January 28, 2008

DVD Review: The Killer Snakes

In 2007, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez teamed up to bring, or attempt to bring, the grind house experience back to the big screen. Each of them crafted a film that fit into the mold, but while the experience was fantastic, it did not exactly live up to its billing. It was more of an homage than a recreation. The movies were just a little too slick, and dare I say, good. They got the aesthetic down, with the built in scratches and marks that made the prints seem old and word out. You may be wondering what this has to do with the movie at hand, well this is a real grind house type film. At least, this is what I presume such a film would be like. When you add in the English dub track on the DVD, forget about it, you may just as well be in a darkened theater with sticky floors, crappy projection, seats with springs sticking out, and that odor that you can't quite put your finger on.

The legendary Shaw Brothers studio in Hong Kong birthed The Killer Snakes. They are mostly known for their fantastic collection of martial arts films, including Five Fingers of Death, the film that helped launch the kung-fu craze of the seventies while playing the grind house circuit. Despite their martial arts notoriety, they were also involved in dramas, musicals, and even the exploitation genre. It is that exploitation genre within which The Killer Snakes lands, and exactly what makes this a grind house film.

The DVD case attempts to play up the controversial and titillating nature of the film with "WARNING: Contains extremely sick and disturbing scenes. Not suitable for most people." The big question is whether or not it lives up to that billing. It is too bad that the answer is not quite so simple.

The film tells the story of Chen Chih-hung (Kam Kwok-leung). He is a poor delivery boy who has dealt with a life of being picked on and beaten up, not to mention the sexual perversions of his father that he had the unfortunate happenstance of witnessing. All of these factors have led to him being an introverted and sexually frustrated young man. He lives in a dirty shack next to a barber. By day he delivers food and dodges beatings from the local thugs, by night he fantasizes to magazine pictures depicting bondage and other fetishistic images. This is his life, as sad as it is, until the fateful night that an injured cobra slithers into his home. He takes care of the snake, nursing it back to health, and realizes that he has a special relationship with the scaly reptile, and the other snakes that accompany Xienbao (the name he gave the snake).

Chen decides to use his newfound friends to exact his revenge on those that have done him wrong. That is, when he isn't putting his fetish fantasies into practice with a variety of prostitutes, who he also rapes by way of snake (yes, you read that right). Of course, his decisions lead to a tragic end that you may not see coming.

Is it a good movie? Not particularly. Yes, it succeeds at creating a grimy, gritty atmosphere, helped along by real violence against snakes (if you are sensitive to animal cruelty, avoid this movie). However, the store moves along at such a slow pace that it is difficult to build up any real interest in the characters or his plight.

Audio/Video. Considering the source, it looks pretty darn good. Yes, it is showing its age and low-budget roots, but the transfer is quite spiffy. The colors are clean and there is little evidence of dust and marks. The original Manadarin audio track sounds fine, but if you want that grind house experience choose the English dub, which has not been cleaned up and is muffled and noisy.

Extras. This is limited to a stills gallery and the original trailer. However, there is a large supplemental section containing a load of other Shaw Brothers trailers.

Bottomline. The combination of slow pacing, exploitive content, and a low budget veneer all add up to a rather surreal experience. If you are a fan of the genre, or just like these weird, odd ball obscure films, this will be worth a peek. Just be sure to keep your expectations low. Personally, I am wavering between finding it too slow and alluringly surreal. Stange, strange movie.

Mildly Recommended.


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