Stanley. Now there’s a name to inspire fear amongst the masses, yes? Well, this was the ‘70s, and wheels turned in the horror world whichever way the road to success was paved. Such is the case with the aforementioned Stanley (1972), a film looking to mooch off the big earnings of 1971’s Willard; but instead of rats, we get snakes. And a whole lot of them.
With Willard leading the charge, the ‘70s had a veritable menagerie of When Animals Attack films, with the films switching gears from smaller critters (Willard, Frogs) to big ‘uns following the blowout phenomena of Jaws (’75). But for now, we’ll focus on one of the many creature flicks that slithered through drive-ins the end of May; no good notices to be found, but for those who hung around for the second feature, they were treated to a revenge story with bizarre behavior, colorful characters, and some decent kills. Kind of a perfect bottom halfer, really. And brought to you by Crown International, who could pump out the knock offs like nobody’s business; if it’s been Crown’ed, you’re usually in for a solid, guilt free time. Stanley is no exception.
Let’s hear it for the boy: meet Tim Ochopee (Chris Robinson – The Intruder), a Seminole who’s just returned from a stint in Vietnam and now collects snakes; he’s a bit of a loner (as is the norm in this corner of exploitation) who pals around with his favorite serpent, Stanley. When local gangster Richard Thomkins (Alex Rocco – The Godfather) comes knocking, Tim is adamant against working with him as Thomkins killed his father, who was encroaching on his land. Instead, Tim decides to avenge his dad’s death with some help from his little friends.
That’s it, that’s the tweet, as the kids say; Stanley isn’t obsessed with vulgarities such at plot and motivation, but rather thrives on set pieces of creepy reptiles slithering this way and that, attacking the prey that Tim orders to obliterate. In other words, switch out snakes for guns or big pieces of wood and you have a standard revenge story.
But the advent of Willard made it possible for horror to explore vengeance from a more personal angle; much like in that film, our “hero” in Stanley feels lonely and dejected, and uses his only friends to seek out his retribution. Were that we had friends like Willard and Stanley to carry out our fantasies; but by doing so the filmmakers add a layer of sympathy to their plights – the only things that can help them will eventually destroy them, leaving them once again betrayed.
Social justice also rears its head; Tim seems partially inspired by Tom Laughlin’s Billy Jack filmic character, who fought back against The Man and stood up for the little person. The difference being that Tim is only out to help himself, even if he spouts “deep” philosophical tenets in a too cool for school cadence. Vietnam is paid such little lip service that it needn’t been involved in the plot at all. He has PTSD, and that’s that.
Director William Grefé (Impulse) seems more interested in the attacks, anyway; if one has an aversion to snakes Stanley will not cure you of your phobia. In fact the different ways that the film utilizes them – a swimming pool, a bed, a strip club – will only add to the list of possible nightmares. I will hand it to Grefé, he takes a particular glee in unleashing the limbless terrors on those that have wronged Tim; and really if you’re going to watch a geek show, you want to see the geeks, yes? Our critters get as much screen time as Tim, and unfortunately more than co-star Rocco.
Alex Rocco receives second billing over Robinson, which seems psychopathic in retrospect; but in ’72 he only had a handful of credits and was about to explode into character actor heaven after his turn as Moe Greene in The Godfather the same year, so it’s understandable. Perhaps it is because Robinson just doesn’t have the screen presence to shine as bright as his costar; but man, does he try. He gives one of the most earnest performances I’ve seen, which is amusing in its own right; stoic doesn’t even cover half of it – one also needs a big heaping of self importance as well. (Okay, it really has a lot in common with Billy Jack’s oeuvre.)
And since the film does careen from set piece to set piece, it doesn’t even seem incongruous that Tim kidnaps Thomkins’ high school daughter near the finale to be the Eve to his Adam. (Pretty sure the apple was supposed to be the only sin, Timmy.) It does not end well, as our titular character decides he’s had enough of Tim’s bossy ways. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Stanley is this: if you don’t want to be overrun by nature, maybe don’t force them to do your bidding – it will leave you once bitten, twice dead.
Stanley is available to stream on Amazon Prime.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: GORGO (1961)