Somehow, Oliver Reed managed to be in not one but two killer snake movies in the early ’80s. The first and better-known is Venom, a tidy little thriller with an ace cast (Klaus Kinski, Nicol Williamson, Sarah Miles, Susan George, etc.) and a tight, smartly directed thriller plot. The other is Spasms: a thoroughly loopy Canadian quickie that paired Reed with Peter Fonda, a few tax-shelter regulars behind and in front of the camera and a shaggy dog of a story that romps through an array of period-specific horror clichés.
The story begins with natives in New Guinea rousing some sort of vicious, demonic serpent god. Hunters capture it and Jason Kincaid (Reed), a wealthy man who survived an attack by said serpent god, has it shipped stateside so he can face his fear. He has developed a psychic link with the big snake so he employs the services of parapsychologist Tom Brasilian (Fonda) to assist him in dealing with this. Meanwhile, the snake’s journey is complicated by Crowley (Al Waxman), a crook working for a fundamentalist snake cult (!) that wants the snake for itself. Chaos ensues, involving steadicam POV photography and the occasional bladder-assisted makeup effect.
The plot for Spasms was loosely adapted from a paperback horror novel of the era and it ticks off every plot-content box of the form: powerful animal on rampage, said animal also being a manifestation of a demon, psychic link between hero and killer, campy family melodrama, goofy parapsychology. The film also had a problematic production, including rambunctious cast issues and budget problems that affect its monster movie elements. Thus, it’s a bit of an overplotted mess that takes a long time to get to the creature-feature stuff and is constantly biting off more than it can chew.
That said, Spasms is pretty entertaining if you’re the kind of patient exploitation film fan who can manage their expectations. Reed goes for the gusto here, with several scenes of him psychically reacting to snake attacks providing consistent camp entertainment value. Fonda lends solid support, bringing a little sarcastic humor to a blah role, Kerrie Keane makes an appealing soap opera-esque love interest and, best of all, Canadian b-movie regular Waxman is a delightfully sleazy villain who is central to one of the film’s special effects highlights.
Spasms is also pretty solid from a technical perspective. It was directed by Canadian journeyman William Fruet and he knows the genre well enough to do a passable Jaws imitation. He smartly makes the best of two key assets. The first is then-regular Cronenberg cinematographer Mark Irwin, who gives this a nice visual gloss and a lot of strong mobile photography. The second is a bit of makeup FX from the legendary Dick Smith, who exploits the bladder effect technique he developed in Altered States and Scanners to create some wild “venom overload” setpieces. The snake is sparingly shown due to budget issues but there is one attack in a sorority house – including a nubile coed in a shower – that is worth the price of admission.
In short, Spasms is mid-tier stuff for ’80s horror addicts, more notable for its camp aspects than any chills, but it’s just memorable enough in its weirdness to rate as the ideal thing to watch at 3 a.m. when your mind and your aesthetic are properly relaxed.
DVD/Blu-Ray Info: no blu-ray to speak of yet. Code Red issued a DVD a while back, using the only available source – an old video master. It’s anamorphic but a bit soft and there’s a big tape-roll about a third of the way through. Currently, that’s the best option.