Gather 'round, children, and I'll tell you the story of a movie so endearingly clumsy ... It's actually several stories, as conflicting accounts of the garbled genesis of Reptilicus have been heard from its writer Ib Melchoir, producer and director Sid Pink, and executive producer Samuel Z. Arkoff, all amplified by the accolades of a Florida-based fan named Kip Doto. After his limited success with The Angry Red Planet, producer Pink went to Europe to produce films eventually found some success in Spain. But he first to Denmark, where a dedicated but inexperienced crew tried in vain to give decent production values to Journey to the 7th Planet and this elaborate and ambitious monster epic. Savant has to admit he has a soft spot for this mess, which I keep watching and always expect to be better than it is ... but the story behind it is pretty fascinating all by itself.
In 1960 they were still making movies for ten-year-olds that fantasy-loving adults could enjoy as well. Savant first saw a big picture of Reptilicus in the very first monster magazine I found at a friend's house, and it seemed I had to wait years until it came to a theater in downtown San Bernardino. I was already a dinosaur, Godzilla and Gorgo fanatic, and I attended a Wednesday matinee alone in an almost empty theater. If ever there was a movie made for me, this was it. The monster was utterly fantastic, with a weirdly wicked fanged snake's head and gloriously spangled multicolored scales. It looked great. Huge volumes of lime-green acid vomit spewed from its mouth; an entire city seemed to be fleeing from its path of destruction, block by city block. I saw the film just once and from then on only caught fleeting glimpses of it on collector cards, often confusing it with the flying dragon from Jack the Giant Killer.
Imagine my disappointment when I caught up with Reptilicus again on television as a teenager. The monster that looked interesting in stills was a wiggly marionette that moved like something from Kukla, Fran and Ollie. My 8mm home movies of iguanas and model tanks looked as good as the shallow focus found here; the dubbing was terrible and the optical effects so distractingly bad that I couldn't help but roll my eyes and check to make sure nobody caught me watching. (That part still happens, with my teenagers giving me strange looks: Dad Is Weird.)
Producer Pink, whose self image can be judged by his name's four appearances in the movie's legal credit block, penned an autobiography assigning himself full credit for every aspect of all of his films except the sprocket holes. His version of reality paints them all as brilliant classics, and voices bitter grudges against 'upstart' writer Ib Melchior and A.I.P. chief Sam Arkoff. For Arkoff's part, he uses the example of his having to recut, redub and augment Reptilicus as a standard part of his speeches about his wise shepherding of that company, basically relegating Pink to the level of just another crackpot producer lacking the brains or talent to even know when he's made an unreleaseable turkey.
Ib Melchior's autobio is a little more balanced; he's at least enjoyed the rewards of a successful writing career and allows some measure of fairness about his work with Pink both in Hollywood and Denmark. Finally, the efforts of Kip Doto, a fan whose adoration of Reptilicus goes beyond the call of normal fandom, need to be brought to light. Besides helping Pink merchandise the monster of this movie (I'm told there is a fairly interesting toy available now), Doto has chronicled the making of the film in an all-encompassing softcover book. Indirectly through Gary Teetzel, Savant also saw the original Danish cut of Reptilicus obtained by Mr. Doto, which has helped to cut through the confusion of duelling memoirs. All of this fighting over the auteur rights to a turnip like Reptilicus may seem hard to understand, but we at DVD Savant can spot a story of great significance when we see one.
The original Danish cut of Reptilicus is a strange combination of ineptness, fanciful nonsense and travelog filler. It is cut entirely differently. The first thing A.I.P. did was to ixnay the aerial scenes, simply dreadful shots of the stiff puppet flying over a fuzzy background, sometimes as just a silhouette. All of the action scenes are recut to generally better effect. Savant remembered for years the very effective entrance of the monster, just a tail seen slipping away behind a miniature building. By contrast, the editing of the Danish original has little rhythm or rhyme, and its various monster confrontations are even more monotonous, if such a thing is possible. The scene of the dragon attacking a farmhouse looks like an object lesson of good cutting in the A.I.P. version when compared to the Danish cut's confusing and disjointed series of angles. To enliven the proceedings Arkoff commissioned a lot of optical work starting with an effective title logo that drips blood in the movie and on the fanciful poster painted by Reynold Brown. 1 The original Danish titles are a dull set of cards. Also added is the entire concept of Reptilicus' projectile slime vomit, which shoots from his mouth in big green globs; it's colorful and looks kind of cool, even if it's far too obviously just cel animation. A number of shots were also step-printed to slow them down, an effect that mostly makes the scratches and dirt on the film look even worse. One shot where the monster's puppet head swings away from the camera is repeated at least four times, a la certain scenes from The Giant Behemoth a couple of seasons before.
Also eliminated was a jaw-droppingly dreadful musical number, in which bumbling aquarium janitor Mikkelsen / Petersen (Dirch Passer) romps in a park with a bunch of barely-interested kids, singing a horrible song about a loveable monster named 'Tillicus.' He's no less ridiculous in the Danish cut and is helped not a bit by Pink's leaden and infantile direction of the actors. The blocking is particularly block-headed. It's not unusual for several players to enter a room and form a little bunch in a far corner, facing away from the camera, to continue some discussion.
But the strangest thing about the A.I.P. recut is the fact that it jettisoned a couple of dozen monster angles that are actually quite good. The original artillery battle in the fields has several interesting shots of the monster fighting reasonable-looking toy tanks, and a number of graphic shots in and around the single most effective moment in the movie, the flamethrower assault. Why these shots should be junked while other duds were retained is something of a mystery, as A.I.P.'s editor proved his mettle with his superior recutting in general.
This is the photo that Savant drooled over for a year at age 9, waiting for a chance to see the greatest monster of all time!
A lot of the feuding betwixt Arkoff and Pink has to be chalked up to both parties' inability to credit the other with any creative sense whatsoever. Pink's memoir sags with ridiculous fabrications, such as his tall tale of the dedicated Danish cinematographer who took a camera home to capture real shots of lighting storms: shots that in the movie are obviously stage effects and stock animation. He also describes his effects techniques as groundbreaking new processes and the miniature Copenhagen as an incredibly accurate model. Anyone watching the film can readily see that the rather cute houserows are often cardboard boxes, and less detailed than the 'model city' novelty gardens to be found in places like Rotterdam. For Arkoff's part, his denigration of Pink's contribution seems calculated to counter the director's frequent claims of business improprieties - good, bad or ugly, Reptilicus was a big moneymaker for Arkoff and AIP.
On this latest viewing of Reptilicus I was still struck by the crudeness of its dramatic scenes and its uneven dubbing. Les Tremayne's voice can indeed be heard coming from an onscreen tape recorder, as reported by Kip Doto. The attractive transfer makes the travelogue padding look good and the strident music score wasn't half as bad as I had remembered. The song 'Tivoli Nights' is actually a catchy tune sung in a cute pop style of the time. Only the radio hit 'Look for a Star' from the upcoming Circus of Horrors is a better horror film pop song.
Reptilicus comes in dead last in the list of movies where giant monsters attack cities. The several hundred extras who run politely through the streets in 'panic' look bored or amused, compared to the terror-stricken mobs in the same year's Gorgo, a far superior picture in every way. Most of Reptilicus' scenes are artlessly filmed in broad daylight, making its general artificiality even more obvious. Now that kids are sophisticated effects experts at age 6, there's little chance that Reptilicus is going to charm anyone except nostalgic grown-up monster fans like myself.
MGM reportedly considered the idea of making Reptilicus into a special edition disc, but the enthusiasm of willing extras donor Kip Doto ran into a wall of green slime at some point, possibly when somebody actually looked at the movie. What happy monster fans will receive is the movie and its trailer, in an attractive box adorned with the cornball blurb: ' A Horrifying TAIL of TERROR!'. It does have a French track and French and Spanish subtitles. The back cover's 'fun facts' are typical repeats of mendacious publicity hype, claiming that the entire population of Copenhagen ran in the streets for the mob scenes. Kip Doto's account of the spectacular bridge scene differs from the MGM's other thoughtless blurb: The very risky-looking scene of stunt bicyclists tumbing from a cantilever drawbridge almost became a disaster when dozens of people came close to being pushed off into the water below.
MGM's transfer of Reptilicus is flat, full-frame and somewhat disappointing at first. It takes a while to realize that it is indeed newer than the old Orion element, and clean up a few of the visual flaws - nothing short of repainting every frame could have removed all the optical dirt in the effects scenes. It might not be full-frame all the time, as it is difficult to tell with the haphazard framing of so many shots. Many scenes show lots of head and foot room begging to be cropped away, but groupings of people often look tight, with heads right up against the top frame line. It's possible that this is a 'creative' transfer that recomposes every shot as needed to make the mismatched stock shots, effects work and main photography 'adapt well for home viewing.' Savant's grateful that the infantile pleasure Reptilicus looks as good as it does but doesn't expect everyone to share his view. MGM is releasing plenty of fantastic favorites at great prices, and Savant personally appreciates their effort.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Brown supposedly did the job in an afternoon, making the monster on the poster look
nothing like the real Reptilicus because A.I.P. neglected to get a set of stills to him in a timely manner.
2. Corrections from Kip Doto, 9/10/01: The Danish cut of Reptilicus and the film that A.I.P. overhauled are two different movies. The version of the film that A.I.P. overhauled was directed by Sid Pink, the original unedited version of which is apparently lost. The Danish language version was directed by Saga Studio head Poul Bang. While most of the same monster footage appears in both versions there is at least one monster shot in A.I.P.'s version that does not appear in the Danish film. So it's entirely possible that the monster shots in the Danish version you refer to were not made available to A.I.P. film editor Anthony Carras.
The sequence of the farmer being eaten by the monster was added by A.I.P. and not originally in any version of the film. [the crudely-cut scene is there, but the farmer-swallowing business, as Kip says, was not.]
Les Tremayne's name does not appear in the list of actors that participated in A.I.P.'s re-looping which I obtained from Ib Melchior. [how about Robert Cornthwaite? I've been corrected several times on this one...!} Also, aside from
being a bit more specific, my account of the scene on the bridge is about the same as the "Fun Facts" on the DVD box. [this I must have gotten from the Pink or Melchoir book ... apologies to Mr. Doto]