Piers Haggard, 1981
Starring: Klaus Kinski, Oliver Reed, Nicol Williamson, Sarah Miles, Sterling Hayden, Susan George, Michael Gough
A wealthy family’s ten year old son is kidnapped in his own home by the sexy maid (Susan George), the family’s crazed chauffeur (Oliver Reed), and an international terrorist (Klaus Kinski). They don’t realize that there was a recent mix up at the pet shop and a snake that was supposed to go to the London Institute of Toxicology was switched with the boy’s pet, so he winds up with a black mamba, one of the deadliest snakes in the world. It escapes and begins to wreak havoc upon the household. The kidnappers are soon trapped in the house by the police, lead by the spirited Commander (Nicol Williamson), who engages in a battle of wits with Kinski’s terrorist.
I don’t know how this script was actually turned into a film, but that’s the late ‘70s/early ‘80s for you. Though this is more of a straight forward suspense/thriller than horror film, the plot and cast are so insane that it should be ranked at the top of the list for killer snake films. The performances absolutely drive Venom. Reed is delightfully unhinged and you could make a drinking game out of the number of times he calls other characters a bastard, including the kidnapped child. Kinski is more subdued than normal, but as with most of his straighter roles, we can feel the psychosis simmering just beneath the surface.
Reed and Kinski allegedly hated one another and I’m surprised with that much ego and force of personality on set that the film was ever finished. (I wonder how many takes they did on that bitch slap.) Supposedly they both hated the first director, Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper, even more than they hated one another and drove him off set to be replaced by Piers Haggard. The supporting cast is equally memorable. Susan George (Straw Dogs, Die Screaming Marianne) is lovely, but is sadly given little screen time. Nicol Williamson (Merlin), John Forbes-Robertson (The Vampire Lovers, Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires), and Michael Gough are all delightful.
The death scenes are outrageous, particularly George’s and Kinski’s, as are the effects. Though there are a number of very dramatic deaths, I can’t exactly say that this is a violent or gory film, though it does something most animals attack films from the period were unable to do. Instead of relying on a rubber or mechanical snake, a real black mamba was hired from the London Zoo along with its trainer, David Ball. What a stupid idea. But the snake looks excellent, even in the scenes were a rubber model was clearly necessary for the actors’ safety. Though this isn’t technically an animals attack film, the snake is excellently used and becomes a major character in the film, even though it is little seen. And as in most animals attack films, it gets a lot of fabulous POV shots.
Oh for the love of all that is holy, the ending. Even if you just dig that up on Youtube, it must be seen to be believed. I don’t want to ruin anything, but it is over the top and sort of bewilderingly stupid, but fits perfectly with this absurd, fun film. Director Piers Haggard (Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu) does a decent job, despite some odd elements, such as a lot of still shots. It seems like he tried to keep production as serious as possible, which must have been a Herculean effort, considering the nature of the script. The film could probably be even more over the top, but is still wonderfully insane in a lot of moments. Michael Kamen (Die Hard and Lethal Weapon) provides an excellent score, giving the film further elements of seriousness and suspense.
The inclusion of Kinski and Reed prevents me from ever thinking this is a bad film, though it is undoubtedly somewhat of an acquired taste. I think it’s fantastic and it comes highly recommended. Check out the Blue Underground disc with a rather unfortunate cover image that implies this is an earlier version of something like Anaconda. Haggard’s commentary track is also worth a listen.