The Killer Snakes (1974)

Starring Kam Kwok-Leung, Maggie Lee Lam-Lam, Chan Chun, Chow Gat, Helen Ko, Lam Fung-Hung

Directed By Kuei Chi-Hung


With The Killer Snakes, Shaw’s go-to sleazemeister, Kuei Chi-Hung, reaches stellar new heights (or lows, depending on how sensitive you are to animal cruelty and wild forays into sexual bondage). No stranger to no-holds-barred subject matter, having made the rounds with women’s prison films (Bamboo House of Dolls), and gross-out experiments in the dark arts (Bewitched and The Boxer’s Omen), Chi-Hung plunges the viewer headfirst into his darkest and most socially unredeeming worldview yet.

The Killer Snakes, despite its disturbing imagery and horrifying ventures into only the most psychologically depraved territories, is probably one of the best non martial arts films to ever make it out of Shaw Studios. Don’t get me wrong, it is not a pleasant experience, and I highly doubt I’ll be popping this one in again anytime soon.  But you can’t deny how effective it is in eliciting some pretty heavy reactions from anybody brave enough to dive beneath its unsettling surface.

Kam Kwok-Leung is Zhihong, a scrawny and pathetic man who eeks out a meager existence with awful delivery jobs. He lives in a dilapidated shack and keeps himself company at night with porno mag cutouts of nude women in various states of bondage taped to his ceiling. Staring at the pictures, he has violent, sadomasochistic fantasies about them involving everything from bullwhips and rope to hot candle wax.

Bullied, beaten, and belittled on a daily basis by everybody from flamboyant pimps to greedy prostitutes, Zhihong’s only ray of sunshine in his dismal world is the fresh-faced and innocent Xiujuan, who runs a local toy stand. Zhihong finally musters up enough courage to ask her out to a movie (a Shaw Bros film of course), but when her father falls fatally ill she forgets about the date and rushes to his bedside. Zhihong, thinking he has been stood up, stubbornly destroys her shop and sinks deeper into his personal abyss.

Caught in the throes of another hot wax fantasy, Zhihong is welcomed by an unexpected visitor; A stray cobra from the shop next door, which specializes in harvesting gall bladders from the still living reptiles for their medicinal qualities. The harvest method itself is depicted in raw and disturbing footage (as it was in Bewitched), making this the second film of our Shaw Bros horror special to feature the gruesome process.

Taking pity on the wounded animal, Zhihong nurses it back to health, only to be greeted by dozens more of the escaped serpents in need of aid the next evening. After soliciting a prostitute (and lasting all of about five seconds with her), Zhihong is pursued into an alleyway before being beaten and robbed by her and her goons. While going through his belongings, a snake sneaks out of his shirt and attacks the thugs, killing them dead. Suddenly inspired by his slithering friends, he decides to unleash his venomous companions on anybody who has ever wronged him.

The film continues to plunge deeper and deeper into Zhihong’s perverted psyche, blending semi-hardcore S&M antics with the army of slithering reptiles until, before you know it, a kidnapped hooker is being tied to a support beam while Zhihong unleashes one of his beasties straight into her coochie! The scene comes off as anything but erotic and literally had me gagging on my popcorn as it played out. I have seen some truly twisted shit in my day, but nothing had me squirming in my seat like my first encounter with rape by serpent. Trust me, when a similar scene occurs later, you will be thanking your lucky stars it only winds up with the woman being raped by Zhihong before being clawed to death by lumbering komodo dragons. When a moment like that could be considered a respite of sorts, you know you are locked into some hardcore shit.

The Killer Snakes is stark and shocking in its bald displays of animal cruelty. The folks from PETA would be pissing themselves in a frenzy in they ever locked their sights on this film. It’s difficult to keep your eyes on the screen (and your lunch in your stomach) as live snakes are burned alive, sliced in two by swords, and gutted on camera. If you can get by all of that (and I won’t blame you if you don’t), you might be able to appreciate this film on its aesthetic merits. Despite its heavy psychological leanings and flat-out disgusting imagery there really is a fantastic, dreamlike quality to this movie. It almost plays out like a dark and twisted urban parable of sorts.

This is ultimately Kuei Chi-Hung’s show. His pacing and direction is both taut and effective. The film has a very claustrophobic feeling to it, filmed mostly in a web of shadows that do a good job of punctuating the cramped urban environments. A scene where the innocent Xiujuan, forced into the ranks of prostitution, is savagely stripped of her virginity is filmed entirely in extreme close up, forcing the viewer to experience the senseless and carnal act firsthand.

Yeah. This is probably the most brutal and disturbing film I have seen since reviewing Buddy G’s Combat Shock a few months back. Its vile and uncompromisingly shocking images only seem to drive it into ugly and perverse areas most films, exploitative or not, dare not to tread. This is Chi-Hung’s crowning achievement, but one I’m sure that won’t garner many repeat viewings.