I forget how I heard of this movie, but it suddenly came to my attention, and sounded like a pip: There's a hostage situation and police standoff in a London home, complicated by the addition of a black mamba loose in the house. And it has a brilliant cast, with Klaus Kinski, Oliver Reed, Nicol Williamson, Sterling Hayden, Susan George (okay, not THAT brilliant), and Sarah Myles. And while it's pretty good, it somehow fails to live up to the promise of its premise. Although it's still, you know, fine.
We open with charming little boy Phillip being picked up from school by his chauffeur Dave, played by Oliver Reed, allowing us the pleasant sight of the handsome Mr. Reed in a uniform with black gloves and everything. He brings the kid back to his home, where he is greeted by Susan George as Louise, the family maid. The kid is asthmatic, a trope lifted handily for Panic Room, and Mom, who is about to leave for a trip to Rome, is just SO worried about leaving him. We soon find that Louise and Dave are up to no good together, and that he is concerned about their big plot going wrong, whereupon she drops her panties and shows him all the poon he'll get if they're successful. Our good old Oliver Reed gives her his patented lusty leer, which only makes me love him. You also have to appreciate that even trashy British actors like Reed are able to bring a bunch of technique to their pulpy thrillers, like the way Reed is able to modulate his velvety voice to create many different effects.
Dave drops off Mom, then picks up Kinski as Muller, who decides he wants to ride in the back, like a wealthy passenger. Muller treats Dave as a moron from the start, and Kinski himself is so grating it really brings the irritation home. A glance at IMDb trivia tells us that in reality, Reed made it a little side project to torment the fragile Kinski, and was constantly goading him to fury. Another trivia item, while we're at it, is that this is another of the numerous movies begun by Tobe Hooper, who was then fired (rumor has it the entire cast ganged up against him) and director Piers Haggard took over. It's too bad, as we can only imagine what Hooper would have been able to do with it. Anyway, also present at home is Sterling Hayden, in his final role, as the doting grandfather, who just happens to be a famous retired explorer.
Next day after Mom leaves, cheeky grandpa lets Phillip out of Lousie's care to pick up his newest exotic animal. Did I mention that Phillip has a room full of animals? He does. He goes to the exotic pet store to pick up his harmless garden snake. While he's gone, Muller drops by to enact the terrible kidnapping. We then meet Sarah Myles as Dr. Marian Stowe, toxicologist. She has just received her Black Mamba, the fastest, deadliest snake in the world. Only in the box is a harmless garden snake. So then who has the Black Mamba?
SPOILERS > > >
Louise does, and right in the face. There's a good moment, one of the best in the film, when Phillip opens the box and his expression says "Oh, that's not the snake I ordered," he pulls back, Louise turns around, and BLAM. The film features several snake's-eye-view shots, and here we have it levitating out of its box and floating across the room to get her. This is explained a moment later when we learn that the pesky bastard can launch itself fifteen feet into the air to attack, because it is just a touchy little bugger. Louise has big death spasms, always fun, while a call from toxicologist Marian Stowe has sent the police right to their door. Dim-witted Dave answers the door with a cheery hello and a shotgun blast to the policeman's chest, witnessed by the entire street. Soon there's a huge police force right outside, and the kidnappers trapped inside, escaped deadly snake thrown into the mix.
After the snake surveys an entire room of tasty-looking furry morsels and settles on the bunny (it's always the bunny), she escapes into the vents. I was a little amused by the bunny sitting there as the snake approaches, looking like "WTF? WTF?!??!" Things proceed apace for a while, nothing exciting enough to get me to make note of it, and Nicol Willamson shows up as police commander Bulloch. He is well known for playing Merlin in Excalibur, where he might have been described as "over the top" (of course, so was the whole movie), which makes it kind of a delight to see him toned way down and underplaying here. He also has hair. In fact, it was more than halfway through the movie that I realized it's the same guy. He shows up, manages the situation, and starts negotiating with the kidnappers.
Then Dr. Marian Stowe appears on the scene and lets the police know of the snake situation. She is brought in front of the kidnappers to inform them, and they're like "Uh, we KNOW." Soon enough she is in the house, police find a back way in, etc. For a long time the snake is slithering through the heating vents--Slithering! Slithering!--until you might be like "Are you going to come out of there and kill one of these bastards, or what?" It discreetly waits until the final reel.
So now we're going to discuss some highlights of the climax, so if you want to enjoy those unhindered by information, please kindly skip until after the spoilers end. Poor Oliver is disabled by a shot to the shoulder and is recovering for a moment, when who should he find at the toe of his shoe, but the snake. Oliver also has a SHOTGUN, which he chooses not to employ for reasons he has kept to himself. The snake crawls right up his pants--making it, in fact, a "trouser snake,"--and it turns out what this snake wants most of all is to climb right up into Oliver Reed's crotch and get a mouthful of Oliver Reed, Jr. That's where me and this snake have something in common.
Now it's one of those situations where you notice that there are seven minutes left in the film, and yet we seem to be nowhere near the climax. Everyone is chilling in the living room when we start to get shots indicating the snake has joined them... a door slightly rocking, a lamp cord moving ever so slightly... and they work. In fact, they should have been sprinkled throughout the film. Anyway, Muller is right there by the window when the snake, improbably hovering at shoulder level (it is in fact the world's only known antigravity snake) and start chomping on him. Then Kinski goes into this LONG and WILDLY PROTRACTED death scene in which he smashes through the French doors, swinging the snake hither and yon, shooting AT HIMSELF in order to kill the snake, and... well, it just goes on and on. And it features facial expressions as only Klaus Kinski can make. And that's pretty much it.
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It was okay. Frankly I had hoped for more. The cast is quite good and again, you appreciate all that British actor training that lets them make the most of their fairly flat roles, but ultimately not a lot, and not a lot interesting, happens. I have to notice this when the movie is flying by and I'm not finding anything worthy of writing down to remember. The snake does almost nothing until the final twenty minutes, and even throughout no one seems terribly worried about it. This is absolutely ripe for a remake that would draw out all of the inherent tension and give more shape to the story.
The movie this reminds me most of is The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (original), as it is just a low-key, straightforward, decently-made thriller. Williamson also reminds me of Walter Matthau in that film, as he is smart and steady and remains eternally calm as everything is going crazy around him. But that film has a tighter, more original story, and this one doesn't necessarily make the most of what it's got. A decent watch, but one that fails to take advantage of its premise.
It's not bad, but it could have been much better.