Curse II: The Bite (1989)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2016-03-14 01:56

The Curse II: The Bite (1989)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: February 23rd, 2016

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The movie:

According to Box Office Mojo, The Curse made less than $2 million during its theatrical run in 1987, a paltry total that presumably should have poisoned the well of this particular title. Evidently, however, the Ovidio G. Assonitis production must have recouped some cash and good will on video because that’s the only way to explain why the Italian schlock-master returned two years later with Curse II: The Bite, a wholly unrelated film that effectively (and unwittingly) opened the door for the Curse brand to become an unofficial anthology. Either that, or Assonitis was just really desperate to wring a few extra bucks out of his latest Italo-American co-production. There is surprisingly little literature documenting how a movie where a guy’s hand transforms into a mutant snake was titled, so your guess is as good as mine.

Obviously sharing very little in common with its “predecessor” outside of the monstrous transformations, The Bite moves the series from the American southeast to the southwest, specifically to the long, barren stretches of desert in New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. Trudging through these badlands are Clark and Lisa (J. Eddie Peck & Jill Schoelen) are making their way to Albuquerque to start a new life together. In their desperation to get off the road in a hurry, they take ignore the advice of a gas station attendant and take an ill-advised shortcut* through a region that once hosted nuclear bomb tests.

Now a wasteland with minimal human life, the empty desert teems with irradiated snakes; one is apparently even capable of climbing from the road into the couple’s car, where it lies in wait, coiled to strike the moment Clark begins rummaging around in the backseat. When a doctor at a hotel (Jamie Farr) administers an antidote and dresses the wound, everything seems to be fine until Clark begins to have fits of rage because his body is being co-opted by a mutant snake growing from his bitten hand.

The Hands of Orlac with a fucking snake”—now that’s a pitch. Granted, The Bite doesn’t always live up to the potential of its ludicrous premise, but sometimes it’s the thought that counts. This is one of those times—mostly. This isn’t exactly a wall-to-wall gore-fest by any means, and it strands the audience with its fair share of awful drama, but it consistently takes enough odd turns to remain interesting. The typical, unreal, wackadoo vibe of these late 80s Italian productions looms over the proceedings, particularly in the ragged editing and bizarre acting decisions. Where earlier Italian genre productions often drown in dream logic completely unloosed from reality, these later efforts only go about halfway: on the surface, they seem quite normal, but jarring, eccentric flourishes often intrude, leaving you wondering if something has become mangled in translation.

It may be the only way to explain how a pretty horrifying body horror movie is sidetracked by oddball fits of humor, particularly in the subplot that finds Farr’s charlatan doctor attempting to track down Lisa and Clark to administer another, more correct antidote. This sounds reasonable enough until you learn his quest is aided by a convoy of truckers with names like “Death Wish,” “Big Flo,” and “Beef.” It’s like someone watched Cronenberg’s The Fly and was like, “you know, this guy’s flesh-melting existential crisis is compelling and heartbreaking, but you know what it could really use? Characters you might find in Smokey and the Bandit.” Look, you can’t say it’s not a good idea until you try it.

After sampling it myself, I can’t say it’s the worst idea. Despite having no narrative or creative connections to The Curse, The Bite at least replicates the same general hayseed aesthetic, as we watch a bunch of slack-jawed yokels try to sort out this mess. Rather than being mostly confined to a rural farmhouse, however, it takes its mayhem on the road, weaving through dingy bars, seedy hotels, and hospital rooms. It even continues the tradition of having a good ol’ boy TV star make an appearance, as Bo Svenson subs in for John Schneider, this time in the role of a psycho hillbilly sheriff that pursues Clark across county lines.

Between Svenson, Farr, Sydney Lassick (playing a squeamish hotel manager), and the trucker convoy, there’s no shortage of colorful personalities popping up to compensate for the relative blandness of the leads. Don’t get me wrong: it’s always nice to see a vehicle for underappreciated screen queen Schoelen, but this is hardly her most robust role since the script mostly has her running towards or from Peck and his snake arm. If anything, Schoelen probably gives the film back far more than it deserves with this plucky performance, which eventually has her rolling around in the mud at a construction site for the finale.

Like its predecessor, The Curse II also features a credit that should make any gore hound perk up; where the original Curse featured Lucio Fulci as an associate producer (and uncredited effects supervisor), this follow-up boasts the talents of Screaming Mad George, one of the genre’s most unsung figures. Having provided a bevy of gross-out effects for the likes of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 and Bride of Re-Animator, he was a prime candidate for something like The Bite, a film that lives and dies by its queasy effects work. George undoubtedly delivers in this department, crafting both ghastly creatures and splattery gore.

Thanks to the revolving door of disposable characters and a quickly-paced script, he has ample opportunity to show off some chunky, visceral sequences: a gaggle of snakes is plowed through by a car, their insides exploding like the contents of a watermelon; a mangled, mutated dog snarls at and eviscerates its owner; Clark’s victims have their heads scooped out from the inside, their jaws coming unhinged in grotesque displays. These are but preludes to the crescendo of body-melting horror that waits during the climax, when we watch what might happen if a man’s flesh could shed like a snake’s. While it obviously carries only a fraction (read: like 1/1,000th) of the pathos of The Fly, the effect in a vacuum is similarly haunting: there’s something truly horrifying about such a dehumanizing degeneration of the body—even when it’s the climax of a movie that features a credit for a “hippie trucker.”

Conventionally speaking, The Bite is not a good movie, but when does that ever really matter during this late-era Italian splatter movement? Technically, this was this industry’s protracted death rattle, as most of the output was a shadow of the golden age that had waned just a few years previous. I’m sure I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: these movies are often riotously entertaining, unabashed trash, and neither of the two Curse films has me disavowing that notion.

*Said “short-cut” somehow takes them from Arizona to Texas, in that order (Albuquerque is sandwiched in between, in north-central New Mexico). Either everyone’s behind-the-scenes understanding of American geography must have been tenuous or these characters have the worst sense of direction imaginable to go several hundred miles out of their way.

The disc:

For its high definition debut, The Bite shares a Scream Factory disc with The Curse and similarly benefits from the upgrade, if only because its original aspect ratio is restored. It should be noted that a disclaimer precedes the film, warning viewers that the transfer is sourced by the only available print in MGM archives, meaning it is not sourced from the most pristine elements. The transfer isn’t as sharp or vibrant as your usual Scream Factory effort, but it looks fine enough.

The lack of extras means both of these films remain sort of enigmatic—I actually would like to at least discover what thought process (if any) guided the decision to make this a “franchise” (well, beyond the obvious financial motivations, anyway—even if I’m failing to grasp those, too). None of the usual suspects seems to be involved with the subsequent films, though Curse III (aka Panga) at least boasts Christopher Lee, while Curse IV (aka Catacombs) is another Italian co-production helmed by Charles Brand. In other words, just you try and stop me from forging ahead with this series.
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