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Monday, December 15, 2014

Celluloid Trails: Spasmic Supernatural Serpents From Canada

"I don't think that many snake stories have been successful. Most people are repulsed by them. People really don't want to sit through a whole picture about a snake." -- Director, William Fruet, Cinefantastique. April 1982

Killer snake movies had been few and far between prior to 1980, and were all but non-existent till the late 1990s when the unexpected box office success of ANACONDA ushered in an avalanche of cinematic serpents. It was a one hit wonder, though, as a Gorgon's head full o' snakes were let loose on the video market (as well as weekly television premieres on cable), injecting a lethal dose of venom to their theatrical life. However, the potential for venom-dripping serpentry on the big screen was high at the dawn of the 80s; but turned out to be a fundamentally short-lived trend just the same. In hindsight, William Fruet's SPASMS (1983) is one of the best, if wholly obscure graduates of Snake Horror U.

This entry of Celluloid Trails takes a look at this ambitious, if seriously flawed movie from Canada's Tax Shelter movie days, and the novel that inspired it. Seemingly dropping off the face of the Earth after production wrapped, SPASMS benefited from two great (if problematic) lead actors; a famous FX artist; and some of the most impressive snake special effects work before CGI came along and ruined everything.

The film version of Peter Benchley's 'Jaws' was a major turning point in the film industry, opening up new avenues for enterprising producers and writers hoping to hit the big time with a simple premise. Seemingly every writer from one end of the block to the next began churning out all sorts of lurid stories of creatures great and small wreaking all manner of havoc on civilization. Enter two stage actors/writers, Michael Maryk (13th CHILD [2002]) and Brent Monahan (AN AMERICAN HAUNTING [2005]).

Michael Maryk (left) and Brent Monahan (right); photo Milwaukee Sentinel Nov. 14th, 1979

These two industry hopefuls decided to collaborate on a similar novel to capitalize on the success of Benchley's book (they had the same agent, in fact) in the hopes of snagging a movie deal of their own. Hitting on the fact that most people are generally terrified of snakes, the authors zeroed in on exploiting Ophidiophobia in a big way. Aside from Alan Scholefield's 1977 novel 'Venom' -- about a group of criminals trapped inside a house with a loose Black Mamba -- slithery serpents was virtually unexplored territory in book form. Maryk and Monahan intended to write something a bit more fantastical for their tale of reptilian terror. After researching various species of snakes, seeking out the deadliest they could find, the duo settled on the taipan -- an extremely aggressive species indigenous to Australia and New Guinea; and capable of killing 100 human beings with but a drop of venom.

Published in 1979, 'Death Bite' told the story of a wealthy Serpentarium owner in Florida illegally importing a nearly 20 foot Taipan from Indonesia to the United States where it ends up escaping and slithering amuck in San Diego. 

With good reviews, and the potentiality of their novel being turned into a movie stamped all over it, the plan for a movie adaptation came quickly in 1980. Unfortunately, the trail from book to screen was anything but smooth.

Martin Erlichman (left) and Michael Crichton (right) on set of COMA (1978)

Dick Smith snake SPASM special effect
Hollywood agent Martin Erlichman of Martin Erlichman Associates bought the movie rights for $5,000 for one year. According to Monahan, Erlichman was fond of optioning screenplays on spec, and had file cabinets filled with the works of many anxious writers seeking to hit it big. Having done nothing with the 'Death Bite' property in the interim, and only a couple months remaining on his option, Erlichman sought to take advantage of the tax breaks afforded in Canada's film industry at that time. Erlichman was in negotiations with Toronto's Filmpro Limited (through banking firm, the Cinequity Corporation) to make the picture. They were offering $150,000 for the rights. Meanwhile, the authors of the novel were trying to get them to hang on till Erlichman's rights ran out and they'd sell it to the company for a lesser price so long as their own screenplay adaptation was used. Utilizing the tried and true salesman technique of "some other guys are also interested", Filmpro bit Erlichman's line and ponied up the $150,000. 

The film was originally announced in January '81 newspaper reports to begin shooting in February of that year; but this turned out not to be the case. 'Death Bite' ended up as a very chaotic production filled with disorganization, reckless spending, bar fights and lewd, rambunctious behavior from the two non-Canadian stars; and even after it was completed, very few got a chance to see the results on the big screen on North American shores.

"Producers always want monsters that can come up and shake hands, serve dinner, wear a tuxedo, and conquer the world. I'm a naturalist first, and I didn't want another monster that opens its mouth and there's a saucer plate inside. I wanted it to be real." -- Ray Mendez, Fangoria #20, 1982.

Ray Mendez (left) and David Brody in Trinidad squatting in bat guano scooping up roaches for use in CREEPSHOW (1982)

During the planning stages, the original aim was to use live snakes for portions of the attack sequences. Herpetologist and snake wrangler Bob Zappalorti was going to provide the reptiles and Raymond Mendez, a well known model-maker, insect wrangler, and photographer would create hand puppets for close-ups. According to 'Death Bite' co-author Brent Monahan, a 14 foot Indian Rock Python was bought and stored in NYC for almost a year before the idea of using real reptiles was discarded. As time wore on, the picture went through various molting stages with a multitude of rewrites and a change of directors. Things got worse when Filmpro Limited went under a week into filming and Cinequity took over bringing two inexperienced men on board as producers. While trying to pre-sell the picture, Cinequity reportedly got worried that their product might have little chance at survival considering a few other snake movies were coming out. A decision was made to differentiate their fanged fiend from the others. Once it was decided the main antagonist would be more of a supernatural monster than an outsized Taipan, they then lost the reptile wrangler, and Canadian director William Fruet (HOUSE BY THE LAKE; TRAPPED; KILLER PARTY) came on board in May of 1981.

Above photo of the snake is not in the film
Invited to watch the filming in Toronto, both Maryk and Monahan left after three days upon becoming irritated with the constant alterations being made to their work. Fruet takes some credit for changing the original novel's reptilian antagonist from a taipan to something more devilish. Snake movies, as Fruet put it in interviews at the time, were the "kiss of death"; and with so many other films built around, or featuring snakes in some capacity, the filmmakers wanted their scaly menace to stand out from the rest. This was reflected in the design Mendez and his assistant Neal Martz came up with. Much like the changing state of the production, the monster went through stages of evolution, too. Originally six different snakes -- each performing its own function -- were to be built, but with a limited amount of money and time constraints, this idea was scrapped and doing as much as possible with a single mechanical snake was considered more feasible. While filming commenced in Canada, Mendez and his small crew of six built their robot monster in New York in autonomy over the course of eight weeks between August and October of 1981. Two 22ft bodies, three 6ft necks to accommodate an armature, and puppet heads were used to bring Mecha Snake to life. Amazingly, this beast didn't arrive till the final week of shooting (some sources say it was closer to two weeks). For a look at a group photo of the mechanical snake and the six-man crew click HERE.

Above photo depicts a shot not in the film
The hydraulically controlled snake, in this writers opinion, was an impressive construction; particularly in comparison to the 36 foot, $20,000 mechanical snake of Dino's big budget Sword and Sorcery epic CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982). Mendez's model was made under less comfortable circumstances, was 22ft, and intended to interact with actors in ways not seen before. Unfortunately, little of this interaction made it into the final cut. What we do see of it onscreen is integrated with the live action with some editing assist. With approximately a week to shoot the scenes with the snake, the filmmakers were at the mercy of what it would, or would not do on those last days. The climactic battle between Oliver Reed and his nemesis was highly touted, and describably violent by the makers, but much of this hand to fang combat didn't make it into the finished product. Scenes of the snake swallowing Reed's arm and swinging him around; and Reed ripping into the snakes flesh (see insert) were left out of the final version. Instead, after a brief skirmish, Peter Fonda shows up and uses a machine gun to quickly eliminate the scaly threat. Possibly some of these shots just didn't work well enough to make final cut.

Dick Smith working on a resurrected corpse for a sequence cut from SPASMS.
Other scenes discussed in vintage articles about the films making that didn't find their way into the release version was a sailor having his arm swallowed (in the movie we only see him get bit and the subsequent swelling); and a nightmare sequence involving various victims of the snake with all sorts of gory wounds and dangling flesh. In an interview, Fruet mentions he shot the film for different markets noting a more violent one for the Far East; so it's possible these missing bits and pieces made it into some other version.

"Frankly, I was intrigued by the technical challenge of a new effect.  I realize it's kind of nasty and gory, but I'm funny about that. There are some gory things [like GHOST STORY, for instance] that I don't mind doing." -- Dick Smith, Fangoria #28, 1983

Award winning makeup artist Dick Smith was asked to come aboard in the hopes his expertise would improve the picture. His participation would likely increase interest in the project, too. It also gave Smith a chance to do an effects sequence he'd never done before. Alas, as ambitious as this little (approx.) three million production was, it didn't seem to be organized very well. Future award winning makeup artist, and Canadian native Stephan Dupuis was originally signed on for the makeup effects, but when Dick Smith joined the crew, sources state Dupuis became his assistant instead. Smith's involvement originally was for a simple bladder effect, but as this film was changing so much on the fly, the filmmakers wanted to expand things a bit (pun intended). Al Waxman's literal meltdown was the money shot in 'Death Bite' -- a film that would eventually morph into SPASMS (1983). This FX highlight was featured in the artwork in various territories, and on the videocassette release from Thorn/EMI. An image of the bladder effect also made its way onto the cover of Fangoria #28. As for the sequence itself, it didn't come out to Smith's or the filmmakers satisfaction, but there was no time or additional money available to do it twice (sources differ on the fumbled execution of this FX sequence).

Director William Fruet (center) setting up the opening scene in Toronto where Scarborough Bluffs subs for New Guinea.

The snake is never named in the film, but its appellation was N'Gana Simbu, a demonic snake sent from Hell; referred to by the leader of the devil worshiping cult that wants it, claiming it to be the incarnation of the Devil. Its taipan origins in the book is noted only once by Oliver Reed in the movie (whose character name is different in the book). Aside from the psychic link between Reed and his quarry (also not in the book version), very little of the supernatural element is present in the finished film. For all the changes made to add this darkly mystical tone, it ended up the most confusing, and least explored aspect of the film; which, in hindsight, suits the frantic nature of the production. If nothing else, this Canadian venture managed to get made when a den of other slithery celluloid snakes played it safe without any expansive FX work, or never even got off the ground.

These other snake flicks all had varying degrees of success, or lack thereof. Unfortunately, sword and sorcery movies were the safe haven for snakes as they had little box office potential on their own. As for these other snake movies.... 'King Cobra' molted into JAWS OF SATAN (1981) -- a film about a satanically possessed cobra; 'Serpent: The Ultimate Thriller' transformed into Q, THE WINGED SERPENT (1982) -- a film that isn't technically a killer snake film, but was lumped in with them during its production. A film announced as 'Hiss', and another bearing the title of 'Python' never materialized at all; although that latter title was finally taken in 2000 in a terrible DTV movie (that was so terrible, it got two likewise terrible sequels!). John Godey's 1979 novel, 'The Snake' was being shopped around, but its story of a Black Mamba loose in New York's Central Park was similar to another snake story written a couple years earlier; and made into a movie as VENOM (also starring Oliver Reed), released in 1981. Based on the 1977 novel by Alan Scholefield, it dealt with a group of criminals holding hostages in a London home with a loose Black Mamba stalking the hallways and air ducts.

Paramount's snake thriller had Oliver Reed in common with the Canadian horror movie, but the two productions shared similar promotional campaigns as well. Reportedly Paramount tested its advertising in two different ways -- one that used the image of a snake, and another version that kept its venomous star less apparent. The distributors of SPASMS used the same idea; most of which seemed to go out of their way to hide the fact the movie was about a gigantic satanic serpent.

Spain was one of the few places that wasn't shy about putting an enormous snake on their advertising (see above). Most everywhere else you got the impression SPASMS was in the vein of SCANNERS (1980), or a slasher, or a Cronenbergian body horror type of movie. Such vague taglines as "You scream. You expand. You explode", accompanying images of Oliver Reed with electrodes attached to his head -- and others displaying exploding noggins don't exactly bring about thoughts of serpentine terror. Ironically, Thailand, a country with a rich history of snake lore, played hide-and-seek with their promotion as well (see insert).

Photo: courtesy of Chris Poggiali

The film was expected to open in the fall of 1982, but was delayed. Producer Sandy Howard picked up SPASMS that year and provided some additional financing to improve the film during the final editing stages. New York based Blossom Pictures Inc., a company owned by former Allied Artists and American Cinema Releasing VP Joseph Gruenberg, distributed some of Howard's films; and did likewise with SPASMS. However, the company sold the film to cable and video before releasing it in theaters! This wasn't an unusual practice back then for low budget films both foreign and domestic. SPASMS made a very quiet US debut on April 25th, 1986 in eight New York theaters (see photo above).

Doomed from the start, SPASMS is just another movie lost in obscurity amidst many other forgotten films. The authors of the original novel were displeased with it and Peter Fonda at one time considered it the worst film he ever worked on. Its troublesome history carries on in recent years with the announcement of a DVD release that was put on hold indefinitely. Allegedly, the only print found was missing a reel. With a barren theatrical showing, its cable and VHS days part of a bygone era, the only respite this barrel full of missed opportunities enjoys nowadays is found on a murky youtube upload. It wasn't a total wash for those involved, though; both Maryk and Monahan made a lot of money off of the sale of their book, and the film was sold in virtually every market around the world. Possibly SPASMS will surface in a quality release, and it can be enjoyed for the moderate 'B' movie entertainment it is.

***A huge thanks to co-author of Death Bite, Brent Monahan and film historian Chris Poggiali of the Temple of Schlock for answering questions and contributing additional information about the origins, the making, and the release of this film.***

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