Rattlers (1976)

As the title and the DVD cover art would suggest, Rattlers is about rattlesnakes on the rampage. Myself I'm not too scared of snakes, though I know people who are in mortal fear of them, and that's cool. Let's get right to it! To start it out, we get a number of lead-up scenes of snakes causing increasing amounts of carnage in the dry hot scrublands of Southeastern California. This region of the Mojave Desert is well-known for its population of rattlesnakes, but we see here that these are somehow..."special" snakes, who have given up their normal lives of chasing prairie dogs and lounging under rocks to band together into gangs and terrorize the locals.

The rattlesnakes first kill an old man off-screen. They then (in our film's opening sequence) kill two ten-year old floppy-haired boys who were stupid enough to go out wandering in the desert and fell into a nest of rattlers. With their small bodies, it wouldn't take more than a few bites to kill them, but we learn later that the corpses show dozens and dozens of bites, as if the snakes swarmed them, biting and slashing and poking, even post-mortem.

Soon-to-be-dead kids.

The rattlesnakes then kill a whole farmstead! Everything dies, chickens, a dog, horses, some dumbass kid with a Chevy Nova, his two clueless parents, everything. They even cause the place to burn down O'leary-style, which is a nice touch. Who knew snakes could cause such property damage?

Farmboy checks his dead chickens.

And finally the snakes kill a water heater repairman and a nekkid chick in a bathtub (porn!). Watch as the snakes come in through the pipes to splash into the tub with her, just like in the awesomely-underrated Slither. There's also a kid off-screen who we can assume also gets munched, bringing our running human death count up to (at least) nine by this point.

Nekkid butt (you knew I'd put this in, didn't you?).

Our snakes come in three types: stock footage, rubber toys, and harmless garden snakes spray-painted brown. Blindingly quick editing cuts with stock footage, store window manequins, dramatic lighting and lots of screaming detract from the fact that in all the snake attacks, no one is actually in the same shot as the pissed-off rattlesnakes. Can snakes even make a decent monster for a scary movie? I don't know, I can't remember seeing too many truly scary snake movies, with the obvious exception of 1997's Anaconda, starring Jennifer Lopez's perky nipples (Oh, I guess Snakes on a Plane was pretty good, though not as good as the viral marketing blitzkrieg that preceded it).


Anyway, we need to get these rattlers wrangled so let's meet our film's hero, dashing young herpetologist Tom from UCLA. No, he doesn't study herpes (that's your mom), he studies snakes and snake related things. Tom is a walking, talking wikipedia entry for "1970s fashions" and in almost every scene he's wearing a different far-out tweed and polyester outfit (surely fetching big coin in any trendy LA vintage shop now). His hair also seems to be a sentient being.


Tom is called in by the sheriff of the local town, hoping that he can shed some light on why all the snake attacks. In a realistic bit, Tom has a strict timeframe with his school, he can't just drop everything and run off but has to wait until classes are over before he can come out. I say this just because in so many movies the academic hero can just up and fly halfway around the world on a minute's notice, never having any department deans or university presidents to worry about, let alone poor students. There is also a bit of refreshingly welcome talk about the town's tight budget and how they really can't afford Tom's services, but they feel they have to do something about these snakes.

The sheriff (his hair is a solid mass of oil and probably hair dye, too, he looks too old to have hair this uniformly dark.).

Tom's first couple of speeches seem to be sponsored by the National Snakes Are People Too Council, as he just-almost looks directly at the camera and waxes glowingly about how snakes are the most wonderful creatures God created and how if only people would take the time to study and understand just how awesome they are, they would, like him, come to see snakes as the logical choice for our Omnipresent Overlords. "Vote Snakes in 1976! Together We Can Make a Better America (and eat a lot of rabbits)."

"My mother was a snake, and she loved me, ok?"

Tom really needs a (human) love interest...I mean an assistant and photographer to help him, so let's meet Ann, young hottie and (loudly) self-proclaimed ardent feminist. From the first scene they are together, Tom and Ann squabble over women's rights, chauvinistic men, and the regrettable disparity in women department heads in major universities. Tom is not exactly understanding at first, but not because he's a misogynist pig-man, but because he (like me) is annoyed with Ann's near-constant soap-boxing about her beliefs in every situation. Fortunately for the plot (and because I'd hate to have to watch this entire movie with the mute button held down firmly), Ann drops the militant feminist thing quickly and becomes a typical meek, co-dependent movie female.


Tom and Ann go to talk to a glider pilot in the local hospital. This man says he landed his glider in the desert nearby and was attacked by a swarm of rattlesnakes, just barely escaping with his life. His story lends credence to Tom's theory that for some reason the rattlesnakes of this area have become kill-crazy. Oddly, the man playing the pilot is by far the best actor in this entire film, reading his lines with great gusto and enthusiasm.

On a totally unrelated note, the pilot has somehow managed to sneak a porno magazine into the hospital and is busy, uh, entertaining himself as they walk in.

Tom and Ann now drive out into the desert in an awesome Ford Bronco (to have one today means maxed-out social credit for rich frat boys, double points if you blowtorch the top off). While Tom wanders around looking for snakes, Ann randomly photographs different nondescript patches of scrub brush and sand (why?). Ann was said to be in Vietnam for two years, so she knows her way around the backcountry (or in this case, five feet off a gravel road). While her role in this movie is completely pointless, Ann does look cute in those jeans.

Ford Bronco.

After looking at a map, Tom and Ann then go to Fort Walton, which is a fake name, but all internal refs point to Fort Irwin, an old US Army training base out in the desert. This is said to be a small, little-used post in the middle of nowhere, a perfect place for mysterious happenings. Here they meet the Colonel, the base's commanding officer, a middle-aged man who looks like Lou Grant.

The Colonel.

They then meet the base's Doctor, a tall portly man who is a raging lush (oh yes, like Hawkeye Pierce). He's also a sexist pig (in a way, also like Hawkeye Pierce) and we watch him slobber all over Ann. Confusingly, for being a ardent feminist, Ann doesn't seem to mind, and even seems to bask in the attention of this tipsy lothario with a khaki shirt. In between innuendo and alcohol, the Doctor tells them of a dead soldier, bitten by zillions of snakes recently.

The Doctor (Tom's on the phone a lot).

Tom is given a helo and a duty pilot to fly out and check out the area. We see them flying along at about a hundred feet off the ground at a pretty steady clip, making me really wonder just what Tom thinks he's going to be able to see from the air. Is he looking for snakes? Not going to see a four-foot long earthtone snake (naturally camouflaged, afterall) from a fast-moving, high-flying helicopter, doubtful even a mass of them. For that matter, as a (supposedly) high-dollar herpetologist, Tom should know that rattlesnakes are principally nocturnal, so he seems to be wasting a lot of gasoline looking for something that he knows he can't find. However, the pilot is a talkative sort, and lets slip to Tom that recently the Colonel had him chopper out into the desert some big unmarked leaking container of "something". He dropped it where ordered, in an open mine shaft, and flew back to base, no questions asked, but heard later that they sealed the mine shaft with a concrete plug. Tom is intrigued.

Nice looking Bell 47G helo.

Meanwhile Ann goes out in the bush alone to photograph the area where that soldier died a while back. Again, she's just shooting randomly at the ground for no particular reason, I just don't see what the point of that is. I'm not sure how much money she's getting paid for this job, but based on her total body of work here, she's ripping them off in epic style. On the way back, she gets the willies as she thinks she sees a snake in the back seat of her truck and has to be talked down off the ledge. This slight nod to the psychological effects of snako-slithero-phobia is maybe the most interesting thing in this film, if that means anything.

Wandering Ann.

Tom returns to the base and asks the Colonel about that buried container. The Colonel tells him that it's none of his business and to get lost, and it's clear that it's a Top Secret sort of thing. We are supposed to go "boo-hiss" to the Colonel here, but in reality, do you want your military going around giving away potential state secrets to every dashing young herpetologist who walks in with a chip on his shoulder and a compressed pound of Aquanet in his hair? There is a separation between the military and civilians for a reason, duh.

Tom confronts the Colonel.

Off now to an aforementioned perimeter patrol at night, as two soldiers in a jeep cruise around smoking and drinking on duty (gasp, dereliction!). In one of the stupider bits in all of cinema, their jeep tire is punctured by a killer snake, while they were bouncing along a dirt road at 30 miles per hour, no less. Somehow in the dark, Corporal X-Ray Eyes is able to see two tiny teeth holes in the black-wall tire and make the connection that a snake bit it. Sadly, this budding genius and his inebriated partner are swarmed under by a wave of snakes in a few seconds and killed. Watch as one of them holds a snake in his hands, its hissing fangs just inches from his face, straining like the snake has the strength of an elephant.

Snake attacks a fake leg with a boot! The horror!

Next day Tom and Ann are called in by the Doctor to see the two dead soldiers and their uncounted snake bites. I should note here that we never actually see a dead body with bites, here or anywhere, just people looking at lumps behind sheets. It makes me wonder how big the budget was that they couldn't afford to cake some make-up on a few extras and tell them to lie really still. A soldier takes Tom and Ann out to where the attack was, though they only find circumstantial evidence of a mass snake attack.

Dead body under there (allegedly).

And for some inexplicable reason, our film decides that it needs to stop being a Rampaging Monster Movie and instead become a Romantic Comedy! Off to Las Vegas (Vegas, huh?) now as Tom casts off his inhibitions and gets down to the business of giving Ann the business end of his...uh, business. What the holy hell is the point of this ten minute interlude? Did the focus group who test audience'd this film (ha!) say they needed more kissy-kissy and less hissy-hissy? Were the producers worried that the housewives in the audience (of Rattlers!?) needed something to swoon about, casting wistful looks at their husbands next to them, wishing that they would be as romantic as Tom, and secretly wishing that they looked as good in pastel blouses as Ann? Who knows, but we don't even get to see Ann naked, so it's a total washout. [Editor Pam: Ann's not that pretty, but at least she retains some credibility as a feminist by not wearing obvious makeup. And her hair is significantly less styled than Tom's.]

Vegas love, oh yeah.

After they return to the Southern California desert, we see them sleeping in a tent out on the Army base. Yes, it's as if that entire sequence with them in Vegas humping and eating prawns was added in after filming wrapped. Before it, they were roughing it in the desert, and then they suddenly warp off to Vegas, and then bam, they are right back in the desert. Anyway, they are sleeping peacefully when a horde of snakes starts to swarm the tent. Ok, flag, why the holy hell would they continue to camp outside in an area where there have been at least half a dozen deadly snake attacks? How stupid are they? Tom and Ann try and fight them off with a camp shovel and harsh words, but Ann gets bit and it looks like they are gonners. Just then a patrol of soldiers arrive and scare off the snakes with gunfire (huh, before the snakes didn't flinch at gunfire, and now two guys with guns can drive off a hundreds-thick swarm of them?) Watch as one soldier comes into the tent and shoots off a bunch of obvious blanks with his prop M-16. Ann is sent to a hospital for the rest of movie.

The soldiers save Tom and Ann.

The jig is up and the Colonel starts to cover his tracks (explanation later). We see him in his office burning papers in a trash can, sure that this will remove any evidence of his role in this disaster. Ah, much simpler pre-computer times, when you could just burn a folder full of papers and be done with it, and not have to worry about erasing harddrives, running magnets over CD-RWs, smashing flash drives, taking down websites, and all that. Running secret guv'mint projects was a whole lot easier back in 1976. The Colonel then shoots the Doctor dead when he tries to rat him out and runs off.

Burning papers.

Tom arrives at the base to meet the local police and a General, who has flown in to see what all the hubbub is about. The General decides on the spot that Tom, a man who he just met eleven seconds ago, and the sheriff, who he just met eight minutes ago, have the security clearance needed to be totally briefed on Top Secret US Army chemical weapons programs. He tells them of the dreaded "CT-3", a failed experiment to create a chemical agent that would drive a targeted population of Rooskies mad with bloodlust, causing them to kill each other off in fits of rage, allowing the American military to just walk in and take over without firing a shot. The Colonel was in charge of it when the program was active, but when it was cancelled he just decided to continue the research on his own in secret on this out-of-the-way base. He recruited the recently-deceased Doctor as he was a lush with a record as well as an experienced biochemist. Of course, it defies all logic that the General would allow knowledge of this incident, and the resulting public relations firestorm, to be passed to civilians, even ones with herpetology degrees and awesome haircuts. [Editor Pam: Um, if the project was cancelled, the funding would be, too. How was the Colonel paying the people doing the research, and how was he keeping them from knowing the project had been cancelled? This sort of project sounds as though it would involve some high-powered researchers, ones who would have enough connections to find out more than what the Colonel chose to tell them, with enough experience to spot something fishy going on, and with professional reputations they wouldn't want to jeopardize by working for some obscure Army officer doing unauthorized research. Even if the Colonel had been able to find scientists who agreed that the importance of the project outweighed all other considerations to the point where they were willing to work for free, or was doing all the research himself [both REALLY unlikely], how was he paying for the equipment and supplies he needed? And I would think that "a lush with a record" who had enough brains to graduate from medical school would be able to figure out that he could gain a lot more Brownie points by ratting the Colonel out than he could by assisting with some off-the-wall research. And if I were looking for somebody to do a good job of research and development plus keep it secret, a drunk is the last person I'd pick.]

Talking with the General. Hey, why is the local police department here on an Army base? Isn't this what the MPs are for? The Army has its own internal investigators and judicial system, and since this is a closed military facility, I can't imagine the civilian sheriff would have any jurisdiction.

The obvious conclusion is that the Colonel dumped the leaking container of CT-3 in what he thought was a safe place (the mine shaft) to cover his tracks when something went wrong. The problem is the mine was home to a nest of rattlesnakes and the CT-3 agent caused them to become enraged killing beasts. Ah, so, much to my personal surprise, then it's clear that the military was NOT experimenting on snakes to make them killers, but it was an unintended byproduct of their tests that caused all this mess. I was honestly expecting the Big Reveal to be that the Colonel had a cage full of snakes back in his lab that escaped. Still, if the movies tell us one thing, it's that the military shouldn't be messing with animals (See Deep Blue Sea and its killer sharks for a good example of what buggering with Mother Nature will get you).

Get 'em!

They find the Colonel out at the mineshaft where he buried the container (which doesn't look like it's been filled with concrete, nor does it fit the helo pilot's description at all). The Colonel isn't going down without a fight and a wicked gun/grenade fight develops quickly (pistols and "movie grenades" that have no fragmentation effects). The Colonel is raging like Ripper in Doctor Strangelove, calling everyone Commie sympathizers, which is weird, and never really explained. In the end, he's shot dead by a non-descript deputy while holding a grenade with the pin out. Boom! Supposedly the blast closes the open mine shaft, saving the fair citizens of California from the ravages of mutant killer snakes.

Never bring a bullhorn to a gunfight.

The stinger is a slow pan to a different mine with a rattling sound foleyed in, suggesting that not all the crazy snakes were killed. Because, really, that one grenade was surely enough to close every single air shaft, rabbit tunnel, collapsed ceiling, creeping floor, snake burrow, and back entrance to that huge mine complex full of nutjob rattlesnakes, right? But, if you think about it, why wouldn't there still be CT-3-mutated snakes around? Just because you blew up one mine shaft with a grenade doesn't mean that all the infected snakes just so happened to be camped out right there at that spot. All movie long we've seen and heard of swarms of snakes as large as a hundred individual animals, ranging far and wide over a very large area of desert. Surely, the region is still thick with mutant snakes, bent on killing and ravaging any unsuspecting dope who sets up a tent in the desert. I demand a sequel!

To recap, the rattlesnakes of our movie were responsible for the deaths of (at least) 12 people, plus one dog, seven chickens, and some horses. For reference, only 12 people a year are killed by snake bites in all of America, from all variety of snakes, so this is statistically important. Also, 150 people a year are killed by falling coconuts, but that's not really important right now.

The end.

[Editor Pam: As it happens, not too long ago two men I know inadvertently disturbed a nest of rattlesnakes while they were out hunting in the desert. The snakes were aggressive and tried to attack them, but two men with deer rifles had no trouble fighting them off. Neither one came close to being bitten, and they were able to get to their truck and drive away without any snakes biting and flattening their tires. I'm not sure what the snakes did after the men left, but there have been no reports of unexplained snakebite deaths or mysterious fires in the area.]

Written in July 2009 by Nathan Decker.

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