Property tycoon Frances Chang (Kao Yuen) and his camp sidekick Peter Ma (Wei Ping Ao) force idealistic architect Hu Cheng Fung (Heung Wan-Pang) to speed up construction on an expensive high rise apartment block. When the construction team uncover a massive nest of snakes beneath the building site, Chang slaughters the serpents, ignoring warnings from his wife Sandy (Lo Pi-Ling) who has a premonition of reptile revenge. That night, while getting busy with some two-bit skank, a sleazy construction worker is swamped by dozens and dozens of scary snakes. Being a grade-A bastard, Chang sweeps this incident under the carpet and keeps the corpses under lock and key. When the dead man’s parents entreat him to bury their son, he has them thrown onto the street.
At the grand unveiling of Cheng Fung’s multimillion dollar design, an array of disaster movie stereotypes explore their swanky surroundings. All of them seem to hate the building - their complaints never cease! A crippled old lady (Ou-Yang Sha-Fei) and her husband (Lee Ying) find it too ostentatious; a fat woman in a polka dot dress can’t fit through the door; a rich geezer is too preoccupied keeping his far younger wife away from a greasy lothario; and a little girl shows more enthusiasm for kicking Peter in the shins. All of which makes a mockery of Mr. Chang’s declaration: “We owe all our success to Hu Cheng Fung and his modern design.” Yet strangely, all these complainers move into the block with nary an explanation. Evidently, tacky, substandard housing is still better than nothing.
While guests jive away to some horrendous mid-Eighties disco, a rampaging boa constrictor leads an army of angry snakes that slither up drains, sneak through air vents and erupt out of the floor. All hell breaks loose! Snakes smash their way into the rich geezer’s car. Slither over a soapy naked girl in the bathtub. Drop from the ceiling onto a table of shrieking mah-jongg players. Strangle the old couple in their beds. Frances slices flying snakes in half with a samurai sword - for real! We see pieces wriggling feebly on the floor. And, in a riff from The Shining (1980), an elevator spews a river of snakes onto the horrified party guests.
Sensitive viewers beware! Calamity of Snakes contains graphic imagery of real snakes being killed. Indeed, so often does the camera dwell on lingering scenes of snakes being gutted and disembowelled with their intestines spilling everywhere, it’s a wonder the reptiles did not visit vengeance on co-writer/director William Cheung-Kai. Following a varied career as a cinematographer, screenwriter and assistant director - including 2nd unit work on Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (1975) - Cheung-Kai made mediocre martial arts movies with leading man Heung Wan-Pang, with Calamity of Snakes his sole claim to cult infamy.
Hong Kong horror hacks have a love affair with scary serpents, from the wacky romp Snake Girl Drops In (1974) (which also features Wei Ping Ao, a regular comic foil familiar from Fist of Fury (1972) and Way of the Dragon (1972)) to the relentlessly grim Killer Snakes (1974) and rare snake-as-hero thriller Fangs of the Cobra (1978), but this serpentine variant on the Irwin Allen formula plays like the movie Snakes on a Plane (2006) might have been had original director Ronny Yu stayed on board. For all its many, many faults - which include the aforementioned snake snuff footage, comedy involving the fat gal guzzling pastries, and a risible romantic subplot between Francis’ whiny daughter and self-righteous Cheng Fung (“As a woman you’re almost perfect, except you’re rich - which makes you snobby!”) - this remains a memorably gross, exciting horror picture.
The sight of hundreds of real snakes slithering over the screaming cast easily trumps the CG-antics in Snakes on a Plane or Anaconda (1997), while Cheung-Kai throws in scenes of mondo footage that prove fascinating in a gruesome sort of way: a cool five minute long mongoose versus cobra battle wherein two critters pull the snake apart; a live demonstration of how to extract a snake’s gall bladder which the Chinese believe is good for your health if eaten (or as the vendor puts it: “After this you’ll have more sex than you’ve ever had in your life! You’ll run, you’ll jump, you’ll enjoy this snake blood!”); and best of all the antics of one Mr. Li.
Introduced while performing his jaw-dropping stage show where he emerges from a box full of snakes and then pulls one out of his mouth, the middle third of the movie finds Mr. Li engaged in an amazing kung fu snake fight at an abandoned warehouse. He swats flying snakes aside, bites one in two, then tackles the monstrously huge (rubber) boa constrictor that nearly savages him to death till he hoists it aloft by rope. But there’s life in that no-good snake yet! A fire brigade in silver jumpsuits take their flamethrowers to it during a well-staged monster battling finale, wherein the giant snake chucks a whole drum kit and water fountain at them.
Woven into the action is a moral message about flagrant materialism and flouting traditional values, underlined when Frances Chang tells his devoutly Buddhist wife he’s only ever at peace “when my wallet is full” or when nasty housekeeper Mrs. Wu berates two servant girls for showing concern for a suicide victim (“So what? He’s not one of your family!”). Of course this is hard to swallow given the snakes slay a slew of wholly innocent parties before greedy, snake-slaughtering Mr. Chang gets his.