Although the famous Shaw Bros. studio is primarily associated with its output of martial arts films, it has also been responsible for a fair number of sleazy exploitation howlers. “The Killer Snakes” is an excellent case in point, a lurid and thoroughly unpleasant shocker which was actually released in the West under several different guises, albeit in heavily truncated form. The reasoning behind this censorship is quite obvious upon viewing, as the film is a slithering mass of sexual deviance, enough to challenge even the most sordid examples of modern Category III cinema.
However, what really sets “The Killer Snakes” apart and makes it rather unique is its unfaltering and extreme nihilism. The Hong Kong of the film is a filthy hellhole, with an almost palpable smell, where all the women are conniving prostitutes with shrill voices and all the men are brutal thugs. The plot itself is a basic take off of the 1971 non-classic “Willard”, and substituting snakes and other reptiles for rats. The central character is Chen (Kam Kwok-leung, “Purple Storm”), a downtrodden, bullied young man who lives in a shack which just happens to be next door to a snake shop which sells medicine made from the unfortunate reptiles’ gall bladders. After he heals a cobra which has managed to escape from the shop, Chen discovers that he has the power not only to communicate with snakes, but that they are only too happy to do his bidding.
In order to impress Xiujuan (Maggie Lee, also in the classic “The Prodigal Boxer”), a local market girl who shows him kindness, Chen gets a job as a deliveryman in an attempt to make something of himself. Unfortunately, after being set upon and robbed, he loses the job, which unhappily coincides with Xiujuan being forced to become a prostitute in order to pay her father’s hospital bills. These events send the already unstable Chen over the edge, and he uses his snakes to get revenge in a series of horrible attacks.
The main problem with “The Killer Snakes” is that there are no likable characters whatsoever, and thus no one for the viewer to identify with. Chen himself, though undoubtedly hard done by and badly treated, is a monstrous, sweaty pervert who spends one half of the film fantasizing about S&M, and the other half raping and killing. The only reason we are given for his degenerate nature is his having witnessed his parents indulging in some bondage and spanking. Since half of his actions appear to be inspired by personal gain, or the need to fulfill his perverse desires, the revenge aspect of the film is fairly redundant. When added to the fact that all of the other characters in the film are equally unappealing, the viewer is left only with the snakes to root for, as they at least have some form of integrity, a fact which makes for rather depressing viewing.
Director Chin Hung Kuei (who also directed the Shaw Bros. women in prison film “Bamboo House of Dolls”) actually seems to be aiming for this reaction from the viewer, deliberately removing all traces of humour and energetic chaos which have made similar efforts more palatable. The film’s visceral content is disturbing rather than titillating, and though there is a great deal of sex and nudity, it is entirely of the perverse variety, including some sickening scenes where Chen uses his snakes to violate his unfortunate victims in the most horrible fashion.
Perhaps most gruesome of all are the sequences of animal cruelty, where the poor snakes are cut open for their organs, all of it shown in grotesque detail. One scene in particular, where hordes of snakes are hurled at a potential victim, only to be sliced up mid air by a sword, surely represents one of the worst instances of animal maltreatment ever captured on screen.
Adding to the overall griminess of “The Killer Snakes” is the fact that Kuei shoots the whole film like a bad LSD trip, complete with flashing colours and a soundtrack of horrible screeches. As well, all of the killings and rapes are shown in leering close-up, in a manner which makes the viewer squirm. Although Kuei should perhaps be due some credit for choosing not to glamorise these scenes or to play them for cheap thrills, the overall result is a truly ugly film, which in many places is quite hard to sit through and even harder to enjoy as a whole.
Depressing, and presenting an unwaveringly hateful view of the human race, “The Killer Snakes” is a film only recommended to die hard fans of exploitation cinema, or those strange individuals who enjoy seeing real life snakes being pulverised.
Chin Hung Kuei (director) / Kuang Ni (screenplay)
CAST: Maggie Lee, Lin Feng, Kwok-Leung Gan