Continuing our examination of Hammer films with a look at one of their impressively creepy Cornish Horrors of the mid-Sixties.
In the mid-Sixties, Hammer took a stab at producing movie packages, shooting four films back-to-back using the same sets, the same crews and many of the same actors to produce a pair of double bills. It seemed successful enough, but was perhaps a touch restrictive and less time and money-saving than had been anticipated; whatever the reason, it wasn’t an experiment that was repeated, at least not in such a blatantly structured manner. What the experiment did result in, perhaps unexpectedly, are two of the most beloved of the mid-Sixties Hammer films, both movies shot as supporting features that feel like a genuinely connected pair of stories even though they are in fact stand-alone efforts. The two films arguably outshine the main features that they supported and bring something fresh to the company’s output – and significantly, they also feel like the end of an era, the point when the style that Hammer had established over the last decade reached a peak. After this, the 1960s Hammer films start to feel a lot less original as the company increasingly seemed content to rest on its laurels until it was too late and the world changed around them.
Shot back-to-back with The Plague of the Zombies, The Reptile was the first – and one of only a few – Hammer horrors to be based on an entirely original idea, rather than spinning off existing literary and cinematic works or traditional monsters. Set in a small Cornish village – the type where locals vacate the pub when a stranger arrives (something that is not an urban myth, I can assure you after spending childhood holidays in rural Wales) – the film sets out its stall in the pre-credit sequence, as Charles Spaulding is summoned to a large country house by a mysterious note, only to be set upon by a mysterious assailant whose bite results in blackening of the skin and foaming at the mouth before rapid death. Watching this – with varying reactions – are Dr Franklyn (Noel Willman) and his sinister Malay servant (Marne Maitland).
The film proper opens with Spaulding’s brother Harry (Ray Barrett) and new bride Valerie (Jennifer Daniel) arriving to take over his brother’s cottage, which they have inherited. But it doesn’t take long before they are caught up in the mystery of the Black Death that has been killing locals. Central to this are Franklyn and his daughter Anna (Jacqueline Pearce) – the former a severe tyrant given to angry outbursts, the latter a strange and desperate figure who seems to be a victim of her father’s overly protective and possessive personality. The pair are eventually revealed to be the victims of a snake cult’s curse after stumbling upon a ritual in Malaya, Anna transforming into a snake woman who is claiming victims as they foolishly wander through the moors. The servant is, in fact, both Anna’s keeper and protector as well as a constant presence to stop her father from ending the curse on both of them.
We should acknowledge that while this is a newly created monster for Hammer, the idea of the snake woman was not wholly original – indeed, a British film called The Snake Woman had preceded this in 1961 and a cynic might wonder if writer Anthony Hinds (here working under his usual ‘John Elder’ pseudonym) had seen that film, given that there are quite a few similarities in the narrative. The earlier film was a rather lacklustre affair, though, whereas this is as tightly paced and as well mounted as any Hammer film you can name. Much of that comes down to the talents of John Gilling, who worked several times for Hammer but always seemed relegated to the smaller productions (and the swashbucklers as much as the horror movies) for some reason. It’s hard to see why because his work here and on The Plague of the Zombies (not to mention The Mummy’s Shroud and The Gorgon) is first-rate. He keeps these stories moving at a fast pace, even while allowing for character development, and both feel like a masterclass in economic filmmaking.
Interestingly, Elder would essentially rewrite this story a decade later when working with the short-lived and woefully misguided Tyburn Films. Tyburn emerged in 1974, just as Hammer’s reign as the kings of horror was dying and the audience for their gothic tales was dwindling, and for reasons that only Tybun boss Kevin Francis could explain tried to make the same sort of films – with predictable results. The Ghoul is essentially The Reptile rebooted with the snake creature replaced with Don Henderson in a nappy and despite a solid cast including Peter Cushing, Veronica Carlson and Ian McCulloch, the film succeeds only in confirming just how exhausted the Hammer formula was. It does, however, make you appreciate The Reptile all the more.
The real pleasure in both this film and The Plague of the Zombies comes from the location, which is far enough removed from the traditional Hammer location to feel fresh and new. While still a period piece and very much in the Hammer style (like many Hammer films of the time, you can’t help but feel as though Willman’s role was written with either Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee in mind, possibly subconsciously by this time), the Cornish location has a genuine atmosphere and sense of claustrophobic dread hanging over it that is increasingly lost in the more traditional and familiar gothic horrors of the era. For all that dread though, the word that keeps coming to mind when I think of these two Cornish films is ‘cosy’. They are not, of course, wholesome tales but there is something of the comfort food about these movies, perhaps because everything that Hammer had been perfecting over the years somehow seems to come together here. More than any other Hammer film, watching these two Cornish films feels like spending time with an old friend.
There is no time while watching to wonder about the film’s various plot inconsistencies (we might ask why, if the cold affects Snake-Anna so much, is she wandering around biting people outdoors at night in England?), as the story charges along, with solid performances from most of the leads. Admittedly, Barrett is stoic but dull and Daniel is perhaps a bit unemotive (her reaction to seeing her husband stagger home after being bitten, his skin blackening in the same way that she has already seen kill people, is more one of mild concern than anything) but perhaps that goes with the territory. Bland lead characters are commonplace in Hammer of this time. Pearce, however, is effectively otherworldly, with enough ambiguity to make you wonder just how much of an unwilling victim she is – her luring of people to the house certainly suggests she’s more in control than the story is implying. Willman is excellent as the tightly wound doctor, who is perhaps the film’s real tragic figure in the end – with his work in this film and The Kiss of the Vampire, you can’t help but regret that he didn’t do more for Hammer. It’s good to see Hammer regular Michael Ripper – often just a bit part in their movies – elevated to a full supporting role. Gilling seems to have seen something in Ripper that other directors overlooked and gave him meatier roles in many of his Hammer films. He was right to do so, as Ripper gives a sympathetic and solid performance as the only voice of reason in the frightened, superstitious village.
The snake woman make-up is effectively crude – yes, it looks a bit static, but then again, snakes are not noted for their expressive faces and it is undoubtedly a dramatic transformation and an iconic image. The ‘black death’ visuals remain as gruesome now as ever, perhaps the most grotesque and painful deaths that you’ll find in a Hammer film.
Like most Hammer films of the time, the look of the movie belies its small budget. The idea of shooting two films for the price of one clearly worked in that sense, as both the Cornish films have a visual style that is lush and moody. It helps give the films that certain folk-horror feel, a clearly British location that nevertheless feels removed from the familiar and where the outsiders who have arrived from the big city find themselves facing something beyond their understanding. The Snake God might not be part of the Old Religion. but it feels as though it should be. It’s a pity that Hammer didn’t make more films set in this location.
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