Legendary diva Eartha Kitt was a woman of many talents. Throughout her six decades in show business, Kitt was a singer, a dancer, an actress, and a powerful activist for civil rights causes, and her unique, inimitable voice is well-known even to modern audiences even if it’s mostly through repeated playing of “Santa Baby” (one of the few genuinely good Christmas songs) or as one of the lead voice actors in Disney’s THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE. Plus, she was Catwoman! And she made Lady Bird Johnson cry! Her contributions to American culture are so varied and numerous that even though she died in 2008, she’s still a force to be reckoned with, providing inspiration to singers, activists and drag queens even today.
As much of a charismatic character as Kitt was, it’s a bit puzzling that her film career was so… varied. Early in her career, she was featured in starring roles in films like ANNA LUCASTA (with Sammy Davis Jr.) and MARK OF THE HAWK (with Sidney Potier), but her acting career soon became sidelined by her singing career and the “shut up and sing” attitudes of pro-Vietnam War advocates at the time. Her career since the late ‘60s has been a veritable Whitman’s Sampler of psychotronic offerings, ranging from British sex farce (UP THE CHASTITY BELT), Blaxploitation (FRIDAY FOSTER), sleazy period Cannon fodder (MASTER OF DRAGONARD HILL and DRAGONARD) and even playing the voice of a nymphomania-inducing meteor in the Frank Stallone vehicle THE PINK CHIQUITAS. Her star started to rise again with smaller, yet memorable, roles in studio productions like BOOMERANG, FATAL INSTINCT and ERNEST SCARED STUPID, but her filmography feels like a bizarrely scattershot assortment of random movies rather than any kind of coherent career arc.
Among these cinematic oddities is 1985’s THE SERPENT WARRIORS, and it may just be the oddest film in which Kitt appeared. (And keep in mind, voice of nymphomania-inducing meteor, Frank Stallone.) On the surface, it seems like THE SERPENT WARRIORS is a can’t-miss proposition for both Miss Kitt and an audience craving some good old fashioned crazy entertainment, as it casts her as the queen of a snake cult. Seriously, could you turn down a movie in which Eartha Kitt plays the queen of a snake cult? Especially when she looks like this?
If you’re not intrigued already, you may wish to be reading another site. Perhaps some sort of Pinterest board.
In addition to fantastic casting right off the bat, THE SERPENT WARRIORS also has a couple of other names-at-least-big-enough-to-sell-a-VHS-title-in-the-mid-‘80s in Clint Walker, Anne Lockhart, and Christopher Mitchum. (Side note: Mitchum has had a film career that’s at least as insane as his father’s, ranging from Jodorowsky’s TUSK to James Bryan’s THE EXECUTIONER PART II to, well, this – someone interview this guy for Shock Cinema, stat!) It’s also got snake mayhem galore! So why, then, is it insanely obscure, to the point where it never even found any kind of distribution in the United States?
Well, I’ll tell you.
The story of THE SERPENT WARRIORS actually starts with CALAMITY OF SNAKES, a 1982 film from Chinese director Chi Chang (billed as William Cheung). The Taiwan-set CALAMITY OF SNAKES is the story of a new apartment building in which a snake pit is uncovered during the construction, causing the snakes to be destroyed by the man in charge. After the apartment complex is finished, however, the snakes come to wreak their revenge of the residents, attacking everyone in sight.
There’s nothing too surprising about the plot, but CALAMITY OF SNAKES is notorious for its use of actual snake violence, so those who don’t really want to see snakes get torn up, ripped apart or set ablaze should stay far, far away. (This, no doubt, includes most people.) If, however, you’re generally okay with animal violence, CALAMITY OF SNAKES could be seen as an entertaining film, as it certainly wastes no time in getting to snake attacks, and it’s an impressively weird film that never ceases to get some sort of reaction out of audiences.
Over the next year, CALAMITY OF SNAKES reached other countries via a version dubbed into English (this version was available on Brentwood’s out-of-print “Eastern Horror” DVD collection, if you’re so inclined) including being issued in Pakistan as REVENGE OF THE SNAKES using artwork cribbed from THE BEYOND. This proved to be inspirational to Korean directors Kim Seon-gyeong and Qi Zhang, who took the film, added some additional scenes involving a girl having a nightmare and driving to the airport to take a plane to China and released it in Korean as THE WAR BETWEEN MEN AND SNAKES in October of 1983. While I haven’t come across the film itself, it was allegedly released solely in Korean without any subtitles.
This new Korean frankenfilm was then repurposed once more, by American filmmaker John Howard (Niels Rasmussen is credited as co-director on the IMDb, but not in the film itself), who worked in the already strained plot by two different filmmakers made in different countries with different performers, stripped out the animal cruelty and a lot of the plot-heavy sequences, and shot additional footage in Nevada with name cast members they could sell to American audiences. And SERPENT WARRIORS was born – and subsequently died. While the film did find distribution in Denmark (see the trailer below), Spain, and Germany (as SNAKE INFERNO), the film never even managed a VHS release in its newly-adopted country. (It did, allegedly, make its way to Hong Kong under the title GOLDEN VIPER, though I’ve yet to come up with a verified VHS box.)
The results are… to be kind, pretty damn awful. The film opens with a sequence involving a Professor, his son Jason, and a guide attempting to rescue the Professor’s daughter from a snake cult in the middle of an unidentified jungle. This ends in tragedy as the group gets there just in time to see her sacrificed, and they’re pursued by the tribe, killing several of them in their escape including chief, who Jason shoots. With his dying breath, the chief curses the family. (The professor and his family are dubbed into English while the tribe members are subtitled, and the sequences don’t match up with anything in CALAMITY OF SNAKES or the description of the footage in the Korean release, this may actually come from an entirely different film.)
Cut to “The Far East” (seriously, that’s the title card, though it’s later identified as Taipei) 40 years later. Using primarily the opening footage from CALAMITY OF SNAKES, a group of construction workers (in Mandarin with English subtitles) stumble upon a snake pit and one of the crew discuss what to do with a boss– and then the dialogue suddenly switches to being dubbed entirely in English! The English dubbing has the duo talking about the “warrior python” and the worker being instructed to find the Serpent Master in order to… stop the warrior python, I suppose. In any case, we’re soon back into Mandarin-with-English subtitles as the snake pit is burned, though in far less graphic detail than the CALAMITY version.
We next get an abbreviated (and subtitled) version of a scene pulled from 36 minutes into CALAMITY, as underling Chang talks to a Serpent Master about getting rid of their snake problem, followed by the master fighting a giant boa, biting it (!) in defense. This cuts middle-battle to – a dream sequence! And a gold-painted Eartha Kitt, sitting on a throne, watching a dancer in a cave, and extoling things like “Dark spirits of the underworld, unleash your might!”
The dream, as it turns out in the increasingly bizarre narrative, is had by a young woman – though oddly, it’s NOT the young woman who awakens from a dream at the beginning of CALAMITY OF SNAKES, so we’re back in the Korean footage, subtitled in English. This woman, Michelle King, is concerned about her husband (?) Jason, and his recurring nightmares of snakes stemmed from the opening sequence’s curse. She’s directed (in English-dubbed dialogue) towards a scientist named Morgan Bates, an expert in snake cults who lives in Los Angeles, and we learn that Jason is the “boss” in the earlier snake sequence.
Next, we go to Los Angeles, where the rest of our name cast finally appears! Dr. Bates (Clint Walker, in his final film) isn’t particularly interested in the woman who wants to visit him about being “voodooed by snake cults” but his assistants Tim (Christopher Mitchum) and Laura (Anne Lockhart) agree to see her. (Curiously, even the English-speaking parts sound dubbed, so it doesn’t appear that this was shot with live sound.) Tim and Laura pick up Michelle at the airport (this may actually be a different actress – the poor picture quality makes it difficult to tell) and take her to her apartment (which, uh, she has, somehow) and she has another beautiful dream of Eartha Kitt chewing scenery.
After Michelle makes a phone call to Jason that allows the film to use more CALAMITY OF SNAKES footage (again, partially dubbed into English and partially subtitled), she has a talk with Dr. Bates, who tries to coax her out of her efforts with “you must understand how dangerous people affected with the idea of serpent worship can be! They’re fanatics!” Despite Bates’ objections (including mentioning that it’s pretty unlikely that a snake cult in the western United States would be related to a cult harassing “The Far East”), Laura and Tim agree to help Michelle, stealing some of Bates’ maps in order to find the cult.
The trio makes their way to Mexico, and the remainder of the film becomes a sub-sub-sub-INDIANA JONES knock-off, as the trio find the cult without too much effort and spy on their weirdly random dancing rituals overseen by priestess Eartha Kitt. There are occasional bright spots beyond Kitt’s ever-entrancing eyes and a lot of disinterested, half-naked dancers, like the following bit of dialogue as our heroes peep on the cult:
Laura: What’s this dance supposed to represent?
Tim: Laura, I believe I mentioned that these people are crazy.
In other words, it’s a movie that doesn’t even try to justify any kind of snake knowledge for the random series of events that it depicts. In fact, the Mexican snake cult doesn’t really seem to be doing anything wrong – they’re just a bunch of people that like to take most of their clothes off, paint themselves in gold and dance around as some snakes slither about. The protagonists look like peeping toms at a fetish night, rather than scientists on a mission.
Of course, this changes when Michelle foolishly confronts the high priestess, who tells her that her husband deserves it for killing all of those snakes. They’re mid-conversation when Tim butts in like a jerk and threatens to shoot the priestess, who is defended by one of the cult members with a whip. The heroes captured, the priestess demands that they “receive their sentence at the throne of the golden viper” allowing Kitt to finally get the full-on ranting snake priestess scene she so rightfully deserves.
Unfortunately, the potential of the rest of the film just being Eartha Kitt hissing at people is dashed by the arrival of Dr. Bates, who fends off some bikers (?!) in the desert on his way to rescuing the trapped remainder of his team, imprisoned in a snake pit. They’re pursued by the snake cult, now wearing clothes, heavily armed and led by snake dancer Varna (Kitt, no doubt, was only on set for a day or two), and wipe out the cult members (sans the priestess, who just vanishes from the film) after hanging out in a dimly-lit cave for what feels like several hours.
The team then just leaves, with Dr. Bates commenting that “our wiping out a few cult members has only made the threat of your husband’s life even greater” followed by an ominous shot of Eartha Kitt… somewhere? It’s unclear.
We then go back to the WAR BETWEEN MAN AND SNAKES/CALAMITY OF SNAKES footage as a dubbed phone conversation between Michelle and Jason reveals that the high priestess has sworn to kill him, a fact Jason ignores. The rest of the film is just most of the final (and pretty incredible) snake attack sequence from CALAMITY, as gobs and gobs of snakes attack the partygoers at the opening of the apartment complex. It’s an ophidiophibiac’s nightmare, as it essentially consolidates all of the snake attack footage of the earlier movie into a quick 15 minutes, cutting out most of the actual animal cruelty footage in the process. It’s also subtitled, but most of the dialogue is screaming as people run like hell to get out of the way of the venomous critters. It ends, of course, with another shot of Eartha Kitt, this time screaming in a snake mask. The end credits seem to suggest it was filmed around Nevada and Honolulu, Hawaii, and the word “copyright” is oddly misspelled as two separate words.
In other words, SERPENT WARRIORS is exactly the mess of a movie that you’d expect from a film created by three different sources each with their own plot and characters. Outside of Kitt as snake priestess, the best thing WARRIORS adds to the proceedings is a jazzy, upbeat score by John Lee Sanders (who also provided music for the similarly multicultural mess MOB BUSTERS with Richard Kiel) – otherwise the American sequences are mostly plodding, barely-visible confusion.
Our story doesn’t even end with the negligible release of SERPENT WARRIORS, as sometime in the ‘90s, the original CALAMITY OF SNAKES was re-released as SNAKE’S REVENGE (no relation to the Metal Gear Solid game), adding in some truly ridiculous computer-generated snake effects to serve as cappers on certain scenes! In addition, this version seems to have a different font for the credits and clocks in at 78 minutes, 8 minutes shorter than the original release. (Doing a quick comparison, the time difference mostly seems to come from eliminating small bits of dialogue and some of the more brutal animal violence rather than lengthy scenes. Both the original and SNAKE’S REVENGE versions are available online if you’re so inclined, but keep in mind, this is the one with all of the actual snake violence.
In all, four distinct movies with a total of seven different titles were made from CALAMITY OF SNAKES, and while one of the end results did, in fact, produce the realization of Eartha Kitt playing the queen of a snake cult, the minimal screen time she gets hardly makes it worth the effort. Still, it’s one of those fascinatingly odd films that could only come from the money-grubbing world of psychotronic filmmaking, in which unraveling the story is just as compelling as the film itself. While SERPENT WARRIORS is a scattershot, barely-coherent mess that only the more hardened of exploitation fanatics will even be able to sit through, at least we’ll always have these screenshots of Eartha Kitt, queen of the snakes.
Tags: Anne Lockhart, Chi Chang, China, Christopher Mitchum, Clint Walker, Denmark, Eartha Kitt, Germany, Hawaii, John Howard, Kim Seon-gyeong, Korea, Mexico, Nevada, Pakistan, Qi Zhang, Snakes, Spain, VHS, World Cinema