As a child, I first saw a snake with my own two eyes when one of the garter variety slithered through our front lawn and my mom, with a deep abiding fear, called my dad home from the office to slay the beast. (Or shoo it away. Probably that.) I maintain a healthy relationship with snakes: leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone. (I promise I’ll always leave you alone.) Of course, I love to see them in horror movies; the safety of the screen provides nothing but thrills when I know it won’t be coming for me. This brings us to Spasms (1983), a disjointed yet fun film in which a big snake in a big Canadian city wreaks big havoc.
With a troubled production as serpentine as its subject, Spasms saw little theatrical love (or release for that matter) but nested comfortably on video for a while – its white Thorn-Emi hard shell case was ubiquitous – before being forgotten, or at best a footnote on how painful it is to birth a film in the first place. Regardless of its considerable seams, Spasms still works due to some great effects from the late and legendary Dick Smith (The Exorcist) and an international cast of the finest troublemakers that a B film will allow. Well, two anyway; we’ll get to them in a bit.
First, some story: on an island off of New Guinea, a tribe is raising literal hell as they invoke a snake god responsible for taking souls down to hell. Once the serpent demon rises, it causes quite a bloody ruckus before being trapped by outsiders; a call is made to retired hunter and millionaire Jason Kincaid (Oliver Reed – Burnt Offerings) that the beast has been captured and is on its way to his home.
You see, Kincaid and his brother tracked the snake years before; his brother didn’t make it and Kincaid was bitten yet somehow survived. Ever since then, he’s had a psychic link with the reptile and plans to face the demon down once and for all. To this end, he hires psychiatrist Dr. Tom Brasilian (Peter Fonda – Race with the Devil) to monitor the interaction, if possible. The only kink in the plan is our slithery friend escapes from its crate at the university and goes looking for snacks on the mean streets of Toronto. Will Kincaid finally get his one-on-one meeting with the monster, or is he just a delectable British snack?
Spasms is essentially King Kong for the ‘80s, mixed with a dose of When Animals Attack, or in this case slither; it’s unapologetic in its goofiness, or at least isn’t self aware enough to wink at the audience. Director William Fruet (Funeral Home) has certainly assembled the right talent to keep the tittering to a minimum: the film is shot by Mark Irwin (The Dead Zone), has a snake theme written and performed by Tangerine Dream, and of course Dick Smith in charge of snakes n’ bladders.
In front of the lens he gives you not only Reed and Fonda, but also Canadian legends Kerrie Keene (The Incubus) and Al Waxman, who many of you will know as the head cop on Cagney & Lacey, but us Canuckleheads will cherish him on TV as The King Of Kensington, essentially a much nicer Archie Bunker. But I digress; up north we tend to fly the flag when we see our countrymen and women bumping up against bright lights like Reed and Fonda, two actors who spent most of their careers bumping up against things, usually not by choice.
I joke and I kid, but having these alkies/stoners around probably does not a smooth shoot make; and the rumors have swirled for years that the fellas raised some hell in local imbibing stations. (True or not, it sure makes good copy.) That’s only scratching the surface of the woes set upon Death Bite (the original title, loosely based on the novel of the same name); tales of rotating producers and vanishing funds plagued the work until Fruet came on in ’81 to film. (It sat on the shelf for another year before yet another producer scooped it up.) And then there’s the snake, with a last minute switch to go animatronic instead of real reptiles resulting in some of the action being filmed, and some scrapped due to time constraints and/or funding running out. They simply had to piece together what they had and hope for the best.
The best, as it turns out with nearly forty years of hindsight, is still pretty good. Yes those seams are glaring (the truncated ending, the subplot with serpent cult worshippers that goes nowhere, the puzzling focus on Kincaid instead of the ostensible hero Brasilian to name but a few), but what’s left is ninety minutes of snake attacks (all practical) and a glorious turn by Reed.
There are more attacks than I initially remembered (and if you’re cobwebbed like myself, probably more than you think as well), and the ones highlighted are beauts: a bathroom door blowout and the Fangoria cover death of Waxman (which was personally handled by Smith, as he hadn’t done this type of bladder work before). There are other serpent slayings too, not to mention the obligatory POV shots of the creature chasing down folks. Hey, to these withered eyes the snake looks decent enough – I mean, at least it’s there in the shots with the actors.
Perhaps the most unbelievable thing in the film is that the snake would be any kind of match for Reed; sweating profusely, eyes bulging, fingers on temples: these are the latter day Reed staples, which he trots out here in full commitment to the performance. He even throws in a few quiet moments for those who can remember him capable of such. You get full Ollie, is what I’m saying.
Films are a delicate balancing act; that one with such dilemmas as Spasms can still hold it together enough to entertain (go sssit over there with Curtains, will ya?) without shedding its skin completely is a minor movie miracle.
Spasms is available on Blu-ray from Code Red through DiabolikDVD.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE MEPHISTO WALTZ (1971)