The Cult of Actor Sam Chew Jr. in Rattlers (1976) Part One

*contains spoilers

Most people probably prefer the Anaconda (1997) movie and its sequels and there’s no denying the original is quite a good one, but I have three snake tales that I can watch over again and still get a thrill.

The first is the film Rattlers (1976), which starts off with a couple of 70s moppets looking for a “real live skeleton”. The pair even put a bet on if they find the thing. Sadly, for them, they fall into a real live snake pit full of rattlers and die screaming.

These unfortunate moppets are about to get bitten to death in Rattlers as they plunge into a snake pit

It’s a short but effective sequence before the title RATTLERS is flashed in red across the screen with a striking rattlesnake in the background.

Cut to a Californian university campus where actor Sam Chew Jr. (1942-) is a sturdy and dependable lecturer. He keeps a collection of venomous snakes, including rattlers, in the bio-lab, something that gives one of his colleagues “the willies”.

Sam has been asked to look in on the case of the dead boys out at a police station in a town somewhere in the desert.

The title credit to Rattlers is pure exploitation

Later that day, his colleague, who studies the effect of appetite on stressed birds – something ahead of its time, as they put on weight – is cornered by of one of Sam’s cobras, which has escaped through the actions of a clumsy janitor.

“Just don’t make any sudden moves,” says Sam as he uses his hands to charm the snake and grab it by the neck. “I got him,” says Sam, and a beauty too, by the size of the thing. His colleague meanwhile looks as though he has had a bowel movement and they agree on something stronger than coffee that evening.

Sam goes to the desert police station and morgue where he sees the bodies of the boys: “Strictly closed coffin stuff,” says the sheriff.

Sam Chew Jr. charms in more ways than one in Rattlers

“I’ve handled hundreds of snake bite cases but nothing like this,” says Sam, who reckons it’s not uncommon for rattlers to gather in dozens or even a hundred when hibernating together. There was also the body of an old man discovered who was bitten to death in his sleep.

“I’ve never heard of a rattlesnake making an unprovoked attack on a man,” says Sam, “as they’re not naturally aggressive.” Apparently they give plenty of warning if they’re going to attack simply by using their tail. I’m learning all the time!

Sam takes a trip to the canyon, where the bodies were found, with a deputy. As he looks through nooks and crannies, there is the creepy sound of wooden sticks or some wooden implements being used for background sound. It’s effective.

Rattlers (1976) trailer

Then we cut to some guy who turns up at a local farm in his souped up car and finds the family dog Duke and some chickens, dead. There’s that sound effect again. He goes to the barn where a squeaking door leads him to being bitten on the neck fatally by a rattler, while his mother, in the homestead preparing dinner, is suddenly surrounded by rattlers. She’s dead!

Sam, returns to the uni, but gets the call again from the country sheriff: “Guess what? Looks like the snakes again.”

And this time livestock are dead. When Sam turns up at the station again a –shock, horror – female photographer named Anne, played by Elisabeth Chauvet, has been assigned to help him take photos of the evidence. Sadly, despite being a forerunner in the women’s liberation movement of the 70s, Anne goes on bitterly to Sam about how women don’t get the good positions because of “men like you”.

Sam is about to tell Liz to stop whining

“You have your job and you should be happy!,” says Sam after blowing up at her about her “liberated ass”. Sam’s character aint about to be trodden on – let alone get bitten by a rattler!

The great thing about Rattlers is the iconic sound of the voices of Sam Chew Jr. and Elisabeth Chauvet. They just sound great. Sam’s voice is authoritatative, while Liz is more laid back but confident. Their voices complement one another and they make a good onscreen pair as they head out to camp at night in the desert.

Rattlers poster

There’s another attack, this time in a bathtub, which is famously used on the classic exploitation poster with the words: “What a horrible way to die!”

The woman in the tub is attacked by snakes, which act all the more vicious and disturbed – the poor things – because they have bubble bath soap in their eyes. The music leading up to this death is discordant, in fact there is no real music soundtrack, just these discordant sounds much of the time, plus the sound of the rattlers of course.

The first night together in the tent, there’s no hanky panky – but they are getting closer as a couple as she tells Sam in the morning about her underprivileged childhood.

The snakes appear to have soap in their eyes as they attack!

They’re looking for snakes though… and while they remain elusive, Sam sees an old army base nearby on a map. They turn up at the security gate, get clearance to enter and meet the base commander, Colonel Stroud, who tells them about a soldier found dead who “looked like a pin-cushion.” Another snake attack victim as “it sure as hell wasn’t the flu!,” says the base’s resident doctor.

Catching the colonel in a good mood, Sam is furnished with a helicopter, while Liz gets a Jeep. They go their separate ways in search of… something.

Sam gets a chopper

There is some minor synth keyboard used in this part of the film. The music is by Miles Goodman (1948-96), who got his break in bigger movies such as Hal Ashby’s (1929-88 pancreatic) troubled and over-budget Lookin’ to Get Out (1982) and Don Siegel’s (1912-91 cancer) equally troubled – in terms of sour personal relationships – Jinxed (1982). Composer Goodman was busy collaborating with director Frank Oz – he did Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) and What about Bob? (1991) – at the time of his death at 47 of a heart attack.

The score for Rattlers remains very much a very minor piece of Goodman’s resume. Basic low budget orchestrations without the orchestra!

Bette Midler hated Ken Wahl in the troubled Jinxed directed by Don Siegel

The pilot of Sam’s helicopter let’s slip that some mysterious container was secretly buried in the desert recently, “under a ton of concrete” in a mine-shaft. Liz meanwhile imagines there’s a rattlesnake in her Jeep as she returns back to base… Upon their return the colonel won’t see Sam as he’d rather use his automated putter in his office – but Sam demands to see him and he demands to know about the “classified” container. Escorted to the gate, Sam’s going to get to the bottom of what is in the mine-shaft.

A more recent shot of Sam Chew Jr.

And I believe it. Sam is a good actor as he has presence. It’s unfortunate his career as a leading man didn’t blossom. Perhaps he didn’t fit the bill – except in Rattlers. He made appearances in bit parts often unbilled, including a few Charles Bronson movies, a couple of which were directed by J. Lee Thompson (1914-2002 heart failure). It was television that Sam had his greatest success, one of few actors to play both John F. Kennedy in Young Joe, the Forgotten Kennedy (1977) and Robert F. Kennedy in Tail Gunner Joe (1977). It’s not surprising that with such a great voice he was one of the narrators of Shark Week on the Discovery Channel.

It’s night again and there’s a weak jump scare… in the tent when Liz is startled by Sam. It doesn’t help that the prints used today are grindhouse ones, heavily scratched with soundtracks without a hint of Dolby Noise Reduction. The audible interference on the soundtrack hurts several scares in the film. I wonder if the original negative still exists.

Rattlers director John McCauley’s only other feature Deadly Intruder (1985) trailer

That the film’s director/producer/writer John McCauley only directed one more feature – 1985’s relatively unknown Deadly Intruder – probably adds to this film’s lack of respect and archival interest. McCauley appears forgotten and only a footnote in Hollywood filmmaking history. McCauley co-wrote the film with Jerry Golding whose resume ends with Rattlers.

The film was produced and distributed by Boxoffice International Pictures, which distributed many sexploitation and exploitation films between 1964 and 1977. Rattlers is one of the company’s last. Rarely is the company’s original logo seen these days as most of the films have been redistributed. Founded by producer Harry Novak (1928-2014) who started off with topless movies, many of his titles are available through Something Weird. I guess he retired a rich man.

Boxoffice International producer Harry Novak

That same night, two soldiers in a Jeep get a blowout, which may have been caused by rattlers biting through the tyre! Anyway these men are rattled and both killed by the snakes in the darkness. One of them lets off his pistol, while the other holds off a rattler from his face with his bare hands.

This leads to Sam and Liz investigating a mine in the early hours of the morning once aroused by the authorities. Tracks lead into the mine where there’s a chasm that looks over a couple of hundred feet deep.

A claustrophobic moment in the mine for Sam and Liz

There is also a rattler or two that terrify the couple in a claustrophobic sequence as they attempt to flee the mine…. Time to catch a show and have a big steak in Las Vegas! The couple kiss, romance and dance as Sam checks out what the mine really is for through the County Recorder’s Office. The interlude doesn’t make much sense in terms of the narrative but so what! Soon they’re back in their tent surrounded by rattlers, where Liz gets bitten. It takes an army patrol with machine-guns to save them.

Meanwhile the colonel is burning evidence and is confronted by the alcoholic doctor who uses pure alcohol from the infirmary to fuel his martinis.

Liz has an iconic voice just like Sam

“We’ve got CT-3,” says the colonel about the biological weapon that’s the key to the rattlers’ aggressive behaviour. CT-3 is a nerve agent that will cause manic behaviour and dropped behind enemy lines will cause enemy soldiers to attack one another. It was all due to a leaky canister, some of which was dumped in the ocean.

“Can you imagine what it could do to sharks,” says the doctor before the colonel fills him full of holes in the bloodiest scene of the movie. The film has precious little gore if that’s what you’re after.

Poor Sam Chew Jr. wasn’t the only one to feel the wrath of the critics. Here in an unrelated film appearance.

In a crazy end to the movie, the colonel takes canisters to the mine where he hides and then attacks the police when they arrive. Of course it doesn’t end well for the colonel, who gets blown up by his own hand grenade and a series of explosions… Rattlers ends with Liz released from hospital and Sam driving her back to L.A., their relationship to be sealed with a seven course Chinese dinner.

“The mine’s gone, the gas is gone and so are the snakes… I hope.”

You can always live in hope!

In the windswept desert they drive past a mine with the sound of a rattlesnake.

I truly admire this movie and have since the first time I saw it. Filmed on a micro-budget, its lead actors have created likeable and memorable characters and the director has milked as much fear from the fangs of the rattlesnakes and particularly the sounds of their tails. An unjustly forgotten semi-classic perhaps made all the more unforgettable by its faded, scratched and damaged prints. That the film ends with a convoluted flourish will only enhance what I also hoope will be a flourishing reputation as a cult film on its minimalist terms.

Did I hear a Boo! Hissssss!! Check out PART TWO.

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