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A carnival train lets loose a snake (or snakes) near a small Alabama town, which is just about to open a dog track as a hopeful economic booster. When people start turning up dead with strange bites, and others report seeing unusual snakes, most of the town can't put two and two together, but Dr. Maggie Sheridan (Gretchen Korbett) becomes suspicious (nothing gets by her!) that something weird is going on and wants to alert the town. She's excited enough about it that she'd also probably like to call in the National Guard, and maybe even nuke Alabama just to be safe. The Mayor, Grady Thorpe (Jack Gordon), and the dog track developer, Matt Perry (Bob Hannah), will hear nothing of it. Meanwhile, the local Priest, Tom Farrow (Fritz Weaver) comes to believe that the snakes just might be Satan, at least after the local witch looks at his coffee grounds. On the other hand, maybe it has something to do with that discussion he has with a church member about acid.
Although I can find no literature related to the film to confirm this, it's virtually impossible for me to believe that Jaws of Satan (aka King Cobra) wasn't intended as a horror/comedy. Much of the dialogue and plot is simply too ridiculous to have been taken seriously. In any event, Jaws of Satan is a delight to watch, even if it is a poor film by traditional criteria. It was enjoyable enough to earn my coveted 5 out of 10 "so bad, it's good" rating.
Within the first five minutes, director Bob Claver shows us what an amusingly confusing mess he has in store for us. Two men are on a carnival train that seems otherwise unpopulated. For some reason (either it wasn't stated very well or I was already falling asleep) one leaves to check on a crate. It moves in mysterious ways. The lock on the crate opens itself, and our carny is surprised to see a cobra appear. It bites him. Some invisible force then pushes him off the train (invisible forces are always a sign that you're in for a doozy or a film). Meanwhile, his buddy is bitten in the face by the same or another snake, or at least the snake bumps into the really dirty plexiglass they had in front of the camera, then the buddy dies on the spot. We cut to an outside shot of the train, which suddenly slows and stops. We're never shown the engineer or what happens to him, but presumably there was an engineer, something happened to him, and he stopped the train gracefully. Cue the audience jumping out of their seats.
In an interview about the film, producer Bill Wilson said that the film was inspired by a true story circa 1955 that happened near Springfield, Missouri. A carnival train derailed, loosing countless snakes in the countryside. Many people were bitten and died. The way the incident is shown in the film is an indication of the kind of budget and technical finesse we're dealing with. Since Wilson and company obviously couldn't afford to have a train derail or crash, it simply stops, gently. We've only seen one snake up to that point, but within minutes, after just one more snakebite, Dr. Sheridan is ready to hit the panic button.
Much of the film has the same non-sequitur logic and low-budget sensibility, making for some very funny scenarios. It should be clear from the title--and it's implied very early in the film--that Father Farrow ends up being right--Satan has something to do with the incidents (and there is a long, convoluted backstory about Father Farrow's family and some druids). However, the film's logic is so loose that it's never clear just how Satan is involved. Snakes that should be possessed are easily killed--often through methods such as blowing their heads off with guns. There are a number of different snakes, although not enough to ever create much suspense, and certainly not enough for the big blowout that you might expect for a finale. Is it a collective possession? We end up with a battle against one particular snake, so that doesn't seem to be the case, but then what was the deal with all of the other snakes in the film?
It's best not to worry too much about this shady storytelling, and simply chuckle at the bizarre scenarios--such as an "assassin motorcyclist" who tries to chase down the whistleblowers to rape and/or murder them, or a mad chase through a cemetery where humans cannot outrun a slowly slithering beastie, or our heroes in peril because they have chosen to simply lie down, unbound, beneath the main villain in his lair, and so on. None of it makes much sense, but most of it is funny, especially when you add the consistently ludicrous dialogue.
And yet, unbelievably, there are flashes of brilliance in the film. Cinematographer Dean Cundey finds a number of beautiful, symbolic shots. That probably had something to do with his extensive experience--prior to Jaws of Satan, Cundey had already been a cinematographer on films such as Halloween (1978), Rock 'N' Roll High School (1979) and The Fog (1980); he's understandably had a long, successful career since. Weaver is a delight as Father Farrow, being humorously irreligious as he tells off-color jokes, drinks, smokes and regularly refers to his faith as "a bunch of superstitious nonsense".
I'd certainly recommend Jaws of Death, but only for fans of low-budget cheese and unintentional humor, despite its few intentional highlights. It's obvious that the producers were trying to cash in on a combo of two popular 1970s genres--religious (and especially possession) horror and nature run amok films. Obviously, there are many better examples of each genre to watch from the era, but none may be quite as funny as Jaws of Satan.
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