'Snakes on a Plane' scares up a following based on Hollywood's frightful track record
Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Something pops up unexpectedly from around the corner. Boo!

Tygh Runyan is frightened by the slithering companions he meets in "Snakes on a Plane."
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That can be startling, but what makes you scared? I mean really, pathologically terrified. What can bring on the manifestations of fear: shortness of breath, quickening of the heartbeat, spike in blood pressure, sweating of palms and temples, tensing of facial muscles into neither a smile nor a frown -- the classic "fear face" worn by primates when they can neither fight nor flee?

Hollywood knows what scares you.

For over a century, filmmakers have preyed upon natural human reactions to the visceral visual experience that movies bring: the creepy shadows of "Nosferatu," the unmanageable science of "War of the Worlds," helplessness in the face of the supernatural in "The Exorcist," the crowd panic of "The Towering Inferno," the eternal conflict of predator and prey in "Jaws."

And this summer, it's the simply stated combination of two common phobias: "Snakes on a Plane."

Lots of movies generate a buzz before they're released. But Hollywood insiders are saying "Snakes on a Plane" is different. Months before anyone saw a single clip of the film that opens tomorrow, fan sites were showing up on the Web, amateur songs were written about it, and snakes and planes were the topic of watercooler conversations all over the country. One Las Vegas booking agency is taking bets on how many times the film's star, Samuel L. Jackson, will utter his crude catchphrase during the 105-minute film. The fact that no critics have been allowed to see "Snakes on a Plane" adds to the movie's mystique.

The film's lineage slithers back to a magazine article that David Dalessandro read in 1992. The associate vice chancellor of university development at the University of Pittsburgh is officially credited with the original story idea.

"I read about the Indonesian brown tree snake climbing onto planes in cargo during World War II," he says. "They wrapped themselves around the axles of jeeps going to Guam. Since then, they've just about wiped out the bird population of Guam."

Shauna McDonald stars as Sarah "The Descent," a movie about a cave exploration gone bad.
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Dalessandro's first draft of a screenplay he called "Venom" was about brown tree snakes. Draft 2 was about a poisonous snake that gets loose on a plane.

"But, you know, I thought this has to be bigger," he says. "You know that moment in 'Aliens' when the guy lifts up the ceiling tile and there's all these aliens? That's what I wanted -- snakes, lots of 'em. I was a Boy Scout with a herpetology merit badge, raised to believe that snakes are more afraid of us then we are of them. Then I read about the Australian taipan: 6 to 10 feet long, territorial, aggressive and enough venom to kill 100 men. Think, lots of them loose in the fuselage of a plane."

In 1995, his "Venom" script was auctioned among 30 Hollywood studios. All of them turned it down.

"Now that's scary," he says. "My big foray into Hollywood. They put it on a shelf."

Four years later, Dalessandro got a call from a producer who remembered the story, and the concept slithered to MTV and Paramount -- for a time titled "Pacific Air Flight 121" -- before New Line got two other writers to pen the script that ultimately made it to the screen. Dalessandro said he's only seen clips of the film, but he's been told, "the entire middle of the movie, once they get on the plane, is mine."

Frank Masi
Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning find themselves under attack by aliens in "War of the Worlds."
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In March, New Line Cinema, responding to massive fan interest on the Internet, paid for a five-day reshoot to film new scenes that would move the movie from a PG-13 rating to R.

So what's so scary about snakes on a plane? Dalessandro calls it an "almost visceral response."

"People say, 'I hate snakes and I hate to fly,' " he says. "These are animals that are both worshipped and feared. I don't know if it goes back to the Bible thing. Snakes and you in an enclosed area -- you can't get off the plane. You're trapped. People want to be scared, exhilarated. Being terrified is very much a part of the American movie-going public."

While the strike sequences are computer-generated, snake wrangler Jules Sylvester provided hundreds of live snakes, including a 22-foot-long Burmese python, to give "Snakes on a Plane," well, more bite.

Sylvester says snakes have gotten a bad rep, probably dating to their ill-fated Garden of Eden days.

"Snake in a tree. Bad snake, bad snake," he says, describing the familiar phobias. "Well, they're not unfounded. For me they're unfounded fears because I've never been chased by a snake, let's put it that way."

Sylvester says he's been bitten, but never by anything that counts. "I've never been bitten by a venomous snake. ... But it's that fact they sneak up and can kill you. It's one of those things, it's like a nasty little terrorist without arms, and they're running around the grass, and that's where we are."

Is that what this is about? Like a 1950s sci-fi thriller that barely masks its Cold War metaphor, are scary movies tapping into post- 9/11 Americans fear of being stuck in a confined place with terrorists?

"It may be a little bit of that," says Glenn Kay, half of a co-writing team that literally wrote the book on Hollywood's ability to scare us.

"Disaster Movies," new on Chicago Review Press, analyzes 150 films dating to the 1913 Italian silent movie "The Last Days of Pompeii" and attempts to articulate what makes us scared.

"For some reason, some people get scared over roller coasters," says Kay, from his home in Toronto. "It's a thrill. If you work a day job that's kind of mundane, it reminds you that you're alive. It's exciting."

But Kay says movie frights run deeper than that. It's not necessarily the thrill that draws us to scary movies. It's the survival.

"I think the process of sitting through a movie is reassuring," he says. "Something terrifying is happening on the screen, you sit through it for 90 minutes and then you walk away. Even if some of the main characters die, you walk away. It's reassuring, a simple way to deal with frightening issues."

Whether it's natural phenomena such as earthquakes, tidal waves and meteor impacts, powerful predators chasing us as prey, supernatural bumps in the night or exposure to a determined sociopath, Kay says all scary movies contain one key element: overcoming the disaster.

"People want the happy ending," he says. " 'United 93' is certainly horrifying. It's the only one I can think of where the good guys lose, but you knew that going in. The '70s disaster films -- 'The Poseidon Adventure,' 'The Towering Inferno' -- they were about small groups of people overcoming obstacles. Some '80s movies about nuclear war were very bleak. 'The Day After' and 'Threads' come to mind. 'Snakes on a Plane,' I think, will be a lot lighter."

Critics are still talking about "Frankenstein," "Jaws" and "Rosemary's Baby," revolutionary films that scared the bejesus out of movie fans. When Alfred Hitchcock wanted to throw a scare into moviegoers, he tapped into phobias like the fear of heights in "Vertigo." And he may have created a fear of taking showers for poor star Janet Leigh and horrified viewers with the notorious "Psycho" murder scene.

Recent films, like "The Descent," about a cave expedition gone terribly wrong, are still toying with our fears of the dark and closed places.

But despite the hype surrounding "Snakes on a Plane," Kay says he's skeptical that it will have that kind of lasting legacy.

"Of course, I haven't seen it," he says. "Nobody has. A lot of films, when they're released without critics screenings, it means basically that the company doesn't believe it will do well with critics. It's a way of blocking bad word of mouth from getting out early. Sometimes they don't feel [pre-release screenings] are necessary -- why take the risk of some [critic] not liking it? I think the title is enough to bring people in. I don't necessarily think it will be a movie that critics will respond to."

First published on August 16, 2006 at 12:00 am
Barbara Vancheri contributed to this article. John Hayes can be reached at 412-263-1991 and