But The Reptile has a visual elegance and sense of impending doom that lifts it high above its B-movie conventions. There's even echoes of Greek tragedy in the dark relationship between Dr. Franklyn and his daughter (her terrible curse is the result of her father's scientific curiosity). Andy Boot in his survey of British horror films, Fragments of Fear, called The Reptile "the ultimate sexual bad trip" for the way it equates a young woman's sexual awakening with her primeval urge to kill for food. And director Ken Russell even pays homage to this Hammer horror in his over-the-top adaptation of Bram Stoker's The Lair of the White Worm (1988).
Producer: Anthony Nelson Keys
Director: John Gilling
Screenplay: Anthony Hinds
Cinematography: Arthur Grant
Film Editing: Roy Hyde, James Needs
Art Direction: Don Mingaye
Music: Don Banks
Cast: Noel Willman (Dr. Franklyn), Jennifer Daniel (Valerie Spalding), Ray Barrett (Harry Spalding), Jacqueline Pearce (Anna Franklyn), Michael Ripper (Tom Bailey), John Laurie (Mad Peter).
by Jeff Stafford