THE REPTILE (1966) Movie Review – The Harrowing House of Hammer

One thing about Hammer’s The Reptile should be said right off the bat – Once you’ve seen that monster make-up job, you cannot un-see it, and that leads to the first of many problems facing this movie.

Perhaps the make-up is a minor complaint. After all, it isn’t awful or anything, it’s just… well, silly and not very convincing. The larger issue it accentuates however, is that it leads one to think that they’re in for an amusingly ludicrous monster movie full of campy fun.

But that isn’t the case.

To get to the brunt of the flaws inherent in The Reptile, the plot needs to be addressed. Without revealing the entire story, it would presumably be safe to state that the titular monster in the film manifests as a woman who, through no will of her own, is periodically transformed into a humanoid snake-like thing. During such spells, she is compelled to bite innocent people with her poisonous fangs and leave them to stumble around town briefly before unceremoniously snuffing it.

“Fair enough,” one might say. This sounds like the typical Hammer fodder for their horror endeavors. In fact, it’s basically a sort of reworking of the werewolf tale, isn’t it?

Indeed it is, but that is the problem.

In a werewolf movie like The Wolfman, we are told the events leading up to Lon Chaney Jr.’s metamorphosis, why this is the result of his actions, and the lore that establishes the pattern in which his curse will operate – We get absolutely none of that in The Reptile. All we are told is that the woman was cursed with this life after being taken captive by a foreign snake cult, but anything else is entirely nebulous.

What triggers her to become a snake woman? A full moon? The setting of the sun? A gust of wind?
Why is she compelled to bite the necks of random people when she is largely unprovoked?
Why is there a shifty-eyed member of the snake cult always following her, and why doesn’t somebody just kill him?
How did the cult impose this curse on the woman? Is it a spell? Did they fuse her blood with that of a snake?
Is there any way for her to escape this curse?

These are all of the questions I sincerely had running through my head as the movie was playing out, and not a one of them was answered.

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But before completely writing off this movie, it should also be said that while many things do go wrong, the parts are well-acted, the direction is pretty admirable and the design of the film is quite atmospheric. It could have been at least a decent Hammer Horror. If it weren’t for the script, that is.

Sure, it is a play on the archetypical werewolf story, but with a werewolf story, we know exactly what the stakes are before the movie begins. When a new monster is introduced, we need to be given at least some background as to why this happening and why we should care.

And speaking of caring, with the little set-up given in reference to the monster, it seems obvious that the movie we were given isn’t where the real effective story lies. Why weren’t we instead shown the events that led up to the girl’s curse? We could have found out all we needed to know about how the transformations work and what causes them to occur as it happens to our central, tragic protagonist, and we could have seen how this impacts her loved ones and how they choose to deal with the atypical circumstances.

You know, they could have handled it a lot like that one movie… um, what’s it called? Oh yeah, The Wolfman. You know, that movie that you think about whenever anybody mentions a werewolf? Yeah, that would have been good for this werewolf-esque movie.

All in all, The Reptile is one of the more disappointing Hammer efforts because it seems like they should have been able to hit it right out of the park. As it happens, they were out of the game before they even made it up to bat.

Rating: 2 out of 5

~ Stephen

Vía Letterboxd – The Paper Masque blog