THE REPTILE (1966) August 28th 1977 00.05 – 01.30
‘A hideous parody of herself…A loathsome thing using her body…My daughter, my lovely Anna…My only happiness….My dearest possession.’
Dr Franklyn (Noel Willman)
Most fans of classic horror will already know the specific production context of Hammer’s 1966 quartet of films, but just in case anyone has accidentally googled their way here while trying to find the best terrarium in which to house their pet gecko, I’d better begin by explaining that The Reptile emerged out of a new experiment in cost-cutting at Bray studios. It was shot back to back with Plague of the Zombies, re-using the same sets, locations, crew and some of the same cast members – notably Jacqueline Pearce and, inevitably, Michael Ripper – while Dracula, Prince of Darkness, featuring Christopher Lee’s first return to the role of the vampire count was shot alongside Rasputin the Mad Monk (both starring Lee opposite Barbara Shelley) on the same model.
The idea was that by pairing productions like this it was possible to make substantial economies through re-use and recycling – making Hammer an inadvertently eco-friendly production company – while avoiding the likelihood of the filmgoing public noticing the unnatural resemblance between the films by releasing them separated by a couple of months on a double bill with one of the other pair. Thus Plague of the Zombies was released as part of a double bill with the long-awaited Dracula sequel, while The Reptile went out alongside the rather less enticing Russian melodrama.
As a result, fewer people saw The Reptile at the time of its initial release than its demon twin, and it has remained in many fans’ minds a kind of poor relation to Plague of the Zombies. This inability to view the film on its own terms as a self-contained, and actually rather wonderful piece of work has only been heightened by the enormous changes in technology and viewing habits the passing years have brought. My Reptile Blu-ray, for instance, sits right beside my Plague one, with about the same degree of separation in terms of shelf space as there was in terms of production schedules back in 1966. Proud fanboy that I am, I’ll quite happily admit that I’m not above watching the films in a similarly back to back fashion as they were shot; an approach to viewing which was quite impossible to foresee in 1966 and one which renders the cost-cutting plan quite glaringly obvious.
Back in 1977, for the eager twelve year old watching a summer season of BBC2 horror double bills, the gap between screenings was only a couple of weeks, and although I was unaware of the specific production background and the full extent of the similarities, I was certainly conscious of a shared DNA between the two films. As part of the Dracula, Frankenstein – and Friends! season, I didn’t really have a preference however. If Plague had a beheading, and a grisly dream sequence, and zombies, well, The Reptile had maybe a bit more atmosphere, and with its gleefully close-upped black crusty bite marks and foaming mouths, was even more satisfyingly gruesome.
So I adored both films equally, and perhaps it was easier to do so since, in memory at least, the broadcast image back then tended towards the murky and suggestive, slightly disguising the fact that the make-up job in The Reptile was a bit more obviously artificial and therefore a bit less impressive than the zombie faces in Plague. Today’s shiny flat-screen Hi-Def world is not so forgiving. In more ways than one, as I’m reminded every time I glance into my shiny flat screen Hi-Def mirror. Fortunately, however, the same ageing process which appears to have superglued some fat old bloke’s face over my true boyish good looks means that my eyes are now strictly Lo-Def, which kindly conceals at least some of the damage.
I still adore both films today, and if pushed I might even express a hairsbreadth preference for the less lauded Reptile. There’s a subtlety and complexity at work in the ways the themes are approached which rewards repeated viewings and perhaps offers even more to the mature viewer than to the excited adolescent who didn’t notice much beyond John Laurie’s wonderfully eye-rolling Mad Peter and his foaming-lipped close up demise.
Firstly, to acknowledge the great big snake in the room, The Reptile, like Plague of the Zombies, indulges in an unhealthy dose of the borderline racist ‘fear of the foreign’ trope which had underscored much of the late Victorian gothic literary revival upon which Hammer drew so heavily for inspiration, tapping at the same time into a whole new set of British 1960s post-Imperial anxieties. The most overtly sinister character of The Malay – denied even the individual dignity of a name – pulling all the strings on behalf of an obscure Indian snake cult may seem on the surface to be no more than a straightforwardly racist stereotype playing into all those clichés about the mysterious, unknowable and exotic East.
However, if you accept that, with its woman to snake transformation, the film’s most specific (though unacknowledged) source is Bram Stoker’s final, and very odd, novel The Lair of the White Worm, the much greater subtlety at work in John Gilling’s film becomes immediately apparent. The fear of the foreign, implicit in Stoker’s earlier Dracula with its atavistic East European invader (a quality it shares with a number of invasion metaphor fin-de-siècle novels, including some by writers such as Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells who, like Stoker, would have regarded themselves as relatively liberal, humane and progressive ) has become, in Stoker’s final novel, an outright racism which is almost laughably overt to a twenty first century reader. Stoker’s portrayal of, and commentary upon, the African servant Oolanga is so filled with unrecognised bile and bigotry that it becomes almost self-parodying, an unfortunate stain, even for the time, on what is otherwise a surprisingly gripping if sometimes bizarrely surreal novel.
In contrast, The Reptile can at least in part be seen as a sly critique of the arrogant assumption of cultural superiority which underlies all colonialism. The film makes very clear in its expository dialogue that the Malay, and the India he represents, are in fact responding to an initial aggression against “the primitive religions of the East” on the part of Noel Willman’s Dr Franklyn, who, seeing himself unproblematically as the representative of ‘civilisation’, has made a series of colonial excursions into territory which is not his to judge or interfere with in order to stamp out beliefs which do not accord with his own. It is just as possible for an audience’s sympathies to lie with the calmly powerful superiority of the Malay’s retaliation against Western imperialism as it is to see Franklyn as the entirely innocent victim of the evil alien; a point given an added emphasis by the decision to cast an actor of the appropriate ethnicity, Marne Maitland, rather than adopting the more common practice of the time to have prominent roles of this sort played by white actors blacked up. The emphasis is further strengthened by the way the film raises, and neither confirms nor denies, the possibility that the central character of Franklyn’s daughter Anna, with her penchant for saris and sitars, and her conspicuously absent mother, is herself mixed race.
However, it’s not only in its treatment of race and colonialism that The Reptile repays close attention. If, as I’ve reflected earlier, Plague of the Zombies offers quite an acute examination of class anxieties, The Reptile is, perhaps even more interestingly, a film that explores the issue of gender.
For one thing, most obviously but also most unusually, we have a female monster. A single, central monster that is, not the kind of decorative female vampires, subservient to a dominant male big bad, that we tend to see in the Dracula films. Hammer experimented with a not entirely dissimilar premise in what, for me, is a fascinating but flawed misfire, 1964’s The Gorgon. Despite that film’s re-uniting of the original Hammer dream team of Lee, Cushing and director Terence Fisher (for the very last time as it turned out), it rather loses itself in an unresolved uncertainty as to whether it wants to play out as traditional Hammer horror film or as a more restrained fantasy of doomed romance and ends up falling uncomfortably between the two. The Reptile is an altogether more assured, fully-realised attempt at the reversal of the traditional gender roles. Interestingly, The Reptile’s director, John Gilling, had written the script for the earlier film, and had reportedly been annoyed that the directorial duties had been offered to Fisher rather than to him. Perhaps Gilling saw The Reptile as a chance to show what he might have made out of his earlier screenplay.
It’s been suggested, and rightly I think, that The Reptile, like the Tourneur/Lewton film Cat People before it, is in fact just a werewolf movie in disguise. A sympathetic central character periodically and reluctantly transforming into a predatory animal – for Simone Simon’s Irena or Jacqueline Pearce’s Anna, read Larry Talbot. The premise is essentially the same. However, this in itself raises the question why not just make a female werewolf movie? Why panthers and snakes instead? While possibly the best known example of the werewolf in literature is female, in Clemence Housman’s cod-mediaeval The Werewolf, the werewolf movie gives us very few such examples. There’s an interesting parallel with the development of the mummy film, where again the literary original, Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars, features a female mummy, although you wouldn’t know it from the succession of Karloffs, Chaneys, Tom Tylers and Chris Lees that stomp their way through the sub-genre. In fact it wasn’t until Hammer staged a direct adaptation of Jewel in the 1972 Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb that the female mummy finally emerged from the sarcophagus, and even then I think it’s fair to say that Hammer’s interest by that stage in the company’s history lay more in the prurient possibilities arising from the casting of the statuesque Valerie Leon than in any attempt to challenge the culturally dominant gender stereotypes. Boris Karloff never looked that good in a sheer nightdress.
It seems as though, in the minds of filmmakers and of audiences, certain types of monster, and entire species of the animal kingdom (or queendom) are specifically gendered. Wolves are male monsters, cats and snakes female. I remember Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes – it may have been in Woman in Green or perhaps in Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman, itself a significant title in the current context, being able to deduce that his suspect must be a woman (probably Gale Sondergaard) because, he murmured thoughtfully, ‘the murder had a feline, rather than a canine quality.’ I’m not sure even the Great Detective himself would be able to satisfactorily define the difference, but the meaningless distinction passes unchallenged and unexamined in the dialogue because of the accurate assumption that we all, at some level, know what he means. Lon Chaney could not have become a panther, any more than Simone Simon could have become a wolf – although some irritatingly pernickety smart-alec will certainly want to quibble by pointing to the 1946 film She-Wolf of London and to the fact that our ever more fluid post-millennial sense of gender has begun to allow for interesting exceptions to the rule like the strikingly original and extremely effective 2000 British horror film Ginger Snaps or the TV series Bitten. Even so, I think the essential point still stands.
Anthropomorphists all, we perceive a sinuous and sensuous quality to cats which we assume to be essentially female, while the overt bare-toothed aggression of the wolf is essentially male. And the snake woman of Lair of the White Worm and The Reptile (and to go a bit more highbrow, of Coleridge’s Christabel and Keats’ Lamia) lies undeniably on the former side of that equation, with an interesting touch of the phallic to further muddy the waters. It’s an association that runs back at least to the dubious implications of the myth of Eve and the serpent, the Fall stemming from both an external male tempter and from a woman’s apparently greater susceptibility to temptation. The snake is both out there in the Garden and within Eve, both male and female. Certainly, as someone who has always felt that, like Prometheus before her, Eve did the right thing in defying the gods and chomping down on that juicy apple, thereby bequeathing us knowledge rather than ignorance and freedom rather than subservience, I find Jacqueline Pearce’s snaky turn as Anna Franklyn to be the most engaging and empathetic element of the film.
I think the film’s exploration of gender runs at an even deeper level than simply offering us a female monster with some heavy symbolism attached, however. It is the relationship between Franklyn and Anna that is the heart of the film, and it is a complex and troubling one.
Initially we are introduced to an icily patrician Noel Willman as Franklyn who seems determined to assert an unsettling, stern and domineering control over his recalcitrant daughter Anna. Willman’s performance is consistently excellent – the actor had demonstrated a similarly cold and sinister quality in Hammer’s earlier Kiss of the Vampire. The disturbing quality of Willman’s otherwise conventionally Victorian patriarchal authority becomes clear when we meet the ‘rebellious’ daughter herself. Anna is in fact beautiful, soft-spoken, mild, gentle and kind – almost the only member of the little community to offer any sort of warmth or welcome to Harry and Valerie Spalding, the young couple (played by Ray Barrett and Jennifer Daniel, who had also played a pivotal role in Kiss of the Vampire alongside Willman) who have inherited a cottage after the mysterious death of Spalding’s elder brother. She is also apparently devoted to her domineering father; clearly mortified by the sinister impression he has previously made on Jennifer Daniel’s Valerie she insists plaintively that ‘he’s a very good man’ and when he arrives at the Spalding’s cottage to sternly order her home she is as meek and submissive as any patriarch could wish, barely able to make eye contact while pleading that her father might allow the couple to dine with them that evening.
When the Spaldings finally arrive at the Franklyn house, Anna remains upstairs while they eat with her father, Franklyn explaining casually that ‘she is being punished’, and is only allowed to join them after dinner when Franklyn consents.
The overtly stated narrative reveals that Franklyn’s apparently brutal parenting regime in fact comes from concern and love. Knowing of her snaky transformations only too well, and tormented by the secret they are harbouring, he is merely trying to protect the daughter he loves – as well as her potential victims. The preferred reading, in other words, is that Franklyn becomes a warmer, more human and more sympathetic figure as the film goes on. Sub-textually, however, the symbolism and the visuals, in two scenes in particular, suggest something much darker and more disturbing at work, and for me at least I find Willmann’s character increasingly sinister rather than increasingly sympathetic.
The first comes in the scene immediately after the dinner, when Anna is finally released from her punishment and runs girlishly and delightedly downstairs. Despite the fact that she is clearly a grown, and very beautiful woman, there is something extraordinarily child-like about Pearce’s performance here, which offers a subtle hint at a peculiarly twisted quality to the relationship her father has created with her. This strangely child-like quality returns, bizarrely but affectingly, at the film’s climax, in which the fully reptile Anna plaintively intones ‘Cold..I’m cold’. The sub-text becomes quite overt, however, in the moments that immediately follow her belated arrival at the dinner party. Franklyn invites Anna to entertain their guests with a performance on the sitar – she quickly shows herself to be a virtuoso, in the days just before George Harrison and Ravi Shankar rendered the instrument familiar rather than outlandish to the Western audience, which along with the striking sari she is wearing positions Anna as a direct, exotic contrast to Daniels’ conventionally English Valerie, who has earlier pointedly observed that she has ‘never eaten curry’.
The performance begins calmly enough, but as the speed and intensity of Anna’s playing increases, Gilling’s skilled point counter point cutting economically establishes a strikingly eroticised power struggle unfolding between father and daughter. Their eyes lock as Anna plays, and while Willmann’s expressions shift from a smugly complacent dominance, underlined by his self satisfied puffs at a phallically inclined cigar (this time it actually is, Sigmund!) to an almost hypnotic enchantment, to horrified outrage, Pearce lends each successive close up an increasing degree of confidence, defiance and seductiveness, until Franklyn’s turmoil explodes into impotent rage and violence as he smashes the sitar on the fireplace.
One can read the scene as working at the level of post-imperial critique – cutaway shots are used to connect Anna’s increasing power to the influence of the onlooking Malay, accompanied by some eerie non-diegetic Indian music underscoring the diegetic sitar, and together they are using the signifiers of the colonised culture in defiance of the colonial power represented by Franklin, until the scene explodes into reactionary and violent, but ineffective repression.
More powerfully and more troublingly however, I think it’s impossible not to register the sexual tension which is the heart of the scene’s powerful and disturbing tone. The intensity of their mutual gaze, Franklyn’s increasing loss of control cut against the increasingly knowing and overtly sexual quality Pearce injects into her eyes, all speak to a relationship that exists beyond the bounds of parent and child. Whether or not an actually incestuous relationship is being implied, there seems little room for doubt that Franklyn’s rage reflects at the very least the frustration he feels over his own illicit desire for his daughter, or quite possibly the self-disgust turned outward of an actual abuser. In this sense, it is certainly Franklyn, rather than his ‘half-woman half-snake’ daughter who is the film’s monster.
The dark sub-text becomes, if anything, even more disturbing in the shocking later scene, in which Franklyn enters his daughter’s bedroom and approaches her bed only to find that she has shed her skin, which, rather bizarrely, retains the shape and form of her body inside her nightdress. Appalled, Franklyn proceeds to beat and flail at the outline of his daughter’s body with his walking stick, the ugly symbolism of which hardly needs deeper examination.
Anna’s sole point of human contact and sympathy in the midst of all this lies in the tentative friendship she seeks with the only other female character in the film, Jennifer Daniel’s Valerie Spalding. Jacqueline Pearce, a gifted actress who was terrific in her brief appearance in Plague of the Zombies and is even better here, lends an exceptional pathos to these moments, giving Anna a haunted, tragic quality which the practical, conventional Valerie instinctively recognises and responds to without really understanding. The lost, mysterious quality Valerie senses in Anna draws her sympathy, but also underlines the ultimately unbridgeable gulf between them.
The contrast in their characters is a trope which echoes through the long and controversial history of the horror film’s relationship with women. It seems to me that there are essentially two types of female star in the classic horror film. One is characterised by a specific, constructed kind of ‘innocence’. Although there is a sliding scale from ‘helpless’ at one end to ‘plucky and resourceful’ at the other, with The Reptile’s Valerie Spalding, all bustling, practical common sense, calmly clearing up after the break-in at the cottage and capably cutting the reptile’s poison from her husband’s neck after he has been bitten embodying the latter end of the spectrum, the type is defined by being positioned in the narrative as bait, as victim, as beauty to the beast.
Fay Wray first and best exemplified this form of scream queen in an extraordinary run of films in just a couple of years in the early thirties – Dr X, The Most Dangerous Game, Mystery of the Wax Museum, The Vampire Bat and, of course, King Kong. A skilled, convincing actress, and strikingly beautiful without seeming to convey an aura of constructed ‘glamour’, Wray’s girl next door persona, alongside her talent, rooted the most unbelievable of situations in sincerity and reality. I remember vividly the effect a couple of stills from the end of Wax Museum had on me as a twelve or thirteen year old – Lionel Atwill leering over a supine Fay Wray, wrapped in a sheet, her wrists strapped to a table and her naked shoulders exposed. Those were more innocent times. Or times requiring greater exercise of the imagination, at any rate.
Fay Wray’s mantle was passed to Evelyn Ankers, who fulfilled essentially the same role for 1940s audiences in The Wolf Man, Ghost of Frankenstein, Son of Dracula, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror and Captive Wild Woman. In her seminal critical work Men, Women and Chainsaws, the critic Carol Clover brilliantly dissects the slasher movie and posits the figure of ‘the final girl’ who invites audience identification, and is best exemplified by Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween. I’d argue that the final girl has her origins in Wray and Ankers and the other scream goddesses of the ’30s and ’40s, but in a less than progressive twist the prerequisite of survival for the horror heroine by the ’80s was a kind of androgynous, asexual quality that differentiated her from the pot-smoking promiscuous slasher fodder around her. It’s possible to see a different, and I think a healthier, concept of ‘innocent’ 40 years before; sexlessness was not a quality required of Fay or Evelyn to justify their survival.
The second female trope might be defined as the ‘exotic’. Usually, though not always, dark-haired and ‘foreign’ in appearance; usually, though not always, sexually seductive, combining that siren quality with a sense of mystery, of the enigmatic; and usually, but not always, posing some kind of direct or indirect threat to the forces of ‘normality’ within the narrative, the trope can be seen as a variant, or perhaps even a precursor to the femme fatale of post-war noir. Many of the characteristics of the exotic female are shared in the horror film with the figure of the monster – and in some instances the role is combined. Think of Gloria Holden as Marya Zaleska in Dracula’s Daughter, Simone Simon in Cat People, Barbara Steele in almost anything or for me most powerfully of all, Jacqueline Pearce (later to help myself and a whole generation through their difficult teenage years in the role of Supreme Commander Servalan in Blake’s Seven) in The Reptile. At other times, the exotic woman is not herself the monster, but in some kind of thrall to a dominant, and monstrous male figure – again, in her less scaly moments, Pearce embodies this in The Reptile.
It is a typical narrative device to use the ‘exotic female’ trope in conjunction with and in contrast to the ‘innocent female’ trope – Simone Simon against Jane Randolph in Cat People, Gloria Holden against Marguerite Churchill in Dracula’s Daughter. Perhaps most interestingly of all, picking up on a single throwaway line from Stoker’s novel, in which Dracula’s soon-to-be first victim Lucy expresses the shocking wish to be married to more than one of her suitors, much to the consternation of the rather more primly middle class Mina, some responses to Dracula – the Coppola movie for instance – have positioned exotic, sexualised Lucy in contrast to staid Mina in exactly this way. Without insisting on such an initial reading, what seems to me undeniably true is that Dracula’s influence on Victorian womanhood is precisely to transform them from the construction ‘innocent’ into the construction ‘exotic.’
At times the exotic character is sympathetic, at others sinister, and frequently a combination of the two, but in whatever context the defining characteristic is a carefully constructed sense of otherness. The gifted film theorist Laura Mulvey propounded the ‘male gaze’ theory which suggests that in conventional narrative cinema the camera, and therefore the viewer, is specifically gendered. Thus the male gaze. Films are a place where men do things and women are looked at. Within the horror film, this intrinsic sense of the exotic woman as other, as an enigmatic, unknowable mystery, drawing the audience to investigate, is the clearest exemplification of Mulvey’s point one could ever wish for. Anna Franklyn is a mystery for us to look at from the outside, to be entranced and intrigued by, but not to identify with.
I like to think of myself as a fairly thoroughly reconstructed male. I’m not consciously sexist in either thought or action and I at least try to be aware of the sexism in the world around me, and to challenge it where I can. I would proudly proclaim myself a feminist, and find it baffling that many apparently intelligent people I know, of both genders, seem to regard the term as a dirty word. I am the father of daughters, and spend a fair bit of my time trying to explain to my eldest that it’s fine that she’s much more interested in football and superheroes and fighting aliens than she is in pretty shoes and princesses, and decrying an advertising industry that seems to need to market even something so beautifully innocent of gender as Lego into pre-defined, pre-packaged pink or blue boy or girl bollocks. After all, I matured during the right-on culture of the 1980s when (as I think it may have been the witty and wise novelist and comedian David Baddiel who first pointed out) it was impossible to get an erection without worrying that you were oppressing somebody.
And so of course it’s sexist nonsense to posit women as dark, mysterious, and ‘other’; a stereotype just as demeaning as ‘the mysterious Orient’ or ‘darkest Africa’ in the kind of white colonial discourse with which it shares a more than borderline racism, given the tendency of casting directors to assign the role to actresses whose look is redolent of a typical WASP’s idea of ‘foreign’ – dark-haired, dark-eyed, dusky maidens. Of course it’s pernicious nonsense. And yet, and yet…
And yet, for all that, something in that imagery, something in that exotic ‘other’ calls to something deep within me. If you had asked me to name my favourite actress back in the 1970s or early eighties I would have replied without a moment’s hesitation ‘Caroline Munro,’ an actress whose extraordinary beauty might have been specifically drawn up by a committee of perverts to fulfil their design requirements for the exotic woman.
Never quite a household name, she was nonetheless one of the most recognisable stars of the time, having first come to prominence as the face, and body, of Lambs Navy Rum, adorning billboards across the country for a decade in carefully constructed 007 style exotic poses in exotic locations. Spotted on one of these by Hammer’s chief executive, James Carreras, she was placed under contract and appeared in eye-catching roles for the company in Dracula AD 1972 and the criminally underrated Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter, confirming her iconic status in the genre with brief, but crucial appearances as Vincent Price’s dead wife in the two Dr Phibes films, and going on to leading roles in more family friendly fantasy films like At the Earth’s Core and Ray Harryhausen’s The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, before finally confirming her obvious status as Bond-girl-in-waiting in The Spy Who Loved Me.
Although a capable enough performer, and actually extremely good at times – her all-too-brief performance is the standout element and the one moment of real sincerity and conviction in the otherwise ill-judged Dracula AD 1972, and when given a little more to do she’s terrific in the unappreciated Kronos – even her greatest admirers would admit she was never likely to trouble the Academy. My adolescent fan-worship was to do with her look, rather than her acting abilities, and it was crucially centred around a specific publicity shot from her Hammer days. It’s a full body shot, in costume (and it’s quite a costume) from the Dracula film – but it wasn’t just the black bikini or even the thigh length PVC boots which fascinated me. It was her eyes. She was gazing into the camera, and there was something in her eyes which was at once defiant and seductive, overt and yet self-contained, empowered and enigmatic, knowingly sexual and yet distant and faraway. They were dreaming eyes, and they seemed to suggest to my hormone engulfed teenage self something of the whole yearning, exotic, unknowable mystery of it all.
Easily dismissed, of course, as the immature daydreaming of a naïve adolescent who never spoke to actual female people, except that a year or so back, as a man in his early fifties, I ordered a DVD from Caroline Munro’s own website. When it came, rather than being just an anonymous online order, it was accompanied by a personally written card, which used my name and was signed with love from Caroline Munro. I almost fainted. The impact she had on me as that naïve adolescent runs somewhere deep down inside me, even now. The love of ‘the exotic’, however much the critical and analytical and grown up part of my head knows it to be an illusion, and perhaps a pernicious one, still speaks to me, even today.
To illustrate my point, I’d like to conduct a little thought experiment around the casting of Jodie Whitaker as the new Doctor. I wonder what it says about me that I would not have even a nanosecond’s difficulty in accepting a black Doctor, but I know, buried deep deep down in that tiny part of my psyche which lies beyond received opinion and is just pure, uncensored me, feeling what I actually feel rather than what I know I ought to feel, my first reaction to the revelation that a female Doctor had been cast was the briefest of flickers of disappointment. And just to be clear, this is not to say that my rational self could or would object, and in conversation I immediately and sincerely advocated the idea as not just perfectly acceptable but as a positive and exciting move. I quickly talked myself into seeing what a good and interesting idea it was – but the point is that I’d had, however briefly, to actually do that talking to myself first.
It had been in the air for so long that I’d mentally rehearsed my reaction for some time. In those first moments when I imagined Zoe Ball announcing in a charmingly shambolic live show that ‘the next Doctor is…Olivia Colman,’ (oddly it was always Olivia Colman I pictured, meaning I was precognitively tuned in to the wrong star of Broadchurch) my first reaction, a couple of split-seconds before reminding myself what an exceptionally gifted actor and all-round wonderful human being she was and what a perfect ambassador for this silly old show I love so much she would be – just before all that, I’m ashamed to admit, I knew I’d feel that momentary sense of loss and disappointment, and in fact when the equally brilliant and equally talented Jodie pulled back that black hood in a brief promo at the end of the Wimbledon final it was exactly as I’d imagined. On the other hand, my only and immediate reaction as Zoe paused dramatically before shouting ‘the next Doctor is…Idris Elba…or Shaun Parkes..or Adrian Lester…or Chiwetel Ejifor..’ would be a whoop of unalloyed delight.
What does this suggest to me? Using myself as a test case, the idea that, exposed to the infallible Occam’s razor that is Doctor Who, the sense of racial difference as somehow ‘other’ does not exist. In other words, it’s entirely a cultural construct, socially created. No-one is born racist, as the cliché goes, they’re made that way. On the other hand, it seems the idea of women as intrinsically ‘other’ seems still to lurk somewhere down deep in my DNA, stubbornly refusing to be eradicated by education or conviction. I would genuinely love this not to be true, but it is. And if it’s true of me, I have to suspect it’s true of other men too. Perhaps it’s a biological imperative, though that sounds like a bit of a cop-out and an abdication of responsibility to me. I’d hasten to add that this is not in itself a problem. It’s perfectly possible to ignore that reptilian voice from the back of your head, and to view and treat people kindly and with a bit of respect no matter what gender they, or you, are. To say there’s a sense of difference between genders that I can’t quite eradicate doesn’t mean I therefore have to act like a dickhead in the real world, and it doesn’t excuse anybody else who does. But what I think it does do, somehow, is to account for the response I can’t help but feel to Caroline Munro in Kronos, or Jacqueline Pierce in The Reptile, or Simone Simon in Cat People, or Laura ‘filled with secrets’ Palmer or Audrey ‘cherry stalk’ Horne, rather than ‘girl next door’ Donna, in Twin Peaks, or perhaps most potently of all since the film itself is a conscious exploration and expose of exactly this form of male desire, to the dream-like, mysterious – and entirely illusory – Madeline, rather than the clever, common-sense, and knowable Midge in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Woman as exotic, mysterious, other, speaks directly to that tiny little unreconstructed part of myself that refuses to quite go away.
Given all that, perhaps the trope of the exotic woman will be around for a while to come, and maybe it doesn’t matter much after all, so long as we’re also developing and creating better alternatives. We just need more female heroes. I’ve already referenced my love of Buffy many times. If you consider Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs a horror film – and if you do then it’s by far the best horror film of the last thirty years – then what makes it special for me is not Anthony Hopkins headline-grabbing performance as Lecter, but the fact that it is at heart, and still all too unusually, a female epic narrative. The film is Jodie Foster’s brilliantly played Clarice Starling’s quest to rescue the princess and destroy the ogre. Starling is the modern ‘hero’ par excellence, knocking David Manners into a cocked hat (though that’s damning with faint praise) and more than fit to stand shoulder to shoulder with Cushing’s Van Helsing. The fact that cinema continues to give us so few such shining examples is shameful, and perhaps we just need more Jodie Whitakers proving emphatically and wonderfully in the space of just her first few episodes that heroism is not a gender specific concept.
I would have concluded there, but for the news that the incomparably talented Jacqueline Pearce, star of Plague of the Zombies, The Reptile and Blake’s Seven, died at the age of 74 during the time I was writing this. She was able to offer her roles for Hammer a rare degree of nuance and subtlety – not qualities one automatically associates with Hammer horror – and I’d argue she was among the most talented actors ever to grace the genre. Thanks to the immortality celluloid confers, I can joyfully continue to use the present tense when I say she is the true beating heart of both Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile, and she is the reason the latter film offers a real, raw, wounded humanity below the surface of its silly little monster movie trappings. But my final tribute is to point out that, like many of my generation, I will often find my mind wandering in an idle moment, a daydream or an aimless drift in a chain of thought, or a moment at the edge of sleep, and quite unexpectedly, but not infrequently, an unbidden, and utterly indelible recollection of a strikingly beautiful woman in white with an ice cold heart, a ruthless smile and a knowing glint in her eyes will return to me and the sudden unsought recollection of Jacqueline Pearce as Supreme Commander Servalan brings a nostalgic, and more than a little naughty, gleam into my own eye. Thank you Jacqueline. God speed.