With Thanksgiving fast approaching, I thought I'd share one (silly and frivolous) thing I can be thankful for this year, which is having finally tracked down the source of the above image of a woman biting the head off a live snake, an image that has haunted me since I first happened upon it on television one Saturday morning, at least 30 years ago.
I've made a little side-hobby out of tracking down pop-cultural artifacts (books, TV shows and movies) that made an impact on me as a child, either overtly or subliminally...often of the spooky variety. (Meanwhile the excellent site Kindertrauma has turned that same search into a full-blown philanthropic movement.)
While I've been fairly successfully in tracking down even the most obscure specimens (the haunted house oral hygiene film The Haunted Mouth and spooky anthology book Monster Tales, for starters) I had no luck identifying the film pictured above, in which an exotic snake dancer, under pressure from her manager to spice up the act, adds the gruesome climax.
But I finally stumbled on the film this month, through pure dumb luck, when it popped up on a five dollar bargain-bin DVD collection titled Gorehouse Greats. It's Stanley (1972).
The title, Stanley, doesn't exactly scream "snakes!" the way titles like Sssss or Rattlers do, which was part of the problem in tracking this film down. Stanley is the pet rattlesnake of Tim (Chris Robinson), a Native American Vietnam vet who just wants to live at peace with nature and it's crawling inhabitants. There's Tim now.
Tim lives in a shack at the edge of a swamp, respecting all of nature's creatures while plying his trade: capturing and milking poisonous snakes to make anti-venom. Tim takes his work home with him... literally. His house is crawling with snakes that he lets slither around freely. He even lets Stanley and it's... uh, "wife", Hazel, sit at the dinner table with him. Mouse under glass... bon appetit!
But Tim's little Eden is threatened by a comical villian, Thomkins (Alex Rocco), who not only hunts animals for their skins to make cool clothing and accessories (see vest and hatband, below) but had years earlier caused the death of Tim's father in a suspicious hunting accident.
In addition to selling venom to hospitals, Tim also provides snakes to Gloria, the snake dancer at a seedy lounge, "The Climax".
And this is where I wandered into the picture one Saturday morning (likely broadcast on the local monster-movie show, KPHO's The World Beyond). To fully appreciate the extent of the trauma inflicted on my grade school brain, you have to understand that prior to seeing this scene, the very idea that people might hurt, torture or kill animals for entertainment was completely alien to me.
At this point in my young life, I had never heard of a carnival geek (the sideshow attraction in which a person bites off a chicken's head), and thought a matador's sword was just for self-defense in case the bull got too ornery.
Now I was being confronted with an uglier side of humanity that I hadn't imagined.
The audience, a mixture of men and women, young and old, are a collage of eagerness, trepidation, and apathy. They are all guilty conspirators.
I always remembered the actual head-biting occurring in silhouette, but as you'll see, this was not the case. Perhaps some psychological defense mechanism manufactured that memory.
The act completed, with bloody evidence. I'd lost a little innocence that day.
Witnessing this atrocity along with me was Tim, who immediately switches from capturing poisonous snakes to distributing them to snake-dancers' beds.
He also makes a delivery to Alex Rocco's swimming pool.
So having finally reunited with Stanley after so many years, do I recommend the film? Well, unless you need to exorcise the image of a snake dancer with a bloody chin from your subconcious.... no! It's a poorly acted, ludicriously plotted mess that gains a few points for use of actual snakes, but then loses those points with scenes depicting actual (not simulated) animal cruelty, in which living snakes are swung, crushed or shot.
But at least I'll never have to type "Woman Bites Head Off Snake" into a search engine ever again!