July 23, 2017

Anaconda – a near-classic of unintentionally high-camp moviemaking

Film buffs who like to include the bad as well as the beautiful among their treasures may want to revisit, or see for the first time, Anaconda. This superlatively tawdry, low-rent piece of dreck from 1997 qualifies as a near-classic of unintentionally high-camp moviemaking. Cultists—especially of the monster/horror genre—are sure to congregate for decades to come, huddled over bowls of popcorn, howling in delight. Anaconda may even attain the level of movie trash-worship that includes recitation of lines of dialogue by the faithful. My own best bet (and the options are many) for the one that everyone will really gear up for and yell, in unison, the loudest? When the sluggishly paced movie is more than half over and the nasty snake of the title has already made its fat animatronic presence known on several occasions—destroying property and even killing one of the characters—another character actually says, with a slow dawning of portentous dramatic realization: “There’s something out there….isn’t there?”

anaconda

The true greatness of camp trash like this is measured by just how low a particular generic formula can be reduced without its die-hard audience (a) leaving the theatre, (b) falling asleep, or (c) beginning to talk out loud about having seen gore (if a horror movie) or a creature (if a monster movie) produced in exactly the same manner, and better, before. Well, there have been no prior efforts featuring big snakes that spring out through the glories of computer enhancement and wrap around people and squeeze them until their eyeballs pop out, so Anaconda should manage—despite its egregious bottom-feeding—to hold onto its natural constituency.

The rich potential is apparent almost immediately—it hovers like a fetid miasma over the Amazon jungle setting: Eric Stoltz, slacker-actor darling of the indie-picture crowd (and quoted not long before the film premiered that he’d rather not work than do projects with no intellectual or aesthetic reality) is introduced as a sort of Andy Hardy-meets-Ramar-of-the-Jungle academic “who studies tribes”. Our anticipation of the territory ahead burgeons as we realize that not only are we not being trusted with the term anthropologist, we are witnessing the early, unmistakable signals of a lead actor trying not to be in the movie. (He succeeds for at least awhile when his character is consigned to his bed after an emergency tracheotomy—but the fact remains painfully obvious that he never does decide whether to own up to his larger-than-usual paycheck by playing it straight or to keep us in the know that he knows he’s up to his pasty-white and freckled chest in some deep commercial waste.) The film did all right at the box office, but the only way Stoltz can have saved face as an actor is if he has regularly hosted his own home-screenings of Anaconda, at which, scene by pinned-and-wriggling scene, and for nearly two hours, he laughs first and loudest.

The prof is leading a film crew somewhere “Deep in the Amazon” (a title informs us, as if we might mistake the establishing shots for Acapulco or Torquay) to capture footage of an elusive tribe. Along for the ride is a collection of folks who deepen our camp-trash adventure. We get an extra generic layer here—the rip-off disaster-movie formula, in which most of the characters are such derivative stereotypes that any sentient audience member might pin them with name-tags in the first five minutes along with accurate notes and numbers regarding their responses to the developing situation and the order in which they will be killed off.

The serpent of the title is a giant version of the semi-aquatic constrictor which actually can grow to 40 feet. This one is a lot heftier than that and is produced by whatever digital animatronic gizmos were available at the time. The star doesn’t appear nearly often enough to keep things hopping, and when he does he’s a rather unconvincing monster. That’s not to say that he’s any less convincing than his human actor colleagues and, in fact, he’s a bit ahead of the game, since he is spared a speaking part in this screenplay that makes that of Twister sound like Chekhov.

Naturally, the expedition is hijacked by a character played by (yes!)a former movie star whose career has waned—Jon Voight, playing on a par with the swan-song performances 50 years ago of Joan Crawford in Berserk! and Tallulah Bankhead in Die! Die, My Darling!—as a seedy riverman who says he is a former priest who became a snake poacher but whose motivations seem mysteriously evil, or at least, clouded. Similarly clouded is Voigt’s supposedly Paraguayan accent; he wears a perpetually goofy sneer and says things like, “Dees snake will hol you tight like a lubber.” Jennifer Lopez , as the documentary director is, well, not quite credible. But how can you be when you are trying to exchange lines of dialogue with Ice Cube, whose character’s job-title of cameraman would indicate he’s there to roll film but who spends most of his time rolling his eyes like some Steppin’ Fetchit figure from the ’40s and to whom Lopez is required to utter such defining bits of feminist character development as, “You know I never mix business with pleasure” ? There is an airhead couple who seem to know absolutely nothing about tribes, or rivers, or science, or botany, or documentaries, or anything else that might bear on the project at hand, and who seem perhaps to have mistaken this dire river excursion for the day-trip shoppers’ ferry to Catalina—he’s a beachboy blonde with pukka beads and she sports a headband and culottes. This fashion-backward duo wears headphones into the jungle at night, smoke some grass, and have their sportive coitus interrupted by a wild boar who chases them back to the boat where they shake their heads and say, “Wow, it was incredible.” Blondie, being the shallowest person onboard (now there’s a contest), is, de rigeur, the character who turns suddenly into an agent of immoral collusion, siding with Voight’s treachery, and, therefore, becomes an early candidate for snake hugs.

And so forth.

This scuzzy-nightmare vision of a wannabe Jaws-meets-Gilligan’s Island is directed with a defiantly proud lethargy by Luis Llosa (The Specialist). There are a couple of scenes in the movie where the characters sit around at night in the hot, thick, darkness—drinking hard, and looking confused, defeated, and fearful. Could these scenes be little windows of cinema verite to the actual location shoot for Anaconda? It’s certainly possible; the same technological advances that bring us the big snake also made it possible for the film’s cast and crew—even in The Darkest Amazon—to watch their daily rushes.

Guilty Pleasure seekers, you’re welcome.

by Hadley Hury

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