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Sunday, April 17, 2016

Spasms (1983) review


Peter Fonda (Dr. Thomas Brasilian), Oliver Reed (Jason Kincaid), Kerrie Keane (Suzanne Kincaid), Al Waxman (Crowley), Miguel Fernandes (Mendez), George Bloomfield (Reverend Thanner)

Directed by William Fruet

"It comes from an island in Micronesia called Niraka Pintu. In the native tongue it means... Gates of Hell.... The natives believe that the island is full of the dead... of lost souls on their way to Hell. You see, it's a kind of purgatory. They say that every seven years the island is visited by a great serpent... a serpent that rises from Hell... to claim the souls and take them back".

The Short Version: It's Oliver Reed vs. a telepathic, Satanic serpent in William Fruet's oft-maligned tale of quasi-supernatural Ophidian terror. Peter Fonda is basically playing himself and Kerrie Keane just stares wide-eyed throughout. The real star is Ray Mendez's mechanical snake and the few memorable sequences we get to see of its venom-dripping fangs sinking into unlucky humans. Dick Smith delivers a nasty highlight of bodily destruction in Al Waxman's literal flesh-shredding meltdown. Much better than its reputation suggests, although the picture on the whole is gimp-legged like Reed's character from numerous production problems. It could of used some more SPASMS, but as is, this minor footnote in rampagin' reptile cinema sheds its skin over the course of 95 minutes, coming out with more things to recommend than to condemn.

Doctor Brasilian, a psychiatrist doing studies in ESP, is summoned by wealthy hunter Jason Kincaid to help him both import and study a deadly, enormous snake captured on a Pacific Island. His brother killed by the giant snake on a previous expedition, Kincaid was bitten but did not die, retaining a telepathic connection with the demonic viper. He sees what the snake sees. When it kills, he sees it kill. Bringing the reptile from Micronesia to Canada, Kincaid hopes to learn the nature of his hellish link with the beast; although he isn't alone in his obsession with the creature--a Satanic church hires a seedy man to steal the serpent, but it escapes and kills several people before it comes face to fang with Kincaid.

The giant killer snake sub-genre is thick with entries but thin on memorable ones. SPASMS, for all its faults, is quite good; especially when the snake is onscreen. The filmmakers manage to scrounge some nifty jump scares out of their premise, but by the end, you're left wishing there had been more to it. Most of William Fruet's movies, as entertaining as they are, always seem to be missing something--and there are a few places where things are lacking in his giant snake flick.

Movies with serpentine antagonists didn't find much of an audience till 1996s ANACONDA. Its popularity ensured more Ophidian terror would slither its way across movie screens, only those screens were predominantly of the kind residing in virtually every home in America. Prior to that, there were a great many movies featuring snakes of all shapes and sizes yet none of them left a mark like WILLARD (1971) or even Spielberg's 1975 monster blockbuster did.

Compared with other killer snake movies of the time period, SPASMS had the benefit of some talented people working on it both in front of and behind the camera. You had Peter Fonda and Oliver Reed; and Oscar winning makeup FX king Dick Smith to name three. Based on a fast-paced novel by two ambitious writers inspired by the success of JAWS (1975), and armed with a fairly healthy budget of approximately 3 million dollars, the cards were in favor of this horror movie being a success. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

The sort of production problems suffered on this Canadian financed horror movie weren't unlike those encumbering other motion pictures; just that a lot of the obstacles could have been avoided altogether. Unruly film stars and ill-advised producers don't always defy the odds, equating to a successful end-product. For starters, not long after filming began, one of the production company's, Filmpro Limited, went out of business leaving banking firm, Cinequity, to go it alone. Apparently feeling lucky, the company spent 5 million on SPASMS and two other failed projects--one of which was a film version of David Hemmings' Magic Show that never got off the ground. The 3 million spent on SPASMS ended up being wasted in other ways. Random people hired off the street turned out to be drug dealers and other unsavory types. When William Fruet was brought on to replace a previous director, he had difficulties keeping Oliver Reed in check. The combative actor was apparently fond of farting incessantly on set.

Further calamity came off the set when both Reed and Fonda would hit the bars. Anyone familiar with Oliver Reed knows that he and alcohol are as dangerous a combination as gas to a flame. Reed had reportedly brought along a British bodyguard with him, nicknamed 'The Major'. After several drinks and picking a fight, if Reed was getting trounced 'The Major' would step in and finish the scuffle. Not to be showed up, Peter Fonda, on another occasion, got drunk and threatened a patron with a broken Bourbon glass; only to slip and fall onto the glass shards cutting his forehead so severely he required plastic surgery and a flesh-colored band-aid to finish the movie.

The slithery villain had its own share of problems behind the scenes. Going from live snakes, to hand puppets, then finally, mechanical ones, the hydraulically controlled critter devised by Ray Mendez and his crew wasn't ready for its closeup till the final week of shooting.

For a more expansive article on the making of the movie with behind the scenes pics read the Celluloid Trails article HERE.

The script from Don Enright and William Fruet is somewhat faithful to the novel in places, but deviates greatly in others. Instead of a straightforward killer animal movie, they inserted a supernatural angle, emphasizing a demonic attribute to the monster that's only used as native superstition in the book. One of these script revisions is an area that seriously hurts the picture. Involving a satanic cult whose head reverend desires the devilish serpent, the opportunity to have the snake (N'Gana Simbu in the book) instill a bit of divine intervention at the church never happens. The snake worshipers are abandoned immediately after the creature escapes during a bungled (and blood spattered) attempt to steal it. Not only is an integral plot point left to die, but a fantastic opportunity for an attack sequence is wasted.

The snake attacks themselves are very well done and exceptionally edited. The snake sound effects and the music (by Tangerine Dream) make these sequences even more intense. The highlight of the movie is an attack on a house full of female roommates. The giant scaly monster enters the home and chases two of the women around while a third is upstairs in a shower. One woman runs up the steps as the monster pursues her from the POV of the camera. Ferociously biting her over and over, slinging her from one side of the hallway to the other, she is then violently thrown through the air with such force, she crashes through the bathroom door; followed by the angry Ophidian who, like a fanged-toothed Norman Bates, breaks through the shower stall to get at the naked flesh inside.

This attack sequence had a bit of subtext added to it as well. If you pay close attention, you'll notice a poster of the original THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) adorning the wall in the hallway as the snake viciously bites a victim. A portion of the tagline is in view, "Who will survive and what will be left of them?"; and what an apt description of this tensely memorable moment in the picture.

If you're wondering where the title originates, it's to do with the effects of the snake's venom. When it bites you, wherever that might be, those areas begin swelling--followed by bubbling; the skin opens up, leaving a nasty wound with the flesh literally falling off the body. There are a couple scenes where we see this happen--the first being aboard a ship near the beginning. The major set piece is the scene near the end when Al Waxman is repeatedly bitten after the massive snake comes through the back of his van. Courtesy of Dick Smith, we see Waxman (his head, anyways) reduced to an unidentifiable, pulpy mass of flesh and eyeballs. Even though Smith wasn't satisfied with the effect due to lack of time, it looks great to this reviewers eyes.

If there had been more scenes like this, SPASMS could have been a minor classic.

Elsewhere the film has some additional moments of crudity. One victim, a groundskeeper, is bitten but never suffers the same bodily destruction of the snake's other casualties; instead he looks like a slasher victim with little more than a big gash on his head. During this same sequence, Reed--who has a telepathic link to the Satanic snake--takes forever walking through his darkened house while the snake taunts him with images of his past victims. This "stalking" scene goes on way too long; and the man-vs-snake battle that follows it is good, but has been cut down from what was originally shot, leaving a somewhat abrupt finish.

Some might say Oliver Reed is overacting, but he plays the tortured hunter very well. Adding the limp to his character, you get a sense of both torment and obsession from his performance. He has a few outbursts but they're warranted under the circumstances. 

He fares much better than Peter Fonda who is basically playing himself. He doesn't do much except utter the required hero dialog these roles demand; and what he's given to say isn't all that good, anyways.

Kerrie Keane (of 1982s INCUBUS) is pretty to look at, but she, too, doesn't do much except going so overboard with the wide-eyed staring, you feel like her eyeballs will fall out of her head at any moment.

Published in 1979, the 'Death Bite' novel (the title was christened by co-author Maryk's eight year old child), like many book-to-film adaptations, was radically altered for its celluloid interpretation. The authors were so disenchanted with the numerous revisions, they tried to have their names removed but were unsuccessful. Below are a handful of the differences. 

1. The film's narrative follows the book rather faithfully at the beginning, but swaps out Kenji Tasaki, the Japanese snake wrangler, for a South American hunter named Mendez.

2. The settings are different: the main action takes place in Southern California in the book while Fruet's film takes place in and around a Canadian university. 

3. The name of the island the creature is captured on, Niraka Pintu, remains the same in both vesions. The English translation of Niraka Pintu as 'Gate of Hell' is mentioned in both book and movie; only the supernatural connotations are exceedingly more profound in the film version. A taipan in the book, Oliver Reed's Kincaid refers to it as a type of taipan, but wants to study it to be sure. 

4. The major characters have some slight resemblance to their written-word counterparts but, in most cases, have different names. Two characters from the novel that survive with their names intact are Crowley (named Warren Crowley in the book) and Reverend Thanner (named Fritz Thanner in the novel). In the book, Thanner is a gangster who wants the snake's powerful venom for assassinations. In the film, Thanner is the head of a Satanic cult that wants the snake because he believes it's the embodiment of the Devil. Crowley is essentially the same foul-mouthed character in both works, but his comeuppance is different.

5. The snake attack on the three women in the house plays out differently in the book as opposed to the movie. Differences in the book is the inclusion of a cat, and not all the women die. The bit with the girl in the shower is included in Fruet's film but is executed differently as well.

6. The finale of Maryk and Monahan's novel is one of the more drastic deviations in the movie version. Kerrie Keane's character stays out of the action while her counterpart in the book, Ioka, a Eurasian, features prominently. The Crowley character has a much larger role in the book and, unlike the film, figures into the book's climax.  

Amazingly enough, the authors of 'Death Bite' got more publicity than the movie did. Publishers Andrews and McMeel sent both Maryk and Monahan on a two week jaunt across the country to promote their novel. At the time, being bitten by a snake was #3 on a list of public fears (coming in behind arachnophobia and talking in public). One such stop was on a Baltimore television morning show. The resulting on-air snake snafu sounds like something out of a comedy. Deciding to bring a real Indian Rock Python on the set with them (along with the reptile's owner), co-author Michael Maryk was handling the snake. In an attempt to straighten him out, Maryk lost his grip and the huge snake whacked him in the face with its head. He dropped it and that was the cue for the audience to run screaming out of the studio while the blind co-host was losing it yelling, "Where is it?! Where is it?!".

In the end, the authors made a lot of money off the book and its film licensing, but it didn't translate into an even more prosperous career. SPASMS ended up surviving a lethal dose of failed theatrical venom with a revived interest on video and cable, retaining its own tiny circle of fans in the process. 

Sadly, the film still has yet to receive a quality home video release. The Code Red DVD is from a tape source that has several defects throughout (see four of them above). There are approximately a dozen of them that occur at different points throughout the film. The worst of which takes place at 0:38:14 (see bottom left image at top). This may or may not be an issue for potential buyers, but for those expecting a film source they will want to know what they're getting beforehand. Since the film was announced as far back as 2009, sources have cited an available film print that was missing a reel. Still, even with the glitches, this is the best SPASMS has looked on the home video format for the time being.

Heavily flawed, but far from an awful movie, SPASMS will be essential viewing for fans of the 'Nature Gone Awry' sub-genre. It delivers what it's selling, only you might feel a bit short-changed at the end. Even so, William Fruet's critically slighted snake horror drips with just enough venomous entertainment value to keep you mildly enthralled for 95 spasmic minutes.

This review is representative of the Code Red DVD. Specs and Extras: anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1. There are no extras nor menus. The disc begins and when it ends it starts over again. Running Time: 1:35:21.

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