Bite Size: Fangs (1974)

Fangs/Holy Wednesday (1974) Movie Review

For most people, midweek isn’t a particularly notable time. Whatever responsibilities Monday brings are already in progress, and it is a touch too early to anticipate the pleasures the weekend might bring. However, Jim “Snakey” Bender (40s radio star and B movie regular Les Tremayne) isn’t most people. On Wednesdays, Snakey leaves the comfort of his rural reptile farm for a trip into town. Amongst the hustle and bustle, he’s got errands to run, supplies to buy, and both a best friend and a pretty schoolteacher to visit.

This regional California drive in cheapie was the sole directorial credit for Art A. Names. He’s probably best known for his long career as a sound mixer for a variety of exploitation fare (The Corpse Grinders, Savage Streets, H.O.T.S.), and a pair of writing credits on lesser Ted V. Mikels movies. Visually, Fangs is exactly what you would expect in regard to both the director’s experience level and budgetary limitations. The movie is indifferently framed, edited like a car braking in traffic, and features a rather flat color palette that reads even muddier on home video. Slightly less expectedly, the sound levels are also all over the place, with blaring stock music and tinny dialog. What separates Fangs from the pack is all in the left field nature of its small town cast of characters.

Snakey himself is hillbilly caricature imported in from a hicksploitation flick, a pork and beans eating, dirty coverall wearing misanthrope who clearly prefers the company of his reptile pets to people. In fact, he keeps a few of his slithery friends in the car, even on his trips into town. He pays local schoolchildren to hunt rats and mice to feed them, and harasses the owners of the local general store to ship exotic snakes in on their delivery truck (food safety standards be damned). He also claims to be part snake himself. Snakey is just as fanatical as his nickname would imply, and the only other interest he has is an equally zealous passion for the bombastic marches of John Philip Sousa. Snakey has a standing appointment each week with his best buddy Burt (Richard Kennedy), where they bond over beer fueled march alongs to the greatest hits of 1896.

It’s clear that at least a few residents of the town are less than thrilled with his visits, in particular a literalist Bible thumper named Brother Joy (Marvin Kaplan) who feels serpents are the Devil’s work, and that old Snakey is leading the local kids into sins against God’s more innocent prey animals. Luckily Burt has enough clout around town to override Brother Joy’s objections in regards to his eccentric BFF. Local schoolteacher Cynthia (Bebe Kelly) is also oddly tolerant of Mr. Bender, encouraging her class to hunt for suitable feed, and inviting old Snakey’s menagerie to show and tell.

All of this changes when Burt decides to marry Ivy (Janet Wood), a showgirl he’s brought back from the big city. Her nude go go dancing sure beats broom carrying marches, and the days of Wednesday night band concerts are clearly numbered. Snakey, already threatened by a change to his precious weekly routine, makes a rash decision that further tears his well ordered schedule to shreds. Soon every warm blooded creature in his life seems to be turning against him.

Fangs takes a long time setting up its cast of characters, and there is a certain hypnotic rubbernecking quality to watching it edge its way into Willard territory despite lacking much, if any, handle on anything that even superficially resembles actual human behavior. It turns out that Cynthia, seemingly sweet schoolteacher, has a serious snake fetish. She’s been forcibly enlisting the school children on Snakey’s behalf to keep the conjugal visits with his prize pets coming (thankfully, this is only ever shown in puppet show style silhouette). Meanwhile, the sibling owners of the general store have had a share and share alike crush on Cynthia for months. When dim witted Bud (Bruce Kimball) and his butch lesbian Lothario sister Sis (Alice Nunn, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure) get wind of Cynthia’s big secret, they blackmail her. Not wanting to lose her job, Cynthia is forced into both indulging the pair’s whims and accelerating the pace of old Snakey’s no good very bad day exponentially by cutting off his child labor snake food supply.

Why is Snakey such an outcast when every single character in town is transfixed by snakes as much as he is? What the hell was the onus of the weekly worship of marching bands? How did absolutely no one on the school board notice how much time Cynthia Williams spent rhapsodizing with her class about snakes?

Fangs is both oddly coy (there is little gore or nudity to speak of, despite the abundantly sleazy contours of the plot), and entirely committed to the weird world it has created in a way that is both accidentally hilarious and utterly disorienting. By the time Snakey starts creating overly elaborate reptile-centric Bond villain traps to punish his enemies and pushing cars off a cliff with the frenetic regularity of those headache remedy ads’ admonishment to “APPLY DIRECTLY TO THE FOREHEAD!“……it’s rather pedestrian by comparison to everything that preceded it.

Fangs wasn’t much of a box office draw, despite a spate of retitlings that ranged from the generic (Snakes) to the blandly accurate (Holy Wednesday) to the most blatant sort of bait and switch (Snakelust). The film’s failure to launch isn’t surprising, as it doesn’t really venture far enough into grisly horror or forbidden lust to have satisfied the bulk of the grindhouse/drive in crowd. What Fangs excels at is a quality that is likely best appreciated in retrospect. Fangs is a jolt of shambling, oddly specific eccentricity. The film is basically the cinematic equivalent of those misshapen fish that are only found in the deeper reaches of the ocean, where all of the working parts are seemingly assembled in the wrong order. If you’re looking for sex, style, or shock you’d be better served elsewhere. However, if you’re looking for a genuinely inexplicable curio of the 70s indie genre film fringes, you might find Fangs fascinating in spite of itself.

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