Most of us have some cinematic scene we saw at an early age that made us aware of the beauty and majesty of the medium. For some, it may have been in The Wizard of Oz when the cinematography changed from black-and-white to color. For others, it may have been some sweeping Cinemascope moment or a Sergio Leone gunfight.
For me, one of those moments was in the schlocky horror film Stanley, when a snake lured two snake poachers to their deaths in a pool of quicksand. Eight-year-old me saw that scene on the local TV channel’s Saturday Creature Feature and thought, “Wow!”
I’m not proud of this.
So you can imagine how delighted I am that Stanley is finally available on a nice DVD (previously it had only been available on a cheap compilation set, and in a censored-for-TV cut no less). Not only is the snake-and-quicksand scene just as cool as I remembered, but the whole movie is loads of fun.
Vietnam vet and Native American Tim (Chris Robinson in a surprisingly decent performance) is having a hard time adjusting to post-war life. He refuses to live on the reservation, suffers from bad headaches, and is embittered toward the local businessman Thompkins (Alex Rocco, probably wondering how he went from being in The Godfather to this in the same year) who Tim rightly suspects of having had a hand in the “hunting accident” death of Tim’s father. Tim’s only friends are the snakes he collects for a medical facility (their venom is used to create antivenin), and one in particular – Stanley, a rattlesnake that Tim talks to, snuggles with at night, and frequently wears around his neck. Hey, if it works for Tim I’m not going to judge.
But Tim’s idyllic world in the Everglades is disrupted when the loathsome Thompkins, who makes his living by selling snakeskin belts and other animal products, sends two loathsome poachers (Mark Harris and Steve “Wild Rebels” Alaimo) to trap Tim’s snakes, and even dispatches a loathsome psycho named Psycho (Paul Avery) to kill Tim. As if all that weren’t bad enough, the local over-the-hill stripper who uses Tim’s snakes in her act is persuaded by her loathsome manager to start biting the heads off the snakes as well as shimmying with them (apparently operating under the dubious principle that geeking + stripping = box office gold!). I’m not making any of this up.
So of course it’s time for Tim, Stanley, and the rest of the snakes to start wreaking sweet vengeance.
Those of you who are afraid of snakes will find plenty to give you the willies – this being 1972, all the snakes you see are real. As mentioned earlier, Tim spends most of the movie with at least one snake draped around his neck, and he also talks to the snakes, takes them to bed with him, and feeds them mice for dinner (saying grace beforehand of course).
Even those who aren’t afraid of snakes (like me) will find plenty to enjoy here, for director William Grefe and screenwriter Gary Crutcher have populated the movie with one of the most loathsome set of characters ever. Thomkins is a vain, arrogant bastard who relishes killing animals to make a living and isn’t above ogling his own daughter (who’s loathsome in her own way). The poachers likewise kill for fun rather than sport, and Psycho deserves to die just for his wardrobe (the early 1970s fashions are more horrifying than any of the snaky shenanigans). The Everglades locations are lovely, though it’s depressing to speculate that much of it is probably condominiums today. The cast has lots of fun with their cartoonishly evil characters, and Robinson gets a nod for making you root for Tim and his snakes to triumph.
The DVD makes the earlier, public-domain release completely superfluous, as it reinstates the footage cut for TV broadcast and includes a fine set of extras. The featurett is well worth watching, if only to get a glimpse into early-1970s down-and-dirty low-budget film-making and to learn how the snake scenes were filmed. Other extras include a commentary by Grefe and one by screenwriter Crutcher, and more.