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Serpent: An artsy safari slasher

By Charl Blignaut


Still from the DIFF opening film SERPENT.

SERPENT
Directed by: Amanda Evans
Starring: Sarah Dumont, Tom Ainsley
2 out of 5 stars

It was horror movie time in Durban last night and the first cold shudder struck when we stepped out of the rain and on to the red carpet for the opening of the Durban International Film Festival at The Playhouse. Posing along one side were models done up in costumes. Muscular black men were standing topless, bizarrely painted in black body paint. I mean, WTF Durban?

But the goosebumps only really set in a little later, when the organisers of the once prestigious 38-year-old film festival took to the stage for almost an hour, after a charming but awkward welcome by Lalla Hirayama. The new festival bosses at the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal proceeded to talk ambiguously about the troubles of the past (you can read about last year’s opening night scandal here), muttered about their Christian faith, their poems, their outfits, their hairdressers, and the coming red carpet events to dress for at the festival. Barely a word was spoken about film, even about the opening film, the nature horror SERPENT.

But “nature horror” is perhaps a little too kind. Visually accomplished and an excellent shoot on a relatively low budget, SERPENT is nothing more, however, than an artsy safari slasher. You know the type, attractive American family trapped in safari vehicle, lions on one side, poachers on the other, “witchcraft” in the African bush beyond...

SERPENT is the debut feature from Amanda Evans and is produced by the celebrated Anant Singh. In it, Adam and Gwynneth (he’s British, she’s American) live in Cape Town. He’s an entomologist and he’s on the cusp of discovering a new species of stag beetle in an area of the Western Cape called – wait for it – Suicide Gorge. She’s a relentlessly sexy businesswoman and she’s having an affair. She decides to go on an all-important beetle expedition during snake season with hot hubby to escape her increasingly threatening lover. They end up in a tent. With a black mamba. Her past will be revealed and someone will die.

The film plays out almost entirely in the tent. It’s nauseatingly tense and horror fans around the world will probably love SERPENT. But it comes with all sorts of problems.

The film is a thinly disguised reversion of the Adam and Eve story – spot the motif of apple-red props – that pits Man versus Woman and technology (the red cellphone) versus nature (the black mamba) in the heart of darkness. While trying to light the tent with her cellphone to see where the mamba is, hot hubby discovers sexy wife’s infidelity in the form of text messages from threatening lover. None of this is a spoiler, by the way, because it’s already all there in the trailer. There is little to spoil beyond this.

The film oozes with the morality that bikini-clad, mini-dress-wearing Gwynneth has bitten the apple and unleashed the serpent that will destroy their paradise. She is a “dirty girl” and hot hubby will prove to be a toxic male, but ultimately it is her guilt that propels the film.

The snake – the third lead character and heavily anthropomorphised with human qualities – will slither over and under them as they hold a terse conversation about their relationship. And that’s all good – and I love a horror – but what relationship? At the end we know nothing about hot hubby or sexy wife. There is literally no character development or back history in sight – except the satanic snake’s. Instead, there’s the curious surrealism of two hallucinatory computer-generated-imaging sequences that seem to be latched on for the sake of effect.

As a safari slasher, SERPENT is top rate, with a heart-quickening score. But it’s not satisfied with that. It wants to be art house. So you get a lot of pseudo science (sketches of beetles) and pseudo-philosophy (hot wife actually says of the snake: “Does it exist as a result of us or has it always been here?”).

Which makes me wonder why this film should be chosen to open an African film festival. There is nothing African or even South African about SERPENT – except a white South African accent on the other end of a phone call, some taxis in the Cape Town traffic and the grand cliché of our natural landscape. Where it could have been an exercise in developing an indigenous horror language it is instead an American-style horror transposed to Africa.

It was greeted by a distinct lack of a standing ovation and one of the briefest spatterings of applause I have ever witnessed at an opening night of this struggling film festival.



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