In the olden days, if you wanted to make a horror movie about animals killing people, you basically had two options: the animals could be bigger than they’re supposed to be, or there could be too many of them. Unusual size or unusual number, those were your choices. But then along came a visionary who said: “I will make my killer animals no larger or more numerous than is typical — but they will be possessed by the devil!!” (He spoke in italics to indicate he meant business.)
The result was “Jaws of Satan,” a movie about demonic snakes that is instantly disappointing because we know it won’t be as good as its title. Were there any movies prior to “Jaws of Satan” that featured murderous animals under the direct influence of the devil? Maybe. It’s impossible to know without researching, or asking somebody. But if there were, they didn’t count, because they weren’t called “Jaws of Satan.”
Our adventure begins on a train that is passing through Alabama (the customary thing to do to Alabama). Two grimy men are in charge of the cargo, which includes a cobra that’s part of a traveling carnival, though none of the carnival’s other elements are on this train. The viewer supposes the cobra is a diva who demands separate travel accommodations from the rest of the carnival. At any rate, the cobra uses the power of its mind (?) to break the lock off the trunk it’s in, then uses more mind power to make one of the men leap from the moving train. (How much mental energy is required to overpower a carny? Let’s be realistic here.) As for the second guy, the snake just bites him, old-skool.
Here the film helpfully reminds us that snakes are mentioned in the Bible. This is in accordance with the Hollywood belief that movies are scarier if they have a scriptural connection. Millions of flies are infesting your town? Gross. Millions of flies are infesting your town, AS PROPHESIED IN THE BIBLE?? Terrifying!
Onscreen titles furnish this quote from Revelation: “And the angel seized the serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years… After that he must be loosed for a little while.” By putting two and two together, we infer that the cobra is, or represents, or is under the influence of, or acts on behalf of, or is a metaphor for, or has power of attorney for, Satan.
The train incident occurs just outside the small, depressing Alabama town of Eutaw (a real place), home to a morose Catholic priest named Father Farrow (Fritz Weaver), who we figure is going to have to be our main character, what with the villain being a devil-snake. Father Farrow attends a cocktail party thrown by Matt Perry (Bob Hannah), a local businessman who’s about to open a dog track that is already being heralded as the best thing to happen to the county in years, which is sad and probably also true and therefore sadder.
Also at the cocktail party is Evelyn Downs (Diana Douglas), the town witch. Yes! Eutaw has a witch. She’s a good one, though, the kind of witch who gives you helpful advice about your future, not the kind who cooks your children or throws fire at Scarecrow. She gravely warns Father Farrow that “a powerful enemy” is pursuing him, and that this powerful enemy is the devil. Unsurprisingly, Father Farrow doesn’t put much stock in the opinion of the town witch. That’s not even an elected office!
The snake’s victims from the train turn up at the town hospital/morgue/bait shop the next day. The coroner shows Dr. Maggie Sheridan (Gretchen Corbett) how one of the corpses has what are clearly snakebite marks on his face, and says he’s not sure what caused them. “Some kind of puncture,” he says. “I think it’s a bite. Venomous lizard, reptile. Probably snake.” Highly alarmed by this notion, Dr. Maggie suggests that they announce a killer snake is on the loose so the whole town can panic and make things worse. (Those aren’t her exact words.) The coroner talks her out of this. Instead, she flies in a snake expert and potential love interest, Dr. Paul Hendricks (Jon Korkes).
Meanwhile, a local farmer gets bitten by a snake — not the devil-cobra from the train, but a common rattlesnake. This is unremarkable in itself; you know farmers, always getting bitten by this thing, or having a limb cut off by that thing, or falling into a barrel of that substance. Nonetheless, the rattler attacks become more common, suggesting that the devil-cobra has recruited some of his local snake brethren to assist him in his mission, whatever that might be. We’ve been given the clear impression that the cobra is after Father Farrow, but the cobra has made no effort to find him, even though he is listed in the phone book and this is not a large town. Why serpent-Lucifer wants to have random people killed by back-up snakes, I don’t know. Serpent-Lucifer moves in mysterious ways.
One of the mysterious ways in which he moves is that he bites Evelyn the witch in the face and kills her. Dr. Paul Hendricks the snake expert says he’s never seen a wound like the one on Evelyn, recalling what the coroner said about the other victim. Everybody keeps talking about how unusual these snakebites are, even though they look like what you’d expect snakebites to look like. It’s not like the victims faces have turned rainbow-colored or caught on fire or something.
Anyway, that night Maggie goes home and finds a big rattlesnake at the foot of her bed. She is too scared and stupid to move away from it, so instead she just sits there, frozen, and calls Dr. Paul on the phone at his hotel. He drops everything and rushes over to save Maggie from the rattlesnake, which has dutifully remained in the same spot this whole time. Paul kills the snake and has sex with Maggie, in that order.
Father Farrow learns from his elderly uncle, also a priest, that their family got cursed by Druids hundreds of years ago, and now terrible things happen to them every three generations. BLAH BLAH BLAH, the movie might as well say.
Then there are horny teens having a party by the lake. Hooray! This will be an opportunity for many of them to be killed by snakes, possibly in a hilarious manner. But tragically, and in violation of established movie law, all we get to see is one snake surprise an amorous couple before the scene abruptly ends. If this movie thinks we are interested in seeing anything other than scenes of people being bitten by snakes, this movie is woefully mistaken.
The cobra that is either possessed by or actually is Satan makes a cameo appearance the next day at Evelyn’s funeral, chasing Father Farrow around the cemetery and into an open grave (which is to say, a pit that he can’t get out of in what is otherwise essentially an open field). It looks like curtains for poor dumb Father Farrow until he picks up a crucifix to use as a weapon and discovers that it repels the snake. Is the snake a vampire? No, that would be stupid. The snake is the devil.
Now there’s a town meeting exactly like those depicted in various episodes of “The Simpsons.” The locals are mighty agitated about all these snake deaths, which are far more numerous than Alabama usually gets this time of year. Epidemics of rickets and ringworm? Sure, that’s typical. Deaths caused by improperly fermented outhouse moonshine? Of course. But snakes? No sir, we don’t take kindly to no snakes ’round these parts.
Maggie, Paul, and Father Farrow agree that they must get rid of the snakes before the dog track opens, because everyone in this miserable county is going to be at the dog track, and they’ll be sitting ducks for when the snakes show up, because nothing attracts snakes like a dog race. And they can’t just delay the opening of the dog track, because then the terrorists (snakes) win. Father Farrow tells Maggie and Paul, “Supposing that this particular king cobra was more than just a snake. Supposing this was the embodiment of evil.” Maggie and Paul accept that theory a bit more readily than two scientists should, but whatever.
They track the cobra to a cave outside of town. Paul arrives first and swings into action by immediately slipping and knocking himself unconscious. Then Maggie arrives and saves the day by immediately falling under the Satan-snake’s spell and lying down on a rock. Then Father Farrow shows up yelling, “Satan! SATAN!!” This gets the snake’s attention, because the snake is Satan. Now fully into his role as snakesorcist, Father Farrow spouts some Latin, all priest-like, until he has recited enough of it to make the cobra catch on fire and burn to death. The moral of the story is that you should not watch this movie if you have a fear of snakes or Southerners or witches.
(Post-script: This was the film debut of 9-year-old Christina Applegate, who plays dog-track entrepreneur Matt Perry’s daughter. Her function in the movie is to sneak over to the dog track on opening day, hide in a broom closet so her dad won’t see her, then get bitten by the rattlesnake that was already hiding in that closet.)