‘The Killer Snakes’ has more than enough to crawl under one’s skin
The story of a man or woman pushed to the edge of endurance by pressures of their socio-economic status, prejudice, personal enemies, their own past mistakes and plain bad luck and who opt to fight back with disproportionate force has been told many times already. Most people are already pretty familiar with this sort of tale of the outcast who is trampled on, figuratively and literally, only to avenge his lot on the inconsiderate souls who stupidly chose to kick them while they were down. As is so often the case with films’s which tread on familiar territory, the question becomes what the filmmakers can do to freshen things up. The Killer Snakes, from director Kuei Chih-Hung, uses this very idea of a young man standing up for himself and standing on others who did him wrong with some very strange psychedelic twists and plenty of slippery snakes!
Zhihong (Kam Kwok Leung) lives in one of Hong Kong’s many shantytowns where the metropolis’ poor and destitute make their homes. Very much a loner, always wearing the same filthy purple t-shirt and jeans, Zhihong owns few friends and fewer hopes of earning a decent living. What little money he earned at low end job is stolen by a local whore and her curiously dressed pimps who to take the opportunity to beat the stuffing out of him. The only shining light in his life is Xiujuan (Maggie Lin Lin-lin), the girl who lives nearby and, contrary to just about everyone else, never shuns him away. When even her own fate corrupted by nefarious forces, Zhihong decides to take matters into his own hands, inspired by some terrible memories of his masochistic parents and the cobras he has saved from certain death from a strange cafe where people drink a liquid extracted from the animals’ gall gland. Things get a little weird at this point, to say the least.
Kuei’s The Killer Snakes unquestionably plays its cards very differently from the majority of other Shaw films. This is one of the rare movies reviewed in the column for which the story happens in modern times, in this case 1975, and features virtually no action, unless one considers vicious beatings and torture porn ‘action,’ but that is a completely different discussion. Its subject matter will keep a fair amount of people at bay. Not everyone needs or wants to see a naked woman tied up from her feet to her hands have a snake slither up her v-…readers probably get the point. Snake Killers earns a lot of credit for trying to sow many harsh themes and story points together in depicting the protagonist’s psycho-sexual deterioration. It is one of those movies that throws a lot into the mix in order to follow through on its general plan for character arcs although not all of it sticks.
One thing films of this ilk always do, for good or ill, is provide a sense of back-story as to why the central figure is so unusual. For Killer Snakes, this proves to be both a blessing and a curse, if mostly because too little, as opposed to too much, is divulged. Black and white flashbacks revealing that his childhood home was dominated by a violently sexual culture as well as Zhihong’s attraction to snakes started very early provide some if not all the necessary insight into his current state of mind. In the movie’s most pornographic moments, the desperate young man imagines himself torturing random naked named women with, for example, hot wax dripping from a lit candle. With vivid red light bleeding into the images, the camera moves in close, psychedelic music blasting, images of a torture porn magazine he had leafed through previously are worked into the perverse seances, the sequences are arresting for how utterly discomforting they are. It is an assault on the senses and anyone who finds it off putting can rest assured that the movie is accomplishing its mission. Where the film fails to fully pay off in spades is when Zhihong starts to apply this dreams on real people who feels the need to liquidate. There is a beat or two missing to truly connect why this young man, who tries to be a decent person, would resort to these methods. It also does not help that in one particular scene he opts to torture, then have sex with, then torture again and finally kill someone while he clearly could be helping someone he needs to locate. The seeds for some genuinely provocative character development and plot points are there, but there are stretches when the film will either simplify the logic (he is mentally unstable and thus gives in to sadism) them or even indulge too much in the act of provocation.
The moment in the opening flashback whereupon Zhihong takes out a small snake from a purse and pets in, as if the animal provided a sort of distraction from his very loud parents in the next room, is silly. That said, it does lead to some deliciously creepy scenes later on when the protagonist, now a young adult, offers a hoard of snakes, among them some cobras, refuge in his dilapidated room. Not one or two snakes, but an army of them! One assumes the filmmakers brought along some snake handlers onto the set to help with the filming with various scenes because some include so many snakes crawling all over the floors, stairs and walls that would have otherwise been an impossible task to properly control them. When a slimy gangster takes advantage of a drunk Xiujuan for sex in the latter stages, Zhihong decides to have his entire collection infiltrate the house where the rape occurs. Quite honestly, those cursed with a genuine fear of snakes should certainly remain as far away from this movie as possible.
For whatever faults the film possesses in respect to indulging too much in the sexual content or the simplification of Zhihong’s ultimate strategy to deal a blow to those who have harmed him, there is a wonderfully awkward tone that sets itself in from the opening scene to the very last frame. The music is at times fit for a horror film, other times its rhythm resembles that of a children’s lullaby. The visuals are often quite dark, with many of the locations draped in the shadow of the night and dimly lit areas of the particularly grimy neighborhood where the story occurs. Some plot elements also further make the point that the predicaments the characters find themselves provide bleak chances for happy resolutions, such as when poor Xiao Chuan finds herself unable to pay rent and is sucked into prostitution (this after her sickly father passes away, no less). Then of course there is Kam Kwok Leung himself, who gives an unreservedly bizarre performance as Zhihong who clearly is a sad, sad little man and not very comfortable in his own skin . Make no mistake about it, Killer Snakes is an extremely bleak film, both visually and tonally.
High art The Killers Snakes is not. There are plenty of scenes that will have people wonder if it is not a variation of the torture porn genre. The film lives off of its oddities, its griminess, its perplexing central figure and ends up being a decent grindhouse-like affair.