New To Blu: Oliver Reed and Peter Fonda Versus a Giant Demon-Snake in the Cult-Horror Oddity SPASMS

It appeared last week out of nowhere, as suddenly and unexpectedly as the snake at the center of its premise preparing to attack. It is notoriously difficult these days to pull off a genuine surprise release of anything without some news leaking out online first, but somehow Code Red managed to slip out a top-secret blu-ray of the 1983 oddity Spasms without a word prior to its launch day. A bizarre blend of When-Nature-Strikes-Back creature feature and occult horror story, boasting fallen A-list stars Oliver Reed and Peter Fonda, and featuring original music by Tangerine Dream, Spasms seems like it should have cult-classic written all over it, yet it has long languished in obscurity and struggled to get any kind of decent post-VHS home media release. That alone would make this Code Red blu-ray a welcome surprise, but it is particularly surprising considering that an HD restoration of the film was previously though impossible. Following its troubled production and even more troubled release, Spasms fell into a sort of limbo, and somewhere in the years that followed, its 35mm elements were either lost or destroyed. When Code Red previously attempted to release the movie several years ago, they found no usable film elements at all – not even a theatrical print – and were forced to release the film on DVD only using a standard-def tape master as their source. Since then, however, they were able to locate a single usable 35mm print, allowing for this blu-ray upgrade which presents the long-neglected movie in its first ever film-sourced transfer. The disc is currently exclusive to the Code Red-affiliated online store Ronin Flix, who are selling it with an exclusive slipcover, but it will expand out to other horror-focused retailers like Diabolik (and hopefully to wider-release stores as well) at the end of the month. And it’s a good thing, too: while it is definitely not a lost masterpiece, Spasms is a highly entertaining B-movie featuring solid practical effects and cinematography, eminently watchable performances from its two mercurial leads, and a generally insane atmosphere which fans of cheesy horror flicks should absolutely love.

Oliver Reed stars as a wealthy industrialist and big-game hunter whose near-death at the fangs of a giant demon-serpent gave him a psychic bond with the creature, causing him to be haunted by visions whenever it kills. Seeking an end to his torment, he has the snake-monster captured and imported to Toronto, where he enlists a parapsychologist (Peter Fonda) to experiment on the creature and its telepathic powers. Needless to say, this is not a good idea – especially since the venom of the snake has a tendency to make people's bodies burst apart, courtesy of some gross-out Dick Smith makeup effects. The hybrid of Jaws ripoff, snake-worshiping occult nonsense, and ludicrous pseudoscience makes for an absolutely bonkers combination, delivered on with wild abandon by director William Fruet (of similarly wild cult favorites Killer Party, Funeral Home, and Blue Monkey). Fruet is a capable filmmaker, and while his film may be a narratively-misbegotten cheesefest, it is at the very least a technically well-made one: Spasms is a well-shot, visually strong movie, featuring a lot of eye-catching dolly and steadicam work, as well as plenty of atmospheric lighting design. This combination of unabashed cheesiness executed with actual filmmaking skill puts it into a sweet spot that is really quite ideal for ridiculous B-movie popcorn viewing.

"Oh, sorry, I was just hit with existential despair thinking of how I used to
work with Ken Russell, and now I'm stuck making Spasms..."

What really pushes it over the top, though, is the presence of Fonda and Reed: legitimately great (at their best) actors who are still very charismatic and compelling despite already being well into career declines caused by their wild off-set behavior and substance abuse. This wild behavior was apparently much of the cause of Spasms’ troubled production, as the two were allegedly more focused on raising hell together off-camera than they were on the production itself (Reed was, predictably, arrested for starting a drunken bar-room brawl just after filming wrapped). You wouldn’t guess by watching the finished film, though: both men give strong performances, with Fonda making an effortlessly charming and likable hero (although it seems very much like he is basically just being himself and coasting on his charisma rather than acting), and Reed stealing every scene with crazy-eyed bravado and intensity. Casting these two together may have caused many headaches for the film’s production, but they make it extremely watchable; not to mention surreal to see these once-great icons fighting a giant foam-and-latex snake. They can’t quite elevate such a ridiculous film to the point of being genuinely good, but they definitely elevate it to the most enjoyable, divinely campy sort of B-movie.

Actually not the first time Oliver Reed had
to fight a snake in a paycheck B-Movie
(see also Venom starring him & Klaus Kinski) 
Their performances and former A-list status particularly stands out in contrast with the solidly B-level cast all around them, as overacting camp is the order of the day from supporting stars Kerrie Keane and Al Waxman (who I kept thinking of as a poor man's M. Emmett Walsh, and a direct precursor to Jurassic Park's Dennis Nedry). And while the production troubles caused by Reed and Fonda's intoxicated unruliness don't really show up in the finished product, other aspects of the movie's troubled production do. Shortly after the film began shooting, one of its two co-producing studios went bankrupt, causing Fruet to have to shoot around special effects set-ups that hadn't yet been completed due to lack of funds, which then needed to be spliced in later. This causes the action to sometimes be pretty choppy, since several sequences were shot without the still-unfinished animatronic snake, whose attack shots were filmed separately at the end of production. To compensate for this, Fruet made the decision to shoot a lot of these sequences from the snake's point of view, using Predator-style monster-vision shots. The results are usually very effective and aggressive, thanks to Fruet's strong eye for kinetic, steadicam-heavy cinematography, but one can't help but notice that for a killer-snake movie, the first half of Spasms is very light on actual shots of the snake. Once the animatronic beast does show up it looks appropriately cool and menacing (though still with an obviously-fake rubber-monster charm), but even then it ran into the same problem that Jaws was notorious for: the animatronics frequently just didn't work like they were supposed to. Technical difficulties particularly plague the film's climax, which is edited in a choppy way that makes it painfully obvious that they were trying to shoot around the limitations of an uncooperative prop. Dick Smith's nasty, flesh-bubbling makeup effects similarly strained under the constraints of the budget, and aren't as plentiful as they should have been, but what is here looks great, and is pretty skin-crawling. It's a highly mixed bag, but is more or less salvaged by its stronger points, and is at the very least a lot of insane fun even when it doesn't work.

Code Red’s surprise blu-ray of Spasms is a massive upgrade over every previous version of the film (the Code Red DVD was held back by the inherent limitations of the vintage tape-master source, and before that the only version that existed was the dark and murky Thorn-EMI VHS master), and the restoration team who worked on this disc did an admirable job. The film looks shockingly good, considering that it was sourced from a vintage 1983 theatrical print: the detail is sharp, the picture is very clear, the colors look great, the presence of film grain is noticeable but not excessive, and there isn’t too much visible print damage. I’m not sure how much of this is because Code Red’s restoration team worked some miracles on the print, and how much it is because they got lucky in finding a print without much wear and tear (probably a combination of both), but I was struck by how much better this transfer looks than the recent Scream Factory restoration of Hell Night, which was likewise sourced from the only surviving theatrical print, but one that was much more heavily worn. However, it does have a few major flaws inherent to the source elements. There are some establishing shots that look drastically different from everything else surrounding them – much more faded and blown out – probably because they were either stock footage, or shot by a second unit who screwed up the exposure. And then there’s the biggest issue, totally beyond Code Red’s control, which they actually felt the need to more or less apologize for in a message at the start of the disc: ten minutes of the print that they found (which, again, is thought to be the only one still in existence) were either missing or damaged beyond repair, and those ten minutes had to be filled in using that same old tape master from the DVD. It doesn’t look as bad as you might fear, and is perfectly watchable – it isn’t a VHS tape, but a higher-quality professional format like betacam or maybe 1-inch, and is at least in its proper widescreen aspect ratio – but the shift in quality is still not ideal, and it really is sad that a complete 35mm print was never archived anywhere. Code Red did the best they could, and this is certainly nothing to hold against this release, but it is a tragic reminder of what happens when the importance of archiving and protecting films is ignored.

"This is the condition in which we found the 35mm print before restoration..."

What is more unfortunate, and is definitely Code Red’s doing, is that this disc is completely bare-bones, without a single special feature aside from trailers for this film and others in the Code Red catalog. I can’t help but wonder if they didn’t bother with special features because they thought that the patchwork condition of the transfer would make this a blu-ray for die-hard fans only, but no matter the reason, it is a wasted opportunity. Particularly given what a troubled production the film had, it would have been fascinating to hear some behind-the-scenes insights from members of the cast and crew, especially on the struggles of the special effects department, and on the duality of Oliver Reed giving a very strong, intense performance despite being a rabble-rousing wreck when the cameras weren’t rolling. This lack of extras is especially strange given what love and care was put into the disc’s unexpectedly good transfer; it’s unusual for such loving restoration work to be accompanied by literally no special features at all. At the very least the disc (at least in its current Ronin Flix-exclusive limited edition) comes packaged in a nice slipcase boasting the gorgeously gruesome new artwork that Code Red commissioned, with bright colors and wild, gory action that conjures up the attitude of EC comics. The disc is definitely not the special edition package that it would have been nice to have, but considering that, prior to last Tuesday, we thought that a blu-ray of this film was literally impossible, this disc is much better than nothing, and worth picking up on the strength of the transfer alone.

"Ow, the snake bit me, and now I've
turned into Robert Z'Dar!"
Spasms is a very flawed movie, there's no doubt about that, but it is much better than it probably should be after such a troubled production, and mostly lives up to the cult-classic potential that its credentials suggest. Overall the film does a pretty good job of overcoming its technical drawbacks, with the strength of its two leads and the quality of its cinematography going a long way to smooth over its obvious flaws. The finale stumbles under the weight of its combined production problems, but even so, it adds up to an endearingly ridiculous B-movie experience that is as enjoyable for its flaws as for its successes. In this excellent (considering what they had to work with) new HD transfer we can really see what a well-shot film this is, and the new restoration makes room for greater appreciation of what Fruet was able to pull off. Of all the giant-animal-on-the-loose movies that followed the success of Jaws, Spasms' occult and psychic twists on the formula make it one of the most unique of the bunch, with the probably-ill-advised audacity of the premise being one of its most endearing qualities. And few things can top a scenery-chewing spectacle performance from Oliver Reed. For fans of 80s monster-movie cheese, this one is definitely recommended.


- Christopher S. Jordan

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