The Killer Snakes (1975) – By Cary Conley

This mid-70’s Shaw Brothers production is a delirious Hong Kong exploitation film.  The plot is almost as old as film itself:  a meek and mild-mannered loser who loves a beautiful girl from afar is ill-treated and abused until he can take it no more.  And when he snaps, you better watch out!

Chen is a young man who has a predilection for looking at bondage mags because he was traumatized as a young child by listening to his mother’s cries of pain/pleasure as her parents often participated in BDSM at all hours of the day and night.  Once as a small child, he became curious enough to stand on a chair and peek through a window at the top of the door, only to see his mother tied up and begging to be whipped harder.  He slipped and fell, creating enough noise for his parents to catch him and beat him for his transgression.

Now as a young man on his own, he works a string of menial jobs, lives in a makeshift room behind a snake shop, and yearns for the beautiful young girl, Xiujuan, who sells toys at a sidewalk shop across from his shanty.  But in a string of bad luck that makes even Mr. Murphy look lucky, poor Chen loses job after job, is mugged and robbed not once but twice, is humiliated by a hooker when he can’t get it up—and charged for the wasted time—and then is stood up by Xiujuan at the movies after paying scalper prices for a sold-out show.

The only things keeping this guy from slipping off a very slippery slope are the cobras that have escaped from the back of the snake shop and befriended Chen.  The cobras are bred for their gall bladders, which are supposed to have medicinal powers.  In probably the harshest and grossest scene, the film opens as we see a live snake have its stomach slit open with a knife, a portion of its internal organs pulled out through the incision, and its gall bladder ripped out, all while the snake is alive and wriggling.  The snake is then unceremoniously dumped on the street to die while the gall bladder is opened and mixed with a drink for a paying customer.  If you have trouble watching actual animal cruelty, this film is definitely not for you!

But Chen rescues the poor snakes, stitching them up, bandaging them, and nursing them back to health.  He discovers he has a natural ability to communicate with the snakes that then help him to seek revenge on the people who have treated him so badly.

Meanwhile, Xiujuan has had to turn to prostitution to make a living.  Chen tracks down her pimp to exact his revenge for mistreating Xiujuan.  In the end, Chen decides to get rid of his friends the snakes by burning them alive, only to have some of them survive long enough to kill Chen in the same hideous way he murdered so many others.

Featuring loads of live snakes being cut and chopped, burned alive, and having their gall bladders removed, this film isn’t for the squeamish or for members of PETA.  But aside for a few very brief scenes involving live snakes, the gore quotient is minimal as basically the snake-bitten victims have some very primitive makeup applied to their faces to show they were bitten.

Though billed as a horror film—and if you don’t like snakes, then certainly this film might be described as horrific—it is much more of a soft core BDSM film.  In fact, this Chinese flick plays more like a Japanese flick, with copious amounts of above-the-waist nudity, a couple of lame sex scenes, including a rape, and plenty of BDSM scenes, including the ubiquitous legs-spread-wide, white panty crotch shot the Japanese so love.

The effects are generally cheap, with some primitive face and arm make-ups to indicate a snakebite victim, while the actual act of being bitten is shown with obviously hand-held snake puppets being pushed back and forth to indicate attempted bites.  But there are plenty of scenes that cross the boundary of bad taste, including a scene of one female victim that is bound and then a snake is allowed to search out her darkest and warmest area before biting her from the inside.  While this isn’t explicitly shown, the idea is clear as we see the snake crawl between the woman’s legs and disappear before the woman begins convulsing.

The entire film is a sordid and seedy affair and is populated by characters and locations that are just as seedy.  In the end, even our beaten-down protagonist is killed, leaving only the burnt and wounded snakes as the victors.  The film is made all the more depressing because the viewer doesn’t feel much sympathy for Chen because while his abuse is what drives him to kill, one gets the sense that even without the heaps of mistreatment Chen was still headed towards a breakdown.  It doesn’t help that Image Entertainment’s DVD image is too dark, making the large number of night scenes hard to see.

I can’t really recommend this film, but if you are a fan of the Shaw Brothers’ cheap exploitation films from the 70’s and 80’s, this one might be worth a rental.