REPTILICUS

Reptilicus

THE PLOT

“The tail of a dinosaur is excavated from the frozen tundra in Lapland and shipped to the Danish Aquarium in Copenhagen for safekeeping in this hilarious sci-fi mess. Someone turns off the refrigeration, alas, and the tail thaws. Regeneration sets in with alarming dispatch and soon the serpent-like monster, named “Reptilicus” by the learned paleontologist in charge, is devouring a paper mache Copenhagen. Written in Hollywood by Danish-American Ib Melchior (the son of Wagnerian opera star Lauritz Melchior) and produced in Denmark by Saga Films and American Sid Pink Productions, Reptilicus contains filmdom’s perhaps least convincing monster and some of the worst performances imaginable from a hard-working Danish stock company. Carl Ottosen stars as the American General Grayson, angrily shouting his every line for unexplained reasons. Ottosen’s wooden performance is second only to that of Bodil Miller, a former Universal starlet who appears here for no apparent reason other than to accompany Ottosen’s general on a pleasant night out at the Tivoli amusement park. (A low point of the film is pop star Birthe Wilke’s rendition of a ditty, “Tivoli Nights”, to a visibly dazed audience.) The monster, meanwhile, fights his battles in what appears to be a child’s model train landscape while hundreds of extras do their utmost to look sufficiently frightened. Considering that Reptilicus himself is never in the same frame as any humans, what causes the good citizens of Copenhagen to flee in such panic must be the strange sight of Carl Ottosen brandishing a bazooka while barking orders at the fashionably gowned Miller. Reptilicus was such a financial bomb that employees at the Danish production company, Saga Films, were prohibited from speaking the name for several years.” – Rovi’s AllMovie Guide

THE POINT

If you ever find yourself in the mood to nitpick your favorite movies to death, then you might want to head on over to Movie Mistakes, the site where people from all around the world take joy in pointing out every single flaw to be found in any given film. The gaffs noted range from the ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ (In the recent blockbuster The Avengers there is a “reserved parking” sign written as “Reservierten Parken” when in fact it should read “Reservierter Parkplatz.”) to the ‘somebody should get fired’ (In Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl there is a scene in which Jack is yelling at his pirate crew while a grip wearing sunglasses and a cowboy hat is clearly seen loitering around in the background.) Oh well, every movie has its goofs. But Reptilicus has to be one of the few, if not only, movies I had ever heard of where even the people who made it saw the finished product and declared the entire exercise a mistake.

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But is that a fair assessment? After all, it’s widely known that there were two versions of Reptilicus filmed, the original one in Danish and a second one where the actors spoke English phonetically. Not satisfied with either version, the distributors at American International Pictures took the English language version, dubbed over the Danish actors (poorly), excised a number of scenes, and perhaps most egregiously, added a number of not-so-special animated effects. (I can’t decide which was done worse, the shots of splotchy looking acidic saliva superimposed over the fleeing crowds or the obviously hand drawn farmer being swallowed by a puppet head.) So if you take all that into account, it’s readily apparent that the undeniably awful version of Reptilicus which the English speaking world has both cherished and trashed over the decades does not really represent the filmmakers’ true vision. That’s why, rather than simply jump on the bandwagon and declare that something was rotten in the state of Denmark back in 1961, I thought I’d give Reptilicus a fair chance and watch the uncut Danish version of the film, despite the fact that it doesn’t come with English subtitles.

And as it turns out, the original is even more of a freak show than what AIP released.

Look, I can understand why the Danes made some of the choices they did, for instance deciding to insert a scene in a nightclub where Birthe Wilke (Denmark’s Doris Day) sings a song about the wonders of strolling around Tivoli. It was probably because they were aware that most of us Americans know very little about Denmark other than the fact that Hamlet is set there and they’ve got a statue of the Little Mermaid sitting in the ocean outside Copenhagen. (I’ve read where the Danes get a little irritated over being known mostly for the Mermaid thing, but hey, it’s better than being thought of as a nation full of fat obnoxious cowboys, so they can just get over it.) So if you’ve made a movie which you expect will get a big international audience, why not throw in a little shameless self promotion for your country to help drum up some tourism? But having Wilke sing the song in English even in the original Danish language version is just weird. And yet ultimately forgivable compared to the actual musical number in the film. That’s right, in the original version of Reptilicus, tucked away in between scenes of the monster (theoretically) devastating the populace, there’s a moment where the main scientists’ janitor breaks into a jolly song and dance routine in front of a group of very concerned looking children. Maybe if this was some Bollywood movie I’d be inclined to let it go, but here it’s just woefully out of place. And it doesn’t help that the man assigned to the hapless task of carrying out this filmic fejltagelse (Dirch Passer, apparently a national treasure in Denmark at the time) mugs it up so excruciatingly that he makes Jim Carrey look demur and refined by comparison.

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But all that aside, no matter what language you watch it in, a movie like Reptilicus rises and falls on the shoulders (or lack thereof) of its titular monster. And in that respect, well, let’s just say that the rod and hand puppetry that constitutes Reptilicus is so woefully bargain basement that it elevates the beast to that rarified domain shared by only a few other screen creations, laughable abominations such as the monstrous flying turkey from The Giant Claw, the jellyfish-man from Sting Of Death who has a garbage bag for a head, or the aliens from Killers From Space who have ping pong balls for eyes. And you have to imagine that the poor special effects crew who created Reptilicus knew in their hearts they had joined such illustrious company when they couldn’t even get their puppet to destroy the cardboard cities they had constructed. There’s a scene or two in the movie where they keep slinging the poor thing against buildings, only to drag it off screen in frustration after nothing falls over. And to make matters worse, in the original Danish version of the film, Retilicus actually flies. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say he dangles piteously from a string until dropped unceremoniously to the ground. Oh sure, it’s still more enjoyable to watch than 99% of the crappy CGI we get these days, but did they honestly think this kind of shoddy craftsmanship would pass muster seven years after the appearance of Godzilla? I don’t know, maybe they just spent all their effects money on songwriters.

And finally, as futile as it is to try and bring real science into something as ridiculous as Reptilicus, the fact remains that the whole setup is flawed right from the beginning. I mean, if you really stop to think about it, how could Reptilicus regenerate from a single piece of its tail? Isn’t that pretty much the opposite of what happens in nature? Yes, it’s true certain species of salamanders can regenerate limbs, tails, organs, even parts of the brain, but you don’t see the pieces that were lost regenerating an entire freakin’ lizard, do you? If that was what happened, we’d all be up to our armpits in amphibians. And we can’t have that. After all, isn’t it bad enough that they’ve got us beat in the regeneration department? And why is that anyway? Why do a bunch of slimy Salamandridae get to regenerate whole chunks of their heads while us more developed vertebrates can only manage to regrow a measly liver or a fingertip? About the best reason scientists have come up with as to why we drew the evolutionary short stick when it comes to regeneration is that it helps us not get cancer. (Which, you know, is actually a pretty good reason when you think about it.) You see, without getting too much into the specifics (because I don’t know them), when a salamander loses a body part, an epidermal stump forms in which a combination of a blastema of undifferentiated cells, some stem cells from the animal’s spinal cord, and a stew of various vitamins come together and begin to multiply, eventually forming a fully functional limb. The problem is that in higher developed animals, such rapid cell division pretty much equals cancer. Or as Frank Barry, professor of cellular therapy, explains it to the Irish Times, “The things that make tumours grow are very often the same things that make limbs or tissues grow… Humans, by virtue of their longevity, need tumour suppression, but perhaps by having cancer-protection systems we have lost the ability to regenerate.” So, you win some, you lose some, que sera, sera. (Or det vil være, vil være since we’re speaking Danish.)

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But science is working hard to correct this seeming inequity. With tens of millions in grants from the Pentagon, a group who obviously has good reasons for wanting to see people develop the ability to regrow limbs, doctors around the country have already managed to turn human skin cells into something equivalent to a blastema and possibly found a way to regenerate skeletal muscle tissue. Unfortunately, as fantastic and useful as such advances are, they’re nowhere near the same as being able to regrow a lost arm, and it could be decades before we find out if such a thing will even be possible. So what are amputees supposed to do in the meantime while scientists are fiddling around with their test tubes? Well, a lot of atheists out there want to know why we Christians don’t just pray to God and have Him miracle up some replacement limbs for those who have lost them. After all, as the Catechism reminds us, “Christ’s compassion toward the sick and his many healings of every kind of infirmity are a resplendent sign that God has visited his people.” That’s why, looking for a sign of God back in 2007, neuroscientist and professional atheist Sam Harris (apparently mistaking a protestant pastor for the Pope) went so far as to challenge Rick Warren in a public debate to get one billion people to pray for a single amputee to have his or her leg grown back. (Why specifically a leg? Who knows?) The idea, I suppose, was to insinuate that if God failed to provide a miracle in answer one billion prayers, then obviously there was no God. But all Harris’ challenge really proved is that (how to put this charitably) the man has a general lack of knowledge about what a miracle actually is. And that’s not really a put down because, in truth, a lot of people have never heard that an event has to meet certain conditions in order to be considered a miracle by the traditional Christian understanding of the term. And because that’s the case, I’m afraid we’re gonna have to get a little technical.

Now, combining and condensing the definitions from Fr. John Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary and the 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia to give the briefest (and most likely insufficient) explanation possible, a miracle is an event or effect perceptible to the human senses which acts above, outside, and/or contrary to the expected course of nature, and which has been produced by God with a final purpose of witnessing to some truth or testifying to someone’s sanctity. Got all that? Right. Obviously, some further explanation is required. Let’s start with the first half of the definition. To begin with, a miracle is said to be above nature when the effect produced is something nature could never accomplish on its own, like say resuscitating a dead person. Left to their own devices, the dead will never naturally come back to life. Next, a miracle is said to be outside nature when natural forces could produce the effect, but not in the way it was actually brought about. For example, there are a few scientific theories floating around out there which might explain how the Red Sea could be parted, but none of them include it happening on demand. And finally, a miracle is said to be contrary to nature when the effect produced is not the one which would typically be expected to naturally occur. Something like a person not burning to death when cast into a blazing furnace would fit into this category.

Now, given these criteria, it’s very important to understand that the miraculous in no way implies that the laws of nature are being violated, only that God is imposing His will on nature to get a desired effect. Think of it this way, when you lift something off the ground, you are not breaking the laws of gravity, just using your will to usurp it. Well, God interacts with His creation in the same way, always showing great respect for the integrity of the natural laws He put in place. This is the reason why God’s miracles never include such fictional fancies as turning a human being into a toad or granting someone the ability to shout SHAZAM and transform into a super-hero, but can include (thanks to the philosophical explanations the Greeks gave us regarding the material substance of objects) something as gonzo as bilocation. I guess you could claim that making such distinctions is nitpicking, but it’s necessary to dispel the somewhat commonly held notion among atheists that Jesus is magic. (Someone please tell Sarah Silverman to read some books before she opens her unfunny mouth.)

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All of which is good and well, but completely irrelevant without the second part of the definition which points out that the effect or event must be attributable to God. Hopefully scientists will one day be able to develop a method of regenerating limbs that doesn’t accidentally turn amputees into murderous man lizards incapable of being stopped by anyone except a mopey teenager with spider powers, but if they do, it wouldn’t be considered a miracle because it would be man’s will creating an effect that acts above and contrary to nature, not God’s. And isn’t that really what atheists claim to be interested in, proof that God is the cause of something? That being the case, why not take Sam Harris up on his challenge and have one billion Christians pray for a single amputee to have his limb regrown? Unfortunately, this is where we run into the very last part of our definition which states that miracles have a final purpose of witnessing to some truth or testifying to someone’s sanctity. As the Catholic Encyclopedia explains it, each miracle “is a factor in the Providence of God over men… Therefore the miracle must be worthy the holiness, goodness, and justice of God, and conducive to the true good of men. Hence they are not performed by God to repair physical defects in His creation, nor are they intended to produce, nor do they produce, disorder or discord; do they contain any element which is wicked, ridiculous, useless, or unmeaning. Hence they are not on the same plane with mere wonders, tricks works of ingenuity, or magic.” In short, each miracle occurs at a specific point in time to advance God’s overall providential plan for his creation. They are not just something God tosses off on demand like some genie having his lamp rubbed, even if it’s a billion people doing the rubbing.

But surely, you can hear some protesting, surely producing a public miracle involving the regeneration of a missing limb would serve to witness to the truth of God’s existence, wouldn’t it? Sadly, the past informs us that just isn’t true. For one thing, buried away in the various published lives of the Saints, as well as in related books like Reverend Ebenezer Cobham Brewer’s Dictionary of Miracles and Vittorio Messori’s Il Miracolo, there have already been a handful of instances throughout the last 2,000 years where the miraculous reappearances of missing limbs have allegedly occurred due to the intercessions of the likes of St. Augustine, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Peter of Verona, and Mary herself under the banner of Our Lady of the Pillar. Of course, these tales are not documented in any way that a committed skeptic would deem acceptable, but it does go to show that the claim is out there that the miracle being requested has already taken place a number of times. But more important than that is the fact that even when miracles are meticulously documented they are often not accepted by unbelievers. The most famous instance of this is, of course, the 1917 Miracle of the Sun at Fatima during which somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000 people assembled after hearing that a miracle was to occur and subsequently witnessed the sun appear as a spinning disk in the sky. Despite the large number of people involved (modern polling firms would give an arm and a leg to obtain so large a sampling group), the event is routinely dismissed by skeptics as a mass delusion caused by religious fervor, or as a trick optical effect caused either by atmospheric conditions or by staring at the sun too long, or possibly even (for all you Dan Brown aficionados out there) as part of a conspiracy to drum up business for the Church. So experience tells us that God could heal an amputee on live television tomorrow and a good chunk of the populace would still dismiss it as a camera trick or a naturally occurring freak spontaneous regeneration that science will probably be able to duplicate someday in the future. The point being is that, especially for a certain mindset, there will always be another possible explanation other than the miraculous.

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And frankly, to the irritation of most atheists, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. As God does not do violence to natural laws when He performs miracles, neither does he do violence to the free will of the individuals he created. That’s why doubt can never be removed from the equation, because to do so is to rob us of our ability to choose God freely. And so, as it pertains to miracles, the intellect must always have an escape hatch so that faith becomes the deciding factor. You know it’s weird, but what it comes down to is that when someone like Sam Harris demands a bonafide verifiable no-doubt-possible public miracle, he’s actually demanding that the option to have a choice when it comes to believing in the existence of God be taken away. And let me tell you, friends, you’ll see Reptilicus win the Academy Award for best special effects before you ever see that happening.

THE STINGER

In 1986, while getting the theater concession stand ready for opening, I received the call I had been dreading. The doctors treating my father’s cancer had informed my mother that he wouldn’t live through the night and that she should call in the family to say their goodbyes. I made the normally six hour trip home in about four hours, spent a few minutes speaking to my unconscious father, and then sat vigil outside his hospital room saying prayers, despite the fact that I wasn’t really living much of a Christian life at that point. And then my father died… fifteen years later due to a blood clot induced stroke. It is, of course, quite possible that during those final few hours the specialists had given my father to live, the combination of chemo and radiation he had suffered through for months mysteriously kicked in and brought him back from the brink. But I don’t buy it, and neither did a couple of the doctors who were treating him. One of the obvious questions is why spare him and not some other deserving souls, maybe some who hadn’t spent the first two-thirds of their lives being a drunk? That’s for God to say. All I know is that my father left that hospital a few days later filled with a joyful evangelistic zeal for life and the Lord that never once waned in the years that followed. And when his time finally came, literally dozens of people I didn’t even know existed came out of the woodwork to tell of how he had been instrumental in their coming to know Christ. So maybe that’s why, I don’t know. Guds Raadkammer har ingen Nögle the old Danish saying goes, to God’s council-chamber we have no key.

David

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  • http://www.clan-donaldson.com/ Cari

    Is the restraining order against my cyber stalking in yet?  No?  Oh good.
    Your best piece yet.  Maybe because you so obviously are emotionally invested in this topic, or maybe because Reptilicus just brings out the best in you.  Who knows.  But this is a fantastic, patient, and compelling explanation of what a miracle is, and isn’t.

  • David

    You’re too kind. As I always say, other more talented people made the movies and other smarter people made the doctrines clear, I just have fun mashing them together.

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