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‘Guilty Secrets, Guilty Pleasures’ – 2008 by Wendy McCredie

The third of three full length reviews written for Montage Films and published during May 2008.

The Reptile (1966) is part of a duo of films that are the best-known work of director John Gilling, one of Hammer horror’s most sophisticated directors. Both films feature a tiny Cornish community being threatened by a sinister force brought back from the corners of the Empire and together form a varied dissection of the problems of colonialism, imperialism and the inevitable corruption brought from power. However, while its sister film The Plague of the Zombies wears its politics on its sleeve among a tradition of zombie apocalypse as filmic critique of society, The Reptile, is an altogether less clear cut proposition.

The film was made back to back in 1966 with The Plague of the Zombies using many of the same sets and several of the same cast. (Jacqueline Pearce gets possessed and horribly killed in both films, while Michael Ripper gets to be a bit more actively heroic this time round) There’s a certain thrill of the familiar to those who’ve seen its sister production, as familiar faces and places turn up in different situations. The thematic metaphors are also familiar, although what had been one strand in a more complex web in Plague, here forms a solely thread of dark undercurrent to Reptile. Watching this film the audience knows what to expect from it, both visually and thematically, and those expectations are met, in a rather satisfying manner. The film seems to spend far greater time and energy on being a good monster movie than making any determined attempt to tackle the complex issues surrounding the collapse of British colonial rule and its negative impact both on the cultures it was imposed upon and on future relations between east and west. Whether the creature is supposed to represent the horrors stirred up from interfering with a culture not understood, or simply viewed as an exotic scaly monster is a matter for interpretation. The metaphor is drawn lightly enough to allow the casual viewer to sail through the subtext unscathed and choose whichever meaning they so desire. However as a monster the snake creature works well, lurking in shadows, stalking its prey and pouncing unexpectedly. Goggle-eyed and green, swaying in a clearly restrictive costume, it shouldn’t be menacing yet somehow manages to be. The face is decidedly snake-like, and behind the viscous fangs the tongue flickers in a strange reflection of the movements of a true snake’s forked tongue. This is no mere giant snake, but a true hybrid of snake and human, a grotesque in the truest sense. Yet possessed of a strange dignity and grace, untamed and unknowable, shattering our comfortable allusion of our place at the top of the food chain. The creature is somehow more terrible when it steps out from the shadows to openly stalk the film’s heroine sneaking and striking like the snake it almost is, rather than lurching awkwardly like some ancient Egyptian cursed mummy.

The plot revolves around a young couple Valerie and Harry Spalding, who inherit the remote Cornish cottage of the latter’s deceased brother. The brother, Charles Spalding, has recently died in mysterious circumstances and the quest to discover the cause and circumstances of his death forms the driving force of the action. Leaving aside the lurking monster, the film plays out as a traditional murder mystery, with the deceased victim’s brother returned home from the army looking for answers and facing a stony wall of silence. Along with a variety of attempts to warn and even scare them off (every one from the solicitor executing the will to their neighbours and the local publican suggest staying in the village to be a bad idea – though they might as well warn them not to go near Castle Dracula for all the good it does) Everyone in the story seems to have a dark little secret of their own. Guilt seems to hang over the place like a cloud, permeating every dark look that mars the picturesque setting. The villagers with their attempts to hide what they believe to be an epidemic of the black death. Every bit as ominously tight-lipped and secretive as Dr Franklyn accuses the cultists of being. The village is without policeman or doctor and the visiting coroner seems content to not look to deeply into the spate of strange ‘heart attacks’. Their neighbours, the hostile Dr Franklin and his friendly but frightened daughter Anna, hold prime suspect status with their increasingly strange and contradictory behaviour alongside their mysterious Malayan associate who so clearly enjoys the fear he instils in them both. The publican Tom Bailey is kept silent by fears of retribution from some unknown force, yet takes to digging up graves with a vim and vigour that implies that his fear of retribution is related less to the mysterious deaths and more to some other past event that he is lying low from. A cantankerous old gentleman with a paranoid streak and a good line yarn telling (John Laurie doing a satisfyingly strange turn as Mad Peter) haunted by a mysterious ‘them’ and proving the old adage that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

Hidden beneath the surface of the mystery plot, like the sulphur springs beneath the house, runs a seam of subtext that, especially given the complexity of its sister picture’s metaphors, is surprisingly shallow. Dr Franklyn insists throughout the film that he is not a medical doctor, instead appearing to be more of a theologian, or more likely an orientalist. His intrusive studies into the snake-people having led to their capturing and cursing his daughter, making her one of their own. Whether their transformations are natural or induced as part of their ‘strange customs’ is unclear – the mysterious member of their clan who taunts both the doctor and his daughter seems unaffected by either the cold or transformations of his own. The spectre of orientalism – that curse of historians, managing to simultaneous idealise and trivialise eastern traditions, beliefs and society – haunts his actions. Even after his encounters with their power, Franklyn still speaks of the snake-people as though they were some rare species of animal to be categorised and studied. Spalding and Bailey, on the other hand, have a different attitude to the situation. Both military men, respectively soldier and sailor, they know enough of the world to accept that there’s a lot out there that they neither know nor understand. Men of the world, once they get past their moment of one-upmanship in terms of who’s seen the strangest things on their travels, they come to a practical conclusion about the nature of the threat. The dead look like they’ve been attacked by a poisonous snake, suspecting that Dr Franklyn has brought some sort of huge specimen back from the east and that it is that which Anna is so scared of and has been attacking the locals seems a sensible conclusion. In fact it is that no nonsense practicality of treating the monster as a snake that saves Spalding when he’s attacked.

There’s something unashamedly B-movie-esque about this film. In the best tradition of monster movies, there are long creepy corridors, a ridiculous amount of staircases, and a monster that comes lurching out of the shadows to murder its victims in spite of a ‘he’s behind you’ style warning from a mysterious figure. In the best tradition of zombie and mummy movies, when Valerie has to flee from Dr Franklyn after his climatic battle with his Malayan tormentor, although he walks with a decided limp and cane, manages to catch the younger and doubtless fitter woman several times in his pursuit of her up the seemingly endless stairs that fill the mansion’s huge basement. As to what’s actually going on with Anna and her snake-self, little light is ever shed. In spite of Dr Franklyn’s panic ridden exposition at a confused and terrified Valerie, only one thing becomes clear about the plot, that it makes no sense. Anna seems aware only that something terrible is happening to her, reaching out to Valerie desperately in search of a friend and a touch of normality. Valerie on the other hand is, perhaps sensibly and doubtless understandably, clearly more concerned that they’re all going to burn to death while Franklyn is busy confessing his sins to her.

Yet despite the fact that the audience is never really given a proper explanation of what’s going on, The Reptile is a thoroughly enjoyable romp. There is adventure, screaming girls, lurking shadows, a mysterious face at the window, a mad old man prophesising doom, an accidental villain and a suitably murderous monster. If you’re looking for a culturally significant, subtext heavy, shock laden horror film, this probably isn’t the film for you, but if your tastes run to something a little less brutal, a little more fun and are willing to suspend your disbelief in the face of a monster built mainly of make-up and clever lighting? Then sit back, pass the popcorn and enjoy this little gem of a guilty pleasure.

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