Wednesday, October 24, 2018

HubrisWeen 2018, Day 19: Spasms (1983)

Growing up, I saw today's film in my local video store many times. However, neither the copy on the VHS box nor anything about the cover art suggested that the film within was not merely about expanding and exploding, so I chalked it up to a gross body horror film and never really gave it much thought.

That is, until Anaconda came out and I discovered that this film was actually about a killer snake whose bite is the cause of all that exploding. Later I would find out that it was actually a demonic snake with a psychic link to Oliver Reed and I knew I had to eventually see it, one way or another.

Luckily, distributors of cult movies are growing ever more plentiful and I would soon find myself with a nice Blu-ray copy of this beauty in my collection, thanks to Code Red. Amusingly, years earlier I had also picked up a copy of the novel this is very loosely based on, through total accident, since I did not even know Death Bite was its source until the Blu-ray was released.

Sadly, I have not yet read that novel, but I think there's more than enough to address in this flick without also rating it as an adaptation.

We begin on what we'll later learn is an obscure island in Micronesia, as two nervous white dudes watch a native ceremony taking place. One of the white dudes is the translator, and he is complaining about how stupid all of it is--while the great white hunter of the pair comments that the natives are calling out their devil. The translator scoffs, but even his skepticism melts away when a nearby tree suddenly erupts in flames and then a blue-tinged POV cam descends on the ceremony with an inhuman scream.

Natives are tossed about violently, several left with bloody gashes all over their bodies. However, one poor bastard succeeds in meeting his horrid fate right under one of the nets the hunter has posted for this very purpose. With the surviving natives' help, he bundles the unseen creature up...

...and many miles away, philanthropist Jason Kincaid (Oliver Reed) awakens in a terrified sweat. His niece, Suzanne Cavadon (Kerrie Keane) answers a phone call from someone who is desperate to speak to Kincaid in the middle of the night. Kincaid already knows what the call is about when he takes it from Suzanne, and sure enough it's our great white hunter advising he has caught the beast Kincaid sent him to find.

The terrified hunter attempts to tell Kincaid that he shouldn't bring the beast back, that he doesn't know how dangerous it is. Kincaid assures him that he knows all too well. When he hangs up, Suzanne angrily confronts her uncle about what he is doing bringing the creature to him. Kincaid simply assures her that it is the only way to end the horror he has been suffering for so long.

Honestly, this just seems like a good day for Oliver Reed.
What horror is that, you ask? Well, we get our answer to that when Kincaid summons psychologist Dr. Tom Brazilian (Peter Fonda) to his mansion. Brazilian works for the local university and he has been researching psychic phenomena, something he will shortly say he believes to be the result of a virus (!), but his research has been fruitless to say the least.

Well, Kincaid has one hell of an offer for Brazilian. Many years ago, Kincaid went on a hunting trip in search of a legendary animal near New Guinea. The animal was a huge and incredibly venomous snake, and unfortunately it turned out to be very real. His hunting companion, who will later be revealed to have been Suzanne's father, was killed outright--but Kincaid survived a bite from the snake. However, it wasn't just a limp that the snake left him with.

Kincaid is telepathically linked with the snake.

This manifests mainly in horrible nightmares and waking visions, where he is forced to see through the snake's eyes and feel what it feels when it kills. This snake is a demonic creature and a sadist, so it kills a lot and horrifically, and Kincaid wants to be freed of his curse. So Brazilian will have a great chance to study this when the snake arrives in a few days, and since Kincaid has a reputation to protect he needs Brazilian to take responsibility for the deadly shipment.

Well, somehow word has gotten out about Kincaid's cargo, and word especially got to a cult of snake handlers. The snake handlers have hired Warren Crowley (Al Waxman), a bit of a sleazy private detective, to help them intercept the shipment. Crowley has hired a man on the boat carrying the snake to this end, but has not told him what the container contains.

The man on the boat should probably have taken it as a sign when the snake's container mysteriously came loose from the crane and crushed our great white hunter. However, he decides Crowley must want it because it's drugs, and he opens the container to look inside. When he drops his flashlight inside and reaches to retrieve it, he gets bitten on the arm.

By the time the doomed fellow has made it to the deck, his arm has swollen up like a balloon and in the throes of agony and delirium, he plunges overboard.

Thus the snake ends up int he custody of Brazilian and Suzanne, much to the annoyance of Crowley and the cultist assigned to accompany him to retrieve the snake from port. Crowley simply shrugs it off, however, and decides they will steal it from the university that night, following Brazilian's truck in order to see which building the snake is loaded into.

Brazilian is forced to impose upon his zoologist friend, Dr. Claire Rothman (Marilyn Lightstone), since he needs to keep the snake in her lab for a few days until he has a suitable set up to study it. The container it's in has a temperature control and Suzanne overhears Rothman say that the temperature must stay below a certain range or it will kill the snake. Suzanne, therefore, decides to surreptitiously turn the dial as high as it can go, in the hopes it will effectively broil the snake.

This will turn out to be a terrible idea, because when Crowley and the cultist break in that night, the cultist hurriedly opens the container to be sure the snake is still alive. Instead of killing it, the heat has turned the snake into a hyperactive killing machine. The cultist is savaged by the reptile and Crowley is unable to kill it with his revolver, and only survives because Rothman returns with the night janitor after hearing the commotion. Poor Rothman is bitten by the snake before it flees into the night.

Satan is a big fan of rubber snakes.
Kincaid, naturally, is instantly aware the snake has escaped. Brazilian and Suzanne are interrupted as they are in the middle of making out at his place when the call comes in. The dean of the university wants to hold Brazilian responsible, but Brazilian is more interested in finding and killing the snake before someone else dies.

Suzanne follows him as he foolishly decides to investigate the greenhouse armed only with a rake. After a false scare with the greenhouse's resident macaw (?!), the two are ambushed by the snake. They barely escape unharmed, and even then only because Brazilian found a fire extinguisher and used it to slow the reptile down.

Kincaid suddenly appears outside the greenhouse and while he was summoned by his link to the snake, his arrival is lucky for police captain Novack (Gerard Parkes). Novack has just arrived on the scene and orders his men to search for the snake, but Kincaid warns that Novack will definitely lose officers to the serpent if he does so and recommends he simply seal off the campus and wait until day. Brazilian concurs, so Novack listens even as he demands they all accompany him back to the station.

At the station, Kincaid falls into a trance as his link to the snake activates. Unfortunately, if he shares what he sees, he does it too late for the three young women sharing a house near the campus. One has just returned from studying and changed into a robe, the second is taking a shower, and the third is downstairs cleaning up after an earlier party and she leaves the door cracked when she lets the cat out.

The snake chases her around the kitchen, but we don't actually see it kill her. However, when the robed woman comes to see what the fuss is about, the snake chases her upstairs. She is unable to escape it and, in front of a poster for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, she is thoroughly savaged by the snake before it then throws her through the bathroom door. The woman in the shower only just has time to scream before the snake then smashes through the glass shower door to get at her, too.

"Oh, sorry, I heard your plumber needed a snake, and..."
At the scene in the morning, Novack tries to better understand Kincaid and Brazilian's role in all of this. Telepathic connections with demon snakes aren't exactly in his wheelhouse, and worse than that, Kincaid's connections with the snake are so brief and random he can't even tell the police where the damn thing is.

They do at least put the word out about a deadly snake on the loose, but that doesn't seem to faze any of the people out in the local park. Indeed, a girl in a bikini tossing a frisbee with her boyfriend almost ends up a victim of the snake when she goes to retrieve a wild throw from the bushes, but for whatever reason it decides not to attack when her boyfriend gives her a false scare and they start making out.

In fact, despite the crowded park being a ripe opportunity for carnage, the snake attacks nobody. Rather, it resumes its journey to Kincaid's mansion. Kincaid, however, is in Brazilian's lab hooked up to machines as Brazilian tries to monitor him during the next telepathic link.

That next link is a doozy. The cultists have enough menace for Crowley that he is willing to stake out Kincaid's mansion in the hopes of catching the snake for them. Unfortunately, he has taken to chugging beers to kill time, which means that when he hears the snake approaching he forgets that he left his rear doors of his van open.

The snake bites Crowley over and over, which means Kincaid gets to psychically witness what happens when a human body receives the most intense dose of the snake's venom possible. Crowley convulses, bloats, and begins to split apart like a hot dog that's been in a microwave for too long.

"Oh God, that is sickening! ...but now I want a hot dog."
Kincaid realizes where the snake is, but doesn't tell the others. He rushes home, while Suzanne figures out where he is going only a few minutes later.

It's time for Kincaid's final confrontation with the snake, which is where the film goes a little whackadoo. For starters, the production was running out of money at this point, so Oliver Reed spends a lot of time wandering in the dark whilst being bombarded with clips of footage from earlier in the film. Secondly, the demon snake explicitly manifests supernatural powers beyond a mere telepathic link, as any time Kincaid tries to turn on a light the switch or the light explodes.

And then he ends up in his backyard and the snake explosively creates a ring of fire for the two of them to fight in. Let me tell you, you have not lived until you have watched a movie that climaxes with Oliver Reed having a knife fight with a rubber demon snake.

It seems to end in a tie, given we see Kincaid crushing the snake's skull in his bare hands before he succumbs to its venom. Yet, when Suzanne and Brazilian arrive too late, the snake is still very much alive and Brazilian shoots it in the head with the machine gun Kincaid had dropped earlier. Roll credits, because this is the kind of film that just ends when the story is done.

"Damn mammals, always bringing a knife to a fang fight!"
There are some clear flaws with Spasms, and most of them can clearly be blamed on production woes. Many scenes were not even shot or were abandoned when the money ran out, and while it makes a certain sense for the snake to torment Kincaid with visions in the film's climax, it also feels exactly like what it is--an attempt to pad the film with footage they had already shot.

One promotional still even suggests that maybe the final fight between Kincaid and the snake would have been more elaborate and violent. It's a fine sequence as it stands, but it definitely feels like it had to be shortened.

The performances from our main cast are all exactly as good as they need to be, since Peter Fonda and Kerrie Keane are honestly not asked to do much, but Oliver Reed and Al Waxman are definite standouts. As the film goes on Reed develops a tic where suddenly he hisses when connected to the snake, which is a lot of fun to watch because you almost feel like the other actors aren't acting when they recoil in shock each time he does it. Waxman also deserves credit for wonderfully selling Crowley as the kind of self-interested sleazeball we can't wait to see get what's coming to him from the first moment we meet him.

The special effects in this film are definitely why we are here, though, and to that end they are a bit of a mixed bag. The makeup effects are excellent, culminating in Crowley's gruesome demise that is so effective that most of the film's promos and posters center around just that one scene. I can't say I blame the marketing folks for that, either!

However, the snake at the center of this is...not so good. The snake puppet is wisely kept to quick glimpses throughout the film, but towards the end we get a good look at it and it looks about as much like a real snake as the titular puppet in Killer Crocodile looks like an actual crocodile.

By which I mean they both look like a cartoonish rubber toy from a dollar store came to life and went on a killing spree. I'm particularly amused by the fact that we get plenty of evidence that the snake's fangs are always sticking out of its mouth, instead of retracting when its mouth closes like a real venomous snake. However, the sculpt of the creature's face is really where it goes wrong, since the texture and facial features don't look even remotely reptilian.

That said, the rubber snake is a charming creation full of personality and I'll take it over a poor CGI snake any day of the week.

Spasms tends to get written off as another example of how horror movies about killer snakes suck. However, I really don't think that's fair. There are some odd decisions in the film, most of them owing to poor pacing decisions and budgetary issues, but on the whole it holds together really well.

There's also something truly admirable about how it decides on such an outlandish premise and really sticks to it. While there would be nothing wrong with the film not taking itself seriously, I really appreciate that it does fully embrace its telepathic demon snake as a viable villain.

If nothing else, I am delighted to recommend a film with so delightful a climax as this. It's one of the most literal versions of "Man vs. Nature" you can find.

This has concluded Day 19 of HubrisWeen 2018! To see what the other Celluloid Zeroes chose for S, click the banner above!

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