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Friday, December 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Overcast
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Guess who's crawling to dinner?
After all the hype, Snakes on a Plane really bites
Samuel L. Jackson has had it with these gosh-darn snakes on this gosh-darn plane.
Samuel L. Jackson has had it with these gosh-darn snakes on this gosh-darn plane.

Oh, for the days of William Castle, the P.T. Barnum of Schlock and Awe, who used to promote his mid-century horror films by turning the movie theater itself into a haunted house. There was Percepto, a wiring system by which certain audience members' seats were turned into electric chairs. And there was Emergo, which sent a glow-in-the-dark skeleton floating over discombobulated heads. Homicidal, a blatant knock-off of Psycho, included a "Fright Break" during which customers were offered full refunds if they left during the film's final five minutes. (A yellow line on the floor led them to "Coward's Corner.") And admission to Macabre came complete with a $1,000 life insurance policy from Lloyds of London, in the event of death by fright. The films were pure junk food, the gimmicks an extra layer of cheese.

But at least Castle fed us something. Fifty years later, it's all very Do-It-Yourself. Case in point: Snakes on a Plane, the highly anticipated thriller about...well, about snakes...on a plane. Rarely has a movie achieved such advance awareness on the strength of its title alone, but consider that title, in all its crass, Gone-With-the-Wind-was-already-taken purity.

Embraced by the blogosphere, which smelled a turkey roasting in the oven, Snakes on a Plane seemed to develop its own meme scheme, inspiring songs, videos, Web sites, T-shirts, even a catchphrase. Instead of "shit happens," you now shrug your shoulders and say "snakes on a plane." And for New Line Cinema, the studio trapped in this avalanche of free publicity, it's been a matter of dodging the boulders. Early on, it had considered changing the movie's title to Pacific Air 121. That wasn't allowed. Chalk up another one for MySpace and YouTube.

And chalk up another one for that dusty Holy Grail, word-of-mouth. In the old days - you know, before last week - people had to see a movie before passing judgment on it. But Snakes on a Plane has opened up all new sorts of possibilities for pleasing an audience before they arrive at the theater. Aware that Samuel Jackson would be leading the effort for a snake-free environment - he plays an FBI agent assigned to escort a murder witness from Honolulu to Los Angeles - fanboys and fangirls begged that a line be added to the script, one worthy of Jackson's bad-ass reputation. And wouldn't you know it, the line - "I've had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!" - got added. If only Shakespeare had shown us the same consideration: "To be or not to be, who gives a rat's ass?"

I suspect that nobody, with the possible exception of herpetological criminologists, will give a rat's ass for Snakes on a Plane, when all is said and done. The movie's neither good enough nor bad enough to leave much of an impression. Director David Ellis does seem to have gotten the memo about camping it up, but perhaps not as early in the filmmaking process as some would have liked. And so the movie kind of careens between Airport (with snakes) and Airplane (with snakes), genre and genre parody. Itching to get things started, Ellis lets his snakes - all 400 of them - out of the cargo bay much too early, passing up any chance for suspense. And most of them are so clearly digitized, you feel like you're watching a cartoon. But they sure know how to go for the jugular, not to mention the eyeball, the breast, even the penis.

The latter occurs after the man in question, unbuckling his pants to relieve himself in the bathroom, looks down and asks, "How's my big boy?" Like all disaster films, Snakes on a Plane doles out punishment to those who violate certain unspoken moral codes. A sexy young couple bites it - gets bitten, I should say - upon registering for the Mile-High Club. And a snotty, snitty guy with a British accent has the arrogance squeezed out of him by a boa constrictor. There are so many snakes to go around - rattlesnakes, cobras, asps, you name it - that you can almost imagine the filmmakers scratching their heads trying to come up with new ways to die. And you start to wish that William Castle were still with us, filling in the lulls. He'd have sent a dozen garter snakes slithering up the aisle. And that's just what this movie needed.

My advice: Go on a Friday or Saturday night, when the crowd will supply most of the entertainment.

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