Sunday, November 23, 2008

Shake, Rattle, And Yikes!

Unfortunately for me, the only thing Indiana Jones and I have in common is that we both hate snakes. Even though Florida-based filmmaker William Grefé's slithery scare movie STANLEY, new on DVD from BCI in a lovingly produced special edition, isn't very good, its slimy-looking stars practically guarantee a few squirmy moments.

Chris "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on GENERAL HOSPITAL" Robinson is very good as Tim, a Native American Vietnam vet plagued by headaches who shuns the white man's world and survives in a rustic cabin in the Everglades, where he collects rattlers for medical research. He also adopts several of them as friends, naming his best pal, which he takes everywhere, Stanley. As much as Tim digs snakes, most people hate them, particularly nasty Thomkins (Alex Rocco, who shot this while doing publicity in Miami for THE GODFATHER, which hadn't yet come out) and his bigoted henchman Crail (Steve Alaimo, who played the dull hero in Grefé's WILD REBELS), who hunt them and skin them for Thomkins' clothing line. When a crazed 'Nam vet who loves rattlers meets racist capitalists in a chintzy Bill Grefé joint, you know plenty of chomping is on the way.

Probably best remembered for one character's animated pool splashing with a few dozen water moccasins, the PG-rated STANLEY is too slow and meandering for most horror fans, even though it was a smash hit for Crown International, which released it in the spring of 1972, one year after Cinerama's WILLARD became one of the highest-grossing independent horror films ever. Robinson's contemplative and fearless (as regarding his snake handling) performance is terrific, as is Grefé's eye for swampy locations. STANLEY played double bills with NIGHTMARE IN WAX and CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, among other films.

A few years after STANLEY, drive-in impresario Harry Novak, who usually made softcore quickies, produced RATTLERS, another snakey PG horror movie that Novak's Boxoffice International Pictures released in 1976.  Nerve gas buried by the U.S. Army in the California desert stirs up a few hundred rattlesnakes, which become aggressive and slither in large groups, chomping down on kids, soldiers and whole families.  The local sheriff contacts herpetologist Tom Parkinson (familiar TV face Sam Chew) and photographer Ann Bradley (Elizabeth Chauvet) to look into the matter. 

Whether it was for budget or rating considerations, director John McCauley's reticence to show much violence or gore neuters the terror impact of his film.  We hear a lot about the horrible nature of the swollen corpses the title beasts leave behind, but never see one, and most of the snake attacks occur off-screen.  Killing children is a nice/horrid touch, since it sets up the notion that no one is safe from the rattling reptiles.  Chew, who was a steady TV actor who made many guest appearances on shows like THE BIONIC WOMAN and MANNIX, makes for a passionless leading man who strikes no romantic sparks with co-star Chauvet. 

Still, despite RATTLERS' failings, the concept of killer snakes roaming wild and striking nonsuspecting humans can't fail to inspire shivers, and a STANLEY/RATTLERS twinbill may have you checking your floor before getting off the couch.

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