King of Snake, (蛇王, Snake King) has two things that help it stand out in what is getting to be a very crowded field of Chinese giant critter movies. Rather than a modern-day setting, it takes place during China’s Warlord Period between 1916 and 1928. And, rather than just being oversized like the one in Snakes, this serpent has two heads.
Forced to stop due to rocks on the track a train finds itself under attack. First from a horde of venomous snakes and then a huge two-headed one. Among the survivors are Jing Lan (Kang Ning, Dragon Labyrinth) who was returning to her home village, Mu Sheng (Chen Xinzhe, Exorcism Master) who makes traditional medicines out of snakes, and Mao Sho Yang (Shao Shuai, The Male Queen), leader of a small detachment of troops that’s about to get much smaller.
The survivors reach Lan and Sheng’s village only to find the snakes have attacked it as well leaving few survivors. Their only hope is to send a few daring souls to the Snake King Valley to get the Blood Orchids, I mean Serpent Flowers, needed to make a cure.
The opening attack on the train is well done and has some surprisingly good effects for both the swarm of regular-sized and the giant snakes. The scenes of the passengers panicking are effective as well, the train’s cramped cars and glimpses of the swarming serpents outside the train giving an added feeling of claustrophobia and of being trapped.
Unfortunately, after that King of Snake falls into a fairly standard storyline. A group of villagers and survivors from the train make a dangerous journey through the wilderness. What’s left of Yang’s troops stand-in for the usual security team/mercenaries. There’s the rich guy who’ll feed others to the snake in order to get away. Sheng and Yang fight over Jing Lan. The only real differences are the lack of a fat comic relief character, we get a skinny nerd with oversized glasses instead. And the addition of a brutish good guy with a pregnant wife who stepped right out of Train to Busan.
Apart from a giant anaconda that attacks their rafts, King of Snake gives us more jungle adventure than kaiju thrills. An infestation of black widow spiders and tunnels full of vampire bats. Decaying rope bridges and a sinister temple that looked like it was a leftover from The Enchanting Phantom help complete that feeling. It’s like one of those monster movies from the 1950s where the heroes spend more time looking for the creature than fighting it.
The trade off here is that while we get less in the way off effects, they were able to put more money into the ones we do get. as a result, even scenes that usually end up looking bad, such as swarms of bats or spiders, look quite good.
Director Chen Huanxiang (The Great Sage Wushuang) does a good job of keeping things interesting but the film doesn’t really pick up again until the Snake King himself returns at the end of the film. But even with all the action in its last few minutes, King of Snake never manages to top its opening scenes when it comes to effective monster mayhem.
Like many Chinese movies, King of Snake has its share of messages to deliver. Unfortunately, it doesn’t handle the film’s messages quite as well as it does the action. The moralizing about wealth and greed is so heavy-handed that even Bernie Sanders would roll his eyes at it. And it’s hard to believe that snakes are attacking in revenge for the villages destroying their habitat when almost every exterior shot shows us endless dense forest.
King of Snake is still worth the cost of a viewing, especially since Youku has put it up on its YouTube channel for free. It’s the kind of film that was made for a lazy weekend afternoon