Sunday, September 28, 2008

VIPERS (2007) d. Bill Corcoran

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Few creatures inspire the kind of disgust and revulsion as do snakes. Whether it is the autonomic response that most mammals feel around reptiles or the special abhorrence mankind has developed over millennia of demonizing snakes in religion, culture and literature, people generally don’t like this legless lizard. When it comes to the movies, there has rarely been a time when snakes haven’t been far from the Silver Screen, whether it is taking a small role in films like THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956) or sitting squarely on the center stage in movies like RATTLERS (1976) or ANACONDA (1997). Film makers have mined the public’s fear of snakes in a wide variety of ways. Taking inspirational pages from films like THE BEES (1978) and TARANTULA (1955) and borrowing ideas from SNAKES ON A PLANE (2006), VIPERS blends the classic killer snakes tale with that of corporate greed and science gone wrong to spin an effective yarn and add another successful notch to the Maneater Series franchise’s growing belt.

VIPERS is the story of the Universal Biotech Company and its researcher Dr. Vera Collins, who is experimenting on horned vipers to extract their venom to concoct a cancer serum. Dangerous mutations have been bred into the vipers unbeknownst to Dr. Collins and when the snakes are accidentally released into the wild, they head straight for the Pacific Northwestern fishing and resort town of Eden Cove to satisfy their excessive need to feed. Villagers like Nicky Swift (Tara Reid) and Hank Brownie (Stephen E. Miller) must join forces with newcomers like Cal Taylor (Jonathan Scarfe) to fight this fanged menace before everyone becomes a snake snack.

Despite some clear weaknesses and an adherence to a very tested and somewhat overused formula, VIPERS is an enjoyable film. The story, while fairly obvious in its direction from the opening scenes, depends on a nice mix of gory snake killings and grisly feasting on their prey, some suspenseful and occasionally exciting segments where the townspeople are forced to dodge, run from and fight the serpents, as well as some dramatic character interplay often bordering on melodrama. In fact, one of the surprising qualities of VIPERS is that in spite of a bit too much dysfunctional dirty laundry among the townsfolk, in the first half of the movie there is also an unexpected quantity of character development that makes for a reasonably compelling plot. Most of the principal characters are people you like or at least come to care about and as a result, a viewer’s emotions are engaged and they are able to identify with the triumphs and tragedies of those involved. The story is thoughtfully paced so that it moves along without being too brisk, but it takes breaks to explore its characters without stalling. There aren’t too many films these days that know how to strike that kind of balance.

One of the reasons the characters work so well is that there are some capable and seasoned veterans cast in many of the roles. Jonathan Scarfe puts in one of the better performances as Cal and his affable yet decisive persona makes him one of the more effective leading men in any of the Maneater movies. Old hands like Don S. Davis, Stephen E. Miller, Jessica Steen and the venerable Corbin Bersen add something that is usually lacking in low budget TV Movies, experience and talent, and it really helps to add momentum to this somewhat tired plot construction. When you’ve got actors and actresses who know what they’re doing and can deliver lines and respond to each other with some flair and chemistry, even a formulaic narrative can be transformed. Even youthful Genevieve Buechner who plays Maggie Martin gets in on the act, adding a heaping helping of hysteria and histrionics that any “scream queen” of past years would admire. The only weak link in this chain is Tara Reid. Never a good actress to begin with, her performance is so uninteresting and “like herself” that she is a distraction. It doesn’t help that she is no longer an actress, but rather a “celebrity” and it is not likely a viewer can distance themselves from the fact you are looking at Tara Reid and not a story character. Tom Cruise has the same curse and it has made it impossible for me to see one of his films for many years. Tara Reid has reached that same threshold, and once past that door, there is no return. Another grating note in the Tara Reid opus was that for much of the film, she wore one of the stupidest hats I have ever seen, making her look like a brown-headed, spindly-legged pixie with creepy eyes that never blink. Since the Maneater Series was not a theatrical release and not dependant on a “bankable star”, it might have made more sense to cast a prettier face with a better figure and more acting talent.

Like many of the RHI-TV films made in conjunction with the Sci-Fi Channel, VIPERS looked pretty good on many levels. The sets were fairly small and limited, but they were well chosen. There was an idyllic charm to the coastal fishing village imagery and the panoramic vistas of sea, sky and the soaring cliffs of British Columbia. In addition, scenes were patiently shot and well lit so that everything could be viewed with ease. There were no painful close ups or “shakey-cam” disease to make the viewing experience less pleasant. The snakes themselves were almost always created through CGI, but they looked relatively good and at no time did I get “taken out of the story” by the special effects. What was a surprise was that unlike most of the Maneater Series, there was a fair amount of violent death, bloody gore, sex scenes and nudity. Possibly, VIPERS wanted to “keep up with The Joneses” and emulate some of the characteristics that made SNAKES ON A PLANE popular with those who saw it, but it was a good choice. Between the pretty landscape photography, loads of hungry snakes, naked women being devoured by lecherous serpents and an A-Team inspired transformation of a truck into a fighting machine, there was a lot to enjoy about this film visually.

As has been the case with all of the Maneater Series films, there was no bonus features menu and once again it was a terrible missed opportunity. When you’ve got a director like Bill Corcoran who has a long pedigree of working on TV movies and series, established actors like Corbin Bersen and Don S. Davis and even Tara Reid, although I’m not sure I’d want to sit through any of her reflections, there need to be some cast interviews and/or behind the scenes featurettes. Just about anyone is going to want to hear about the making of a “killer snakes” film and the serious, silly or salacious recollections of the cast and crew will only make the viewing audience’s experience that much better. As I have said before, in an economy where people are losing jobs and money is harder to come by, adding extras to a disc will increase the likelihood of a larger product run. For goodness sakes, put a computer game on the bonus features menu where the viewer gets to command the vipers to hunt down various cast members. If I had the chance to send legions of snakes after Tara Reid in a video game, I’d certainly pay full price for the DVD.

VIPERS is another fine addition to an inconsistent franchise of Maneater Series films. While it is not the most exciting of the bunch, it may be one of the more visually interesting and it is probably one of the better acted movies. It is the kind of film that I used to love to go and see at the Drive-In or on a Saturday afternoon matinee. It isn’t terribly original, but it mines a rich vein in the human psyche and does it with enough success that I would recommend VIPERS to anyone who likes to see genetically modified wildlife run amok in a small town, on a small island, where there is small chance of escape and survival.

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