Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid Review

Contrary to popular belief, I have a soft spot for Luis Llosa’s 1997 horror film Anaconda. It was a fun, no-frills adventure picture; perfectly content to dish-out B-grade thrills with the hottest Hollywood talent. While the impressive cast made sure it grossed a pretty penny, it didn’t go down too well with critics, who panned it left, right and centre. Still, this was hardly surprising. It’s a dumb, vapid movie, with any substance digesting in the stomach of its titular creature. Yet, I enjoyed it immensely, and was surprised - perhaps shocked - to see a sequel appear 7 years later. None of the A-list cast return for Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid; a sequel which seemed destined for straight-to-video hell. Luckily for director Dwight H. Little, it washed-up in theatres, before getting mauled by the press. History repeats itself, and like before, a whole horde of people are about to become snake chow...

The plot is predictably lightweight, following just about every other “lost in the wilderness with a big-ass snake” picture. It’s a small, but productive genre (check-out the “classics” King Cobra and Boa Vs. Python for more reptilian mayhem). Here, we get the customary scientific expedition, which sets out for the islands of Borneo. Headed by the shady Dr. Byron (Matthew Marsden), the group are searching for a treasured flower known as the “Blood Orchid”. According to legend, the flower can provide longer life; a green variation on the fountain of youth. They are travelling by river, captained by local Bill Johnson (Johnny Messner), a rogue with a deep knowledge of the jungle. But his intelligence is no match for the power of nature, especially when his boat hits a waterfall (don’t you just hate it when that happens?). Miles from civilisation, the expedition becomes a fight for survival; a trek made all the more dangerous by a group of deadly anacondas. Unfortunately for our heroes, it just so happens to be mating season. Bon Appetite!

Anacondas isn’t about story. The main thrust of the film is revealed in the title, i.e. massive, man-eating snakes! Therefore, the whole plot involving the Orchid seems pointless, and certainly not deserving of its own sub-title. Those interested in Little’s sequel will venture into this movie with one aim in mind - to see people get consumed by said snakes, and hopefully regurgitated once or twice, just for kicks. I don’t think I’m being too harsh in this expectation, correct? It’s supposed to be a “horror” picture, or at the very least, an adventure with suspenseful overtones. But Anacondas is another film saddled with the restrictions of a PG-13 rating, or in our case, a 12. Therefore, the film rarely gets bloody, with the kill scenes lacking any strong violence. In this respect, I was disappointed. Once more, we have a pretty stockpile of actors being picked off one-by-one, but without a payoff. Some ketchup could have boosted this films success, and certainly added to its entertainment value.

Despite this annoying oversight, Anacondas does deliver as cheap and cheerful exploitation. The script (which was co-written by Robocop veterans Ed Numeier and Michael Miner) is ridiculous, with some foul dialogue, but it gets the action in motion. It also provides us with a stereotypical group of cannon fodder. In fact, there’s very little character development here, but it’s for the better. We’ve seen these types before, and thanks to the no-name casting, the roles never become anything more than walking targets. The success of the first film was obviously due to its roster of white-hot talent. It boasted Jennifer Lopez, before she dated the Mighty Chin; Owen Wilson, Eric Stoltz, Ice Cube, and in a memorable turn as “The Villain”, Jon Voight. It was memorable since his performance was so wildly over-the-top. The film was a train wreck, but a very entertaining one.

Here, the cast list is diverse, but by contrast, pretty forgettable. KaDee Strickland is slowly making a name for herself, having started her career with The Sixth Sense. As the lead female, she acquits herself well, but the script does her heroine no favours. She’s here for the eye candy, like Salli Richardson, who bags the conventional “bitch” role. British actor Marsden is good value as the evil Dr. Byron, who is willing to put his colleagues in danger to find the Orchid. He sneers like any drama school ham, with a thick accent to boot; making the most of a poorly-written role. Elsewhere, you might recognise Boyz N’ the Hood star Morris Chestnut, who is given a nothing role as one of Byron’s unfortunate lackies. That said, they all play second fiddle to Messner, whose enjoyable turn as the hero makes this film watchable. He’s a perfect fit for this rogue adventurer, whether tackling crocodiles, or dispatching snakes with a single knife-blow to the head. He might become a minor star, if any decent scripts go his way...

Surprisingly, the best aspect of Anacondas is the actual filmmaking. Little has never made an impact as a director, but he does have Halloween 4 and a few episodes of The X-Files under his belt; proving his worth on a technical level. He was given a great budget here (around $25 million), and uses it well. His pacing is pretty poor, but he stages the main action scenes with relish - especially the aforementioned waterfall sequence, which is impressive, if highly implausible. After the first 30-minutes of exposition, the film begins to pick up, and the stalk-and-kill scenes, while bloodless, boast some decent jolts. The whole last act, in which the evil Doctor, Orchid and snake sub-plots collide, is also fun, with some impressive action. Yet, the photography is the real star, providing those forest locations with a lush appearance. The film has a professional sheen, that just about hides its B-grade roots. Unfortunately, the film concludes with a typical Hollywood ending, but didn’t you see that coming?

So what of the snakes? Thankfully, CGI has come a long way since 1997. The creatures are now more interesting in terms of computer-animation, but they still look fake. The director also keeps them to the shadows, setting them loose for blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kills, designed to hide the ropey effects. I guess a “creature feature” that doesn’t capitalise on its creature is a failure, but Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid isn’t quite the monster some critics led you to believe...

The Disc

A modest success when released last year, Columbia have treated Anacondas with respect, producing a perfectly adequate DVD. The transfer is pretty great for a Z-grade title, and there’s even some supplements on offer (who’d have thought?). For anyone interested, I should draw your attention to the Anaconda box set, containing both of these “masterpieces”, which is released on the same day. Ssssplendid!

The Look and Sound

Jeez, Anacondas sure looks decent on shiny disc. It may have suffered at the hands of snooty critics, but Columbia has still given the movie an entirely respectable transfer. The anamorphic widescreen (2.40:1) image is sharp and colourful, with the forest locations boasting a crisp vibrancy. Full of greens, blues, and sombre reds, the setting shows up great, and the black levels are rendered pleasingly. Skin tones are accurate too, and the transfer even impresses whenever a dodgy CGI snake rears its ugly head. That said, it doesn’t quite hit a home-run. A few shots are murky, and background detail suffers on occasion. That old chestnut (no, not Morris) called grain also appears, especially during the night-time scenes. Nit-picking aside, the film looks dandy.

In terms of aural pleasure, we get a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, which is much better than I expected. There are many instances where the front and rear speakers are engaged fully, and the snake footage comes alive with hissing, squelching, and all manner of strange noises. The music, dialogue, and effects are all in good shape, without distortion. It isn’t the most robust track around, but it gives the film some much-needed panache.

Columbia also deserve credit for providing just about every subtitle option on the planet (see the panel to the right, for details).

The Menus

Complete with anamorphic encoding, and pleasant animation, the menus do the trick. Naturally, they have a snake-like motif.

Bonus Material

As you’d expect, the extra features are minimal, but Columbia resist the temptation to give Anacondas a barebones bashing. First of all, there is a selection of brief deleted scenes, which don’t amount to much, but offer some scene extensions and alternative footage. They are non-anamorphic, for anyone who cares. Much better, is the “making-of” featurette, which documents the special effects, with behind-the-scenes footage, and interviews with director Dwight H. Little, Morris Chestnut and Salli Richardson. The run-time is decent, with some great facts presented. Finally, we have the theatrical trailer.

The Bottom Line

It slipped through those award ceremonies like any resilient reptile, but Anacondas is back with a vengeance on DVD. I recommend a rental for any interested parties. Otherwise, skip it. Go and buy the original instead...

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