White Snake

3 for Fans of Snake Horror

Snake movies might not enjoy the popularity of vampire or zombie films but nevertheless have left indelible fang marks on audiences with their appeal to more ancient, more primordial fears. Though perhaps dramatically limited, serpents have lent their talents to a surprising array of uses in movies, ranging from the occasional bite bit part, as in The Velvet Vampire (1971), to threatening gigantic hybridity in King Cobra (1999) or supernatural spotlighting as in the Japanese offering Snake Woman’s Curse (1968) or Indonesian folkloric fantasies like The Snake Queen (1982) and Lady Terminator (1988). Stanley (1972) gave the reptilian suborder its Willard (1971), while Rattlers (1976) further confirmed that the snake film could more than hold its own in the crowded field of seventies animal rampage vehicles. Hong Kong got in on the action with The Killer Snakes (1974), and Taiwan threw its hat into the pit with the brutally uncompromising Calamity of Snakes (1982). Though not top-billed, snakes managed to keep their profile high heading into the eighties by contributing indispensably to the suspense and fun of the Indiana Jones adventure Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) as well as Conan the Barbarian (1982). Again demonstrating the slitherers’ versatility, a misdelivered black mamba even becomes the unlikely hero of the excellent thriller Venom (1981). The genre bellied into the CGI era with Anaconda (1997) and Python (2000) before hitting a new low with the abominable Snakes on a Plane (2006). Here, however, selected from KCKPL’s Blu-ray collection, are three fantastic movies from the creatures’ cinematic heyday that share the subgenre of hideous human-to-snake metamorphoses:  

The Reptile (1966) 

Corpses with discolored faces and horrible punctures on the neck are turning up in a Cornish village, and mysterious, world-weary prober of the unknown Dr. Franklyn (Noel Willman) knows more than he is willing to say about the deaths and about the daughter (Jacqueline Pearce) he tries to hide from the world. This atmospheric classic from Britain’s venerable Hammer Films is especially noteworthy for tapping into contemporary anxieties surrounding the New Age, cults, mind control techniques, and creeping subcontinental influences in British culture, as personified in the sinister figure of “The Malay” (Marne Maitland), an occult antagonist who lurks about in a Nehru jacket. Amusingly, the film features a scene in which an outraged Dr. Franklyn, whose inquiries into the “primitive religions of the East” have incurred a curse from a “secret society”, smashes his daughter’s sitar, presented here as a symbol of youthful rebellion and an instrument of exotic subversion. The Beatles recorded the sitar-flavored “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” while The Reptile was still in production in October of 1965, releasing it on Rubber Soul in December, and the Rolling Stones would be recording “Paint It Black” as the film was released in March of the following year, so that The Reptile would have conveyed a recognizably current cultural resonance, its period setting notwithstanding. Scaly scares receive comparatively little screen time, but fans of sixties horror will enjoy the setting, mood, and the colorful antics of comic relief character “Mad Peter” (John Laurie). Blu-ray extras include a quality making-of featurette; an interview with assistant director William Cartlidge, who remembers director John Gilling as a “bully”; and an irreverent but insightful commentary from film historians Steve Haberman, Ted Newsom, and Constantine Nasr. 

Sssssss (1973) 

Strother Martin may have essayed the greatest (though not the most prestigious) role of his thirty-year career in movies as visionary mad scientist Dr. Carl Stoner, who has an unhealthy obsession with snakes. The A-Team’s Dirk Benedict appears as Stoner’s new lab assistant, David, who begins to experience strange side effects from the venom inoculations with which the doctor injects him – annoyingly, just as Stoner’s gorgeous daughter Kristina (Heather Menzies) is starting to fall for him. Probably the most accomplished snake feature ever made, Sssssss is touching, funny, tragic, and ultimately horrifying, with an unforgettably meaty performance from top-billed Strother Martin, cute chemistry between Benedict and Menzies, and superior moments of human and snake-fueled suspense alike. Blu-ray extras include lively cast interviews, with Benedict remembering Sssssss director Bernard Kowalski as a cackling man who “loved other people’s misery” and had a “wicked, wicked, wicked, nasty sense of humor, so he was always playing tricks.” He also goes over some fond reminiscences of Martin, who in a frenzy once pulled his pants down on the set and offered himself as snake bait. Martin “became sort of like a father figure to me in real life,” Menzies recalls. 

The Curse (1987) / Curse II: The Bite (1989) 

The Curse films constitute a franchise in name only, so those impatient to jump into the snake action can skip the first half of this double-bill if they prefer. A unique contribution to the subgenre, 1989’s Curse II: The Bite is the story of two snake-crossed lovers, Clark (Lambada’s J. Eddie Peck) and Lisa (Popcorn’s Jill Schoelen), who hit a few sidewinding snags on their way to California. The trouble starts when they take an ill-advised shortcut through a stretch of Arizona desert irradiated by a nuclear facility, and their jeep ends up running over and making a massacre of a bizarre “mass exodus” of snakes blanketing the highway. As if in retribution, one of the creatures eventually hitches a ride with them and bites into Clark’s left hand. Unfortunately, the radioactive venom now in his system has “symbiotic properties,” a doctor explains, and instead of turning him into a superhero like Spider-man, “neurotoxins contained in this venom encountered the immune system’s T cells, replacing and invading the genetic code of the patient’s forearm, modifying its structure.” In other words, Clark’s wounded hand starts to transform into a snake! Curse II: The Bite boasts commendably crowd-pleasing moments of high grossness like Clark knocking a fly into his glass of beer and intentionally drinking it after his personality starts to go serpentine and a later scene of him disgorging a slime-dripping, gelatinous sack of baby snakes onto a windshield. Much of the credit for the craziness goes to Screaming Mad George, who contributed special effects to more than one of the Nightmare on Elm Street films and also treats viewers to such memorable sights as gruesome birth-goo spilling from Clark’s bandaged hand and a mutant dog going berserk and attacking its master. The oddball cast of supporting characters includes Walking Tall’s Bo Svenson, who turns in a salty performance as a sleazy, drinking-and-driving sheriff, and M*A*S*H’s ridiculous Jamie Farr, who steals the show as a traveling salesman and would-be doctor who administers the wrong serum to the protagonist and spends the rest of the movie desperately trying to track him down: “Unless I get to him first, that guy’s a goner; and what’s worse, he could sue the pants offa me!” Curse II: The Bite is simply too wild not to be seen. Even the smooth jazz that plays over the end credits is good.