There are certain animals that simply creep people out. Endless documentaries on the Discovery Channel and PBS have shown us that sharks, spiders, and snakes are misunderstood creatures, but that doesn’t stop up from secretly worrying about being strangled in our sleep by giant reptiles.
Anaconda (1997) exploits those fears with a film that pits a giant, unnaturally fast anaconda against an unsuspecting film crew attempting to shoot a nature documentary. It’s far from a good movie, but it does have some fun creature feature moments, and it provides good fodder for your next Dungeons & Dragons game.
Like many monster movies, Anaconda kicks things off with an unseen creature attacking a boat as it makes its way along the Amazon river. The ominous encounter ends with the ship’s sole occupant climbing the ship’s mast then shooting himself in desperation.
It then cuts to another boat, where we find our intrepid band of film makers loading up their craft. What’s surprising when watching Anaconda is how many actors it has who go on to do much better things: Jennifer Lopez, Ice Cube, and Owen Wilson. Plus we’ve got actors for whom Anaconda must represent a low point: Eric Stoltz, Jon Voight, and Jonathan Hyde.
In any case, there’s a lot of familiar faces getting on the ship and they’re sacrificial, err, production roles. Lopez is Terri Flores, the film crew’s producer, Ice Cube is Danny Rich, the camera guy, Stoltz is Dr. Steven Cale the intrepid leader, and Hyde is Warren Westridge … and with a name like that you know he’s got to be the pretentious host.
The documentary angle doesn’t last long; not far up the river the crew comes across the wreck of a river boat. The sole survivor is Paul Serone (Voight) who explains he used to be a preacher, but is now a hunter. All he wants is a ride to the next village, where he’ll take his leave of them. They agree to help him, much to their eternal regret…
“They strike, wrap around you. Hold you tighter than your true love. And you get the privilege, of hearing your bones break before the power of embrace causes your veins to explode.” — Paul Serone
Anaconda is a mediocre creature feature that offers a few good scares but comes across as a pale imitation of Jaws. Yeah, one’s got a snake, and another’s got a shark, but Anaconda borrows liberally from the Jaws playbook as its sets up the film.
When we finally meet the computer-generated snake we’re get to some jaw-droppingly unbelievable snake gymnastics as it leaps from trees to spear falling victims or spirals its way up a ladder chasing prey. But hey, it’s a monster movie, so we’ll forgive a few artistic liberties.
The acting’s about what you’d expect from such a movie, and the dialogue is filled with overly lines like “This river can kill you in a thousand ways” and “Never look in the eyes, of those you kill. They will haunt you forever. I know”, usually uttered by the psycho snake killer Paul Serone.
It has a few memorable scenes, such as when the crew decides to go fishing for the anaconda using a line batted with a dead monkey. The dead simian gets its revenge when the anaconda, having taken the bait, breaks free of the line and then spits the monkey back at the crew.
Yep, this is a movie with dead monkey projectiles.
“Please people. Don’t make me out a monster. I didn’t eat the captain, Mateo.”
The real value of this movie comes from serving as idea fodder for role-playing games. Paul Serone (Voight), the snake hunter, is the perfect example of an NPC who befriends the party and then almost immediately begins to subvert and manipulate them.
Serone poisons Eric Stolz’s Dr. Steven Cale (the poor guy finally gets a movie role, then spends half of it unconscious below decks) by inserting a wasp into his SCUBA gear, then uses that medical emergency to divert the crew to a branch of the river.
The film crew, desperate to help their friend, agrees. When they encounter a massive damn across the river, it’s Serone who just happens to have a box of dynamite to blow it up. This leads to an amusing bit of foreshadowing as hundreds of small snakes rain down on the ship…
From there, Serone keeps fast talking the crew, trying to convince them that he’s got their best interests at heart, but to the crew’s credit they realize he’s lying to them. They come up with their own plan to subdue Serone, but soon find themselves having to deal with the madman and the giant snake.
Voight’s performance drips psychotic menace. I’m not saying this is some sort of nuance exploration of menace; I’m saying this is B-movie villainy played to the hilt. And the best part is that while he comes across as strange when you first meet him, the heroes don’t realize just how screwed up he is until they’ve already invited him onto the boat.
A Serone-like character is a perfect addition to any fantasy or science fiction campaign that involves forays into the frontier. You’ve got someone who seems like he’s just another handy Voice of the GM, designed to point the party in the right direction and maybe round out their skills. It’s a common trope in RPGs — the faithful torchbearer, the trusty ranger, the benevolent if dimwitted cleric — so why not use that to your advantage?
Especially with a character like Serone, who everyone should know is a murderous asshat, but is just helpful enough for folks to keep around … until he isn’t. By then, of course, it’s too late … and you get to try out your own maniacl laugh.
As for Anaconda itself, it’s a Saturday matinee movie. I wouldn’t got out of my way to watch it, but if I happened across it channel surfing I might stick around to watch the snake devour a victim or two before moving on.