Column: The Vault of Secrets: Reptilicus (1961)

By Orrin Grey

Reptilicus (1961). Directed by: Sidney Pink. Starring: Bent Mejding, Absjorn Andersen, Poul Wildaker.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. Tonight’s film shares some minor similarities with a handful of previous Vault of Secrets alumni, notably Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet from a few months ago, in that it is actually more than one movie. A joint Danish-American co-production with an American International logo out front (like so many other movies of the time), the original version was shot and released in Danish by director Poul Bang. An American version was shot around the same time, with pretty much the same cast, albeit speaking in English and directed by producer Sidney Pink.

By all accounts, the initial American version was deemed “virtually unreleasable” by American International and was substantially re-worked by the film’s screenwriter, Ib Melchior. Melchior will probably be a familiar name to Vault of Secrets fans, as he had previously directed The Angry Red Planet and his name is on the screenplays of a pile of similar fare, including Godzilla Raids Again, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Death Race 2000, and former Vault of Secrets alum Planet of the Vampires. The story goes that Sidney Pink didn’t like the changes and got involved in a lawsuit with AIP, but after everyone had seen the English-language version, the lawsuit was dropped. This may also partly explain some of the film’s odd dialogue choices, like the older scientist “envying” the young man who is being flirted with by the scientist’s two daughters, or a manly exchange in which one of our protagonists reassures the other, “Other people are stubborn; I am firm.”

The film is a pretty standard big monster picture of the time, notable mostly for its Danish setting — it remains Denmark’s only giant monster film and supposedly had something of a cult following in its home country — and for being surprisingly gruesome in spots for a movie from 1961. In the beginning of the film, miners accidentally drill into a prehistoric monster and the drill bit brings up some surprisingly gooey chunks. A portion of the frozen/fossilized monster’s tail is brought back to an aquarium, where it thaws out and begins to regenerate. Before too long, there’s a big, ridiculous puppet snake wandering around the Danish countryside causing havoc, including the film’s other weirdly gruesome scene, featuring a remarkably bloody cow head.

The Reptilicus monster itself is a puppet and not an especially mobile one. At one particularly hilarious point, it eats what is clearly a paper cutout of a guy. Most of the time, though, it flops itself against buildings and spits a corrosive chemical from its mouth, which comes out as drawings of Nickelodeon-green slime that cover the screen. Weirdly, considering how unusually gruesome the movie is in other spots, we never see any kind of after-effect of the green slime and are left to guess that it must dissolve the people it hits, or something. The film’s storyline also borrows a page from other monster movies before and since, in that the monster can regenerate from any part of itself, meaning that it has to be destroyed all at once, and also leading to the film’s “OR IS IT?!” ending.
Like another big reptile who made an appearance in a previous Vault of Secrets column, Reptilicus later found his way into the pages of comic books, albeit not for very long. Charlton Comics released two issues of Reptilicus the same year that the film came out. Starting with the third issue, the design of the creature was changed and it was re-named Reptisaurus the Terrible for a few more issues before ending with issue #8. The series was later re-printed by Scary Monsters magazine in 2012 under the title, Scarysaurus the Scary, which probably indicates a bit how seriously the subject matter could be taken.

I watched Reptilicus on an old DVD, but for those who want their prehistoric snake puppets destroying Copenhagen in glorious high definition, Scream Factory recently released Reptilicus on a double-feature Blu-ray with a movie that I remember watching as a kid, giant octopus vs. killer whale flick Tentacles.
That’s it for tonight, but be sure to join us next time for “the maddest story ever told,” just in time for Halloween!