The Reptile was made at a time when Hammer had conducted most of their variations on classic monsters and were trying to come up with new ideas. In reality, all that they did was coin new variations on the vampire – such as The Gorgon (1964) and the Reptile here. The Reptile is only Dracula with snakes. The reptile attack pattern is even identical to the vampire’s – two teeth marks at the neck – and the reptile’s end dispatch is not dissimilar to the one in Dracula/The Horror of Dracula (1958). However, this tends to reveal the film’s conceptual limitations. The reptile’s behaviour is not logically thought out – in actuality, a snake kills its victims either when it is threatened or to have food, whereas the reptile here appears to be doing neither. In effect, it is a series of random killings that have been designed to be modeled on vampirism but that come without much in the way of supporting rationale. The climax where the reptile is killed by the smashing of a window and the letting in of cold air is incredibly wimpy.
Despite the threadbare effects, though, and an ending that staggers across the finish line, The Reptile is an oddly restrained, moving, even genuinely eerie little film from the cult production house. No gore, scream queens, heaving cleavage or flirtation with softcore fanservice (okay, don’t all leave at once) – instead we get actual natural-sounding dialogue, character development and horror that stems from something convincingly inhuman. This is still camp, still cult, but you’re laughing with the cast, not at them, and the darker material elicits an emotional response as much as a stifled ‘Ewww!’.
There is undoubtedly worth in Hammer’s archive, and a place for them in film history, but neither of those facts changes the dubious quality of so many of their older offerings. This is hokey stuff, typified by the papier-mache-alike mask the gribbly wears. A bit like the film, it’s off-kilter, poorly constructed and, with eyes that look in different directions, rather amateurish.
The Reptile is interesting for its two complex female characters, particularly Valerie, who at first looks to her husband for protection but ably takes over when the need arises. She neatly bridges the gap between Hammer’s classic female roles of helpless innocent and glorious villain, and we can root for her despite the formulaic nature of the story. The eponymous monster, when it finally appears, is laughable to a modern audience, pretty bad rubber mask stuff even by Sixties standards, but along the way there’s the usual fun with spooky houses, graveyards and whispered threats. There’s also a great turn by John Laurie as OTT exposition device Mad Peter, putting the ham back in Hammer. It’s not the studio’s finest moment but, for fans, it’s still well worth a look.