Snakes! (1974)

I was in the marching band in high school. It’s true. I played both flute and piccolo because I wanted to double down on my nerd. I also played in the orchestra. And in the chamber ensemble. And played in every school musical. I was also the drum major. Now the sad fact is that I wasn’t even a good flautist. I was horrible. I became drum major because of my dedication and willingness to commit social suicide. No one else wanted to do it. So I threw myself on top of the nerd bomb and took the hit. The point is that I’m very familiar with the oeuvre of John Philip Sousa.

Kids in a marching band play a John Philip Sousa tune. They look tortured. They’re in agony. You, too, are in agony. The kids are slaughtering the song. It sounds less like John Philip Sousa, and more like a bag of cats hanging over a fire. The kids march right up to a man named Snakey Bender. As his name suggests, this man has a lot of snakes. So much so that he claims he is “part snake himself.” The kids gather vermin for the snakes, and in exchange, Snakey lets the kids pet his snakes. He busts one out, and the kids marvel at its size. The kids want to pet his cobra too, but Snakey says it’s too big.

This whole thing is obviously a metaphor for penis.

“I bet I’ve let you touch a hundred snakes since we’ve been doing business . . . and you’ve never been hurt.”

See? Totally about penis.

Snakey and his best friend Burt have a long-standing Wednesday night tradition where they hang out and listen to John Philip Sousa. They march around the living room and air-conduct. When I became drum major, my band teacher advised that I air-conduct in front of a mirror. Those were dark times. Soon Burt leaves for the big city to fetch himself a wife. He’s very excited about this. He brings back a girl named Cynthia, and to be honest, she’s kind of a slut.

Meanwhile, a pretty schoolteacher goes shopping in a general store. Two siblings named Bud and Sis (played by Alice Nunn, better known as Large Marge) look at her lustfully. They try to lure her into to their apartment where “there’s a bedroom and everything.” It is the most pathetic ploy for a sexcapade, but I’ll give them this much: Bud and Sis know how to share. Few siblings can do that. Later Snakey brings a snake over to the schoolteacher’s house and she strips nude and writhes around with it in bed. But don’t worry, it’s all done in a tasteful silhouette. Soon Snakey’s life is turned upside down. Burt and his new wife make a life together, putting an end to those raucous John Philip Sousa nights. Snakey’s hurt that his friend has moved on, so he takes revenge. Eventually Snakey takes revenge on the whole town.

The premise of Snakes! is totally bizarre. There’s very little sleaze and hardly any violence or gore. And despite the title, there aren’t even a lot of snakes. This is a film that commits to its premise and takes itself seriously, but pulls its punches. Nothing is taken too far. There’s very little gratuitous nudity, no practical effects, and only touches of outrageous dialogue. It is largely a quiet movie, save the John Philip Sousa. But this is precisely why Snakes! is so entertaining. The entire film sets up a world that is surreal but with underlying themes and emotions everyone is familiar with—a world where snakes are weapons and aphrodisiacs, but also one where best friends drift apart. Snakey is a simple man; he just wants to hang out with his snakes and his best friend. He’s like a snaggle-toothed, backwoods version of Lennie from Of Mice and Men—a gentle man whose acts of evil come from a pure and innocent place.

If you asked me what this movie was about, I’d say it’s about a man and his snakes. It’s also about loneliness. It’s also about not being able to change when the world is changing around you. It’s also about capturing people and making them strip down to their underwear.

But really it’s about John Philip Sousa.

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