A love letter to ‘snakies’Joey Shapiroon October 13, 2022 at 3:17 pm

It’s often said that love finds you only when you’re not looking for it. This has been my experience with movies about giant snakes, mutant snakes, unholy hybrids of snake and man, and, in one case, a man with a snake for an arm. Why did it have to be snakes? I don’t have especially strong feelings about them, and yet in the last few years I’ve accidentally become an expert on the deranged world of snakesploitation horror cinema. Though they may not earn themselves a spot in the Library of Congress (yet . . .), these magnetically strange B movies have slithered their way into the annals of my heart. As Halloween fast approaches, and with the Criterion Channel now streaming Ken Russell’s more mainstream but cartoonishly horny The Lair of the White Worm as part of their 80s horror collection, there’s no better time to dive into the genre.

In many ways the original snakesploitation story is that of Adam and Eve. For the sake of brevity, though, we can fast-forward to the next most important one: 1973’s Sssssss, about lab assistant David who naively trusts his snake scientist employer, Dr. Stoner, not to inject him with an experimental serum that will turn him into a snake-man. With numerous actual king cobras lunging at its cast onscreen and Animorphs-adjacent special effects by John Chambers—the man behind the beloved ape suits in Planet of the Apes who was also inexplicably one of the masterminds of the real-life hostage rescue that inspired ArgoSssssss remains one of the strangest, most uncategorizable B movies of the early 70s. The joys of watching it are immediate and undeniable, as we bear witness to Dirk Benedict of The A-Team fame as he molts his skin, turns green, falls in love, and is attacked by a mongoose, all while trying to wrest control of his humanity from his mad scientist boss.

Widely considered to be the Michael Jordan of movies about humongous killer snakes, Oliver Reed starred in not one but two snake motion pictures (popularly known as “snakies”) in the early 80s: Venom in 1981 and Spasms in 1983. The former paired him with Klaus Kinski—famed for his Werner Herzog collaborations and for looking like a leather Muppet brought to life by an evil wizard—for a riff on Dog Day Afternoon. The twist, as you may have guessed, is that it’s Dog Day Afternoon with a black mamba snake on the loose amidst Reed and Kinski’s hostages. It’s about as ridiculous as it sounds and has murder-by-snake in abundance, but doesn’t hold a candle to Oliver’s even more unhinged Spasms, in which he plays a reclusive millionaire paying big money to track down the monster serpent whose bite imbued him with extrasensory perception. Peter Fonda costars as a medium hired to facilitate a psychic connection between Reed and the snake, with the one kink in their plans being a satanic snake cult that wants the serpent for themselves. Neither film is essential per se, but both contain fleeting glimpses of what Alfred Hitchcock would call “pure cinema,” by which I mean people get bit real good by giant super-snakes and, in some cases, explode.

Even in their more outré moments, all of these films fall under the more conventional side of snakesploitation, the kind of movies just tasteful enough to air on TCM on a day when Ted Turner is out of the office. There is, however, a weirder, sleazier side of the micro-genre, and here is where Curse II: The Bite comes into play. Call it advanced snakesploitation. A himbo on a road trip with his girlfriend takes a shortcut through a former nuclear test site in the desert, is bitten by one of the many mutant rattlesnakes who call the region home, and soon finds his arm turning into a killer snake with a mind of its own. What it lacks in “suspense” or “pacing”—bourgeois standards of quality invented by The Man to keep the public from seeing a guy with a snake for an arm puke up a lot of smaller snakes at once— it more than makes up for with ever-escalating shock value and an abundance of unhinged gore by Japanese special effects legend Screaming Mad George.

The true hidden gem of snakesploitation cinema though, and the one that achieves the perfect synthesis of studio polish and hysterical trashiness, is 1978’s supercharged Carrie rip-off Jennifer. Everything lurid about Brian De Palma’s film is taken into maximum overdrive here: the bullies are no longer high school evil but attempted-murder evil, the unstable Christian parent is somehow even more unstable and Christian, and the eponymous teen has the power to conjure and mind-control snakes the size of Buicks. It’s a perfect storm of melodrama and exploitation cranked up to 11 as Jennifer’s sex-crazed, bloodthirsty teen rivals repeatedly try to off her for being, in their words, a “hillbilly bitch.” Not only a treat for the snake-loving freaks among us, but a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet of slickly produced garbage.

There is of course an elephant (snake) in the room (plane) when discussing snake cinema. Snakes on a Plane (2006) is snakesploitation gone corporate, snakesploitation selling out on its major-label debut. Needless to say, it holds no respect from me, a leading scholar on herpetological cinema. Directed by the man behind the only two bad Final Destination movies (the second and fourth, for the record), it feels explicitly made to earn back its budget in syndication on Spike TV. There’s plenty of computer-generated snakes biting genitals, but it’s all broad strokes with no passion or thought put into those crotch bites, a product being sold to us by cynical snake-hating Hollywood suits rather than something genuinely weird and interesting. One needs only to look at the Snakes on a Plane climax, in which Samuel L. Jackson easily ejects the snakes from his aircraft by shooting open a plane window. 

Where is the spectacle, where is the joy? Compare this to the climactic moment of Spasms when a 20-foot-long Micronesian serpent attempts to blow up Oliver Reed with psychokinetic explosions, they engage in a man-on-snake knife fight, then licensed medium Peter Fonda steps in to shoot the snake in the mouth many, many times with an assault rifle. Therein lies the radical, man-dominating-nature catharsis we yearn for, and often find, in the humble snakesploitation film.

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