The Black Death poisons a rural village with metaphysical fear, as the locals turn a blind eye occluded by superstitious dread. But a stranger brings a neurotoxin to suppress the investigative paralysis and discover the cause of his brother’s demise, leading him and his wife into direct confrontation with the Queen Cobra.
John Gilling directs a murder mystery whose riddle is given away by the film’s title, but exposes interesting details bite by bite, building limited suspense and frisson. The gruesome Reptile isn’t revealed until the final act, so Gilling bides time by creating narrative tension between Harry, the new kid in town, and the wealthy recluse Dr. Franklyn. Harry Spalding inherits his brother’s home and moves in with Valerie his new bride, and together they must face a series of strange characters and attitudes. From the local drunk Mad Peter, hilariously possessed by actor John Laurie whose supper invitation is the film’s highlight, to a shy but repressed brunette who wanders into their abode unannounced with a bouquet of orchids, the Spaldings begin to realize that death here is communicable but the Bubonic plague isn’t responsible.
The story leads to false presumptions, a somewhat clever bait and switch that reveals the true villain as a minor character kept mostly in shadow, and the Franklyn’s raven haired daughter as a victim of a venomous cult. Transformed permanently into Ophiophagus hannah, Anna sheds her skin and brumates near a sulpher spring (because what Victorian mansion isn’t complete with dungeon and bubbling sulpher spring?) and awaits the coming of Spring. But Valerie is imbued with a feminist bravado and seeks answers of her own, and trapped in the burning mansion is saved by nature’s cold breath.
Final Grade: (C)