Leaping Lizards and Goodness Snakes Alive! - Part One - Mania.com



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Leaping Lizards and Goodness Snakes Alive! - Part One

CINESCAPE looks back at the snake and lizard infestation of genre movies over the years

By John Thonen     December 16, 2001


THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE
© 1998 Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
Phobias have formed the basis of any number of movies. Acrophobia was the root of Jimmy Stewart's VERTIGO, Agoraphobia was the challenge for Sigourney Weaver in COPYCAT and Jeff Daniels was so afraid of spiders that his fear became the title of Arachnophobia. There've even been a couple of films simply titled PHOBIA. And just try doing a slasher movie in a spooky house without achluophobia, algophobia and claustrophobia respectively, fear of darkness, pain and close spaces. Where would horror movies be without those? So, it's no surprise that common human fears like herpetophobia fear of lizards - and ophidiophobia - fear of snakes - have also been the basis for multiple films. The surprise is how popular such films have become in the past few years, and how long it took for that popularity to happen.

For this look at snake and lizard films, we'll be ignoring movies which simply feature a snake or a lizard as a brief threat or as a background element. We'll also be bypassing the numerous dinosaur films, lizards though they may be. But that still leaves plenty of titles like ANACONDA, ALLIGATOR, LAKE PLACID and the host of direct-to-video variations they have spawned.


So, what's the cinematic history of snake and lizard movies, and why should we care? Well, I can't think of a single answer for the latter question, but on the former...


Horror films

THE GIANT GILA MONSTER

tend to rely on one of several common human fears as their foundation, one of which is the fear of transformation - of losing one's humanity by becoming something less than human. This was the basis for the werewolf movies and certainly influenced vampire films, as it was the impetus of our first snake film, 1955's CULT OF THE COBRA. Gorgeous Faith Domergue is the snake-woman in pursuit of a group of GIs who have seen too much. Unfortunately, there isn't much to see lacking action, atmosphere, suspense or thrills in the movie itself. However, the concept has reared its head several times since. Just a few years later came THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE ('59), with pretty Beverly Garland starring in a silly film about a young woman concerned over her new husband's severe dry skin problem. That same year found an irradiated Robert Clarke transforming into the scaly HIDEOUS SUN DEMON, a fairly hideous film in its own right.


Transformations of the human-into-snake/lizard type never really caught on with the viewing public, but the idea slithered onto screens again in 1961 with the blessedly obscure British film, THE SNAKE WOMAN, an early effort from veteran director Sidney (SUPERMAN IV) J. Furie. This one offered a scientist who experiments on curing his wife's madness by injecting her with snake venom. Just try to imagine the infomercial selling that product to the public. Anyway, said woman soon gives birth and the child grows into, DUH DUH DUH, a SNAKE WOMAN. Bet you saw that one coming. 1968 saw the production of ISLE OF THE SNAKE PEOPLE, one of several dreadful films which capped Boris Karloff's career. Karloff's scenes were shot in the U.S. by Jack Hill, with the rest of the production later completed in Mexico, using a double for the great star. In spite of the film's name, there are no snake transformations here, only some demon worshippers with a bit of a snake fetish.


Ranking high on our obscure-o-meter is 1972's NIGHT OF THE COBRA WOMAN. Lensed in the Phillipines, the film starred the stunning Marlene (GANJA AND HESS) Clark as the title villainess ("She sucks the life from the bodies of men" claimed the film's advertising) and the delightfully named Joy (PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW) Bang. This one makes little sense and is cheesy as hell, but Clark and Bang are frequently naked and are serious visual assets.


But maybe [IMG4L]snake-women aren't your bag. Then why not try snake-men? 1973 saw the release of the best known (it's constantly on the Sci-Fi Channel) of the snake transformation movies, the highly alliterative SSSSSSS. We're back to mad scientist territory in this one, in which a young Dirk (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA) Benedict plays the handsome assistant of perennially grizzled Strother Martin's mad scientist, who turns Dirk into a snake. The cast tries hard to play this with a straight face and the make-up effects aren't too bad, but the biggest surprise is that this was produced by Zanuck/Brown, who would shortly bring the world JAWS. Far more obscure is 1976's TRACK OF THE MOONBEAST, wherein a meteor fragment hits a guy in the head and transforms him into a lizard man.


The last of the snake transformation films came in 1988 when an Italian production company filmed THE BITE, which would find video release as CURSE II: THE BITE, implying that it was a sequel to 1987's surprise video hit, THE CURSE, which it had no connection to whatsoever. This is the best of the snake or lizard transformation films and deals with a young man, bitten in the hand by a radioactive rattler, who finds his arm becoming a snake, and later, his entire body. Silly as it may sound, this is a pretty creepy film, with a good cast and some disquieting moments.


Turning people into snakes and lizards never became a popular horror sub-genre, nor did the idea of people who can control said creatures, but there were several attempts, both largely inspired by other films. In STANLEY, which was inspired by the success of the previous year's WILLARD ('71), Florida based exploitation wiz William Grefe offered a Seminole Indian and his pet rattler, Stanley, on a quest against mankind. 1976's breakout hit CARRIE would provide the impetus for JENNIFER, some two years later. This one finds the requisite shy outsider unleashing hordes of supernaturally created snakes as vengeance on snooty fellow students who have wronged her.


Supernatural, scientific

THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE

or environmentally based intervention by man into the natural world of snakes and lizards has proven to be one of the more successful cinematic depictions of mankind's aversion to our scaly cousins. The first of these was, of course, in the 1950s when much of the world was fearful of the newly unleashed power of the atom, and paranoid about what havoc it might wreak on nature. Giant ants, grasshoppers, mantises and even men were depicted on movie screens of the era. The time was right for THE GIANT GILA MONSTER ('59), though little else about the film was right since it relied on a few shots of a lizard in miniature sets to depict the title creature and spent most of its time showcasing charismatically challenged star, Don Sullivan.


The early '70s saw environmental issues catching the public's attention and a slew of films depicting nature striking back at man were unleashed. Most of those films rode the considerable box office wake of 1975's JAWS, but well ahead of that pack was 1972's FROGS. Starring fading star Ray Milland and future stars Sam Elliott and Joan Van Ark, this one offered little explanation for the snakes, lizards, frogs, etc. slowly reclaiming a wealthy man's estate, but somehow managed to make it work surprisingly well.


For the second part of CINESCAPE's "lizard movie" retrospective, charting scaly films from the early '70s up to the modern day, be sure to check back right here soon.

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