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Friday, March 25, 2022

Cold-Hearted Snake: Sinuous South African Thriller ‘Serpent’ Has a Nasty Bite [Horrors Elsewhere]

The black mamba’s venomous bite can be a death sentence. Gwynn and Adam Kealey dwell on this fact as they detect the slithering intruder inside their tent. But as the couple in Serpent becomes trapped with South Africa’s most fearsome snake, they ponder another dire situation at the moment: their marriage.

Amanda Evans’ first feature starts off in busy Cape Town, South Africa where hardly a soul is seen other than the two protagonists. A dearth of other tangible characters reinforces the story’s sense of isolation. It feels like Gwynn (Sarah Dumont) and Adam (Tom Ainsley) are the only people in the world regardless of where they rest their heads at night. Early on, however, a voicemail dissolves the illusion as well as sets things in motion. Gwynn has been unfaithful sometime in the past, and the other party will not leave her alone. Whatever this relationship was, it is now over as far as Gwynn is concerned.

Meanwhile, Adam is oblivious to Gwynn’s adultery. Dr. Kealey is much more preoccupied with beetles than his wife, but he still makes more of an effort than Gwynn does. Adam finally notices the problem when Gwynn tells him, “Take me with you.” Looking for an escape from her unspoken troubles, Gwynn imposes herself on her husband and his research trip. Giving in to his wife’s rash request requires an awkward conversation with his research partner, but Adam is otherwise excited. Some alone time together might help heal the cracks in his and Gwynn’s marriage.

The rare beetle Adam seeks is hiding somewhere in a scenic getaway called Suicide Gorge. And after a long day of hiking, the main characters set up camp by a waterfall. This visit outdoors gets off to a good start, but as darkness falls, so do the couple’s chances of survival. In the middle of the night, a black mamba sneaks into the tent and stays there. Now all Gwynn and Adam can do is lie still, thinking of how terribly this scenario can end.

While marriages break down for a number of reasons, lack of communication is often a considerable cause. Gwynn and Adam can hardly be together in the same room without someone running away at the first sign of discomfort, yet now they have no choice but to stay put. The black mamba forces Gwynn and Adam to air their feelings and reevaluate what they mean to each other in light of emerging secrets and gross impulses. With time being of the essence, the couple has to address the elephant in the room. Or more accurately, the snake among them.

Creature features have a tendency to magnify physicality, be it the animal antagonist itself or the setting. Giant beasts wreaking havoc in cities is a common route in these sorts of films, but Serpent strives for something more intimate, deliberated, and free of interruption. The snake here is no mutant, nor is it a towering monster. Still, this is no mere black mamba; there is a vague and supernatural quality about this particular reptile. In line with other “natural horror” films, the snake is the end result of human error, albeit not in the same sense as a mad scientist tampering with nature. All the same, the Kealeys’ ordeal feels karmic rather than random.

Serpent has very little in common with other snake films, such as Anaconda; it behaves more like Colin Eggleston’s Long Weekend. The 1978 Ozploitater sees wildlife impinge on a stressed couple’s holiday, whereas Evans’ story uses only one snake. Of course, the black mamba can deliver a cocktail of neurotoxins that is lethal to humans if not treated in roughly twenty minutes. Keeping that in mind, both films harness a variety of fauna to bring internal issues to the surface. These beasties range from deceptively harmless to outright deadly, with Evans’ choice being an apex predator. The snake’s menacing presence forces the Kealeys to be honest, and it also leads Adam to discover Gwynn’s infidelity. So as much as Long Weekend and Serpent overstate the abilities and power of nature, these films convincingly blend reality and fantasy without resorting to outright absurdity.

After becoming aware of Gwynn’s unfaithfulness, Adam undergoes a drastic transformation. The affable husband who adored his wife now succumbs to baser instincts. He sheds his skin. This is where Serpent reveals another touchable threat to the Kealeys’ marriage. Trapped inside the tent along with the characters and the snake, the audience gets a ringside look at two people’s undiluted despair and desperation. Realism is arbitrarily waived in a bid to stress the intense actions and emotions on full display. There are times where it almost seems as if the snake is more than a spectator to the couple’s dispute; the creature is maneuvering these events so they reach their worst possible outcome. As risky as it is to maybe have the mamba be aware of Gwynn and Adam’s domestic predicament, doing so adds a fascinating layer to the film.

In Amanda Evans’ debut, the filmmaker asks who here is scarier: people or animals. The director hatches a strange story, as well as achieves an unsettling thriller that brings to light the underbelly of human nature.

Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure — a scream is understood, always and everywhere.

The post Cold-Hearted Snake: Sinuous South African Thriller ‘Serpent’ Has a Nasty Bite [Horrors Elsewhere] appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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