Each month in Horror Queers, Joe and Trace tackle a horror film with LGBTQ+ themes, a high camp quotient or both. For lifelong queer horror fans like us, there’s as much value in serious discussions about representation as there is in reading a ridiculously silly/fun horror film with a YAS KWEEN mentality. Just know that at no point will we be getting Babashook.
***SPOILERS for Anaconda follow.***
Synopsis for Anaconda: A “National Geographic” film crew lead by Terri (Jennifer Lopez) is taken hostage by Serone (Jon Voight), an insane hunter, who takes them along on his quest to capture the world’s largest – and deadliest – snake.
Queer Aspect: There isn’t one!
Trace, I barely even know where to begin with Anaconda, which I know we both completely love despite its many, many flaws.
I don’t remember seeing this film on the big screen when it debuted in 1997, so I must have discovered it on DVD back in the day. As a big fan of creature films, Anaconda is a camp favourite of mine; I tend to screen it when I’m entertaining friends who aren’t comfortable with horror films because they can laugh at its absurdity in between the snake kills (and sometimes during them).
The film feels very much of its time as the visual aesthetic, the cast and the subject matter skews very heavily towards mid-to-late 90s horror. There’s obviously a long historical precedent for “large murderous” creature films dating back to the 50s when fears of atomic fall-out was manifesting in films like Them! through to the original summer blockbuster Jaws in 75 and then in various incarnations throughout the 80s and 90s (my personal favourite is 1990’s Arachnophobia, which still gives me the heebie-jeebies). Of course the successor to films like Anaconda are all of those ill-advised SYFY productions, including Sharknado, which thankfully comes to an end this summer.
Watching Anaconda with a more critical eye, I noticed a few things that I hadn’t picked up on before. The most striking thing is how progressive the film actually is: not only are the two leads (and sole survivors) people of colour, there’s also an interracial romance between J-Lo and Eric Stoltz’s Steven Cale and the (human) villain is a greedy old white male. Also: just in case we’re uncertain about who the protagonist of the film is, Steven is almost immediately incapacitated and unconscious for the majority of the film. Not bad for 1997!
Of course, the film lives on in popular consciousness not for its progressive values, but for it’s inherent silly premise/execution and Jon Voight’s exceedingly ridiculous performance.
Trace, what do you (and by extension other fans) respond to most strongly in Anaconda? Do you think that the film has survived the test of time? And, most importantly, what exactly is Voight’s accent meant to be?
Joe, I don’t know what you’re talking about, because Anaconda doesn’t have any flaws. You are talking to (writing with?) a person who saw Anaconda in April 1997 with his father as a double feature with the equally dumb but fun Volcano (I was eight years old at the time). I bought a copy of the VHS the day it came out and I swear I wore it out the same way some teenage boys wore out copies of their dad’s porno tapes. I watched this movie a lot. So much so that I would actually play the movie in my head when I was lying in bed at night waiting to go to sleep. I had this movie memorized and I am not ashamed to admit it. I even made up a game on the elementary school playground called “Anaconda” (it was basically a slightly altered version of tag, but it worked)!
Why did I like this movie so much? I’m not really sure. Snakes were my favorite animal when I was a kid, and it was a horror movie that I was actually allowed to see when I was PG-13. But I can’t really say why. All I know is that I thought Anaconda was brilliant and while I recognize that it’s a cheesy creature feature today, I still have a huge love for it.
But enough about me. Let’s talk about Anaconda! The late ‘90s were a haven for creature features. Not only do you have Anaconda, but you also have Deep Blue Sea, Lake Placid, Deep Rising, The Relic, Bats, Mimic, Starship Troopers and the aforementioned Arachnophobia. Oh to be alive then! Studios were throwing money at these films. Not all of them succeeded (both Deep Rising and Starship Troopers bombed), but quite a few did well. Can you believe that Anaconda was given a budget of $45 million ($70 million in 2018 dollars) and went on to gross $65 million ($101 million in 2018 dollars) domestically? Is it even possible for a creature feature to gross that much money anymore? I guess we’ll find out when The Meg hits theaters in a few months.
I’m glad you touched on how progressive the film is though, because I feel like I’ve been defending this film for far too long. It’ll just be me and the late Roger Ebert (who famously gave the film three-and-a-half stars) in the afterlife, sitting in a corner, talking about how great Anaconda is. Two people of color headlines a big-budget studio creature feature in 1997! This is a pre-fame Jennifer Lopez we are talking about here (Selena was released just two months prior to this film). Ice Cube at least had his rap career and the success of Friday under his belt by this time, but it’s still crazy to think that Columbia Pictures went ahead with this casting. Eric Stoltz was arguably the biggest name in the film besides Voight or famous voice actor Frank Welker (who voices the various anacondas in the film), and Stoltz is missing for the entire middle hour! This film has some big brass balls so you’ve got to admire it for that at the very least.
I know I wrote above that the film doesn’t have any flaws, but if you look at Kari Wuhrer’s character Denise, you’ll see a problematic female character. She exists solely to provide some female skin and provide its sole moment of sexuality. She needs her man Gary (Owen Wilson) to protect her and when he gets killed she loses all agency; she’s literally reduced to a blubbering idiot until (in one of the film’s most ridiculous bits) Jon Voight kills her by strangling her with his legs. Anaconda does such a good job with Lopez’s Terri that it’s a shame to see Wuhrer get the shaft here.
Then there is Voight. Poor, poor Jon Voight. Does anyone know what he is doing in this movie? Did no one think to tell him that what he was doing was…..maybe not the best choice? Maybe people were too afraid to say anything? Either way, he chews so much scenery that it’s easy to see why he is the only thing people remember about the film. That being said, his performance defines this film. What would Anaconda be without Voight’s mustache-twirling villain Paul Serone and his unintelligible accent? The film needed him! That he dies being consumed by the very creature he was hunting is perfect, but can we please talk about the way he is killed? Llosa films his consumption by the snake from inside the snake. It’s almost like a reverse birth.
I’ve gone on for far too long, so I’ll leave you with this wonderful (and accurate) quote from Ebert’s review of the film: “Anaconda is an example of one of the hardest kinds of films to make well: a superior mass-audience entertainment. It has the effects and the thrills, but it also has big laughs, quirky dialogue and a gruesome imagination.”
Now tell me why more people don’t like this movie, Joe! And what are your thoughts on Voight’s performance? What do you think about the two female roles in this film? And finally, do you think the snake effects hold up? Personally, I think the puppet snakes look great!
I’ll start with your last point first, because I feel like audiences remember two things about this film: Voight and the snakes. There are certainly a few CGI-heavy moments that don’t look great (though in comparison to some other creature features like the aforementioned Deep Rising – which I loooooooove – Anaconda actually isn’t too bad). But I think that the practical puppet effects are actually pretty darn great. I’d say they’re at their worst when the tail is sweeping people off their feet (poor Ice Cube must’ve been covered in bruises!), but the head is surprisingly effective, particularly in close-up.
I was actually floored by how well some of the action sequences hold up, particularly the night time “trap” scene when Serone and the crew are in over their heads and Gary ends up in the belly of the beast. Not only is it surprisingly tense, I love the characterization of the Anaconda when it bursts through the window at Terri – it’s got so much personality! Combined with its “shrieking” vocals and you have one extremely memorable title character.
If we’re being honest, though, I think the reason that this film has lived on as a camp classic is almost solely because of Voight’s performance. The rest of the film and the cast are solid, it’s well-directed and fun, but Voight’s ridiculously over the top performance cements this as a camp classic in my mind. That accent! Oh lord, that accent! Is it French? Is it meant to be Cajun? On the rewatch, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Tommy Wiseau from The Room, which is just…mind boggling. I mean, if we’re talking memorizing lines, I used to taunt my sister by calling her “baby bird” in my best marble-mouthed attempt to replicate whatever the hell Voight is doing.
As a big fan of the TV show Sliders, I remember being brutally disappointed how wimpy and meek Wuhrer is. On the wormhole-hopping series, she’s a badass military operative who kicks men in the balls as frequently as possible and she’s much more believable and compelling as a strong-willed action star. Even in the much-sillier Eight Legged Freaks she at least gets to be an empowered Sheriff! Unfortunately seeing two women in positions of power is probably expecting too much from a big budget summer tentpole in 1997.
With that said, I’m far more invested in J. Lo’s Terri early on. As the film moves into its climax, I find that Terri frequently falls into “bait” territory and the agency transfers to Ice Cube. Again, this is something that I noticed more on the rewatch than when I first checked it out, but it does seem odd to me how the script reduces Terri to a typical damsel in distress, particularly in the climax at the smoke stack.
Minor complaints aside, Anaconda certainly holds up. The cast elevates the more mundane material, particularly Jonathan Hyde’s one-liners as the Richard Attenborough-esque Westridge. Plus the direction is surprisingly effective, especially Llosa’s decision to shoot several scenes in deep focus to draw out the tension of when and where the snake would appear. All in all, I stand by our enthusiasm for Anaconda and I was happy to give it a rewatch!
Trace, in the pantheon of 90s creature features, where does Anaconda sit for you? Did you ever check out the insufferably terrible CGI-heavy sequel? And if we were casting a reboot, who would you tap?
I absolutely checked out the CGI-heavy sequel. My sister and I were there opening weekend! And while the lack of puppet snakes is lamentable, it is still a lot of fun. I mean, not many movies end with your protagonist falling into the middle of a giant snake orgy. But we’re not talking about that film…
For me, Anaconda probably ranks at the top of all the ‘90s creature features (thank you for giving me that listicle idea). I like all of the ones we’ve listed throughout this piece, but Anaconda is the best, barely edging out Deep Blue Sea (which I also love).
I know that many people view Anaconda as campy, but I just don’t see it. Llosa was seeking to make a serious horror film about a killer snake, but is it possible to make such a thing? Sure, there is humor in the film (Westridge’s frequent complaints are very funny), but none of it is done with the same type of winks to the audience as a film like, say, Piranha (either the original or Alexandre Aja’s remake). There isn’t a scene in Anaconda that takes pleasure in bad taste or any ironic, John Waters’ moments. Naysayers will say that the film is unintentionally comedic, but other than Voight’s performance, I honestly don’t see it. The camp factor just isn’t there for me. It is possible that I will never be able to see this film without the lens of my giddy 8-year-old eyes, though.
You bring up a good point with Lopez’s character. After spending a good 70 minutes as the clear protagonist (and badass bitch) of the film, she is relegated to damsel in distress and rescued by Ice Cube’s Danny multiple times. Even when the snake erupts out of the pier in the last “gotcha” scare, Terri flails about on the ground while Danny kills it with an axe. This isn’t the Terri we have come to know over the course of the film and it’s a bummer that it had to go that way, but I guess Ice Cube was the bigger star at the time, so what are you going to do?
Lastly, the idea of a reboot is so far off of my radar that I have absolutely no idea who I would cast. Not that I’m opposed to a reboot, mind you. After all of those SyFy sequels which, admittedly, I have never seen (not even Lake Placid Vs. Anaconda, which, what?), the franchise could probably do with something new. Sadly, I don’t think that will ever happen. I mean, what studio is going to give $70 million to produce a giant snake movie?
But if I had to cast it, I would probably go with Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez as Terri Flores. She proved herself as a formidable actress in Annihilation and I could easily see her replacing Lopez. Then maybe gender-swap Serone, make her “Paula” and cast Parker Posey. She did a fantastic job as the new Dr. Smith in the Lost in Space reboot, but I really just want more evil Parker Posey (have you seen Josie and the Pussycats? C’mon!). For Danny let’s get O’Shea Jackson Jr. (he did play Ice Cube in Straight Outta Compton, after all) and either Bill Nighy or Charles Dance would be fantastic for Westridge (though if you want to go younger, Simon Pegg would be a good choice, too). Gary and Denise are harder to peg because they’re such bland characters so let’s go with unknowns for them. As for Steven, since he’s out of the film for so long I can’t imagine any serious actor taking the role unless it’s for a huge paycheck (sorry Eric Stoltz), so maybe an unknown for him, too? Okay, that was a bit more fun than I thought it was going to be. And I want my Paula Serone goddammit!
I have to say, I’m really enjoying our “off-cycle” entries in our Horror Queers series. Don’t get me wrong, I adore diving into horror films with queer themes (which we’re still doing once a month), but I also love just talking about horror films that I love so this has been a real pleasure. Hopefully our readers think so as well! I leave you all with this parting gift:
Next on Horror Queers: we’re celebrating Part Two of our sixth month anniversary with the first (only?) queer slasher film Hellbent.
Anaconda is available to rent on Amazon Instant for $3.99.
And don’t forget to catch up on our previous Horror Queers articles: