THE REPTILE has all the trappings of a Hammer Film Productions horror flick. There is a village with hushed citizens suffering a cruel turn of fate. There’s a couple arriving to check things out. There’s a doctor. There’s an ancient curse from a far-off culture. And there’s a decadent abode that contains all sorts of bizarre events. The picture is directed by John Gilling and is fresh on the heels of his THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, with many of the same sets used in the production.
The action takes place in Clagmoor Heath, a village in Cornwall. People are dying of something called the Black Death and Harry Spalding (Ray Barrett) arrives after the passing of his brother. He brings his new bride Valerie (Jennifer Daniel) along and they move into the deceased’s bungalow with hopes of starting afresh. The locals are unfriendly and the neighbours aren’t any better, with the enigmatic Dr. Franklyn (Noel Willman) keeping to himself. He has a daughter (Jacqueline Pearce) he doesn’t seem to like much and a servant (Marne Maitland) with some immoral secrets.
THE REPTILE is pretty overt stuff, at least when the secrets are revealed, but Gilling allows for a slow burn. The action is thoughtful and the plot unfolds with inaudible mystery. There is death in Clagmoor Heath and people are turning black and frothing at the mouth, but Gilling never quite gets to the heart of the matter until he’s good and bloody ready. That allows distinctive dread to settle over Cornwall like a fog, which in turn settles THE REPTILE to a careful, creeping sort of crawl.
Distilled to its essence, you could argue THE REPTILE becomes very much about a father and his daughter. Dr. Franklyn is destroyed by the affliction his daughter Anna suffers and he is beside himself, convicted to a curse from a foreign land. Willman does a great job revealing these sentiments, but Gilling’s direction keeps the rest of us at arm’s length. The villain(s) of the piece are contrasting in their allowances for empathy, with unusual beauty meeting dismaying fate in the comprehensive, odd heat.