In Defence of Reptilicus

    I like Reptilicus. I really mean that. I don’t like it in that peculiar, ironic way that so many approach genre films with. I also don’t like it because it’s “so bad it’s good”, which is just another brand of the ironic consumer. I like Reptilicus because I enjoy it, wholeheartedly.  

    Reptilicus tells the story of a giant, prehistoric reptile brought back to life. It wreaks havoc in Copenhagen before it is sedated and (presumably) destroyed by the military. However, the monster has regenerative abilities, and its detached limb twitches at the bottom of the ocean… 

    Two versions of the film exist: one Danish and one American. Both of these films (and they are very different beasts) deserve a renewed evaluation, one that takes their differences and backgrounds into account. Join me as we venture through the film’s unique genesis, its complicated distribution, and the differences between its iterations – all in defence of Reptilicus. 

    GENESIS OF REPTILICUS 

    The history of Reptilicus is wild and weird, making the film’s existence a point of interest in its own right. Producer Sidney Pink had a four-picture deal with American International Pictures (AIP), starting with 1959’s The Angry Red Planet: a science-fiction adventure story about a mission to Mars. The film’s Danish distributor, Henrik Sandberg, convinced Pink to produce further films in Denmark. After conferring with Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson of AIP, it was agreed that Pink’s next film would be about a giant monster ravaging Scandinavia.  

    Reptilicus was co-produced by Denmark’s Saga Studio, who held distribution rights for Scandinavia. AIP would distribute everywhere else. Danish and English versions were shot simultaneously, with the cast performing in both languages. As Sidney Pink notes in his autobiography, “if the idea sounds complicated, in actuality it was worse.” Pink would direct his version of a scene, and then the film’s Danish director, Poul Bang, would re-arrange the camera and lighting setups for his version. It was, “a stupid way to shoot a movie”, Pink said. “It would have been faster had we shot one complete picture, then shot the other version.” 

    The cast of Reptilicus were an eclectic group of Danish actors, many of whom were cultural icons in their home country. In particular, though his part is small in the English version, Dirch Passer (who plays a bumbling nightwatchman) was a comedy legend in Denmark. Sidney Pink had worked with Passer on The Green-Eyed Elephant (1960)a TV-pilot-turned-Danish-feature-comedy Pink shot in Denmark prior to ReptilicusIn its original TV pilot format, Pink had specifically written a part for Passer after seeing him in Henrik Sandberg’s soldier comedies like Soldaterkammerater Rykker Ud (roughly translated as Soldier Comrades Move Out, 1959). Pink was so impressed with Passer that he called him back for a similar role in Reptilicus. 

    Lobby card for AIP’s release of Reptilicus.

    Reptilicus has a scale that’s unprecedented for a film distributed by AIP, whose modus operandi was low-budget exploitation. Leo Bertelsen, one of the film’s financiers, was something of a Danish war hero with government connections. According to Pink, Bertelsen had been the leader of the fiercest Underground cell in Copenhagen during the Second World War and his group had killed more Nazis than any other. Through Bertelsen, Pink was granted extensive access to the Danish military and navy. This was also made possible because Saga Studio’s owner, Fleming John Olsen, was a member of the majority political party in Denmark. As such, scenes in which the army battles the giant reptile were shot specifically for the production, departing from the use of military stock footage seen in many contemporary genre films, such as Invaders from Mars (1953), Beginning of the End (1957), and The Deadly Mantis (1957). 

    With production completed, Sidney Pink began assembling his English version. In this first cut, all of the Danish cast re-looped their lines in English except for Dirch Passer, Marlies Behrens (who plays UNESCO scientist Connie Miller) and Carl Ottosen (who plays General Mark Grayson). In fact, Sidney Pink himself dubbed Ottosen for this version. 

    Of course, AIP did not accept the film Pink submitted to them, and a convoluted legal battle ensued. Reports vary on who instigated it. According to Gary A. Smith’s American International Pictures: The Golden Years (2013), Sidney Pink sued AIP when they refused to distribute the picture. However, Bill Warren’s exhaustive Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties (2010) states that AIP sued Pink first for breach of contract. Warren’s account is arguably more substantial, as he refers to a Film Daily article dated 29th June 1961. The Film Daily article contains an excerpt from the suit, explaining that Sidney Pink, “agreed to produce and deliver a picture of the stated title [Reptilicus], conforming to several physical requirements, at a given date, now past, and did not perform the contracted production activities agreed upon.” 

    Warren goes on to explain that Pink retaliated by suing AIP and Monarch Books over the novelisation of the film – specifically because of the unauthorised use of his name, and because it was adapted without his consent. Pink also claimed that the book, which featured bizarre and overt sexual references, had subjected him to “public contempt” and ridicule.  

    Adding to the confusion, Sam Arkoff himself contradicts the implications of the Film Daily article. Speaking in his autobiographyArkoff explained how he had gone to Denmark to see Pink’s cut of the film, and that he wasn’t pleased with the Danish accents: “Right now, it’s in a form of English that American audiences aren’t even going to recognise!” According to Arkoff, it was then that Pink tried to sue AIP for rejecting his cut. In both his autobiography and a 1988 interview with Tom WeaverArkoff explained how he’d pointed to the demands of Pink’s contract with AIP – which backs up the significance of the Film Daily article – but he stops short of talking about AIP’s own suit against Pink.  

    Meanwhile, Sidney Pink’s autobiography makes no reference to the specific lawsuits at all, and instead gives a broad comment that he and Sam Arkoff had, “sued and countersued through the years” 

    Irrespective of chronology, it seems all suits were settled and AIP went on to re-edit and re-dub the picture themselves for a January 1963 release. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that we will ever see Sidney Pink’s first English version of Reptilicus. 

    AMERICAN INTERNATIONAL AND SAGA STUDIO: DIFFERENT BEASTS 

    Since its release, Reptilicus has been the target of scorn, ridicule, and derision; some of it justified, but much of it overstated. In a contemporary review, The Monthly Film Bulletin stated that, “the lame and plodding narrative is made worse by singularly bad acting.” More recently, Bill Warren has said that Reptilicus is, “an atrocity, easily one of the worst giant-monster-on-the-loose films ever made.” Critic Leonard Maltin echoed that sentiment, arguing that the film is “only good for laughs.”  

    However, it is important to remember that these charges were made against the AIP cut of the film. Indeed, the English version’s inclusion on Mystery Science Theater 3000’s eleventh season has likely contributed to the bad press.  

    It is a shame that the Danish cut is not widely available, for it is quite different – and arguably much more impressive – compared to its American counterpart. While I am sceptical that the Danish cut would totally change the current public perception (for that would require a wider reconsideration of older genre cinema), I am optimistic that if people were to see it, much of the criticism thrown at the AIP cut wouldn’t apply.  

    Whilst Poul Bang’s camera setups differ only slightly from Sid Pink’s, the main differences between the versions lie in entire scenes and shots that were excised by AIP. Many elements criticised in the AIP cut (most notably the special effects) appear significantly more accomplished in Saga’s version.  

    In the AIP cut, the monster swallows a farmer in an inexcusably poor shot. Photographs of co-writer Ib Melchior’s son were pasted over footage of Reptilicus, appearing to slide down his gullet. In the Saga version, this doesn’t happen; instead, Reptilicus crushes the farmer’s house. Saga’s version also features more footage of Reptilicus moving about – much of which is rather good. AIP cut most of it, and settled for repeating effects shots at a slower speed, which looks cheap. Perhaps most significantly, Saga’s version shows Reptilicus in flight. AIP removed this footage entirely.  

    The Danish cut (left) and the AIP version (right).

    In terms of the story, Saga’s version is helped because of the cast’s original vocal deliveries. In hearing the actors’ actual voices, one discovers an urgency absent in the AIP cut. Moreover, Saga’s film also has more character backstory. There are light scenes of our heroes getting to know one another, which lend considerable charm. As pointed out by Kip Doto in his informative Reptilicus: The Screenplay (1999), Sid Pink did away with these scenes because he “didn’t want to be cute.” Consequently, AIP’s edition might seem more “serious”, but the characters aren’t nearly as endearing.  

    Saga’s version also features two musical numbers. In one of the film’s playful detours, General Grayson, Connie Miller, and Captain Brandt (Ole Wisborg) visit Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. While at a restaurant, they’re treated to Tivoli Nights as sung by Birthe Wilke. The song features in the AIP cut as well, but footage of Tivoli Gardens is inserted over the top. More significant is Tillicus, as sung by Dirch Passer to some enthralled children. Passer is in his comedic element here, as he leads the children around a garden singing, “Come on out, little friend, who is afraid of Tillicus!” 

    These songs may seem like an odd choice for a monster movie, but this might be a cultural misunderstanding. Musical numbers were a regular occurrence in several of the comedies Passer starred in. They can be seen in I Kongens Klæ’r (In the King’s Clothes, 1954, also directed by Poul Bang), Styrmand Karlsen (1958), the aforementioned Soldaterkammerater Rykker Ud, and Majorens Oppasser (The Major’s Caretaker, 1964). As part of a Danish comedy mould, it makes perfect sense for them to appear in Reptilicus. 

    As it stands, Poul Bang and Saga’s version is at least as good as – if not better than – many of the monster-on-the-loose films of the 1950s. It is not a perfect film, but it is enjoyable and often compelling, largely because of the charismatic ensemble cast. For Denmark’s first and (so far) only giant monster film, Saga’s Reptilicus is rather wonderful.  

    AIP’s Reptilicus is a different beast altogether, though I do not mean to support all of its harshest critics. While its elements can be lambasted in isolation, the sum of its parts is something else entirely. When one steps back, the English cut of Reptilicus is also something very special indeed – but for different reasons.  

    From a certain point of view, AIP’s Reptilicus is every element of what we perceive to be an “old monster movie” laid bare. While this author will firmly defend many of the superb science-fiction and monster films of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the AIP cut actively lives up to the negative charges made against this group of films.  

    The wonder of AIP’s Reptilicus is that – through its dubbed performances, expository narration, and special effects changes – the film inadvertently becomes a pitch-perfect amalgam of every genre cliché from the prior decade. It has the melodramatic performances, the shots of screaming crowds, the women shrieking at the sight of some unseen menace, and the orchestral swell. Although the charisma and technical accomplishment of Saga’s version are gone, the AIP version is still worthwhile because it hits all of the comfortable beats that we expect from a picture of this sort – and it does so without any irony.  

    Joe Dante’s marvellous Matinee (1993) features the wonderfully parodic Mant!, the film-within-a-film about a half-man, half-ant mutation. Dante affectionately peppers elements of ‘50s genre cinema into Mant!, from expository science lessons to actual samples from classic monster film soundtracks. If AIP’s Reptilicus had Joe Dante’s name above the title, we would think it a genius piece of parody. But the film is not a parody. AIP’s Reptilicus is earnest. Every line, every scream, and every special-effects shot was changed deliberately.  

    This means that the film’s glorious collation of familiar elements has happened naturally – or by accident. That it occurred through the most exceptional of circumstances only makes it more fascinating. For its sheer existence and inadvertently pure self-reference, the English version of Reptilicus should be celebrated.  

    But, in order for me to articulate what it is that makes both versions of Reptilicus so special beyond these abstract ideas, let’s dive in with further detail.  

    As discussed, the film’s special effects have been a barrier for many critics. Model artist Orla Høyer constructed at least two Reptilicus puppets; and while the larger of the two looks rather striking, its smaller counterpart isn’t as impressive. Another point in Saga’s favour is that this larger puppet features more prominently in the Danish cut, along with some larger-scale miniatures built to accommodate it.  

    No other screen monster has captured the look of European medieval dragon illustrations quite like the Danish beast. The unique nature of Reptilicus – both in terms of design and execution – makes him distinct amongst the pantheon of cinema’s great monsters. Whether or not one thinks the Reptilicus puppets look good (I happen to think they’re fine) is unimportant; nothing else like them exists. 

    Sketch taken from ‘The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents’ (1658)

    That Reptilicus is shown on screen so prominently – in both versions – also stirs excitement. This is unlike several of AIP’s other efforts – like Voodoo Woman or Invasion of the Saucer Men (both 1957) – in which the monsters are seldom seen. On the contrary, Reptilicus boasts its monster. By seeing lots of it, the stakes are raised. We see the monster, and we understand how deadly the situation is.  

    The characters also feed into the comfortable melodrama. From the scientists in white lab coats to the stone-faced army generals, the characters in Reptilicus are perfect stereotypes of the sort that audiences expect to find in older monster films – irrespective of how often these films break from prescribed expectations. And while the Danish version frames them with humour and warmth, AIP’s dubbed dialogue pushes them into perfect parody.  

    My glee at the AIP cut – shortcomings firmly considered – might tempt you to read my enjoyment as the sort of ironic delight I decried earlier. However, it is anything but. I enjoy the AIP version because it is entertaining. Ultimately, that was what Sidney Pink and AIP set out to accomplish. This film was made to make a buck for AIP, and to entertain a predominantly-teenaged demographic. 

    Each individual element in the English cut might be flawed on its own. But, the sum of the film’s parts comes together to form an often-exciting and joyous film experience. All the way from its production history, to its fabulous title, and the film itself, Reptilicus is on its own level – for better or worse.  

    CONCLUSION 

    Ultimately, both versions of Reptilicus can be enjoyed for how familiar they feel. It is admirable that Reptilicus meets all of the archetypical beats of ‘50s science fiction. Understandably, that won’t be the case for everybody. For this author, who enjoys watching and discussing these films day after day, Reptilicus is comforting. It’s familiar. For those who aren’t as keen on ‘50s monster pictures, Reptilicus may well be a minor footnote. But for fans of this era of genre cinema, I urge you to give the film another go. Ultimately, Reptilicus presents a perfectly imperfect final hurrah for the previous decade’s science fiction.  

    I do not expect this to have changed many minds. Indeed, I do not expect you to suddenly treat Reptilicus as a masterpiece. In both its forms, the film has its flaws, and they might be enough to put off even the most ardent creature-feature aficionado. But it is hoped that this writing has offered an alternative way of looking at it. More than anything, it is hoped that readers will seek out Saga’s Danish version of the film. 

    Ask yourself, did you have a good time while watching it? I’m sure that a few will consider this and think, “no, I did not.” But for those who thought, “you know what? I did have fun”, hold onto that.  

    Reptilicus remains a fascinating part of sci-fi history, the circumstances of its genesis as strange and wonderful as the film itself. Cinema is better for it. At the very least, it was co-financed by a Nazi killer – that is something.  

    Long live Reptilicus 

    A huge thank you to Revised Fiasco Design for creating the fabulous header image for this piece. Please visit their Instagram page to see more of their impressive work.  

     

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