The legendary but long defunct British horror studio Hammer is up and running once more and currently in the process of re-mastering and re-releasing some of its choicest titles on Blu-ray via StudioCanal, a process that began earlier this year with Dracula: Prince Of Darkness (1966). The series most recently saw the resurrection of The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957), Rasputin, The Mad Monk (1966), The Mummy’s Shroud (1967) and The Devil Rides Out (1968) and many more are set to follow. I’m very much a beginner when it comes to vintage Hammer, having only ever seen Quatermass & The Pit (1967), so I thought I’d check out the one with the juiciest artwork. Turns out you can judge a DVD by its cover.
The Reptile, directed by John Gilling, is essentially a daft variation on The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1902), in which a mysterious beastie prowls the misty moors of Victorian Cornwall in search of lost locals to feed on, a source of no little bemusement to the well-to-do couple who have recently moved to the village of Clagmoor Heath after inheriting a dilapidated cottage from one of the fanged creature’s many victims. Ray Barrett and Jennifer Daniel are rather stiff but commendably serious as the aforementioned Captain and Mrs Spalding (he presumably no relation to Groucho Marx’s loony explorer in Animal Crackers, 1930), even when asked to deliver such absurd lines as: “Would you mind telling me who you are and why you attacked me?” Among the surly Cornish pub dwellers, a staring, pipe-chewing mob worthy of Straw Dogs (1971), landlord Michael Ripper feels authentic, as does mad-eyed Scotsman John Laurie, quite literally foaming at the mouth in a supporting role. However, the real highlight is Noel Willman, a stern, stentorian figure who ultimately brings great pathos and melancholy to the part of the initially pantomime-sinister Dr Franklin, a theology scholar whose trips to the Orient have left him in thrawl to a Borneo snake cult, the sort of villains you might expect to encounter in one of George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman novels. A menacing Malay manservant (Marne Maitland) haunts Franklin’s mansion and appears to have a peculiar influence over the man’s exotic sitar-playing daughter Anna (Jacqueline Pearce) but what does it all mean? All this Far Eastern mysticism could lead one to conclude that The Reptile is a xenophobic film, warning audiences against multicultural influences and meddling with the foreign Other, although such a reading is probably unnecessarily political and would also have to be applied to Dracula (1958). Better perhaps to think of the events of The Reptile as payback for Britain’s colonial adventurism in the nineteenth century. The Empire biting back.