Saturday, 1 March 2014

Mega Snake

Director: Tibor Takacs
Writers: Alex J Volz, Robby Robinson
Producers: Boaz Davidson, David Varod, Bernd Ringswandl
Cast: Michael Shanks, Siri Baruc, Ben Cardinal
Country: USA/Germany
Year of release: 2007
Reviewed from: UK DVD (Revolver)

Isn’t it fabulous to see a good, old-fashioned movie poster which completely lies to the audience? Take a look at this promo artwork for Mega Snake (two words as on screen, although some promo material spells it as one) with a Godzilla-sized serpent smashing down buildings as jet fighters and attack helicopters pound it with missiles.

The actual title monster in Mega Snake does not knock down any buildings - in fact the whole film takes place not in a city but in a small town in rural Tennessee. There are no jet fighters or helicopters or indeed any kind of military or government intervention. And the snake definitely ain’t that big (nor does it have a cobra’s cowl, for that matter).

Nevertheless, this is a fun monster movie and the snake does grow much larger than even the biggest python or black mamba. I would put this into the subgenre of MSM - medium-sized monster - movies. Other MSMs would be things like the creatures in Garuda and The Host. Anything that’s abnormally or dangerously large but no bigger than a real animal such as a whale or a sauropod dinosaur: that’s an MSM. There you go, that’s another subgenre I’ve invented.

Filmed in Bulgaria, this US-German co-production directed by the ever-reliable Tibor Takacs for the good ol’ Sci-Fi Channel (soon to be rebranded as the CGI Monsters Channel, I believe - not that I’m complaining) opens with a prologue in the late 1980s as young Les Daniels (Itai Diakov, a child actor who played a zombie in JS Cardone’s Wicked Little Things) tries to get out of going to church.

This is because his parents are members of a fundamentalist sect that practices snake-handling. According to online man-in-a-pub Wikipedia, there are about forty churches in the Southern USA who still do this, passing around copperheads, rattlesnakes and other poisonous reptiles without (usually) being bitten. The preacher in the Daniels’ church reads out Luke 10:19, which is one of the essential texts: “Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you.”

Les’ mother Dixie (Laura Giosh Markov: Day of the Dead remake), unnamed father and elder brother Duff (Ioan Karamfilov, who was also in Wicked Little Things as well as Anthony Hickox’s Submerged) are all believers but young Les is doubtful and when he is given a snake to hold, it lashes out and bites his father. Instead of seeking urgent medical attention, the assembled brethren declare that this is God’s will and Mr Daniels dies.

Twenty years later, Les and Duff are still living with their mother in the same house. Les is now played by Stargate SG-1 star Michael Shanks, Duff by John T Woods (Recently Deceased, Zombie Strippers) and their mom is still played by Laura Giosh Markov (in pretty convincing old-age make-up). Les is now a paramedic, partnered with sassy blonde Fay (Israeli actress Michal Yannai who was in Takacs’ squid-flick Kraken) and Duff appears to be generally unemployed. The upshot of the events in the prologue is supposedly that Les now has a fear of snakes but although this is mentioned a couple of times (“He’s afraid of commitment, afraid of snakes, afraid of everything!”) there’s absolutely no evidence of it, not even when his brother brings a snake home or when he starts investigating a damn great snake. Nor is there any evidence of regret at having inadvertently caused his father’s death. Nor, for that matter, is there any evidence of bitterness towards his family who evidently still like a spot of the old snake-handling of a Sunday morning. (Despite this, the Sci-Fi Channel publicity quoted Shanks as saying, “My character has been scarred for life ever since from witnessing this and has a deathly fear of snakes.”)

Duff’s church duties apparently involve finding new snakes so he seeks out Native American tattoo artist Screaming Hawk (Cree actor Ben Cardinal: Magic in the Water) who has a back-of-the-shop sideline as a reptile-dealer. Among the limbless beasties on offer is a small snake, swimming in a sealed jar of water, which Screaming Hawk says is an Unteka. Or possibly the Unteka. There’s a silly script snafu here where the white guy asks why he has never heard of this snake and the snake dealer says that it’s because his people killed them all except this one. But this story is later repeated as ‘the Unteka killed a whole bunch of Indians’ which I suppose could also be true but isn’t what Screaming Hawk said. Anyway, despite being warned to leave the Unteka alone, Duff can’t resist half-inching it when Screaming Hawk is distracted by a customer in the tattoo parlour.

Back home, the jar gets knocked to the floor and smashes – and Les is sure he sees the snake magically grow from a few inches to a couple of feet before Duff captures it in a Tupperware container. That night, a curious kitten investigates the container too closely and pays the price. It won’t be the last cute animal to die in this movie which is actually quite gleefully nasty in places.

Against all this is the human story. Les is dating Erin (Siri Baruc: Spliced, Unholy, The Glass Trap) who is a ‘Ranger’ - some sort of law enforcement, I don’t know - and wants to settle down. A lovers’ tiff leads to the couple drinking separately in a bar: Les with Fay (they spend the night together but nothing happens) and Erin with another ranger, vain arsehole ‘Big Bo’ (Todd Jensen: Copperhead, Sabretooth, Project Shadowchaser II and IV, Cyborg Cop - whom I met on the set of Rampage/Breeders). From the moment he appears, the audience is rooting for Big Bo to get his come-uppance and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that he eventually does.

The next morning Duff finds the escaped snake - now more distinctly snake-sized - and deposits it in a rabbit hutch (snake hutch?), unaware that it has slaughtered not only all the family’s chickens but also his mother whose bloody remains are in the henhouse. To be honest, around this point it becomes quite difficult to follow the precise order of events because the movie has a somewhat lax attitude towards the concepts of night and day. There’s nothing as egregiously bad as the night-time broad daylight scene in Haunted Prison but there are sequences which seem to take place at the same time in different time zones. It certainly looks like Dixie goes out to feed the chickens (in daylight) while Duff and Les are drinking and arguing in a bar in town (at night). Or something.

Some of the night/day and day/night scene changes seem to be there to indicate the passage of time but if they are all taken that way then the events of a couple of days actually take place over about a week. It’s not enough to make the film unenjoyable but it is distracting.

Long story short, the snake keeps growing and people start disappearing, mostly folk that we don’t know. A family out camping by the lake are gobbled up and their car later discovered, complete with smashed windows, loads of blood and huge, parallel fang-scratches on the paintwork but Bo dismisses Erin’s theory that a giant snake must be to blame. (The father is Terry Winkless who was apparently director of various Power Rangers episodes, writer of The Howling and the actor inside one of the Banana Splits costumes! The mother is Andrea Enright who appeared with Winkless as a pair of deputies in Lake Placid 2.)

As Bo and Erin are studying the damaged car, a fat chap in a fancy vehicle turns up who is obviously the mayor. We know this because (a) fat guys in fancy cars in these films are always the mayor, (b) Bo calls him ‘Mayor’ right at the end of the scene and (c) in the grand tradition of not closing the beaches, he wants the next day’s country fair to go ahead. That’s the first we’ve heard of a country fair but then it’s the first (and last) we see of the mayor who is credited as ‘Artimus’ on screen although that name is never mentioned (he is played by Michael McCoy, a veteran of both Lake Placid 2 and Wicked Little Things).

At one stage Bo arrests Les for the murder of his family but Erin springs him from gaol, having discovered a giant snakeskin that the creature has shed in the woods. This is left on the police station doorstep so Bo sets out with two previously unseen rangers who really should have been looped as their dialogue is so wooden that they might well have learned it phonetically.

It all culminates with the now-giant snake attacking the fairground. There is some attempt to exploit this novel scenario, most successfully with a roller-coaster full of decapitated bodies (although it’s not clear how the snake managed to bite so many heads off as the car whizzed around). The snake also attacks the dodgems and a kiddie roller-coaster. I had hopes, as it slithered onto the track, that the smily caterpillar cars would come round and then, one circuit later, be replaced by the similar-diameter serpent, but if this was ever planned it’s not in the finished movie.

Les and Erin have by now teamed up with Screaming Hawk to stop the monster and Les has to understand the meaning of the three warnings which apply to the Unteka in a derivative but unnecessary spin on Gremlins. These are: Never let it out of the jar (well, duh!); never let it eat anything living; and ‘never fear the heart of the serpent’. This last one becomes rather literal in the admittedly quite exciting - if frankly rather silly - climax.

Sci-Fi Channel creature features are often fairly formulaic - and Mega Snake is no exception. But what it does, it does pretty well. There’s nothing really bad about it and a few bits are actually good, plus the problematic stuff - like the main character’s claimed but non-existent phobia of snakes - are no great hindrance to enjoyment. Tibor Takacs can probably direct these things in his sleep now, having helmed Mansquito, Kraken: Tentacles of the Deep, The Black Hole, Ice Spiders and this film all within a two-year period. But that’s the thing about Sci-Fi. They like reliable film-makers who can deliver the goods on budget, on schedule and to an acceptable level of excitement.

Takacs’ other films include Killer Rats, the Andy Hurst-scripted Earthquake and The Gate I and II. He also, somewhat oddly, directed the feature-length pilot of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, some episodes of the TV series and the spin-off TV movie Sabrina Goes to Rome. But then, I always maintained that Sabrina was actually a much better show than it was generally given credit for. Other TV work includes The Outer Limits, The Crow: Stairway to Heaven and Earth: Final Conflict.

The cast also includes Nick Harvey and Harry Anichkin as two old guys who live in adjacent houses in the middle of the woods and set out to hunt the snake using a home-made flame-thrower. There’s probably a gay subtext in these two characters if you look hard enough. Both actors have another giant snake film on their CV: Anichkin was in Boa vs Python (also Octopus 2, Shark Attack 3 and Alien Hunter) while Harvey was in Copperhead - and, interestingly, now runs a talent agency together with Todd Jensen.

Charles Campbell, who plays the young priest in the prologue, is credited as Charles ‘Chuck’ Campbell and is presumably there as a sort of two-for-one deal for the Stargate fans as he plays the technician Chuck in Stargate Atlantis. Neither Alex J Volz nor Robby Robinson has any other produced script credit that I can locate: Volz may be the German advertising guru Alexander Volz. Or possibly not.

Mega Snake is a Nu Image production, from the people who brought us Octopus, Spiders, Shark Attack, Crocodile and assorted unconnected sequels to same. In practice this means that Avi Lerner and Danny Dimbort were executive producers while producer Boaz Davidson came up with the story. All three gentlemen are on my interview wants list and have been for some time. However, despite opening with the Nu Image logo, the actual copyright lies with Taxer GmbH, a German company presumably run by gloriously named producer Bernd Ringswandl and his even more marvellously named wife, Margarete Taxer-Ringswandl, credited here as ‘co-executive producer’. David Varod, another Nu Image dude, is the other producer while Ewerhard Ed Engels is the other Boy, those Germans sure have great names!

The cinematographer is Emil Topuzov (Wicked Little Things, Mansquito, Shark Zone) and Takacs’ regular editor Ellen Fine handled the Avid. The music is by Guy Zerafa (Replicant, Killer Rats, Gladiator Cop) and Dave Klotz (Rats, Eyeborgs) who weirdly doesn't seem to be credited on this disc. Ashley Miller, credited as Music Supervisor, has a string of credits including Shark Zone, Raging Sharks, Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy, Shark Attack 3 and even some films that aren’t about sharks. Production designer Carlos Da Silva, like many of the crew, worked on Wicked Little Things, the Day of the Dead remake and assorted other Tibor Takacs pictures.

But the thing that sells a Sci-Fi Channel creature feature is of course the creature and it must be said that this one’s pretty good (the absence of fur and limbs must have made things somewhat easier). Scott Coulter of Worldwide FX was the Visual Effects Producer and he has a string of credits going back twenty years to the likes of Robot Holocaust and Class of Nuke ‘Em High. He spent ten years or so doing physical effects on pictures such as Arena, 976-EVIL II, The Mangler, Cellar Dweller, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey and Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight, then segued into digital effects on the likes of The Prophecy, Spiders I and II, Crocodile 2, Alien Lockdown, The Snake King, AI Assault and John Carl Buechler’s version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

When it’s small, Coulter’s CGI snake is thoroughly believable. When it grows huge, slightly less so merely because of the speed with which it moves. However there are some great shots of it interacting with people and I think it’s probably only the very final shot which uses a physical section of snake.

There is one final oddity to note about Mega Snake. There is a scene at the fairground where a whole bunch of kids get excited because a guy in a superhero costume comes on stage to warn them about the dangers of electricity. When the giant snake appears, the kids run screaming and the superhero guy tries to fend it off with a microphone stand.

Now, I had to do a bit of Googling to find out what was going on here. It seems that the Sci-Fi Channel, in between CGI monster movies, had its own reality TV series called Who Wants to be a Superhero?, presented by none other than Smilin’ Stan Lee himself. Members of the American public entered this X-Factor-meets-X-Men show by designing and making their own costumes, inventing a cool name and dreaming up what their superpowers could be, then competing in some sort of contests which saw one person eliminated each week by popular vote.

The winner was a young chap named Matthew Atherton aka ‘Feedback’ and although I used the phrase ‘members of the American public’ in the preceding paragraph, he was in fact a professional actor who had already had guest roles in episodes of NCIS and Malcolm in the Middle. I’m sure all the other contestants were actors too. The people who compete in American Idol or The X-Factor or any of these shows are never just talented amateurs who sing in the shower, they’re always minor league pros.

So anyway, part of the prize was that the winning superhero would get to appear in an original movie on the Sci-Fi Channel - and here it is. However, it would seem that Feedback and his fans are rather disappointed by Matthew Atherton’s brief cameo as a man dressed as a superhero and were, presumably, expecting a full-blown Feedback: The Movie. I don’t know the whys and wherefores or the ins and outs here but I would certainly be happy to be menaced by a giant snake in a Tibor Takacs film. I mean, come on: how cool is that?

In the subgenre of medium-sized monster giant snake films, Mega Snake is pretty respectable and I feel the urge to give it plaudits for its outrageously deceitful publicity campaign.

MJS rating: B+

review originally posted 14th March 2008

1 comment:

  1. Sabrina Goes to Rome was also produced by another out of place genre vet, Ovidio G Assonitis, the very same behind Beyond the Door, tentacles, Piranha 2 andThe Visitor.