“You cannot speak of reason to the Dane.”
Well, it was originally my intention to discuss the upcoming crop of summer movies (while some of you are still digging yourselves out of the snow). But I felt a disturbance in the Force and, upon examination, learned that Sidney Pink’s 1961 “Reptilicus” was currently making the rounds of the cable television film collection.
Because I care about you people. All the films I recommend, and this would be the one you might watch. You’d see the title listed and go: “Oh yumsies! A cheap monster movie! Uncle Mikey will obviously give us presents and reward us if we watch it.”
And . . . it doesn’t quite work that way, pumpkins.
Let me clarify. If you want to be a science-fiction/monster film aficionado, and if you want a thorough grounding in genre film history then yes . . . by all means watch “Reptilicus”. Otherwise I’m certain there’s something else somewhere that’s much more watchable. Remember my remarks on “The Giant Claw”? We sort of have a similar situation here.
I’ll explain . . .
(As you go “Yes, we rather thought you would.”)
“Reptilicus” happens to be the only monster movie to come out of Denmark. Now I like Denmark. It’s a wonderful country. It’s given us melancholy princes, Isak Dinesen and butter cookies. In cinema the country has given us the efforts of such greats as Lars von Trier and Per Fly.
But monster movies? Forkert-O, Mary Lou!
And I’m at a loss to explain it. Maybe the stars aren’t in proper alignment. Maybe there’s something in the Danish water. I don’t know. There’s certainly a healthy science-fiction scene in Denmark.
Of course there’s also the fact that Sidney Pink directed the film. I can’t recall if I’ve mentioned Pink to any of you people, but let me assure you the man was an original. Producer . . . writer . . . director. Imagine Ed Wood Jr. with somewhat more talent and money.
I cannot totally dismiss Pink. He was, after all, the man who brought us one of the more imaginative and genuinely fun “bad” films in science-fiction history: 1959’s “The Angry Red Planet”. I’ll have to go into that one another time, pumpkins, but believe me when I tell you on the basis of that film alone Pink cops a walk. From me at least. Maybe also for 1962’s “Journey to the Seventh Planet” (simply on the basis of possessing the sheer chutzpah to make perhaps the only film about traveling to Uranus).
But if Pink’s resume consisted only of “Reptilicus” then I would’ve advocated having him taken out behind the shed and shot. And yeah, maybe I’m being a bit harsh here. Read on and decide for yourself.
The plot involves Danish miners all of a sudden finding sections of animal tissue in their drilling equipment. Further investigation reveals that it’s the tail of an extinct prehistoric creature. Naturally the tail is taken to Danish scientists for study. Everybody go uh-oh.
Thank you. Yeah, it’s another bad idea as the tail regenerates into a cheap special effect . . . ah, I mean it regenerates into an enormous scaly winged reptile (the trailer refers to it as “an annihilating mastodon”. Go figure). The monster escapes the laboratory and goes on a RAMPAGE! Toy farmhouses are knocked over (Ahhhhhhhhh) . . . people are in a PANIC (Ahhhhhhhhh) . . . girls in bikinis are TERRIFIED (Ahhhhhhhhh) . . . fake shrubbery is used as hiding places (Ahhhhhhhhh) . . . Sydney Pollack decides to put Robert Redford in a movie about Isak Dinesen (Ahhhhhhhhhh)!
The horror . . . the horror . . .
In other words, “Reptilicus” was the standard formula monster movie. You’ve seen any Godzilla film, “Gorgo” or anything like that then you’ve got the plot down pat. Actually a little surprising considering Ib Melchior wrote the screenplay with Pink. Now Melchior certainly wasn’t Joseph Conrad, but he could usually be counted on for throwing interesting little tidbits into the plot mix (he not only wrote “Angry Red Planet” but also “Robinson Crusoe on Mars”). Obviously I don’t credit Pink or Melchior with creating immortal work, but I do give them props for at least trying.
“Reptilicus” had some obvious problems not necessarily related to direction or writing. The special effects were . . . well, let’s say “atrocious” and try to be kind.
Okay, let me quibble some. To use an example: you see a Godzilla movie and you obviously know the monster is someone in a suit stumbling about a model representation of Tokyo. Granted. But at least the people at Toho Studios would go the extra mile to try and make the models look realistic. Oftentimes they wouldn’t succeed, but . . .
With “Reptilicus”, on the other hand, we don’t get the same consideration. Kaye Koed was in charge of miniatures for the film, and we quickly see why this was his only job. The model of Copenhagen looks like a model of Copenhagen. The forests and bushes and such which the monster moves about resemble nothing so much as the artificial lichen you buy at the hobby store that you use to make trees for model railroad layouts. Du skrev en darlig sang, Petey!
And the monster. Oy! Reptilicus was meant to be some sort of winged sea serpent sort of affair. What the audience got was a slow moving puppet swinging back and forth. Terrifying? Frightening? Nope.
So, with all this going against the film, what “Reptilicus” didn’t need was another production disaster.
Unfortunately, and especially for us in America, “Reptilicus” fell into the terrifying clutches of Foreign Film Editing Hell. Yeah, you’re familiar with it. Another country goes to the effort to put together a motion picture. An American distributor will decide to run it, but first it gives it to an editing department who decides that the people in this country don’t need all this extemporaneous crap like Plot and Character Development and stuff. Clip all that out and just get to the Monster (or Anita Ekberg in the fountain). Some truly bizarre films have emerged from this sort of process (Ishiro Honda’s “Atragon” suffered from having some footage cut for its American release . . . footage which actually explained a lot about the motivation behind one of the main characters. One of the worst excesses of this type was with Alexander Singer’s “Captain Apache”, which was sliced into an almost incomprehensible mess).
Then there’s the technique of having two versions of a movie shot: the original version . . . and a truncated version for the benefit of the stupid Americans. This is what occurred with “Reptilicus”. The film was originally made by Danish director Poul Bang. What we in America got was a film reworked by Pink and Melchior. Same bad special effects, but several scenes were cut out and the voices of the Danish actors were dubbed over by American actors. All business as usual in a foreign monster movie, but there’s a bad way to do this and a worse way to do this. Pink’s initial version of the film received a thumbs-down from the big boys at American International Pictures, and Melchior was brought in to make changes. This caused Pink to see red (yes, pumpkins, I’ve been setting up that line for quite some time now) and some rather unfortunate words passed between him and AIP management.
(In fact, the contretemps between Pink and AIP might make a decent film in itself.)
Among the scenes dropped were those depicting a romance between two of the major characters (if you happen to have the paperback novelization of the movie then you’d read about what happened). Also dropped was footage showing Reptilicus flying through the air. Trust me on this, pumpkins, you weren’t missing much.
Added to the American version was a (rather clumsily executed) special effect depicting Reptilicus being able to spit poison goo at its victims. Frankly, we would’ve been better off with the flying.
But the point I’m getting at here is that the wreckage which Pink, Melchior and AIP inflicted in the rush to get a modified version of “Reptilicus” into American theaters didn’t quite change the fact that the movie wasn’t any great shakes to begin with. Sometimes you can only do so much with a sow’s ear. For example: apparently the effort of filming the monster in action was very cost-prohibitive. I say this because there only seems to be five scenes with the monster which get used over and over again (1. Monster’s head weaving, 2. Monster appearing from behind a tree, etc. etc.). In an effort to pad the film out to some sort of length the movie keeps giving us scenes of the characters (and assorted other Happy Danes) at play, with the result being that “Reptilicus” becomes perhaps the only travelogue picture featuring a goo-spitting monster.
As I mentioned above, the movie was rather formulaic. Nothing much in the way of uniqueness or anything worth remembering. As with John Baxter (who discussed the film in his seminal work “Science-Fiction in the Cinema”) I find myself appreciating the scene when Reptilicus is first discovered: portions of animal tissue mixed in with mud and such upon a drill. Beyond that there’s a slightly interesting (if tragic scene) where people are fleeing the monster. The panicked mob is rushing on a bridge across the river, and the man who’s in charge of the bridge apparently loses it and decides to raise the bridge . . . the result being several people finding themselves falling off the edge into the river far below. Cut to man in charge sobbing in realization of what he had done.
(In fact, people in “Reptilicus” usually had more to fear from their neighbors than from the monster.)
I haven’t mentioned the actors in the film because, to be honest, the American release of the film makes appreciating them a task similar to designing a monument to the memory of an autopsy subject. Asbjorn Andersen, who plays the head scientist in the film, tries to do his best Morris Ankrum routine here, but comes off looking rather foolish. Bent Mejding and Anne Smyrner work best as focusing elements to pay attention to as everyone patiently waits for the monster to make an appearance, but I highly suspect they would’ve been more effective if more of their footage had been left in (and doubtless they’d agree).
(There was also supposed to be a comedic moment in the film courtesy of Dirch Passer, a veteran Danish actor and comedian, but it was one of the items clipped from the American version. I leave it up to you as to whether or not you wanted what probably would have ended up being poorly rendered Danish comedy.)
On the smoothly polished floor of genre cinema “Reptilicus” tends to be one of the splinters one occasionally encounters. I cannot in good faith recommend this film as anything other than a genre train wreck (and an illustration as to the pitfalls foreign films face when making the crossing to these shores). I wanted to present my views on it simply as a guide to the serious student of genre cinema. How much you get from the experience of watching it is, of course, up to you. I’ll leave you with the caveat that you have been duly notified.