When Head Cheeze and I were 5th grade students at the Joseph DeMello school we had to present a lesson to a class of younger students. We were lucky enough to work together on a lesson about snakes. Head Cheeze did most or all of the art and we both worked hard on research and writing to make the lesson both interesting and informative.
Apparently, rather than send us into a 3rd grade class to teach the kids about snakes, we should have been flown, all expenses paid, to Hollywood screenwriting workshops.
This weekend I tortured a few friends with two herpetology-centric films that simply ignored even the basic facts of snake behavior, biology, or genetics. It never fails to surprise me that so many man-against-animal films end up in the Hall of Shame. You’d think that will all the wonder and amazement that dangerous animals can generate so many films imbue their beasts with simply silly abilities, origins, and motivations.
These behaviors/abilities may include group thought, invisibility, a demonstrated hatred of human, ability to scale great heights, the ability to stalk, intelligence far above that observed in the animal kingdom. The list is virtually endless.
With a minimum amount of research anyone skilled enough to write a screenplay should be able to determine just what an animal, in the case of the films presented here, snakes, can and cannot do, then work within those constraints.
But, it rarely if ever happens. The few notable exceptions, Jaws, and um.... well, Jaws is about it... demonstrate that given the proper attention to fact it is still possible to create a wonderful, scary, and thought provoking man-versus-animal film.
Neither King Cobra nor Rattlers even approaches Jaws level of quality... Hell, these don’t even approach Jaws 4’s level of quality.
Our first Discovery Channel reject is “Rattlers” made in the bicentennial year of 1976 it tackles the complex questions of military ethics, male chauvinism, herpetology, and desert camping.
We begin at a campsite, as is so common in these films, where a mother lectures two kids about not playing dangerously in the vast desert wilderness while two dad’s sit before a fire an drink beer.
I’ve never been a fan of camping, and this is generally why. I mean, who wants to trek way the hell out into the middle of nowhere just to watch a campfire? Screw that, I camp in hotels.
Ahem... Okay, so the two kids make a bet that one of the kids hasn’t seen a skeleton atop a nearby peak. This leads them to that peak where they fall into a nest of rubber rattlesnakes mixed with quick cuts of real rattlesnake stock footage.
Up comes the title “Rattlers”.
Since this film was made in the middle 1970’s it adheres to many of the conventions set forth in horror and science fiction films in the 1950’s, that is, the lead is a scientist of some form or another, his assistance is an attractive and unattached woman who constantly needs protection, and finally the military is around to help put the kibosh on the monster/alien threat.
Our lead is Dr. Tom Parkinson (Sam Chew Jr.), a herpetologist in some Californian college, called in to consult on several recent deaths, including the two kids from the opening scene, and help Sheriff Gates (Tony Ballen) determine just what kind of snakes would gang up on people.
Dr. Parkinson is actually kind of cool as far as leading men go. He has a nice post-production dubbed voice and seems moderately comfortably before a camera. He also seems to show a genuine interest in snakes and snake behavior. This trait is rare in these sort of films.
In a scene meant to demonstrate his awesome command of all things slithery, one of his cobra’s escapes from it’s cage and threatens another teacher. But, being the king of all snake handlers, Dr. Peterson subdues the animal and puts it back.
Now, this is handled by quick cutting Dr. Peterson waving his hands around like a spaz, the snake rearing up and opening its hood while a professional snake handler’s hands wave around carefully in the foreground.
It’s obvious that Dr. Peterson isn’t anywhere near anything even remotely like a snake, but the illusion isn’t so awful. Especially considering some of the other stupid things we’ll see in this movie.
He drives out to the Sheriff Gate’s office and looks at the bodies of the two boys covered buy sheets. Apparently they were bitten a lot more than would be considered normal (our first made up behavior for this film... Trust me we’ll keep count).
This is the middle 1970’s so don’t expect anything even resembling gore. In fact, with two tiny cuts this film could easily have run as a movie of the week on any major network. It still would have sucked, but hey, more people might have seen it...
Anyway. He learns that another person also died of severe snakebite recently, Old-Man Somethinorother. This offers the audience a few minutes to learn about snakes care of Dr. Parkinson and his expository conversations with both h the sheriff, and one of his deputies. Parkinson explains that rattlesnakes rarely if ever attack humans, and even then only when they are molested, startled, or cornered. And, although hundred of rattlers do gather together in massive dens, this is normally during hibernation season. This isn’t hibernation season.
He gets a ride out to the ridge where the kids were bitten with deputy (Richard Lockmiller) and they split up to look for snakes, nests, or tracks. Here is where the whole illusion of Dr. Parkinson as a herpetologist falls apart. See, he doesn’t carry anything at all that a herpetologist would normally take into the field to look for snakes; no hook, no tall boots, no bucket with lid, no gloves, no nothing. What in the hell was he going to do if they found the offending snakes, put them in his pocket? Have the deputy handcuff it?
Well it doesn’t matter because they don’t find any.
Dr. Peterson returns to his cushy job in the Herpetology department.
Meanwhile, a kid pulls up to his house in a tricked out Chevy Nova while his mom gets dinner ready. She bitches at him for the car being so loud then sends him off to find his dad in the barn. On the way to the barn the kid calls his dog who lays before the doghouse swarmed with flies. This seems perfectly normal to the kid who calls and calls until finally checking the dog and determining that he is dead.
You can almost see the thoughts form in his head, “gee, this isn’t right...” He then stumbles over a “dead” chicken (which moves once he walks away), then another.
The barn is empty and dark so the kid takes an oil lantern and goes off looking for Dad inside one of the stalls. It’s empty. Careful viewers will notice a perfectly functional set of florescent lights in the ceiling, but pay no attention to them. Why? Simple, one can’t burn down the barn with florescent lights.
The kid climbs up to the hay loft and is whacked by a rattlesnake sitting up on the ledge. How did the snake get up there? Surely it didn’t climb the ladder... There’s our second unnatural ability.
The kid tumbles back off the ladder, the lantern lands in a pile of straw. Foomp! The barn starts to burn.
Cut to the inside of the house where Mom is setting the table. The sound of breaking dishes echoes from the kitchen. She turns around to find several rattlesnakes are slithering over her carpet. Mom freaks and runs through the house but no matter where she turns there are more snakes.
Cut back to Dr. Peterson in his lab talking about snake-facts with some students. His demonstration is interrupted by the phone. It’s Sheriff Gates. Peterson sets some ground rules before agreeing to write a report about the snake deaths for the state. He needs a photographer and some camping gear. Gates agrees to supply both and Peterson heads off to solve the scaly mystery.
So far Rattlers follows the same path a virtually every nature gone mad film from the 50’s on up, and it’s moderately enjoyable. Sam Chew actually tackles the confusing biological lingo of the herpetologist with ease, and his cool delivery really has that “I can handle anything with science” demeanor.
But, as with all good things, and bad movies for that matter, it won’t last.
Actually, most people could turn off Rattlers right here and they might come away with the feeling that they could have watched the rest of the movie without too much trouble. Well, they’d be wrong. Rattlers makes a series of stunningly stupid off-plot turns that will leave you scratching your head in angry disbelief.
The first is an unexpected change in Dr. Peterson’s character from competent snake handler to male chauvinist idiot as soon as he is assigned a female veteran combat photo journalist Ann Bradley (Elisabeth Chauvet) to help with his report.
This whole personality change makes no sense at all, and ensures that we will be subject to endless excruciating minutes of argument about the hot topic of 1976, women’s liberation.
Once the Battling Bickersons are out on the trail they investigate several of the same locations in Bronson Canyon that Dr. Peterson visited earlier. This allows him to throw several more interesting snake facts at the audience, and considering during these herpetology soliloquy’s we don’t have to listen to bra-burning stories or implications of male domination, they are a welcome relief.
That night in another part of the movie, a plumber arrives at a small residential home. Owned by er... some woman... and her off-screen for the entire scene kids. She’s divorced and can’t wait to move, so she tells the plumber. I was half interested in this as it sets up like a porn film, and the mom was pretty... Anyway, there isn’t any hot water for her bath so, after checking the water heater pilot the plumber climbs under the house to look for the regulator valve.
Amazingly this is accurate. Most of the science is awful, but at least the plumbing is good.
Before you can say, “snakes man snakes!” the plumber is attacked, not before he disconnects the drain pipe to the woman’s tub. She’s heated water on the stove so as not to lose the opportunity to bathe. Once the snakes are done with the plumber they climb up the pipe, into her tub, and kill her.
Dr. Peterson and Ann set up camp in the canyon. The next morning over conversation over how to cook breakfast (I’m not kidding) Ann reveals that she is an experienced cook because she had to take care of a gaggle of siblings while her mom worked in a factory after her dad died. That experience, in turn, is what fuels her constant griping about the Equal Rights Amendment.
They clear the air and agree not to argue about it, I guess because Dr. Peterson realizes that women are good at stuff... See, this stuff is just JAMMED into the script and just gets sooooooo old.
That day they visit a snakebite survivor, a hang gliding enthusiast who landed in a nest of rattlesnakes but managed to escape with only minor bites. He reveals that he was flying near a local army base when the attack occurred.
Their search leads them to a nearby army base its General (Al Dunlap) who reveals that one of his soldiers was attacked and killed by a mass of rattlesnakes as well.
I am sure the US Army isn’t all to thrilled with their depiction in Rattler either. Remembering that this film was made just after the US pulled the last troops out of Vietnam I suppose it’s normal to portray the soldiers are either rampaging drunks or so sloth like it’s a wonder they get off their cots in the morning.
Dr. Peterson and Ann are sent to see the perpetually drunk and fatalistic Captain Delaney the base’s medical officer. He can’t leave the grounds to help them search for snakes, so after offering a pure alcohol martini to the both Dr. Peterson and Ann, convinces the herpetologist to ask for a helicopter to help him search out some distant snake areas.
Ann can’t fit in the chopper so she goes off to check the site where the soldier was found while Peterson and the Pilot (Matt Knox) whip over the landscape in a chopper.
Ann locates the area where the soldier was killed and starts taking pictures. It is never clear just what she is taking pictures of, because she doesn’t see any snakes.
The Pilot, while bragging about his awesome chopper skills, lets slip that The General had him place an unmarked canister in an abandoned mine shaft in the desert which was then covered in concrete and sealed.
Meanwhile Ann is driving back from the death site and starts having snake-o-centric hallucinations.
Back at the base Dr. Peterson confronts The General with the story about the gas canister and the mine shaft. He’s told that it’s none of his damn business and ordered to leave.
The General then rakes The Pilot over the coals for spilling the info on his chemical weapons disposal.
Once Peterson and Ann are reunited they take a trip to Las Vegas for dinner. This is completely out of character but it provides ample time for...
Two soldiers on patrol in a jeep, and drinking heavily (of course), suffer a snake tooth induced flat tire and subsequent death. This is the only time a snake is shown within striking distance of a human when one of the rattlers latches on to one of the soldiers trouser legs.
Dr. Peterson and Ann return to camp. While Ann develops her film a group of soldiers arrives and insists that they return with them to meet with Captain Delaney. Why they didn’t just bring Delaney out with them is anyone’s guess.
Back at the base Delaney explains that The General has covered up the soldiers death to camouflage his development of a specific nerve gas that makes soldiers super aggressive. The idea was that this gas would be dropped behind enemy lines, then after breathing the gas, the enemy soldiers would all go crazy and kill each other.
He also explains that two soldiers were killed while on patrol so the snakes are in the local vicinity. Peterson and Ann go out to the site where the soldiers were killed, but it’s already been cleaned up.
That night Captain Delaney confronts The General and insists that he can’t live with the guilt of all these deaths on his hands. So, The General shoots him.
Never let anyone tell you the military isn’t efficient.
That night the snakes attack the tent where Dr. Peterson and Ann try to put all the pieces together. In the midst of the attack a group of soldiers arrive and rescue them by attacking the snakes with M-16s.
On the way back to the base (it’s morning now) Peterson calls the Sheriff and explains that some sort of nerve agent buried in the mine shaft is responsible for the strange snake behavior and that he should get ready to come and arrest The General.
Once at the base The Colonel (Dan Priest) explains that The General has killed Captain Delaney and fled the scene.
If you guess that he’s gone to the mine shaft, get yourself a snake-venom flavored lollipop.
At the mine shaft the General has gone bonkers and stands in the opening (I thought it was supposed to be sealed with concrete??) and starts shooting at the police, Dr. Peterson and the few MPs on the scene.
After lobbing a grenade at the cop cars, and just as he pulls the pin on his next throw-able weapon, The General is winged by Sheriff Gates. The General drops the grenade and is summarily blown to smithereens.
As Dr. Peterson drives back to the base with Ann we get a long shot panning over the desert to, what else, another rattlesnake.
King Cobra was made in 1999 and plays as if the creators of the film have never come into contact with either a snake, or a snake-centric film, in their entire lives. This film is sometimes sold as Anaconda 2 which is even more ridiculous because there’s narry an anaconda in the entire film.
We begin in a lab, which is standard direct-to-video nature gone wild film making, containing Dr. Irwin Burns, his daughter, and two assistants (or so it seems). Doctor Burns is mixing something that contains serotonin, what it is we have no idea. While called away to an e-mail his assistant, recently seen shooting up with something, increases all the chemicals in Dr. Burn’s mixture declaring that they are moving to slowly with their research.
The lab explodes just as Dr. Burns is about to reenter. This bit is actually kind of cool at first as Dr. Burns is blown all the way down the hall. It becomes significantly less cool when he is able to get up and search the wreckage for his daughter. An explosion as shown here would have pretty much liquefied Dr. Burns and everyone else in the lab.
Anyway, he searches the wreckage and finds his daughter just after she’s killed by an unseen monster.
Cut to an unnamed town in California and a little girl on law chair beside a large tree. We get this from a “killer’s eye” perspective as “someone” sneaks up on her. It turn out to be a spring loaded little brother. The kid wiggles a rubber snake around and the girl runs of angry. While the boy is laughing we get another “Killer eye” shot, strangely at the same height as the previous one.
The kid whirls around and... up comes the title. YAWN...
In town our hero, Dr. Brad Kagen (Scott Brandon AKA Scott Hillenbrand the co-writer, producer and director of the film... this sort of multi role is a red flag. Whenever the star is also the director and producer, unless that star is Orson Welles, run away!!!!) taking care of Mayor Biddle (Hoyt Axton), remember Hoyt Axton? The country and western singer and father of Zach Galligan (CD shoplifter he he he...) in Gremlins? We’ll he’s old and restricted to a wheel chair now, and it’s kind of nice to see him still acting. He truly outshines everyone else in the movie even though he only has about five minutes of screen time.
The Mayor questions Dr. Kagen’s desire to leave the town for a cushy position at a big hospital some four hours away. I make a point of mentioning this because it comes up like twenty times. I guess the idea is that is suggests that the town is way out in the middle of nowhere. The Mayor then suggests that missing him more than anyone will be his daughter Deputy Jo (Casey Fallo).
Just as we are about to get into a page stolen from the series finale of “Northern Exposure” the kid’s mom brings her boy in suffering from snakebite, “of some kind”.
Cut to an old man chopping wood. He calls for his pooch, but like in Rattlers, the dog is long gone. Whenever we see an old guy chopping wood in long underwear we can safely assume he won’t live all that long.
And, keeping with tradition, he doesn’t. But we don’t see it.
Okay, Deputy Jo and Brad share a tender moment interrupted by a call that they’ve found “Old Man Simpson” dead in his shack. Since the other town doctor, Dr. McConnell (Courtney Gains) is out fishing, Brad tags along to provide a cursory (very cursory) examination of the body.
In the shack Old Man Simpson lays sprawled out across the floor. He has a large bit in his face containing a huge fang.
Amazingly, this doesn’t strike anyone as particularly unusual.
Back in town Dr. McConnell returns from his long afternoon of sloth just after “something” has slithered into his cellar. McConnell, unawares, immediately enters his cellar and stows his fishing gear then heads back upstairs to watch some TV.
Meanwhile three hunters are attacking something in the woods, it’s a rabbit, and considering the amount of ammunition they spend on the thing, it’s amazing there’s any rabbit left to kill. Amazingly the bunny is STILL ALIVE and kicking furiously as one of the hunters picks it up.
What are they shooting? Blanks?
As he opens a beer and fumbles with the remote a large “something” rears up behind him. He notices this in the black TV screen, in what is the only really cool scene in the movie. He turns around and we get our first glance of Seth. He’s a huge cobra with even huger fangs (I guess they grow back super-duper fast). I have to admit, at this point in the film I was impressed with the animatronic head of Seth.
It wouldn’t last though as we see it sooooooooooo often that I quickly realized that ALL of the budget went into this prop so they were getting their money’s worth from it. This makes each subsequent viewing less and less climactic until I simply didn’t care.
Since Dr. Brad is leaving, Deputy Jo decides to fill in Dr. McConnell in to the snake situation but he doesn’t answer the door because he’s dead.
Dr. Brad can’t leave town until Dr. McConnell returns, and this aggravates him so he spends time trying to get the right snake antivenin from a medical supply house. Unfortunately the wounds bear two distinctive snake venom types which makes no sense at all to him, and correspondingly to us.
Now that they know a snake is stalking and killing townsfolk it’s time to call off the big beer festival at the local brewery. In a scene torn directly from the pages of Jaws, Dr. Kagan and Deputy Jo try to convince both the Brewery owner and Mayor Biddle to call off the festival. They, of course, refuse to do so on the grounds that thousands of tourists will be descending on the town just to chug some suds and fill the plethora of campgrounds surrounding the town.
Enter Dr. Burns sporting a nice eye patch. He’s tracked Seth to town and comes to warn all who’ll listen as to the danger. He explains that his research dealt with increasing the aggression levels of humans, and to do that he genetically melded both Rattlesnake and am African Cobra to create a super aggressive species.
This in no way makes any sense at all if you know anything about genetics. Adding to the “laugh at the bad science” factor, he doesn’t explain why Seth is thirty feet long. He does, however, suggest that another doctor, who has tremendous experience with Snakes, will be able to help them.
This adventurous herpetologist none other than Dr. Nick (Hi Doctor Nick!) Hashimoto played as if he was waiting for the check to clear Pat Morita. Yes, Arnold from Happy Days, Mister Miyagi from The Karate Kid franchise, is going to take on a giant genetically engineered snake.
We meet him as he instructs one of his students in the finer points of cobra handling, then in what may appear to some as extreme sadism, leaves his student mid-handle to head off to town. Imagine being that poor sucker standing there with a king cobra in your hands while the only guy truly qualified to handle the thing LEAVES!!!
Back in town Eric Estrada makes an extremely embarrassing cameo as a mincing gay stereotype giving advice to the local brewer while simultaneously carrying a little foo-foo poodle.
Oh Ponch... What the hell happened to you? I realize that you are a huge star in Latin America, and that your role on Sealab 2021 is a great leap forward for big stars in little cartoons, but WHAT IN THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING when this script came along? Why weren’t you the doctor, or the mayor?
Cut to two young Latin Americans in the woods. One of them a really, really, really pretty girl dressed in a wicked leather outfit... ahem... Okay, she’s in the woods with her boyfriend. Before you can say “hey look! Victims!” they are both killed. In keeping with our animals that do things they are otherwise incapable of, Seth attacks them from above after slithering through the trees.
Neither African Cobras nor Rattlesnakes are arboreal. Note to snake-based film makers of the future, just because some snakes climb trees doesn’t mean ALL snakes climb trees.
The girl, it turns out, is an actress named Iyari Limon, who currently stars as a slayer in training and budding lesbian love interest of Allison Hannigan on the seventh season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
She look fantastic in leather, and incidentally, was like 17 when she made this film.
Okay, lesbo-erotic fantasies aside...
Deputy Jo is turning back drunken yokels when Brad and she have a short and mostly useless conversation. Cut to the next day when Dr. Nick arrives in his herpetology-mobile. He has a plan to catch the snake but he isn’t interested in explaining it yet.
Now that the snake is a known enemy the local NRA chapter decides to take out the snake with extreme prejudice. They camouflage themselves and paint their faces, load their shotguns and head out into the woods. Assuming Seth is less dangerous than, say, the rabbit they hunted earlier, they are certain that this hunt will make them famous.
Of course, like any group of hunters in this sort of film, All but one of them is stalked and killed, not, however, before finding a huge skin against a tree. The fact that none of the men bothers to reconsider their hunt after finding enough snakeskin for a full set of American Tourister is proof that movie hunters are almost universally stupid.
Throughout all of this we see more and more shots of Seth standing some seven feet tall and flaring his mismarked hood (Indian Cobra have hood markings, African Cobra’s don't...).
Dr. Nick and the rest set up camp along beside his RV and while the others are stringing razor wire he reveals his plan while scouting the area on mountain bikes (mounted on a trailer) with Dr. Brad. See, snakes are attracted to vibrations in the ground so the bikes limit their noise. Anyway, he intends to lure Seth into the camp with a live goat and a thumping device then trap Seth in a huge tube where he will be gassed, as he describes it, to death.
There is some discussion as to whether or not someone could shoot the snake when confronting it, but Dr. Nick poo-poos this idea explaining that the shooter would probably be too terrified to hit the snake.
Well, Seth is 30 feet long and stands at least six feet high when reared up, so how hard could he be to hit? it’s like shooting a tree isn’t it?
As they are getting ready to start the thumper Dr. Nick injects himself with a massive dose of Cobra venom. He’s been bitten so many times that he’s developed a natural immunity to the poison, but to maintain that immunity he must occasionally dose himself with the stuff. Incidentally, this technique works in real life. So for once I was pleasantly surprised.
Dr. Nick also reveals his other snake handling tools, a set of humungous snake-hooks that will in no way at all restrain Seth, but enough about that...
He starts the thumper and everyone hides behind a nearby log. They don’t wait long. Seth comes in and heads straight for the goat. Seth never actually moves on camera as he isn’t a full sized rubber snake, but no matter. In a moment he will rear up as he has done every other time we’ve seen him.
He does but hesitates before whacking the goat. This gives Dr. Burns the bright idea that he should shoot the snake. While wrestling with Deputy Jo for the gun, he shoots and misses.
Dr. Nick, in all his awesome Miyagi-ness, springs into herpetologist versus snake combat. As predicted his hooks prove useless and he is bitten several times before finally dying. So much for natural antivenin...
Dr. Burns is hit in the leg but Seth is out of venom so he unfortunately lives.
Dr. Brad leads Seth into the tube and manages to escape leaving Seth trapped.
He turns on the gas and Seth dies or so it seems.
Dr. Brad decides not to leave for the hospital job four hours away and agrees to stay in town and be both the town doctor and Deputy Jo’s sex monkey.
Cut back to the tube which is still unbelievably in the woods and shaking.
Uh oh, Seth isn’t dead...
End movie. Turn over several rocks until poisonous snake is found, stuff said snake in pants, jump up and down until it strikes.
Both DVDs have extras, and you know, as awful as the movie Rattlers is, the DVD is chock full of wicked cool stuff that almost takes it out of the hall of shame. We get several snake related clips from 1950’s -1970’s nature films including but not limited to a woman dancing with a boa constrictor, and one snake eating another while a monkey looks on in excrement flinging glee. Rattlers is released bu Image Entertainment under their Weird Films label. Aside from the snake footage they also stock the DVD with loads of great exploitation trailers. It’s a classy package for a shitty movie.
King Cobra has a directors commentary that I couldn’t bring myself to endure and a short documentary on “The making of King Cobra” which only contains a segment about the development of the Seth puppet.