This past weekend, the Sundance sensation Them That Follow opened in limited release. Directed by first-timers Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage, the film is an unsettling, holy spirit-fueled thriller about a pastor’s daughter (Top of the Lake’s Alice Englert) who rebels against her isolated Pentecostal community after discovering that she’s pregnant out of wedlock.
More than just another bleak Appalachian coming-of-age story in the mold of Winter’s Bone, Poulton and Savage’s chilling indie wrings its most squirm-inducing moments not from its cast of religious-zealot, yokel characters (which include Olivia Colman and Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever) or the sight of the always creepy Walton Goggins speaking in tongues from the pulpit, but rather its sheer volume of writhing, rattling, poisonous snakes, which the backwoods sect uses in its religious rituals.
It seemed like as good an excuse as any to tuck our pants into our socks, bust out the anti-venom, and play armchair herpetologist, examining Hollywood’s long, hiss-of-death love affair with nature’s deadliest reptiles. Herewith, our ranking of the 14 most memorable snake movie moments of all time, from drive-in cheapies, to silly guilty pleasures, to bona fide popcorn blockbusters.
14. The Jungle Book (1967)
Just edging out the hair-raising, hard-G terror of 1992’s Will Smith-free Aladdin, in which baddie Jafar transforms into a serpent, Disney’s animated Jungle Book makes the cut thanks to the moment when Sterling Holloway’s lisping Kaa tries to hypnotize man-cub Mowgli with his kaleidoscope eyes so he can eat him. His forked tongue is responsible for giving countless generations of kids their first brush with blood-curdling nightmares. Consider this Hollywood’s ophidiophobia gateway drug.
13. The Snake Woman (1961)
Sidney J. Furie’s low-budget British horror flick stars Susan Travers as the daughter of a woman whose mental illness was treated with snake venom by her mad-scientist husband. Ranking high on the list of bad medical ideas, the serum turns the young girl “evil” in utero — or so the superstitious Scottish townspeople believe as they come at her with burning torches. This is pretty cheesy stuff, to be sure. But it does have a certain giddy Sherlock Holmes-in-viper’s den vibe.
12. Piranhaconda (2012)
From the fevered B-movie mind of producer Roger Corman (and directed by his protege-in-schlock, Chopping Mall auteur Jim Wynorski) comes this made-for-TV creature feature about, you guessed it, a half piranha/half anaconda killing machine. Actually, scratch that. Two half piranha/half anaconda killing machines. Ostensibly an installment in Corman’s Sharktopus cinematic universe, this one really earns its stripes when Michael Madsen (who will make a more reputable appearance later on this list) gases on like a cut-rate Quint about the Piranhaconda’s freak-of-nature powers and when the titular reptile attacks a hovering helicopter. So dumb it’s glorious.
11. Hard Target (1993)
A lot of folks rank this Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle highly because it was the Hollywood directorial debut of Hong Kong action legend, John Woo. And while it’s no TimeCop, it does have its merits. Namely, the scene when the mulleted Muscles From Brussels (playing a Louisiana bayou drifter) is running through the swamp with Yancy Butler and at the very moment when it seems like he’s finally going to kiss her, telling her to close her eyes, he snatches a deadly rattlesnake right before it sinks its fangs into her neck, then proceeds to punch it in the head and bite off its rattle. Cue bluesy, Lethal Weapon guitar solo. Yeah!
10. Clash of the Titans (1981)
This late entry on the resume of stop-motion creature creator Ray Harryhausen is rightly famous for its fizzy cocktail of user-friendly Greek mythology and the sight of a young Harry Hamlin in a skimpy toga. At the time (and in the dreadful 2010 reboot), the film’s underwater monster, the Kraken, got all of the attention. But for me and my friends at recess, it was the serpentine Medusa with her glowing green eyes and head of slithering snakes that sunk its psychic meat hooks into us.
9. Venom (1981)
Little more than a paycheck for its trio of hellraising, sleepwalking stars (Oliver Reed, Klaus Kinski, and Sterling Hayden), this bit of snakesploitation is, unexpectedly, a terrorist-kidnap thriller with a deadly black mamba snake tossed in to keep its running time over an hour. There’s a scene where a very sweaty Reed aims a gun at the black mamba and one can only imagine that the actor, coming off of a bender, sees three of them, asks the director which one to shoot, and the director warily responds, “The one in the middle, Oliver. The one in the middle.” It’s actually a fun movie. But why take my word for it when the stentorian narrator of the trailer has this to say: “When it uncoils to strike, your blood will run cold!”
8. Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Okay, now there’s certainly a lot to love about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s pulp epic: his biceps; the Wheel of Pain montage; the crushing of enemies; Seeing them driven before you. But strictly in snake terms (and man, is this movie packed with fetishistic snake-cult mythology), it has to be James Earl Jones’s don’t-blink transformation from Thulsa Doom into a giant snake in a pharoah’s head dress.
7. Sssssss (1973)
Just two years before they would invent the modern-day blockbuster with Jaws, producers David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck released another killer-animal flick with far less pedigree. Sssssss is a bargain-basement drive-in flick that dares to ask not only what would happen if a scientist developed a serum that transformed humans into snakes, but also what would it look like if ’70s heartthrob Dirk Benedict shed his skin, writhed around on the floor, and broke out in scales as a man-snake? It sounds funny, I know. But when viewed on late-night TV at an impressionable age, this had the ability to permanently scar.
6. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
Previously just a terrifying mental image in the minds’ eyes of J.K. Rowling’s readers, the Chamber of Secrets’ deadly Basilisk was brought to life by the second Harry Potter film. A giant serpent that instantly kills those who make eye contact with it, the beast is slain by young Harry with the Sword of Gryffindor in the film’s thrilling climax. The sound that the Basilisk makes as it bucks and shrieks after Harry impales it can still make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and salute.
5. Snakes on a Plane (2006)
Is Snakes on a Plane a good movie? Of course it’s not. But it’s a damn fine snake movie. The plot is as unimaginative as its four-word title, but what director David R. Ellis manages to pull off extremely well is capturing the universal vulnerability of being attacked by a snake in an airplane restroom, regardless of whether you’re relieving yourself or gunning to join the mile-high club. There’s an art in that. It’s not the kind of art that gets you invited to the Oscars or a table at The Ivy, but it’s an art nonetheless.
4. Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)
Copperhead. Cottonmouth. California Mountain Snake. Sidewinder. With characters sporting codenames like those, you knew that Quentin Tarantino was going to introduce a little snake mayhem into Kill Bill. The only question was when. He waited until Vol. 2, when Daryl Hannah’s Elle Driver goes to Michael Madsen’s trailer with dirty deeds on her mind and she hands over a suitcase full of money with a little venomous bonus buried among the wads of bills: a Black Mamba. Far more memorable than the bite itself is Hannah’s chilly calm as she tells the paralyzed Budd what he has to look forward to in the next few minutes.
3. King Kong (1933)
Several decades before there was Freddy vs. Jason, or Alien vs. Predator, there was King Kong taking on any number of mutant-sized comers on Skull Island while Fay Wray looked on, a gladiator’s audience of one. The herky-jerky 1933 original remains a thrilling source of awe and primal power, never more so than when Kong takes on a laundry list of monstrous combatants, including a T-rex, a flying Pteranodon, and a nasty prehistoric snake creature called the Elasmosaurus, which ends up on the business end of Kong’s wrath.
2. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
It was important to Steven Spielberg and George Lucas that Indiana Jones not be a completely fearless superhero. So they gave him exactly one phobia: Snakes. The unexpected passenger in his lap in Jock’s plane is the comic button to the rollercoaster of an opening. But it’s also a seed that’s planted for what will come later in the Well of Souls. There, Harrison Ford’s Indy is trapped in a tomb so full of poisonous snakes that they pile on top of one another like the zombies storming over the walls of Jerusalem in World War Z. At one point, Indy comes face to face with his greatest fear, staring down a hissing cobra. The only thing that breaks the trance (for the audience) is the split-second reflection of the snake on the protective glass that kept Ford safe.
1. Anaconda (1997)
There are many great deaths by snake in cinema, but there can only be one Greatest. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Jon Voight’s delirious demise in Anaconda. Luis Llosa’s snakeapalooza is studded with stars (Jennifer Lopez, Owen Wilson, Ice Cube, Eric Stoltz), many of whom buy it in deliciously inventive ways. But it’s Voight’s Amazonian snake hunter, Serone, who buys it with the most WTF flair. It’s like the Mad magazine version of Quint getting eaten in Jaws. After being wrapped, getting his bones pulverized, and being swallowed whole (head first) by a 40-foot anaconda, he’s shown sliding down the snake’s gullet from inside. The end, right? Not so fast. As the snake then goes after Lopez’s Terri, it regurgitates Voight, who is still semi-conscious, covered in digestive goo, and winks at J. Lo. It’s both a moment of pure B-movie bliss and the moment when cheese is elevated into fromage.