This Blu-ray/DVD set is from Studio Canal £14 on amazon.
The number of Hammer horrors making it onto Blu-ray is impressive, with a fairly full schedule of releases over the next few months. Some of the choices seem a little eccentric, mind - I certainly wouldn't have released this little number before The Devil Rides Out. Still, here is The Reptile (1966) in all its HD glory.
In a small Cornish village, people are dying of a mysterious disease. Except it's not really a disease - as we learn in the prologue, something is actually attacking the victims, and biting them. This turns out to be a woman who turns into a lizard creature every so often. The brother of one of the victims, along with his new wife, moves to the village. Their attempts to investigate the deaths soon put them in danger...
This was shot back to back with the classic Plague of the Zombies (also available on Blu-ray). So if you've seen that film, you will recognise certain sets, most notably the graveyard. If you haven't seen it, it won't matter a jot.
It's an odd film by Hammer's standards. They made very few films which weren't either remakes of older films or literary adaptations. The Reptile contains one of their very few original monsters, even if she's basically a werewolf in reptilian form. Their other original monster, The Gorgon, was similar, too - a lovelorn young woman who lost control of herself on certain nights and inadvertently killed any man she encountered.
Although you couldn't say that this is Hammer at their best, even mediocre Hammer is usually worth a look. They rarely produced films that were less than competent, and there's usually something worth checking out. Hammer horrors were rarely about suspense, and the Reptile doesn't really have any scary moments. The two or three potentially tense moments, or the one attempted shock, fall a bit flat. But if the reptile makeup is a slightly silly when seen for any length of time, it looks good when only glimpsed briefly. And the fate of the victims - black faced and foaming at the mouth - is unusually gruesome for Hammer, who were generally more interested in bright splotches of blood than in anything more viscerally nasty.
The story is often described as an examination of colonialism. The monster is the way she is because of her father's behaviour in the far east, and so it has - rather desperately - been hailed as having something to say about the exploitation of other cultures by the British. I'm not so sure about that. I think the stock eastern mystic character (called simply 'the Malay') who exerts an unhealthy control over the girl and her father, is a rather racist depiction of eastern 'otherness'. It's more interesting as a study of patriarchy, as the girl is punished for the crimes of the father, and the looks she gives him during her wild, revved up sitar solo are quite erotically charged...
Since this was made in 1965, it can probably be said to pre-date the interest in Indian music that swept the hippy world. The inclusion of a sitar is therefore unusual. The incidental music otherwise is very Hammer - i.e. it is unsubtle shrieky orchestral music - but there are some more eastern sounding themes worked into it, and the film's only really eerie moments come when Indian snake-charmer music can be heard wafting over the moor by night...
Otherwise everything is fairly typical of Hammer. The sets are small but designed well enough to seem convincing. The locations are good, even if there's a lot of day for night filming. The cast doesn't include any of Hammer's stars. But it's well acted throughout. Craggy faced Ray Barrett makes an unlikely leading man (Hammer usually went for younger, fresher faced heroes), but he's good. Jennifer Daniel, as his wife, is a good heroine, rather more proactive than is often the case in Hammer films.
Noel Willman is good as the tortured, forbidding father of the monster; he looks a bit like Max von Sydow. And his daughter, the reptile herself, is played by Jacqueline Pearce, best known as Servalan in Blake's Seven. She is good, but she's better in Plague of Zombies. Hammer stalwart Michael Ripper gets a substantial role, as the local pub landlord. He's great, but he is lumbered with a really stupid fake beard. John Laurie goes nicely OTT as a local madman - he's best known for playing Private Fraser in Dad's Army, and unfortunately it's not really possible to believe in him in any other role, especially as his Scots accent keeps breaking through.
It's well directed, too, unusually so really - Hammer films were usually directed in very unobtrusive fashion, but here we feel the director (John Gilling) stamp his mark a couple of times. While not in Hammer's first rank, this is still worth seeing for fans.
The Blu-ray looks impressive - it's one of the best Hammer releases so far. There's a lot of detail visible - the weave of cloth, pores on people's skin, grass and other foliage. There's a bit of grain on the image, and the colours look well balanced and reasonable (this is a less brightly coloured film than some of Hammer's efforts). All in all, this is a great restoration job, except during the opening and closing credits, during which the quality weirdly plummets.
There's also a pointless DVD, which looks better than previous versions, but isn't worth having if you have the Blu-ray anyway.
The main extra is a 20-minute 'making of'. This is mainly historians and experts - no cast members are involved. It's engaging enough, but nothing I hadn't read about already. There's also an episode of 'World of Hammer' - a compilation of Hammer clips narrated by Oliver Reed. I've no idea whether it was made for TV or for some earlier DVD release. The visual quality is poor, though, and although the episode is titled 'Wicked Women', it doesn't even mention The Reptile.
Still, the extras are beside the point. For Hammer fans this is a worthy purchase, although there are better Hammer films available on Blu-ray, and better to come.