Help! It’s Harmless!
Harmless snakes used as stand-ins for their deadly counterparts.

Snakes on a Train

Snakes on a Train

A low-budget direct-to-DVD mockbuster released to cash in on the hype surrounding Snakes on a Plane, this movie actually came out three days before Snakes on a Plane was released. It’s quite possibly the worst movie I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen more than one Ed Wood movie, so that’s saying something). Not only is it tedious and boring, its dialogue painful and its characters disposable, the nudity takes a full hour to make an appearance, which in this genre is inexcusable.

Here’s the premise: a cursed woman hides aboard a train in an attempt to get to Los Angeles to have the curse lifted; the curse makes her literally vomit deadly snakes. And if that already puts strain on your willingness to suspend disbelief, wait for it. No deadly snakes actually make an appearance in this movie. Up until the last 10 minutes or so, when Burmese Pythons and Boa Constrictors make an appearance shortly before the final bad-CGI giant snake swallows the whole train — spoilers, because I don’t actually want you to see the film — the snakes we’re expected to believe are deadly are played by Common Garter Snakes (including some juveniles) and Ball Pythons. Which, of course, being garter snakes and pythons, don’t do very much on-screen. Not only that, in some scenes, an actual plastic snake toy is included among the garter snakes!

It’s beyond ridiculous. It’s hardly worth mentioning that snakes don’t eat bread, or that putting a garter snake in your mouth isn’t a very idea (their musk is pretty rank). Because the basic problem of the movie is that it takes until the very end for everyone to figure out how to deal with snakes on a train: 1. Stop the train. 2. Get off the train. Problem solved!

Live and Let Die

Live and Let Die

Snakes make several appearances in this, possibly the most morally objectionable of the Bond films (as opposed to merely sad and risible). In one of the opening scenes, a man is bitten to death by a snake during what is purportedly some voodoo ceremony. The snake appears to be an Emerald Tree Boa (Corallus caninus), though I suppose it could also be a Green Tree Python (Morelia viridis) a long way from home — I’m not that good at telling the difference. Although a tree boa’s bites are pretty nasty thanks to its long sharp pointy teeth, it’s decidedly nonvenomous and would not kill with a single nick. The snake makes a second appearance toward the end of the movie, along with a number of other snakes kept in a coffin; those snakes include Boa Constrictors (Boa constrictor), Burmese Pythons (Python molurus bivittatus) and a few colubrids that are probably rat snakes. It goes without saying that pythons don’t belong in the Caribbean.

Neither, for that matter, do Speckled Kingsnakes (Lampropeltis getula holbrooki), one of which threatens Bond in his bathroom about half an hour in. Now I’ve kept two speckled kings, and while they do have a tendency to chew on your fingers, they’re quite harmless; Bond’s dispatching of said snake with an aerosol fireball is wholly gratuitous. It wasn’t even all that big a kingsnake.

I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!

I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!

Last night’s episode (June 17, 2009) featured a challenge where the two competitors, Lou Diamond Phillips and Torrie Wilson, had to collect tokens from a tank of 35 snakes (some of which escaped during the course of the program). Apart from an easily identifiable Boa Constrictor, the snakes appear to be harmless colubrid species local to Costa Rica; I can’t identify any of them, but they have look of harmless tropical snakes (deadly tropical snakes are much more famous), Except for one larger snake that took a few swings, the snakes were reasonably tractable; the competitors took them in stride with hardly any ewing. But why the hell were they wearing helmets?

The episode can be viewed here (watch out for popups); the snake competition begins about 12 minutes in. A preview is also on YouTube.

Natural Born Killers

Natural Born Killers

Killers Mickey and Mallory stumble across a den of rattlesnakes and are bitten. The photography is fast and furious in this scene, but it’s possible to make out that most of the snakes in the medium shots are Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnakes (Crotalus atrox), which is an appropriate choice. In the grainy, blurry, black-and-white closeups of snakes striking, I think they substituted in a harmless Bullsnake or Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer); they have similar coloration.

Then they’re off to a drug store to get some rattlesnake antivenin — or, as they call it, “snake-bite juice.” It’s sold out on the shelves, so Mickey goes for the pharmacist, who manages to blurt out, “Don’t carry it. Hospital,” before he gets shot. Here’s the thing: antivenin isn’t stocked by pharmacies, and it would never have been available on the shelves. It’s always administered in hospitals: bite victims would have to be monitored for an allergic reaction to the antivenin, which might be deadlier, in some cases, than the snakebite itself.

Women of the Prehistoric Planet

Women of the Prehistoric Planet

The Adam-and-Eve plot twist was already old hat when Women of the Prehistoric Planet was released in 1966, a movie strangely uncontaminated by prehistoric women. In a scene that in no way has anything to do with foreshadowing, one of the expendable crewmen says, after an encounter with a giant stock-footage iguana that they lasered into burning papier-mache, “If that’s the way they grow lizards around here, I’d hate to run into a snake.” And wouldn’t you know it, a snake shows up mere minutes later — after all, you can’t have a transparently bad science-fiction take on Adam and Eve without a snake, can you? Even if it’s a big, menacing snake … well okay, it’s a half-grown Boa Constrictor that, once shot by a pocket crossbow, magically morphs into a rubber snake that looks nothing like it. Still: eek. Amirite?

Best viewed in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version: can’t be too careful.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

I have had it with these motherf***ing snakes on this motherf***ing train! Henry “Indiana” Jones Jr., Age 13

Young Indy is a little old to be developing a phobia, and it’s a little precious to suggest that his adult character traits were formed in an eight-minute span, but there it is. While trying to escape from the bad guys in Utah, Indy jumps on a circus train and runs into trouble in the reptile car when the catwalk gives way. First he somersaults into a tank containing an animatronic anaconda — say that ten times — then falls backwards into a crate filled with small snakes. Those snakes — like the one we saw earlier when Indy tells his scouting friend “It’s only a snake” — are Red-sided Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis).

Ahem. I know something about Red-sided Garter Snakes: not only have I been to the dens, I’ve also bred and raised that particular subspecies. Spielberg and company used thousands of them, imported from Manitoba, which at that time still allowed commercial collecting. (A year or two later, after an average of 52,000 snakes per year were harvested from the province, collecting was stopped over concerns that the population was being fished out.)

Interestingly, the snake that crawls from Indy’s wrist onto one of the bad guys a minute or two later isn’t a red-sided garter; my partner Jennifer, who tried to ascertain the sex of the snakes while watching this movie, immediately identified it as a Wandering Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans vagrans). We’ve got one of those too, and even had a litter a few years back.

So, garter snakes made Indiana Jones an ophidiophobe. What a pussy.

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Our favourite ophidiophobe encounters snakes twice in the first of the three Indiana Jones movies. First, in South America, he finds himself in Jock’s plane, sharing a seat with Jock’s pet snake. You’d think that, being in South America, they’d use something South American, like a Boa Constrictor, which isn’t exactly hard to find. But no: they used a Burmese Python (Python molurus bivittatus) instead.

Then, of course, the scene: the Well of the Souls, full of snakes. As Spielberg recounts on the bonus disc, they started with a few thousand harmless snakes, then had to add more. Trouble is, most of what they added were glass snakes — which is to say, Glass Lizards (Ophiosaurus), legless lizards that are definitely lizards, with eyelids, ears, lizard scales and breakable tails (hence the name). I spotted an awful lot of them in the scene’s wide-angle shots; as for the smaller nonvenomous snakes, I couldn’t make them out, though I think I spotted at least one garter snake (my favourite snakes, so of course I would).

There were pythons, which were easier to spot: the striking snakes were small Reticulated Pythons (Python reticulatus) from southeast Asia, not the sort of thing you’d find in Egypt; there were some larger-bodied pythons, but I couldn’t tell whether they were African sebae or Asian molurus — it doesn’t matter, since neither are found in Egypt. And look: here are the Boa Constrictors they could have used at the start of the movie!

The cobra scene was well done: actors behind clear plastic for safety, of course. But the cobra was a Monocled Cobra (Naja kaouthia), rather than an Egyptian Cobra (Naja haje). Egyptian Cobras are psycho; Monocled Cobras are more common in captivity and have more distinctive markings.

But no asps (very dangerous), so far as I could tell.

Snakes on a Plane

Snakes on a Plane

Admit it: you’ve been waiting for this one. Much has already been written about the snakes behind Snakes on a Plane, and the questionable snake behaviour and biology has been debunked elsewhere; I wrote something shortly after I saw the film myself. The key points:

  1. The real, live snakes were harmless and handled by stunt doubles or extras; the venomous snakes were either computer generated or shot in isolation.
  2. The real snakes were common pet-store varieties; I spotted Corn Snakes (Elaphe guttata) and several kinds of Common Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula) and Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum), for example.
  3. The aggressive snake behaviour was attributed to pheromones sprayed on leis, which is creative nonsense. Pheromones will make snakes horny at best, and no one pheromone would have the same effect across so many different species.
  4. The movie correctly points out that snakes aren’t normally that aggressive, hence the pheromone plot device.
  5. The computer-generated snakes were larger than nature — and faster. No matter how pissed, most snakes don’t move that fast. Except maybe mambas (Dendroaspis) and coachwhips (Masticophis), and I didn’t see any of those.
  6. Antivenom is easier to find than that.
  7. Snakes are illegal to keep in Hawaii.
  8. Pythons never eat fully grown adult males. Well, hardly ever. Yappy little dogs? Total python food. (At least I can hope.)

La Vouivre

La Vouivre

La Vouivre is a 1989 French film adaptation of the 1945 novel by Marcel Aymé which tells the tale of the descent into madness of a World War I veteran who sees, or believes he sees, la Vouivre, a folkloric creature from eastern France that changes shape from a woman to a snake and back. (For more on the mythology, see L’Œil de la Vouivre by Edith Montelle.) The movie is unavailable in North America, which is too bad, because the nudity is really good.

Vipers (Vipera berus) abound in the movie — they’re caught by children in jars and play an all-too predictable part in the climactic scene. The snakes looked real enough, if I recall (I saw the movie on French television in 1999), but it’s likely that they used one of the European water snakes of the Natrix genus — specifically, the Viperine Snake (Natrix maura), a viper mimic.

Steve Irwin FedEx Commercial

This is not the Fierce Snake (Oxyuranus microlepidotus), the most venomous snake in the world; the late great Steve Irwin would never have been so foolish as to use a real one for a mere FedEx advert. It does, however, look like he’s using a Black-headed Python (Aspidites melanocephalus), a harmless snake from northern Australia, as a stand-in.

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