“Please people. Don't make me out a monster. I didn't eat the captain Mateo.” – Paul Serone
Gaaah!!!! Anacondas – huge constrictors, some have been found to be well of thirty feet long. Stop and imagine THAT for a second. Truly the stuff of nightmares. They go on land, in trees and in the water. They will eat a human whole, after crushing their prey. One massively powerful muscle, existing only to feed its appetite. They’re such a potently primal scary image that a horror story involving one would just write itself – BUT, Hollywood of course found a way to screw it up spectacularly and vomited out a film that isn’t scary at all, and is ultimately only entertaining due to its unintentionally comedic awfulness.
This could easily have been the Jaws of snake movies but ultimately makes even Grizzly look good by comparison. The performances are so wooden and hammy they make Shatner in Kingdom of the Spiders look positively Shakespearean. Essentially, what we have here is an A-list cast, working with a B-movie script with effects that belong somewhere in the silent era. And it’s hilarious. But it was made so sincerely – without a trace of tongue in cheek, which adds to the hilarity.
I remember the film being announced and covered in Fangoria magazine and thinking that this would be a film that would be the ultimate in sickening effects. After all, we had already seen a giant snake brought to animatronic life by Carlos Rambaldi in Conan the Barbarian (1982). That was one of the film’s most stunning sequences – Arnold Schwarzenegger against a giant serpent. Seeing that there was a fifteen-year gap between Conan and Anaconda, there had been leaps in technology in that time – plus, computer effects were becoming more prevalent since the release of Jurassic Park and its sequel, which showed us how stunningly realistic a mixture of animatronic and computer-generated reptiles could be.
Yeah – I was completely wrong.
Let’s take a look at the train wreck.
In the film’s opening sequence, we see we’re somewhere down the Amazon, and a poacher played by Danny Trejo is in fear of his life. (Not that we know that he’s a poacher – we haven’t seen him poach anything, he’s just running and rolling his eyes in comic pantomime panic.) Something attacks the riverside shack he’s hiding in. Battering the floorboards from underneath so hard, the nails are driven right out of the wood. Desperately, poacher tries to escape this unseen terror by climbing the shack’s radio mast, but it’s hopeless – so he takes his own life rather than face what’s after him. (Okay, nice scene setting there. Like Jaws, we haven’t actually seen the snake yet – so this is a little un-nerving, and there’s going to be a shock reveal -right?)
Cut to our intrepid film crew, who are going down the Amazon filming a documentary about the long-lost indigenous tribe, the Shirishammas. They include director Terri Flores (Jennifer Lopez) her cameraman Danny (Ice Cube) production manager Denise (Kari Wuhrer). Then there’s anthropologist/boyfriend to Terri, Professor Steven Cale (Eric Stoltz) sound engineer Gary (Owen Wilson) and documentary narrator Warren Westridge (Jonathan Hyde) – they rent a boat, which seems to be a shed that floats and its captain, Mateo (Vincent Castellanos) and off they go.
The crew is a stereotypical bunch Terri is the visionary, looking for her big break, Danny is the streetwise rapper, Denise is Gary’s girlfriend, (Gary is basically Owen Wilson playing Owen Wilson in that he mutters nasally throughout) Professor Cale is a boring know-all (no real stretch for the one dimensional Stoltz) and Warren is played as a typical pompous-ass Brit.
They soon come across a guy stranded on the river and decide, like good Samaritans, to pick him up. Big, big mistake. This is Paul Serone (Jon Voight). Voight’s performance here is nothing short of incredible – and I don’t mean that in a good way. (He plays the role with some odd dramatic choices and tics. When he’s not chewing the scenery, he adopts a facial expression I can only describe as “leering pervert”. The kind of expression you might see if someone was peeking through your bathroom window. Once you realise that’s what it looks like, the film becomes even funnier.)
Now we have our oh-so-obvious bad guy on board, it’s time to have some fun. (That Serone is the villain is telegraphed from his first scene, where despite gaining the crew’s trust, he does everything except twirl an imaginary moustache at the camera like Dick Dastardly)
Anaconda takes a lot of its story beats from The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), in which an expedition was looking for the Gill-Man, half man, half fish. Both films had their crews suddenly trapped on the Amazon for dramatic reasons, both films had somebody injured, both films had the hunted become the hunter, both films had dramatic scenes using dynamite, spotlights… you get the picture. (Just to emphasise, The Creature from the Black Lagoon is clearly the better film, okay?)
So, the ship gets trapped, the professor goes to untangle the propeller and is himself injured when an Amazonia wasp has somehow got in to his breathing apparatus and stung him on the inside of his throat. Serone quickly performs something like a tracheotomy and saves his life. They need to get him to a hospital pronto, Serone knows the way…. Anyhow, he’s taking over now the expedition leader is down. He put the wasp in the Prof’s aqualung. And he persuades Gary to help him. (Boo, hiss)
Serone is a snake hunter and is after an elusive forty-foot-long Anaconda which would be worth a million caught alive and sold to a zoo or a private collector. (Some points I’d like to raise here. The first is who the HELL would collect a forty-foot anaconda as a hobby? Also, the amount of money hasn’t been printed yet that could lure me down the Amazon in search of a creature like that.)
So, the whole stranded angle is just that – an angle, the plan was to take over the expedition so Serone can capture this big snake. Okay.
In the meantime, they’re being watched by the anaconda who’s not far off (again, shades of the Gill Man) in one sequence, the snake quickly attacks and overwhelms a black panther. (Now, I thought there was something a little bit “off” with this sequence, two things to be honest – black panthers are rare in the Amazon but as a member of the Jaguar family – aren’t totally unknown. The other point, I’ll keep until later, as it dawned on me later in the film) During another night sequence, Gary and Denise slip away from the boat for an “interlude”. (Honestly, who’d want to have sex at night in the Amazon? That whole place is filled with creatures that either want to crawl up your urethra, kill you or both. Stupid horny kids.)
Anyway, they’re disturbed by a wild boar – which is not only a dampener on their passion but also unusual as there aren’t any wild boars in the Amazon. (If only that was the only factual oversight…)
On to the snake – which is why we’re watching the film, right? We’ve seen its point of view – what I like to call “hisstavision” – when the reptile appears, unlike Jaws where our eyes were open wide with surprise – this is more a case of eyes open wide in disbelief. The anaconda is at times an animatronic – i.e. a mechanical snake. At one point, it malfunctioned and started to thrash about wildly, and the cameras kept rolling and that mishap was edited into the film when it attacks. At other times, it’s a computer-generated image. I wish I could say it wasn’t so – but the two look nothing alike. The markings are completely different – AND unfortunately, the snake is hardly ever the same size in two scenes. Also, facially, it has an odd look to it. The eyes are more forward facing than on the sides of the head and they’re narrowly slanted to give the snake a more “evil” and malicious look, rather than the more rounded eyes you’d expect.
Oh, but there’s more. This beast is the only serpent on the planet to have developed the ability to growl and make cat-like noises. Snakes don’t have vocal cords, but apparently, this one does. (Saints preserve us, it’s the most talented snake since that talking one in the Garden of Eden).
I said earlier there was something about it that seemed “off” and during a battle with our rapidly dwindling crew, I realised what it was. This thing spins its prey around in its coils and squeezes. That’s not how constricting snakes work. First off, they latch on to their prey with their mouths, so their head is the anchoring point. Then, they wrap themselves around the victim and dislodge their jaws to swallow whole. (During filming, one poor cast member spun around, and lifted his arm. When the CGI ‘conda was added afterward, his arm is still clearly visible THROUGH the snake).
Also, the speed of its movements is all wrong. One poor victim is desperately trying to get away, and jumps from a waterfall – the snake literally winds itself around a tree, and whips itself out, grabbing the victim in mid-air and coiling itself around him. Having a snake THAT large move THAT quickly is ridiculous looking and that sequence is one of the most ludicrous I’ve ever seen. (It’s up there with the “dropping anchor at flank speed and executing virtually a handbrake turn with the USS Missouri” in Battleships). Terri shoots the anaconda in the eye.
Of course, the villainous Serone is still around and wants an anaconda damnit! He tries to lure a snake into a trap, using Terri and Danny as bait in a refuelling shack, dousing the bound together two in a bucket of monkey blood. (He must’ve killed a lot of moneys for that bucketful, and he misses them with his bucketful anyway, if you look carefully). The shack seems to be a nest – there are “baby anacondas” aplenty. (Uh, no – they’re very clearly boa constrictors)
The snake that arrives is (gasp) EVEN BIGGER. And this one moves so fast it actually skids around corners. (I swear to God….) Serone’s retribution is to be caught and crushed – then, bafflingly, we see a camera angle from INSIDE the snake as he is swallowed whole – only to be regurgitated in front of Terri moments later. As he slides out of the snake’s mouth, covered in saliva and goo – he WINKS saucily at Terri before slumping forward, dead. He winks????????
Anyhow, Terri and Danny manage to get away from the snake and it chases them around the shack (cue Benny Hill music) before they escape up a chimney, and blow the shack up with one huge snake aflame from head to tippy tail. Only for the now disfigured snake (which eventually had the presence of mind to extinguish itself in the water) to pop its head out of the water one last time, like a serpent Phantom of the Opera before being killed once and for all with an axe.
On the way back, the Prof is recovering, Terri and Danny are safe and they spot the lost tribe they were looking forward to in the first place…
As Terri said in despair; “This film was supposed to be my big break. But it turned out to be a big disaster.” No argument here, sister.
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