Directed by: John McCauley
Written by: Jerry Golding and John McCauley
Starring: Sam Chew Jr., Elisabeth Chauvet, and Dan Priest
Reviewed by: Wes R.
“You sure he died of a snake bite?”
”Well, it sure as hell wasn’t the flu.”
”Well, it sure as hell wasn’t the flu.”
Snakes truly terrify me. Seriously. I’m not talking about just a casual cautionary worry. I mean, they instill in me a completely palpable, irrevocable fear. Their physical design, their sounds, their personality…everything about them was created in such a way as to cause panic for everything they come across. We are not alone, though. In many cultures and religions, the serpent has been used as a symbol of evil. When it comes to Hollywood, I’d probably go so far to say that with the exception of sharks, there have probably been more movies made about snakes in the nature-runs-amok sub-genre than just about any other animal. The most recent being the fun, big-budget thriller, Snakes on a Plane. Yet, as frightened as we are of these creatures, we continue to watch horror movies and nature shows about them. I can’t accurately say what compels me to continue to watch these snake-related shows and movies, but even through my personal phobias of them, they are truly fascinating (if maybe misunderstood) animals. One of the more entertaining of the snake movies I’ve seen, is the minor mid-70s gem, Rattlers.
An elderly man and two small children are found dead in the desert and their bodies covered with rattlesnake bites. Soon, an entire family and their livestock are all murdered by, yes, more rattlesnakes. The local sheriff calls on a snake expert to come and investigate. Dr. Tom Parkinson (the snake expert) can’t figure out why the snakes are suddenly going on the offensive, as he says they aren’t typically aggressive animals by nature. Of course, the sheriff also sends a women’s lib-spouting reporter (hey, this was the 70s) with Parksinson, so she can get some pictures and hopefully help him figure out what is causing the snakes to become so aggressive. Of course, the screenwriters send her with Parkinson, so the two will fall in love and build just enough of a romance that the girlfriends and wives of the guys who dragged them to see in the first place will be contented. Will our heroes discover what is at the heart of this sudden plague of random rattlesnake attacks? Will the snakes be stopped in time before others fall victim to their needle-like fangs?
I can’t speak for how someone who doesn’t fear snakes would react to the film, but for me, Rattlers worked. We don’t get a lot of graphic snake bites (no fang to flesh penetration), as to achieve those effects, either a prop arm or prop snake would have to have been used. This in turn would have given the film a more of phony feel. What really works to the film’s favor is that nearly all the rattlesnake scenes were filmed with real rattlesnakes. Clever editing and sound design make the attacks particularly cringe-inducing and effective. The snake action isn’t constant, but there is plenty enough to sustain interest throughout. Seeing rattlesnakes in places they don’t normally belong (atop beds, in kitchens, in bathtubs, etc.) produces a shiver time after time after time. The film’s most infamous scene is without a doubt, the bathtub attack. This particular scene evokes such a strong visceral scare, that even horror master Wes Craven borrowed the idea a few years later for a similar sequence in Deadly Blessing. The poster and video box art for Rattlers are misleading, however. They both depict the girl in the tub completely covered in rattlesnakes. In the actual scene, I counted two, maybe three. Regardless, it’s a powerful, memorable, and one of the best of its type.
Despite its PG rating, we know that Rattlers is gutsy (if also a tad mean-spirited) right from the get-go. Killing children in films (especially on-screen) is a taboo subject for filmmakers. Even today, you rarely see kids die in movies. Before we’ve even see the film’s title flash across the screen, we witness two kids climbing in the desert fall into a rattlesnake den, causing a frenzy of strikes. Even pets are fair game for the filmmakers and their vicious rattlers. When a director kills off two smiling and playful children within the first five minutes, you’re inclined to believe…“What will this madman show me next?” While none of the film’s subsequent scenes live up to that level of cruelty, it sets a dark tone that helps coat the rest of the scenes in an uneasy tension. I do wish we could’ve seen the bodies of the snake victims in the coroner’s office, though. Each time he shows Dr. Parkinson a new victim, they raise the sheet, but we never see what’s under it. We only get to see the reactions from the people in the room and sometimes a description of the condition of the body. I think the film had the potential for a really nasty R rated movie, but the budget probably didn’t allow for much more than what we are given.
The snake attack scenes are often crudely filmed and plotted, but if you’re afraid of snakes, you won’t care. Despite what technical flaws they may have, they worked on me and they will probably work on you too. John McCauley only directed two films and both were horror; Rattlers and the dull mid-80s slasher, The Deadly Intruder. Having seen both, I can safely say that Rattlers was the high point for poor Mr. McCauley. The revelation scene as to why the snakes are going berserk and exactly who is responsible is as heavy as the film gets dramatically. The acting is generally good, although Sam Chew Jr. is a bit of a bore as the male lead. His voice sounds a lot like Dan Akyroyd’s whenever he’s doing his “intellectual character” voice. Elisabeth Chauvet plays Dr. Parkinson’s female sidekick. Chauvet’s character is increasingly annoying in the early going, but once things get settled in, she eases up and is quite charming. The musical score is another interesting oddity, made up almost entirely of maracas (because, yeah…they sound like rattles). Being released the same year as Jaws, it’s easy to see the influence Spielberg’s film had on Rattlers. Any time the snakes are near one of the characters, we hear the maracas shaking slowly at first and then very, very fast as the snakes appear. When the sound of the maracas is combined with that of the snakes’ rattles, the tension becomes unnerving. This is pretty much the perfect soundtrack for this type of film.
It’s feels odd to be an unabashed snake-hater who enjoys a film like Rattlers. You don’t want to see anyone get bitten, but you kind of do. You don’t even want to see the horrid, awful things on-screen, but again, you kind of do. Overall, the movie makes for perfectly fun drive-in fare. In the wake of the enormous success of Jaws, drive-ins were flooded with numerous killer animal flicks week after week. Any animal that was even remotely considered dangerous (and even some that weren’t) was given a vehicle for its own horror film. I can just imagine a mid-70s, pot smoking, beer drinking drive-in crowd going nuts after each subsequent snake attack. What I think attracts me the most to the film as a B-movie is that it plays the entire concept completely seriously. I’m not really into B-movies that feel they have to constantly wink at the audience or play everything over the top. To me, the fun of these type of movies comes from seeing a completely ludicrous concept executed in a completely serious, dramatic manner. That, to me, is what makes for the best cheese and camp. I like the kind of bad film that doesn’t necessarily know that it’s a bad film, and if it does, it just doesn’t care. If a film is being cheesy for the sake of being cheesy, I just don’t see the point. Where is the fun in laughing at a movie if people are supposed to laugh? Everything in Rattlers is portrayed as if this were an actual emergency situation and that this is actually happening, and as a result, you can’t help but smile. If you can find it, it’s worth at least a rental. You could certainly do a lot worse in the nature-runs-amok sub-genre. The film contains enough ideas and slithery imagery that, if you fear snakes, it will likely leave you feeling a little jumpy and nervous soon after watching it. And now, I’m off to have a nightmare or two about rattlesnakes, bathtubs, and Sam Chew Jr. Rent it!
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