Monday, November 11, 2019

"I Said a Lot of Things. Get Out." - Curse II: The Bite (1998) - Film #160

In 1987, actor David Keith directed his first film, The Curse, an Italian-produced film that can only be described as a lackluster adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft's The Colour Out of Space. While Mr. Keith would go on to direct and star in the creatively more successful The Further Adventures of Tennessee Buck (1988), the producers (a list that includes cinematic legends Ovidio Assonitis, Moshe Diamant, and Lucio Fulci) would continue the Curse franchise with the superior Curse II: The Bite in 1998, hiring Frederico Prosperi, the producer of Wild Beasts (1984) to direct. The result was a slow-burn body horror film involving a snakebite and a hand transforming into a snake, though in fact no trace of a curse.

As is usually the case, many of your universe's esteemed critics are wrong about this film. For example, reviewer DarthBob writes, "The special effects are terrible and overcompensated for by being way more gooey and graphic than they needed to be. I've seen episodes of 'Perfect Strangers' that were more suspensful." Reviewer callanvass writes, "This is stupendously awful stuff." And reviewer michaelRokeefe writes, " It is not scary, not meant to be funny and lacks anything much redeemable."

Read on to see exactly why these critics are wrong...

The film begins at what a title describes as a “nuclear base,” which appears to be primarily sand dunes, as two men wearing hazmat suits use a grabbing device to pick up a scorpion-like creature. As nothing negative ensues, the film cuts to a couple—Jill Schoelen and her boyfriend Clark—driving to Albuquerque who take a shortcut through the nuclear base, despite the traditional warning by a gas station attendant to avoid said shortcut.

As they drive along a deserted highway, with the lushly forested New Mexico mountains rising up behind them, a tire spontaneously pops, forcing them off the road while a loudly rattling rattlesnake sits underneath their Jeep. Ignoring the rattlesnake, Ms. Schoelen tells Clark about her rather typical dream in which she was a stone age woman chased by a brontosaurus in love with her. As she attempts to relieve herself amid the vegetation, Clark is forced to shoot another rattlesnake nearby, while POV shots show the first rattlesnake (taking advantage of its comrade’s distraction) somehow climbing into the rear of the Jeep.

After they change the tire and continue driving, Ms. Schoelen plays guitar and sings a song called “I Miss Your Head on My Pillow.”

Then the car drives over a mass of snakes. For about three minutes.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” says Ms. Schoelen. “Is it safe out here?”

“Yeah, it’s safe,” Clark replies. “As long as you’re in the Jeep, it’s safe.”

When they stop at a gas station to fix the flat, Clark asks the attendant what is going on in the desert. “I was talking about all these snakes all over the place.” He asks, reasonably, “Where are they going?”

“Straight to Hell, where they belong,” the attendant says. “Animals all know they gotta get the hell out, don’t know where to go, don’t know where to stay. They end up in the middle of the road, or drop like flies.” He adds, “Ain’t God punishing the desert, it’s people, tearing up the heaven and earth, testing bombs beneath our feet.”

Clark asks about a photo of the attendant’s dog, who died from snakebite, then tries to find a rest room. As he walks inside the gas station, he hears a dog and sees a wagging tail, but before he can investigate, the attendant puts a shotgun barrel to his head. Nervously, Clark says, “I thought you said your dog was dead.”

(The attendant, presumably not a fan of 1976’s The Pink Panther Strikes Again, does not respond, “That is not my dog.”)

“I said a lot of things,” the attendant replies. “Get out.”

After Clark leaves, the attendant feeds the dog and we get a glimpse of it; it has transformed into something more snake than dog (courtesy of Screaming Mad George’s effects work).

The dog attacks its owner, and we hear a gunshot.

Clark and Ms. Schoelen, however, simply drive away, leaving New Mexico and entering Texas. When they reach a motel, Ms. Schoelen starts to unpack the birdcage full of birds in the back of the Jeep and Clark is bitten by a snake, which catches attention of other motel patrons around them, including doctor Jamie Farr, who is shaving on the upper floor of the motel’s exterior hallway in the middle of the day.

Mr. Farr, a traveling salesman, treats Clark in the motel bar with antivenom; he explains helpfully the antivenom is a small amount of snake venom which will spur Clark’s body to produce antibodies. He also explains, perhaps insufficiently, why he carries antivenom with him: “A traveling salesman from Brooklyn who travels the Dust Bowl should know from snakes.”

In their motel room, Ms. Schoelen and Clark share an intimate moment (and a series of awkward postures) while they discuss the snake situation. Clark says, with apparent erotic intent, “I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. Tomorrow morning, I’m gonna search that car from top to bottom, leaving no reptile left unturned.”

In the morning, Ms. Schoelen showers while a large snake creeps around the motel room, allowing the filmmakers to fill the movie with snake’s-eye POV shots. Ms. Schoelen eventually finds green slime on her underwear and sees the snake in the motel bed, prompting her to murder it with her guitar, killing both the snake and the guitar bloodily, the snake screeching and vocalizing not unlike a gremlin.

The couple go to breakfast, then drive away, not bothering to tell anyone at the motel they have bloodily murdered a snake in their bed. Of course, this oversight causes a maid to run screaming through the motel. When Mr. Farr and Georgie, the hotel clerk played by veteran character actor Sidney Lassick off Silent Madness, investigate, Mr. Farr identifies the snake. “The bushmaster, largest poisonous snake in the Western hemisphere.”

With perfect comic timing, Georgie replies, “Western hemisphere? What’s it doing here.”

Mr. Farr corrects him cruelly, “This is the Western hemisphere, Georgie. Despite your ignorance, though, you know you’re half right. The bushmaster belongs in a bush. Someplace tropical.” He concludes the snake is a mutant.

On the road, as is perfectly normal on road trips, the conversation turns to cannibalism. Ms. Schoelen reads an article about a man who ate his bride because he thought she was cheating on him. Clark believes this is reasonable, and the man had to either kill his wife or kill himself, though he promises, certainly without any trace of foreshadowing, not to eat Ms. Schoelen.

Then Clark, also with no trace of foreshadowing, opens a can of soda with his teeth.

In a comic interlude, we watch Mr. Farr driving along the highway using a CB to contact various comical truck drivers looking for Clark due to his convoluted worry that he could be sued or imprisoned for giving Clark the antivenom without a medical license. (Confusingly, all the truck drivers, Mr. Farr, and Clark and Ms. Schoelen are again in New Mexico, not Texas.)

At a country bar, Ms. Schoelen dances with an aggressive man while Clark drinks at the bar. Clark begins to sweat. He also drinks a glass of beer with a fly in it, accompanied by ominous synthesizer music.

When Ms. Schoelen returns to him, Clark hits her, then runs to the bathroom and pull the bandage off his snakebitten hand. The man Ms. Schoelen was dancing with follows him into the bathroom to defend her honor. “You try slapping me for a while,” he says.

Clark re-bandages his hand with toilet paper, then breaks the man’s arm without revealing his snakebite-induced mutation.

One of the film’s most disturbing scenes continues, as we watch Jamie Farr in bed with a female trucker inside the cab of her semi (not a euphemism). Mr. Farr talks about Clark (and references his own famous facial feature): “My only hope is to reach him while he’s still alive, give him the right antidote, and convince him to settle out of court. For which I will pay through the nose.”

As Clark and Ms. Schoelen drive the next day, she tells him she plans to catch a bus to get away from him, presumably because he slapped her at the bar. As she drives the Jeep toward Tucson, coincidentally wearing terry-cloth pants, she spreads her legs and Clark moves his bandaged, infected hand toward her. As he pleasures her, she whispers, “I hate you.”

The filmmakers cut to the couple making love in a nearby barn.

Later, Ms. Schoelen discovers the birds in the birdcage, the presence of which is never explained, are gone, replaced by green slime. At the same time, the couple is pulled over by the police for speeding. The sheriff is played by Bo Svenson, who oddly insists that Clark unwrap his bandage to show him his wounded arm. Instead of unwrapping his arm, Clark opens the back of the Jeep to show Sheriff Swenson a rifle. In a charming display of immorality and xenophobia, Sheriff Swenson says, “You know, we’re pretty close to the border here, and I can smell drugs from a mile away. You stink of ‘em.”

The policemen take Clark away in handcuffs because he didn’t show them his snakebite.

“Why?” Ms. Schoelen asks. “It’s a snakebite!”

The police drive off with Clark and Ms. Schoelen discovers she is missing the car keys.

In the back of the police car, Clark goes into convulsions. The sheriff stops the car so he can relieve himself outside while the deputy checks on Clark. Tragically, the deputy does not survive the encounter, as Clark’s arm enters the deputy’s mouth, reaches down inside him, and pulls the man’s heart out through his esophagus.

Instead of killing the sheriff, Clark knocks him over the head with something and walks back to Ms. Schoelen in their Jeep. “I showed ‘em my arm,” Clark explains. She drives him to the hospital in Winslow, Arizona. Clark is admitted to the hospital, where he gets a room to himself and lies in a hospital bed, fully clothed with his shoes on.

A doctor cuts the bandages off and discovers Clark’s hand is quite infected. Clark rests while the doctor, somewhat insensitively, describes his condition to a tape recorder: “Extraordinary. Newman, Clark. Male, age 23, single. Snakebite to the left hand in the web between the index finger and the thumb. Symptoms: loss of consciousness, convulsing, fever, vomiting. Diagnosis: the neurotoxins contained in this venom encountered the immune system’s t-cells, replacing and invading the genetic code of the patient’s forearm, modifying its structure. Cause: unknown. Hypothesis: like some fungi, this particular venom must have symbiotic properties.”

When the doctor tries to take a blood sample with a syringe, however, we see his hand react, with an eye opening in his skin.

The doctor screams and Clark’s snake-hand goes for her throat, killing her.

Seconds after the doctor dies, Mr. Farr enters the hospital room. “It’s me, Harry, the guy who saved your life. I know you think maybe I could have saved it better the first time, but I promise you, this time I’m really gonna save it.”

Mr. Farr stumbles across the doctor’s body. “ need a doctor.” Suspicious, he picks up the scalpel she was using, but he is unable to use it, falling against the door as Clark approaches him.

Next, we see Clark exit the hospital, which for some reason flies a New Mexico flag despite being located in Winslow, Arizona. Clark is chased by Ms. Schoelen. He drives the Jeep away, leaving her in the parking lot.

Clark’s plan to save himself involves driving to a garage, stealing a fire hatchet, bracing his snake-arm against a rest room faucet, and chopping off his hand.

He is generally successful, though his hand crawls into the sink. Unfortunately for Clark, Sheriff Bo Svenson arrives at the gas station, and he is driving Ms. Schoelen. Clark hides in a pickup truck driven by a Swedish man who looks like a combination of Woody Harrelson, Rance Howard, and Max von Sydow.

The Swedish man generously drives the right-handless Clark away from the sheriff and Ms. Schoelen, but she sees him driving away. After promising Bo Svenson she will call him if she hears from Clark, she drives to El Paso (because Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas are all easy to drive across in an hour or two) after the Swedish man’s wife calls Ms. Schoelen at a phone booth (somehow).

Reaching El Paso in time for dinner, Ms. Schoelen eats with the highly Christian Swedish family, whose young daughter eagerly awaits seeing what Clark’s hand looks like under those bandages. Clark is sleeping upstairs; after dinner, Ms. Schoelen visits him and he tells her he cut off his snake-hand. “You don’t have to run away,” Ms. Schoelen tells him. “It’s not you who did all those things.” She adds, perhaps naively, “Tomorrow we’ll go to the police. We’ll explain everything. They’ll understand.”

Elsewhere, Bo Svenson leads a pack of police cars down the highway toward El Paso. For unexplained reasons, Jamie Farr and his trucker girlfriend Flo sit in the back seat of Sheriff Svenson’s car, presumably leading him to the Swedish house in El Paso (somehow).

At the Swedish house, the young girl wakes up in the middle of the night and, like most young girls, she takes a flashlight and a plastic sword to spy on the sleeping Clark and Ms. Schoelen in their bedroom. She uses the sword to cut away Clark’s bandages, freeing another snake (not a euphemism).

The snake, creatively, uses its tongue to strangle the Swede and then spits poison at his wife while their daughter cries in the corner. Ms. Schoelen runs downstairs and drives away, unaware that Clark is riding on the top of the Jeep until the highly dexterous tongue slips into the car through the air vents.

The film’s climactic events must be seen to be appreciated, as Clark’s eyes bulge out and pop out of his head, slipping down the Jeep’s windshield, and his tongue is pushed out by a blob of protoplasmic jelly full of baby snakes.

Ms. Schoelen finds herself inside a culvert, chased by Clark, who is now wriggling slowly on the ground. Clark vomits more baby snakes onto her, followed by a series of large snakes that emerge from his mouth (somehow).

As Clark’s mouth splits, jaws unhinging, the police cars follow, listening to a dispatcher on the radio: “Silver Jeep, license 184MHB sighted leaving the Ericsson’s house, presumably headed toward construction site on Caldwell Road.”

The final, largest snake emerges from Clark’s head while Sheriff Swenson and Mr. Farr try to rescue her with a rope and a shotgun.

The End

Among Curse II's many charms is its presentation of snakes as slashers, unseen by the victims until the last minute, with the camera adopting the snake's point of view. This innovation reaches its zenith when one snake peers through a window, then ducks down to avoid a character's line of sight.

Besides this innovation and the makeup effects work by Screaming Mad George, the film's other highlights include the presences of Bo Svenson, Jill Schoelen, and Jamie Farr. Because Mr. Svenson and Ms. Schoelen are well known to fans of classic cinema (for examples of Mr. Svenson's work celebrated by Senseless Cinema, see 1988's Primal Rage and two additional Ovidio Assonitis films: 1977's Tentacles and 1989's Amok Train). Therefore, let us heap praises upon Mr. Jamie Farr, the M*A*S*H and Supertrain actor who appeared in few if any other horror films. Mr. Farr's presence grounds Curse II in reality, as his traveling-salesman-who-wants-to-be-a-doctor follows the film's young couple throughout the southwest, back and forth through New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona in order to avoid being sued for giving Clark the wrong snake antivenom (a familiar and cliched motivation, it's true, but Mr. Farr milks it for all it's worth). Mr. Farr even appears in bed with his truck-driving paramour in a scene that is somewhat less disturbing than Ron Palillo's love scene in the film Hellgate (1989). This film as a whole is truly a tribute to Jamie Farr's considerable charms, and it is a tragedy he has not appeared in more horror films; if he did, no doubt they would all be at the same level of quality as Curse II: The Bite.