Spasms (1983) AKA Death Bite
(AKA Death Bite) 1983, Starring Peter Fonda, Oliver Reed, Kerrie Keane, Al Waxman, Miguel Fernndez, Marilyn Lightstone, Angus MacInnes. Directed by William Fruet.
Blame Jaws for the influx of animal attack movies in the late-70s and early-80s. Of that particular sub-genre, no animal was more prolific than the killer snake. Venom (also starring Oliver Reed), Sssssss, Hydra-Monster from the Deep, and King Cobra were some typical snake flicks. Canada also had their hand in the genre, as the CFDC helped fund the William Fruet cheapie, Spasms. Notorious for running out of money before the finale was shot, this is a film that has nonetheless languished on dusty VHS shelves for years.
The film begins during a native tribal ceremony off the coast of New Guinea. The legend of the tribe goes that every time a human dies, their soul languishes trapped on the island. Every seven years a serpent from hell is conjured up by the tribe in order to bring the souls back to hell’s depths. Tonight is that night, and the serpent is angry. After it is summoned by the tribal rituals, it goes on a murderous attack, only to finally be captured by a few snake hunters. Jason Kincaid (Oliver Reed) gets wind of this, and immediately asks its shipment to his resident Toronto area.
Kincaid has a shady past with snakes. While on an expedition with his brother, both were bitten by the venomous serpent. His brother died instantly, while he miraculously survived the event. The death of his brother has haunted him ever since, and Kincaid now looks after his daughter, Suzanne (Kerrie Keane), to serve as a constant reminder. Kincaid feels more than animosity towards the serpent, however, as it is revealed that he shares a telepathic link with the venomous reptile. When the serpent kills, Kincaid can feel it, and he hopes that in studying the snake he will be able to understand this complex relationship between the two of them.
He enlists in Dr. Tom Brasilian (Peter Fonda), a university psychoanalyst, to study both himself and the snake. Since working with Kincaid will no doubt up his prestige, Brasilian agrees and has the serpent stored in the university animal laboratory. Before it is able to be studied, the snake escapes due to human negligence, and begins roaming the university campus. See, a snake-worshiping church cult also wanted the snake, and enlisted Warren Crowley (Al Waxman) to steal it.
With the snake out on the prowl, its psychological connection with Kincaid grows ever stronger. Kincaid becomes a shaking mess as his mind slowly becomes one with the serpent (where are psychoplasmics when you need them, ‘eh Ollie?). Determined to confront the snake once and for all, Kincaid heads out to the university to face the serpent of hell. The final questions remain: Will Kincaid prevail, and more importantly, will the film run out of money before the finale?
Spasms is an interesting snakesploitation movie hampered by a meager budget. Oliver Reed gives a strong performance (and just coming off the set of Venom he surely had practice), which is certainly more than the role deserves. He chews the scenery, and invests plenty of emotion in the role. There are times when he is so intense that his hands shake uncontrollably, though this may be due to his chronic alcohol addiction at the time. Far less effective are Peter Fonda and Canadian B-movie stalwart, Al Waxman. Both have only a few moments of screen time, and are basically on board only so their names can be exploited on the video boxes. Kerrie Keane (previously from the Canadian co-production The Incubus) makes for a good female lead, although her role is limited as well.
With little development of the characters around the periphery, the film ends up being a showdown between Kincaid and the snake, and it is on this level that the ending disappoints. The psychological connection between the two, however farfetched, had definite dramatic potential. Rather than addressing this telepathic connection at the film’s end, the movie instead sidesteps a conclusion altogether. William Fruet seems to think that death is the ultimate end in the picture, but in a movie that invests so much time into fleshing out psychological relationships, there needed to be more. A Scanners-esque battle of the minds finale would have been particularly fitting and amusing. Instead, the movie just ends without any particular insight to Reed’s character or even a decent confrontation with the snake.
Granted, the production ran out of money beforehand, which explains its lack of finality. In order to extend the ending, Reed experiences a number of flashbacks from the beginning in order to help pad the running time. One has to wonder where the $5 million dollar budget went however, considering how little the snake is actually seen. The viewer does not even get a glimpse of the scaly beast until 45 minutes in, and even then it is brief. The movie does contain one snake money shot at the end (courtesy of effects work by the legendary Dick Smith), but it is too little, too late. Instead of showing the snake, the film steals the first person technique from Jaws and instead shows almost all of the murders through the blue-tinted perspective of the serpent. At times the fisheye distortions of the snake’s perspective can be effective, but full-scale shots of the beast would have been much more satisfying.
Directed by Alberta-born William Fruet (Funeral Home, Bedroom Eyes), the film does show some aspects of his Canadian heritage. Filmed in Ontario, there are a few city shots that feature the Toronto skyline, with the CN Tower in full view. Fruet is not afraid to shoot the Canadian landscapes from afar, since most films attempt to look as distinctly generic as possible. Spasms does fall victim to the Anywhere, North America location curse however, as there are no explicit references to the film’s setting. It has always been hard spotting Canuck distinctions in the Canadian B-movie universe, but squint hard enough and they are always there in some form.
Budget constraints aside, Spasms is an entertaining enough Canadian obscurity. Reed gives it class, there are a few good gore effects and the underused Tangerine Dream theme song is one of the band’s best. It isn’t high art, but if seeing Oliver Reed telepathically communicate with a venomous snake sounds like a good time, then Spasms will undoubtedly entertain.
– Guest Review by Rhett Miller