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  • Benjamin May

Spasms (1983) Review

By 1983, Oliver Reed had sold Broome Hall, the 56-bedroom, palatial house he had lived in for several years and which crippled him financially. However, the upkeep on Reed’s new home, Pinkhurst farm- a 12-acre Tudor manor in Surrey- was still substantial. To that end, Reed- unlike some of his peers, such as Dirk Bogarde or Richard Burton- did not have the luxury of being able to solely choose acting projects that interested him. The cheque was- more often than not- more persuasive than the screenplay; perhaps explaining his appearance in William Fruet’s ‘Spasms.’

Moreover, the record-breaking success of Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’- which Reed was offered a role in and declined- might explain the film as a whole. Based on the novel ‘Death Bite’ by Michael Maryk and Brent Monahan, it follows millionaire Jason Kincaid, who claims to have a telepathic connection with a giant snake. He hires ESP researcher Tom Brasilia to rid him of the psychic link, while a cult- and ex-CIA agent Crowley- have their eyes on the beast and want it for themselves. With Kincaid’s niece Suzanne in tow, will Brasilia be able to avoid the poisoned jaws of doom?

Sound like fun? It isn’t, at least not intentionally. Clearly trading on the success of ‘Jaws’, Fruet and co-writer Don Enright’s screenplay lacks everything that made Spielberg’s film so special. In ‘Jaws’, the characters were believable and compelling, the dialogue was sharply witty and the situation was as tense as a stretched bowstring. Conversely, in Fruet’s film, the characters are ridiculous caricatures with no depth or interesting qualities of any kind. The dull, overly expository dialogue sounds like it was ripped straight from the pages of a bargain-basement slasher novel- which, one supposes, it was.

Furthermore, whatever tension Maryk and Monahan might have been able to generate with the written word was completely lost in translation to the screen. Fruet fails to create suspense, in fact, he doesn’t seem to know what suspense is. Alongside editor Ralph Brunjes, he continuously cuts from lengthy scenes of juxtaposition to poorly shot ones of snake-sadism, without any rhyme, reason or style. Tension isn’t allowed to build, nor does the audience feel in any way intimidated by the threat of the snake; or invested in the story at all, for that matter.

It's a dull, unexciting venture, with few redeeming qualities. Cinematographer Mark Irwin- whose work on David Cronenberg’s ‘The Brood’ and ‘Videodrome’ was so affecting- phones it in, shooting the picture like it was a movie of the week scheduled to air on Superbowl Sunday. The flair he demonstrated many times with Cronenberg is lost: his compositions are conventional, the lighting is uninspired; the whole thing looks cheap.

In addition, Eric Robertson’s unoriginal score does little to help proceedings, ripping everything and everyone off, from John Carpenter to ‘The Wizard of Oz’. In fact, the state of the film makes one wonder if all those involved knew they were working on a dud and decided not to try particularly hard. From the production design to the costumes and set decoration, there is a distinct lack of quality- or of interest from the participants.

Particularly with regard to the special effects. Apparently, Fruet was dissatisfied with the work of Academy Award-winning makeup artists Dick Smith and Stephan Dupuis, meaning one never really sees the snake nor the effects of its’ ravaging. Fruet instead relies on tacky, blue-tinged POV shots and quick cuts, which is a real shame, as in the sole scene where one sees Smith and Dupuis’s work in a well-lit environment, it is commendable. Fruet didn’t know what a good thing he had.

Despite all that, as Kincaid, Reed is terrific, opposite Peter Fonda as Brasilia, Kerrie Keane as Suzanne and Al Waxman as Crowley. Like in ‘Venom’, another snake-based chiller he was in, Reed gives it his all, delivering a measured, understated performance. He is a joy to watch, while Fonda- despite seeming a bit bored- and Keane also do fine work; their attempts to elevate the material and their characters are commendable, if ultimately in vain. Waxman, for his part, seems to be trying to chew as much scenery as he can, and does so, swallowing the nails and all. However, he brings some life and energy to proceedings; which the film was in dire need of.

That Maryk and Monahan thought their book could be as big a film as Peter Benchley’s ‘Jaws’ was is not unreasonable. However, without the talents of Steven Spielberg, and with William Fruet at the helm, ‘Spasms’ is not in the same league, in fact; it's not even the same game. Dull dialogue, paired with bad characterisation, a complete lack of tension and cheap-looking visuals dooms this film to the realm of the mediocre. Despite Oliver Reed’s efforts, this giant snake-based chiller really lacks bite. One hopes Ollie’s paycheque was a large one.


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