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SILENT PREDATORS (1999)

This snake is a real killer. It has characteristics of both the tropical rattlesnake and the western diamondback, and yet it's neither one...."




  Director:
 
Noel Nosseck

  Starring:  Harry Hamlin, Shannon Sturges, Jack Scalia, Patty McCormack, David Spielberg, Phillip Troy Linger, Beau Billingslea, David Whitney, David Webb

  Screenplay:  John Carpenter, William S. Gillmore and Matt Dorff, based upon a story by Patricia Arrigoni and Fred Brown

Synopsis: A man whose car has broken down is given a lift by the driver of a truck that is carrying a crate marked Venomous Reptile – Handle With Extreme Care. As the two drive along, the truck blows a tyre and crashes. The driver is seriously injured, while his passenger is able to pull himself from the wreck. Promising to get help, the passenger sets off, only to be stopped by a sudden cry of agony from the driver, who he finds dead. The next moment, a huge rattlesnake attacks, and soon the passenger, too, is dead…. Twenty years later, Vic Rondelli (Harry Hamlin) drives into the Californian town of San Catalano to take up the position of fire-chief. His predecessor, George Mitchell (Beau Billingslea), tells Vic that he is leaving because he dislikes the huge housing development being carried out by businessman Max Farrington (Jack Scalia), which he feels is ruining the town. George takes Vic to a community picnic given by Farrington. As Mayor Parker (David Spielberg) introduces Vic to the townspeople, a couple of teenagers sneak away into the nearby woods. As they kiss, the girl hears a strange noise, which the boy goes to investigate…. Vic is introduced to Mandy Stratford (Shannon Sturges), Farrington’s second in charge, to whom he is immediately attracted. As Farrington addresses the picnic crowd, a piercing scream is heard. Vic and the others rush into the woods, finding the teenage girl hysterical and her boyfriend dead from snakebite. At the boy’s funeral, Vic clashes with Farrington, who tells him that the boy’s death is none of his business. Shortly afterwards, a huge rattlesnake is killed by the dog of a family living on the edge of the housing development. While Mandy calls Vic about the incident, Farrington sends one of his men, Kenny (David Whitney), under the uncompleted house next door. Although Kenny sees an entire nest of rattlers, Farrington announces that no snakes were found and that everything is safe. While Vic is checking the town records for reports of snakebite, George tells him that he saw the exterminator’s van in the housing development. The exterminator confirms that he was called in by Farrington, who asked him to burn the snakes’ bodies. Vic persuades Mandy to go on a snake hunt with him. Although Mandy is nearly bitten, the two capture an enormous rattlesnake, which Vic takes to a herpetologist, Matthew Watkins (Phillip Troy Linger). After doing some research, Dr Watkins tells Vic and Mandy about the tropical rattlesnake that escaped twenty years earlier, suggesting that it has interbred with local diamondback rattlers to produce a new, aggressive, deadly strain of snake. As the three discuss why the snakes are suddenly attacking, Mandy realises to her horror that it is the blasting being carried out as part of Farrington’s housing development that has loosed this danger upon San Catalano....

Comments: I guess that, having previously outed multi-award winning and Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan as being responsible, in his early days, for both Tornado! and Bats, I am morally compelled here to bow my head and admit that, yes, it is THAT John Carpenter whose name appears in the credits of Silent Predators - although that said, the bulk of the blame lies elsewhere. As far as I have been able to determine, Carpenter’s screenplay for the film that was then called Fangs was penned in the mid-seventies, when he was still supporting himself as a writer-for-hire while trying to establish himself as a director. A good look at Silent Predators suggests that very little of the original script survived its resurrection and refurbishment, for this is a post-Jaws killer animal film in the most hilarious sense of that expression, consisting as it does of scene after scene lifted from at least twenty other killer animal films. Truly, it warms my heart to think that there are people out there who care enough about the traditions of cinema to make a film this clichéd. Think I'm exaggerating? Let’s try this quick quiz (answers at foot of review):

1. A deadly snake is being transported in a wooden crate on the back of a flat-bed truck. Does the truck:

   a. Reach its destination without mishap?
   b. Suffer a slight accident, but nothing the driver can't deal with?
   c. Blow a tyre and crash and roll, smashing the crate and releasing the deadly snake?

2. Giant killer snakes are on the loose near a small town. Is the first person killed:

   a. A construction worker who disturbs their nest?
   b. A bushwalker who steps on one of them?
   c. A teenager who has snuck off to neck with his girlfriend?

3. A businessman in charge of a housing development learns that his project may be infested with giant killer snakes. Does he:

   a. Halt construction altogether?
   b. Halt construction temporarily to allow experts to assess the situation?
   c. Try to hush the situation up so as not to risk his investment?

4. The mayor of the town is in cahoots with the businessman, refusing to take action about the snakes so as not to threaten the financial development of the town. Is the next person whose life is threatened:

   a. A stranger who's just passing through town?
   b. An expert out trying to catch one of the snakes?
   c. The mayor's young son?

Well, you get the idea. I guarantee that, by about one minute into Silent Predators, when we discover that the owners of a deadly tropical rattlesnake have chosen to ship it across country in a top-heavy wooden crate on the back of a rickety mover’s truck (“Comet Moving”, to be exact), anyone watching will be yelling their (invariably correct) predictions of what will happen next at the TV screen. In fact, viewers who can’t anticipate exactly what’s going to happen in this film at least five minutes before it does should be drummed out of the Bad Film Watchers’ Union.

That opening sequence contains another clear indication of the general intelligence level of this film when, having stared at the words VENOMOUS REPTILE stencilled on the side of the crate, the hitch-hiker comments, “Too small for an alligator, too big for a lizard. What is it, a baby dinosaur?” The forces of cosmic justice are hearteningly prompt in reacting to this nonsense, and the truck immediately blows a tyre and rolls, injuring the driver and smashing open the crate, allowing its contents to make an escape. Which means that, yes, the people responsible for this arrangement not only chose to transport a deadly tropical rattlesnake in a top-heavy wooden crate on the back of a rickety mover’s truck, but left it loose and unrestrained within the crate. We get our first use of red-tinted snake-cam here, as the rattler disposes of both driver and passenger before disappearing into the So-Cal night.

We then flash forward twenty years, to watch the arrival of San Catalano's new fire-chief, Vic Rondelli, with Harry Hamlin seemingly trying for a down-market version of designer stubble, but just looking scruffy. It probably goes without saying that for the most part, the character scenes in Silent Predators are about as imaginative as its story points, but there are one or two points where we see a brief flash of original thinking. The screenplay is quick to set up its inevitable central triangle between Vic, Mandy Stafford and Max Farrington, although to the writers credit it is a triangle of loyalties rather than the standard romantic kind, with Mandy owing her career to Farrington, but finding herself both attracted to Vic and in agreement with his stance on the snake problem. More unexpected though (to the point where it may have been accidental), is that at the outset it is Farrington who seems like a reasonable human being, while Vic - not to put too fine a point upon the matter - behaves like a complete dick.

The first present-day snake fatality occurs during a community picnic organised by Farrington, during which Vic is introduced to the townspeople. A couple of doomed-at-first-glance teens sneak off for some necking, and minutes later - following the traditional, “Wait, I think I hear something!” from the girl - piercing screams interrupt the picnic speech-making. The boy is found dead, self-evidently from snakebite; although his apparently instantaneous death is something for which no-one has an immediate explanation.

Vic and Mandy are driving away later when we get the following exchange:

Mandy Lacey said the snake was huge.
Vic Well, I'm sure it looked huge to her. Women tend to exaggerate these things.
Mandy Excuse me?
Vic Well, you know how women are about snakes, and spiders, and mice.

Women. Well, I don’t know about women, but I will say that my reaction to those things tends to be a stream of embarrassing baby-talk. That’s normal, right? Or, if not exactly normal, at least an illustration of the dangers of stereotyping.

And as it turns out, this scene hasn’t quite finished exasperating me, as Mandy, having taken perfectly justifiable offence at Vic’s sweeping generalisations, proves her TV movie heroine credentials by apologising for having done so.

I have to say, at this point in the proceedings EEE-vil Capitalist Max Farrington was looking pretty attractive to me.

He goes on doing so, too. The first open clash between Farrington and Vic occurs when the latter bails up Lacey, the bereaved teenager, and starts grilling her about her “exaggerated” account of the tragedy - during her boyfriend’s funeral. While she is standing next to his coffin.

Seeing the girl’s understandable distress, Farrington intervenes; and while it is impossible not to side with him here, the tone of this scene indicates that the businessmen is moving into cover-up mode. This confrontation between Vic and Farrington initiates an ongoing feud between the two that is just chock-full of alpha male posturing - and which in turn is the signal for a welcome escalation in the snaky mayhem. 

A use of the expression "extreme caution" with which I was not previously familiar.

First, a child playing with her dog on the edge of Farrington’s housing project is confronted by a rattler on the grounds of the uncompleted house next door. (The dog kills it without too much difficulty, which hardly supports the hybrid strain’s monster status.) Alerted, Farrington has his dirty-job offsider - whose name is “Kenny”; guess how this film turns out for him - crawl into the foundations, where he finds a small nest of rattlers. While this is going on, Mandy alerts Vic, to whom Farrington reports a “false alarm”: just one snake, and already dead. Having, as he thinks, evaded detection, Farrington then hires a local exterminator to dispose of the remaining rattlers, telling him to burn the evidence. However (somewhat improbably, if you ask me), he fails to bribe the man to keep his mouth shut afterwards, with the result that when Vic talks to him in the course of investigating the history of snakebite in the area, it is immediately obvious even to his rather primitive intellect that not only is there a serious snake problem, but that Farrington is doing his best (granted, a pretty poor best) to hide the fact from the public.

It is at this point that Mandy begins to feel her loyalties tested, as she embarks upon a snake hunt with Vic. It is also at this point that the fact that this film was largely shot on location in Australia, in Queensland, becomes amusingly apparent, as Vic and Mandy go traipsing through an area of bushland that doesn't exactly resemble the environs of San Diego. The two stumble almost literally over a near swarm of snakes, and Vic manages to catch a rattler, although not without a little artificial suspense when a snake strikes at Mandy, who is protected by wearing a spare pair of Vic’s work-boots. (Problem: A man and a woman back away from a giant killer snake. Calculate the mathematical probability that it will be the woman who trips over.)

Vic and Mandy take the snake to a friend of Vic’s brother, a herpetologist, who is unable at first to identify it, although his research subsequently turns up the story of the escaped tropical rattlesnake of twenty years earlier. Dr Watkins suggests that the tropical rattler interbred with the local western diamondback population, producing a hybrid species that was - oh, surprise! - larger, more aggressive and more venomous than either of its progenitors. Considering what might have disturbed these snakes and driven them into San Catalano, the dynamite blasting associated with the Farrington development becomes the prime suspect. 

"Raah!"

Reporting these developments - in the course of which, Mandy does not exactly help matters by referring to the snakes as “mutant” rather than “hybrid” - Vic and Mandy succeed only in driving the mayor into full-on Larry Vaughn mode, as he baulks at the financial consequences of shutting Farrington down in order to permit a proper investigation. Vic later confronts Farrington himself on the need to stop blasting, but Farrington refuses, pointing out, and rightly, that Vic doesn’t have the authority to shut him down, and basically double-dog-daring him to do something about the situation. Vic’s response to Farrington’s challenge is so very practical, he actually succeeded in winning a little of my good-will. Inspecting the dynamite storage shed at the construction site, he does indeed put a temporary stop to the blasting, by writing up the company for a string of OH&S violations. Played, sir!

Farrington takes another blow when, in the wake of the next fatality, that of a young mother attacked by multiple rattlers in her own garage, a news crew shows up, broadcasting a story on the snakes that helpfully interweaves stock shots of rattlesnakes with footage of the construction site and lingering close-ups of signs bearing the name FARRINGTON. It is, however, Farrington who takes game, set and match in the posturing contest, by turning up at the subsequent town council meeting waving evidence of the discrediting Dark Secret in Vic’s past (a pretty boring one, actually) and announcing all sorts of anti-snake measures, and generally making himself look like a hero. In practical terms, however, Farrington is still set on covering up as much as he can. In pursuit of this, he actually succeeds in finding the snakes’ den, an abandoned mine of the edge of town. Attempting to take care of the matter secretly by dynamiting the mine shut, Farrington succeeds only in bringing about his own manifest destiny - and Kenny’s - and setting up a climax wherein Mandy is buried in her car within the collapsing mine, with the snakes closing in and her windscreen starting to give way....

Although Silent Predators is for the most part a very predictable and silly film, it does have one quality that prevents it being entirely worthless: it isn’t stingy. As a connoisseur of killer animal movies, I have to say that there are few things more infuriating than the kind of killer animal film that gives you a few minutes of action at the beginning, and a few more at the end, and bridging them with an hour or more of excruciating character scenes. While Silent Predators does serve up some excruciating character scenes of its own, it leavens them with a healthy and, more importantly, almost constant stream of snake scenes - or at worst snake shots, used as a linking device, to show the snakes closing in on San Catalano.

Of course, the plethora of snakes here does tend to highlight the single strangest thing about this film: the sheer inappropriateness of its title: these are, in all honesty, the noisiest bloody snakes I have ever heard! They never stop with the rattle....except, that is, when they’re sneaking up on someone. Otherwise its a constant din from morning till night, climaxing when Max Farrington finds the abandoned mine that is acting as the snakes’ den, and can hear that he’s found the right place from a good fifty metres away!

Henry. Not a king, perhaps, but a prince amongst snakes.

Enjoyable as it is for the herpetophiles amongst us, this film’s generous way with snakes creates certain problems of its own. First of all, like almost all post-Jaws killer animal films, Silent Predator insists upon its hybrid rattlesnakes being freakishly large - even though this is patently not the case. The rattlers in this film are realised using a mixture of real snakes and animatronics. The latter are used whenever physical contact with one of the cast members is needed, with the exception of a milking scene in which only the hands of the person holding the snake are visible, and for the most part the staging of these scenes succeed in concealing the use of special effects. The animatronic snakes are a fair size, but still smaller than verbal report makes the hybrid rattlers. They are, however, considerably bigger than any of the actual rattlesnakes used in the film, which despite all the insistence on their monstrous size, are clearly immature individuals averaging about two feet long.

A rattlesnake of any size can always be a danger, of course, but the gap between what were promised and what were given in this film is more extreme than most. (Well, you know how the writers of killer animal films tend to exaggerate....) There is one rattler in this film that does its best for the cause, though: when its big scene comes it tilts its head, extends its fangs....and says, Raah!

No, really.

But it doesn’t stop there! Apart from the use of animatronics, Silent Predators resorts to the use of stunt snakes, in what may well be the most hilarious, and most obvious, piece of inter-species substitution since the titular beasties in The Killer Shrews. There are any number of scenes in this film where the supposed rattlesnakes have been replaced by harmless stand-ins - carpet pythons, for the most part. The result is an hysterical series of scenes in which the actors are forced to cringe and shriek in terror as a perfectly inoffensive python comes wandering into shot....and gloriously, many of these scenes are shot in full light, and close-up!

I dunno.... I suppose there are people out there who cant tell a python from a rattlesnake; or who are so freaked out by snakes generally, that they do find a carpet python just as terrifying as a giant mutant rattler. Still, you would thought that the makers of Silent Predator, before resorting to this shameless piece of cheating, might have stopped and asked themselves who was most likely to be watching this film in the first place....

(The other interesting thing here is that while the film’s credits list Rattlesnakes by.... and Animatronics by...., there’s no mention of any pythons. What a gyp. I don’t know if stunt snakes have a union, but if so, it ought to be notified.)

How many rattlesnakes can you see?

Yet even this is not the last of Silent Predator’s snaky masquerades. One of the film’s supporting characters is Vera (plated by Patty McCormack), who runs San Catalano’s pet shop and is the local environment activist. (Personally, I’d take her credentials more seriously if her shop wasn’t filled with Australian native fauna....) At the meeting of the town council, Vera proposes an ecologically sound method for dealing with the rattlesnakes, namely the importation of their natural predators, the king snake. The idea is rejected, partly because of the scale of the infestation, but mostly because, well, more snakes? King snakes are harmless, insists Vera, and as proof produces one from her shoulder-bag, introducing it as Henry, her pet. (In a wonderful moment, upon seeing Henry, the mayor, or at least David Spielberg, lets fly with a perfectly spontaneous, Ewww!, directly into his microphone.) Here, too, the film cheats: for all that Henry is supposed to be a king snake, in keeping with where this story is supposed to be set, he’s being played by a young black-headed python, which is a species native to the northern parts of Australia, including Queensland.

Henry’s big moment comes later in the film, however. While Vera is searching for the now-missing Mandy, a [*cough*] rattlesnake finds its way into her car. When Vera returns, she goes through the motions of starting her car - only to recoil in terror when sees what is coiled up on the floor. There is a dramatic zoom, and equally dramatic musical sting....and then the realisation that the rattlesnake is dead, as Henry comes nosing up from nearby. Oh, Henry! coos Vera as she fondles him. You saved my life!

And then, to emphasise Henry’s heroic deed, the camera rests upon his vanquished adversary.

A rubber snake.

A perfectly obvious, undisguised rubber snake.

And you know something? After Tentacoli, Im not even going to complain about it....

.

"One of these things is not like the others...."

.

Answers To quiz:  You had to look? Yeesh!

 

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