FANTASIA OBSCURA: Hammer’s Spooky Snake-Woman Supplies Some Slippery Scares

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, though, you do desperately need a rewrite and a few more takes…

The Reptile (1966)

Distributed by: Twentieth Century Fox

Directed by: John Gilling

The best you can say is, the relationship between England and India is complicated.

Lord and Lady Mountbatten with Gandhi on the verge of Indian independence

In 1948, right before India was formally gained her independence, Indian workers were invited to help rebuild the British economy. As Indians came west and put down roots in the UK, English youth coming of age during the post-war years would discover the “Hippie Trail,” and soon the former colony would start to influence the former overlord.

By 1966, this blend would bear out in profound ways. Having been introduced to Indian music during the making of Help!, George Harrison would play sitar on “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”. While not the first instance of Indian influence in British popular music (coming after such pieces as the Yardbirds’ “Heart Full of Soul”), it was certainly a high point in the melding of influences.

On the other end of the scale, meanwhile…

We start with a cold open as we watch Charles Spalding (David Baron) make his way up to the estate of Doctor Franklyn (Noel Willman). He is in the house long enough for something to attack him, after which his venom-filled corpse is taken by an unnamed man (Marne Maitland) and dumped in the village square.

After a brief funeral witnessed by publican Tom Bailey (Michael Ripper) and colorful character Mad Peter (John Laurie), we watch as Charles’ brother Harry (Ray Barrett) and his wife Valerie (Jennifer Daniel) receive the deed to Charles’ home in the reading of the will. The couple arrive in Cornwall to a less than warm welcome from the villagers, and their nasty encounters with Doctor Franklyn do nothing to repair the damage done here to this town’s reputation.

Of course, nothing is quite what we see; the townies don’t welcome the new folks in because too many people are dying of the “Black Death,” the name they’ve given to the affliction of the bitten, and they don’t want to get too attached. Tom and Mad Peter do try and roll out the welcome wagon, though, and the surprise the Spaldings get when Doctor Franklyn’s daughter Anna (Jacqueline Pearce) insist that they come up for dinner looks like things are starting to turn around for the couple.

At least, until Anna starts playing the sitar for them:

As Harry Spalding enlists Tom’s help in getting to the bottom of the matter, we discover Doctor Franklyn’s motivation: he and his daughter Anna are just as much victims here as anyone else for having tried to learn too much from the East.

Suddenly, everything we thought we knew is wrong; considering how badly we were informed before now, could you blame us? Going back to look at the film a second time, you start to pick out the true motivation behind these characters, but you have to work harder than necessary to find them on the second pass. The lack of any subtlety whatsoever in Willman’s acting in the early going makes you have to look more intently than you should to accept the big twist, and if you have to work that hard to read between the lines forearmed the second time out, the fault lies with them, not us.

Maybe we were never going to have this unfold in a satisfactory manner, no matter how much we deserved it to. Hammer Films made the movie right immediately after wrapping work on The Plague of the Zombies, almost simultaneously, in fact; both films shared directors, sets, and a good portion of the cast, with Pearce playing the nightmare inducer in both pics. (On the plus side, her playing two separate antagonists back-to-back was good training for the role she is best known for, Servalan on Blake’s 7.)

Frustratingly, Hammer Films ended up making many of the same mistakes they made two years earlier on The Gorgon, though this time with a smaller budget. It’s the repackaging of a creature that we’ve otherwise seen before, a “were-snake”-ish thing that, other than its bad makeup, doesn’t have any outstanding memorable characteristics, once again running around in a costume drama with familiar beats. Audiences were getting too many of those from the studio, and Hammer was just not striking a cord with them.

We might likely forget this one, too, were it not for the uncomfortable timing of its release. With Calcutta-born Marne Maitland playing the personification of the evil of the East, which pretty well describes most of his CV, the film played up the darker aspects of what the West thought of that region. At the same time that the West was being introduced to Indian music by the Beatles, some Britons were openly racist to Indians in their midst; legislation to address this behavior would not be passed by Parliament until 1968, and even then the work for a more tolerant society would have to continue for at least fifty years.

Unlike the movie, which was rushed to be released unfinished, we still needed a few more takes and a few more drafts to come to a place where we can truly accept others. Would that we were closer to that day than we are now…

NEXT TIME: Have you seen Mick Jagger’s first film, standing in the shadows…?

About James Ryan 125 Articles
James Ryan is still out there on the loose. He’s responsible for the novels Raging Gail and Red Jenny and the Pirates of Buffalo, as well as the popular history The Pirates of New York. He has also been spotted associating with the publications Pyramid Online, Dragon, The Urbanite, The Dream Zone, Rational Magic, and Rooftop Sessions. He has been spotted too often in the vicinity of Kinja. Should you meet him, proceed with caution. He is to be considered disarming and slightly dangerous…