It’s easy for an actor to get lost in the ridiculous action of Monster Movies – after all, human beings often aren’t the main attraction of a genre that includes giant monkeys fighting dinosaurs, atomic-breathed nuclear lizards, killer desert worms, all-consuming blobs, mutant rabbits, irradiated ants, and any number of deformed, freakish, oozing aliens that menace multiplexes. The tendency among many hack filmmakers, however, is to think that the most interesting thing about a monster movie is the monster, and the typical cast of young hopefuls usually follows suit, knowing their place and taking the safe route back to a career waiting tables. Toss a veteran with nothing to lose into the mix, however, and what probably would have ended up as another schlocky but fun B-movie destined for instant obscurity instead becomes a creature feature “classic,” subject of alcohol-enhanced late-night chuckle fests for decades to come. 1997’s Anaconda is no King Kong (or even Kong: Skull Island), but thanks to a creepy, bizarre, magnificent, inspired performance by Jon Voight (and sure, some fairly solid filmmaking), it ends up accomplishing what so many of its 90s colleagues (The Relic or Deep Rising, anyone?) could not: genuine memorability.
The story of Anaconda is fairly boilerplate for one of these things, certainly nothing special in the genre realm, but it’s simply a skeleton waiting to be fleshed out: a documentary crew traveling down the Amazon River in search of a lost native tribe ends up becoming stalked by a mammoth, man-eating snake. It’s the kind of clear, simple premise that doesn’t need any more explanation or plotting, and that can concentrate purely on action sequences and character dynamics for its entertainment. Get a group together and beset them with an outside unknown force; some of the greatest horror movies ever made have followed this idea, from a vegetable alien thing stalking scientists in Antarctica to a pack of cave-dwelling bat people descending upon a group of spelunkers. Easy as it sounds, however, this type of ubiquitous setup only offers a basic level of functionality, heavily relying on actors to take it to the next level, even when the script is smart (like a certain movie about a shark feeding off New England beachgoers), which it usually isn’t.
Anaconda doesn’t have the luxury of much clever writing (though it’s certainly not bad), but what it does have is Jon Voight – proof that one actor can make a difference. Playing a Paraguayan named Paul Serone who supposedly was once in training for the priesthood (“Who says I failed?”) but now
poaches hunts snakes, Voight seems to be the only one out of the cast who understands that to compete with a cartoon snake, one must become a cartoon character. While the rest of his colleagues (which include Jennifer Lopez, Eric Stoltz, Owen Wilson, Kari Wuhrer, and Ice Cube) strangely play it perfectly straight, as if somehow afraid that anything calling attention to themselves would prevent the future stardom this film would surely bring, Voight boldly launches into a full-on competition for best villainous serpent, easily out-dueling his CGI opponent with a thick, otherworldly accent, oddly-inflected Brando-esque line readings that must have worried suit-and-tie executives, and one of the best sneers ever captured on celluloid.
It’s the kind of performance that Roger Ebert called “always on the delectable edge of overacting,” with a final scene that “will be remembered wherever great movie exits are treasured” (if you didn’t know that constrictors sometimes regurgitate their meals, you eventually will). These twenty years later, I couldn’t remember how Wilson’s horny sound engineer bit the dust, what Danny Trejo’s opening scene character was doing out on the water in the first place, or why Ice Cube tried so hard to be a badass cameraman, but when it comes to Paul Serone, lines like “Please, people. Don’t make me out a monster. I didn’t eat the Captain Mateo,” or “Presume? How you like I presume to throw you in the river? You like that presume? Huh?” have attached themselves to the part of my brain that devours gooey cinematic goodness. So distinctly do Voight’s lines stand out, not for the words themselves, but how he says them. Actors talk about taking risks all the time, and for Oscar bait many will do just that in hopes of award-season recognition, but how many would do the same for a low-budget genre picture? Voight’s go-for-broke attitude makes Anaconda gleefully infectious.
Luckily, his work is supported (or at least not undermined) by the rest of the film’s trappings, especially veteran cinematographer Bill Butler’s (Jaws, The Conversation, Frailty) hauntingly beautiful jungle compositions. Capturing the right amount of lush greens and sticky browns, a thick atmosphere permeates each frame, simmering until it finally boils over in a bubbly climax, and the setting goes a long way when everyone’s favorite psychopathic snake catcher isn’t on screen, giving off a perfect primitive, ancient vibe. Creature features like Anaconda are nothing new, with Hydras, dragons, bridge trolls, and other fantastical creatures populating a genre as old as storytelling itself, the result of human need to believe they are in control of a Mother Nature who could seemingly wipe them out on a whim. Still, when great warriors like Hercules, Perseus, Quint, and Paul Serone are out there representing the species, it’s hard not to feel safer. Thus, editor Michael Miller also never wastes an opportunity to linger just a little bit longer over each slow zoom on the over-tanned guy stealing the show. Anaconda may not have started out as Voight’s movie, but everyone from director Luis Llosa on down makes sure it ends that way.
There are monster movies that want to bring audiences to tears, and those that do so unintentionally, but regardless of whether they’re self-serious or self-aware, much of the time the fun is fairly forgettable. Yes, watching enormous things destroy stuff and kill people will always make for decent mindless enjoyment, but human beings have always been drawn to other human beings more than the hulking metaphorical life obstacles that torment them. We want to see how someone else deals with this situation, whether laughing at their dumb mistakes or cheering them when they shoot a scuba tank and blow the beast to kingdom come. Regardless, any good monster movie needs to have someone that upstages the monster, someone who fights insanity with even weirder insanity, whether they succeed or not. Like Robert Shaw in Jaws before him, Jon Voight is that someone, and though Anaconda might be dumb, it’s smart enough to realize when something actually works, and to run with it. For that reason, twenty years later, it’s still an entertaining trip down the river.