The Plague of the Zombies (1966)

When it’s on: Sunday, 10 May (3.40 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
IMDb Link

The Plague of the Zombies was, even by Hammer’s thrifty standards, made on the cheap. Filmed back to back with The Reptile and making use of the same sets, along with a cast that slipped from one production to the next, it was intended to be released as a B-movie partner for Dracula Prince of Darkness. Though its low overheads are occasionally shown up in the final movie, The Plague of the Zombies naturally turns out to be a much better and more interesting affair than the illustrious vampfest. According to the various fansites and reviews I have read, it is much loved, and the reason is simple. It’s nothing more or less than pure entertainment. It has the usual Hammer staples – creepy atmosphere, ‘ye olde worlde’ setting – and attaches these to a plot that never lets up, making full use of the limited running time and some very good performances.

The film is set in a tin mining community of Cornwall, sometime during the nineteenth century. People are dying at an epidemic rate, and bemused doctor Peter Thompson (Brook Williams) is at a loss to explain the causes. When his young wife, Alice (Jacqueline Pearce) also begins to express the fatigue and listlessness that are the typical early warning signs, he writes to his old mentor, Sir James Forbes (Andre Morell) to lend a hand. Sir James agrees, taking his daughter, Sylvia (Diane Clare) with him.

The pair’s first encounter with the community is with its upper class. They comes across a fox hunt, led by the retainers of local Squire, Clive Hamilton (John Carson). Hamilton clearly has the town in the palm of his hand. His henchmen have no regard for the people, demonstrated to ghoulish effect when they pass a funeral and force the coffin to crash into a ravine, revealing its occupant. Peter explains to Sir James that he’s unable to carry out autopsies on any of the corpses at Hamilton’s behest, who along with his other duties is the closest they have to a coroner. Without proper research, there’s no way he can work out what’s happened to these people. The pragmatic Sir James offers a solution – they’ll simply have to dig one up for themselves.

Peter and Sir James go about their grisly business, and sure enough the grave they exhume is empty. Worse still, their antics have spiked the attention of the local bobby (Michael Ripper), who turns out to be on their side once the doughty Sir James explains their intentions. In the meantime, Alice slips out of the house, and starts making for the woodlands that surround their community. Sylvia shouts after her, but Alice doesn’t appear to hear. When the former resolves to pursue, she runs afoul of Squire Clive’s malevolent retainers who summarily whisk her off to the big house. Alice, in some sort of trance makes for an old tin mine, where she’s about to come a cropper at the hands of a monster, but is the ashen-faced zombie the real creature, or are both victim and attacker being manipulated by something much worse? The goodly Squire, perhaps? Back at his house, Sylvia is in some trouble. Teased by a gang of toffish rakes, all Sylvia’s high-minded confidence seems to vanish until she is rescued by none other than Clive Hamilton himself. The Squire is mortified at her treatment – he can’t be bad, can he? Maybe not, but the sliver of blood he collects from her during a later meeting tells an altogether different story…

And that’s just the first half of the movie, breathless swathes of story hurtling past whilst its horrors are introduced at a masterfully gradual rate. The suspense builds steadily. By the time the zombie makes its first appearance – actually quite a scary sight – we already know roughly what’s going on. We have a pretty good idea who the baddies are, what’s happening to the dying folk and it remains to see how Sir James will resolve all this. As a result, much lies on the shoulders of Andre Morell, a veteran actor who chews up the scenery to delicious effect. There’s a scene where his character is trapped in a room that’s on fire – as he tries to find a way out, Sir James grows more desperate and almost feral. It’s a classy moment, the camera simply pointing in the right direction and following his movements.

Talking of cinematography, the film is another example of the crew effectively making much from a small budget. Though the Bray Studios sets ought to be familiar to any seasoned Hammer viewer, they’re used exceptionally well, never more so than in the little graveyard that features prominently in a number of scenes, each one nudging up the horror a little further. The village is nothing more than a studio backlot, but it looks authentic enough, and with scenes set in the local pub and police station it develops a real sense of small town community. Better still are the moments of claustrophobia that are captured during the film’s more frightening sequences. The bit where one of the main characters comes to undead life is creepily effective, the camera jumping from the face of the reanimating corpse to close-ups of Sir James and Peter, filming them from a slightly askew angle to unbalance the viewer. Simple stuff, but played brilliantly.

Credit goes to the crew responsible for creating a late nineteenth century backdrop to the action. The costumes add to a detail of authenticity, and the film’s largely rural setting means much of the shooting can take place in the wild and makes The Plague of the Zombies appear to have a much broader setting than it actually does.

Not that it’s perfect. In terms of its acting personnel, the film gives us a mixed bag. Carson is fine as Hamilton, and makes his character more three-dimensional than you might expect for a B-movie baddie. Check out his wooing of Sylvia. It’s almost possible to believe he has some genuine affection for her, but of course he wrong foots both her and the audience. Pearce is great as the dying Alice. She’s given some stock ‘waking up screaming from a bad dream’ bits to do, yet shows sufficient vulnerability during her early scenes to show why Sir James invests so much of his time and energy into getting involved, and later in the film puts in one of the sexier undead performances to be committed to celluloid. Weaker are Williams and Clare. The former should aim for an air of exhausted frustration, which would happen if you’re the local doctor working in a village where death after unexplained death is taking place, yet he never pulls it off, instead maintaining an expression of vague concern throughout. As Sylvia, Clare looks suitably scared when the scene calls for it, though otherwise she’s monotonous and rather blank-faced, her lines spoken like blank, wooden readings.

Thankfully, Morell holds it together. Not only does he manage to dish out some of the fairly silly dialogue with a straight face – ‘I find all kinds of witchcraft slightly nauseating and this I find absolutely disgusting‘ – but he exerts a degree of elder statesman authority from the moment he steps foot into the village. It’s his turn that really elevates the film, and perhaps it’s the fact he was cast in this rather than The Reptile that makes this the more memorable piece of work.

The zombies look great, mainly because they’re genuinely scary. With their ashen faces, bulging white eyes and staggering gait, they set a template for much of zombiekind – you can see their performance in many subsequent entries. The Plague of the Zombies was released two years before George A Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead, a similar instance of a director putting his tiny budget to good use. And though it isn’t quite up to the standard of Romero’s subversive, politically-charged shocker, which took the genre on an entirely new tangent, it’s possible to see Gilling’s shuffling automatons as benchmarks for every walking dead that followed.

The Plague of the Zombies: ****

The Reptile (1966)

When it’s on: Sunday, 26 April (3.45 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
IMDb Link

The economical approach to film making taken by Hammer Studios was the stuff of legend. The Reptile started life as a support feature to the more prestigious Rasputin: the Mad Monk, and was produced back to back with The Plague of the Zombies (itself made as the B-picture to Dracula: Prince of Darkness), the two films sharing the sets, cast and crew in a supreme attempt to cut costs. Ironically, there are many who feel that the supports are better than their main features. It’s for certain that, of the four mentioned here, The Plague of the Zombies was and remains an outright classic. But The Reptile, probably the least known of those mentioned, is no churned out quickie, despite appearing to be exactly that.

It takes place in Cornwall, some time around the turn of the twentieth century. A man walks across the moors to his home, where he finds a note imploring him to come to the palatial Franklyn house. He does. Whilst exploring the dark corridors for some sign of humanity, he’s suddenly attacked by something that leaps out from the shadows, leaving him with a blackened face and frothing mouth, dying from what looks like the bite of a king cobra. The killing is watched by an aghast Dr Franklyn (Noel Willman), along with Indian servant, the Malay (Marne Maitland), who removes the body to the village cemetery and dumps it there. Clearly, this isn’t the first mysterious death this community has seen. No one can explain it, not least pub landlord Tom (Michael Ripper), or eccentric local resident ‘Mad’ Peter (John Laurie). What they can do is warn visitors from staying around, which is what they try to do with the dead man’s brother, Harry Spalding (Ray Barrett) and his wife Valerie (Jennifer Daniel), who are bequeathed the house.

Spalding is made of sterner stuff and insists on making a go of settling down in the area, despite Tom and Peter’s concerns, along with the way he’s shunned by the villagers. When Peter succumbs to the mysterious illness, Spalding finds himself increasingly in the company of Dr Franklyn, while Valerie befriends his daughter, Anna (Jacqueline Pearce), a lovely yet sad girl who’s in a constant state of near terror. It becomes apparent that the troubles being experienced have their origins in the doctor’s home, something to do with Franklyn’s time spent in India and a curse that has followed him back to England.

So far, so generic, and it would be easy to dismiss The Reptile as a knocked out frightener, short on cash and long on the usual stuff – random killings, a horrific mystery, scared, ignorant locals. What it does have, however, is atmosphere. Bags of it. If the film seems to fail a little when the Franlyn secrets are unraveled, then that’s partly because everything leading up to this point is really quite good. There’s a great sense of closing in doom to the village, its classic Cornish mist, rundown houses and a spooky graveyard at the centre, as though death is the very focal point of the community. Hammer veteran John Gilling directs it as a slow burning thriller, punctuating the mood every so often with a grisly death but letting the tone focus on the contrast between the melancholy locale and its urbane newcomers, proactive and determined to get to the heart of the matter.

Also worth mentioning is the dark underbelly of Britain’s empire building, the possibility that Englanders abroad come into contact with native myths and superstitions and bring back more than they bargained for. The character of the Malay, who barely speaks but continually seems to be watching from the corner of the frame, is fascinating, not least for his status as servant yet the fact he appears to have the upper hand on Franklyn and complete control over Anna.

It’s a great cast. Barrett and Daniel are fine as the outsiders, punctuating their otherworldliness within a superstitious and insular part of the realm. There’s an authentic air of ruin, both morally and physically, to Willman’s performance, the facts of his time in India never fully explained though one can guess, and the tortured relationship he has with Anna just raises more questions. The brilliantly tense sitar scene, set during dinner at the Franklyn’s in a room heated way beyond necessary, where the almost unfairly beautiful Pearce strums away to the rising consternation of her father, the characters glaring intently at each other, exposes levels of exoticism and sexuality that suggest a far more complicated back story than the film ever reveals. Rounding off the cast are an excellent unhinged Laurie, soon to achieve stardom as Private ‘We’re doomed!’ Frazer in Dad’s Army, and the reliable Ripper, the supporting actor’s supporting actor in so many Hammer productions. It’s good to see Ripper get a larger presence than he normally enjoys.

If The Reptile has a weakness, it’s in the denouement, when the mystery has been solved and the the eponymous monster emerges. Though it features a rather striking visual shock when Franklyn goes to the bed of his daughter only to find what appears to be skin without a body inside, the creature’s reveal is more than a little underwhelming, even more so by current standards. I’ve deliberately chosen a poster that avoids an emphasis on the reptile, because I’d rather focus on the story rather than the disappointing make-up. It’s this that exposes the good sense shown by Gilling in under-lighting many of his scenes, ensuring the reptile is shown as often as possible as a creature of the shadows. Its demise is similarly unfulfilling and dealt with a little too quickly.

That aside, The Reptile is a cracking little thriller, no classic but an underrated gem. Sadly, it’s also been unappreciated by its restorers, with my copy of the film – part of the Ultimate Hammer boxset – suffering from colour loss and clarity issues. It deserves better.

The Reptile: ***