Snakebit

‘Rattlesnake’ is Bargain-Basement Desert Horror

Rattlesnake wants to be a nasty little piece of work, a brisk 85-minute dark turn down the wrong desert road. A desperate mother named Katrina seeks help for her young daughter, who a rattlesnake bit while Mom was fixing a flat tire. There’s no cell service and it’s the middle of nowhere, but suddenly an open RV appears, containing a mysterious woman offering to treat the dangerous wound. For a price.


RATTLESNAKE ★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: Zak Hilditch
Written by: Zak Hilditch
Starring: Carmen Ejogo, Theo Rossi, Emma Greenwell, Apollonia Pratt
Running time: 85 min


 

It’s the kind of premise that would have made for a taut early-days Stephen King short story. Scary small town, crazy townspeople, spiky twist ending. That makes sense; the writer/director of Rattlesnake, Zak Hilditch, previously made the well-received Netflix adaptation of King’s rat-infested 1922. But his attempt at replicating King’s quick-burn horror turns dumb and overworked very quickly, trotting out gory ghosts and implausible decisions that serve only to keep the narrative on its predetermined track.

Katrina ends up finding a hospital a few miles away where doctors discover no snakebite, just an exhausted kid in need of a few juice boxes and some sleep. But the a spirit in a business suit appears, reminding Katrina that she owes a soul in exchange for her daughter’s life. Oh, and she’s gotta get the deed done before sunset because of…reasons? It doesn’t take much convincing before Katrina, who just wanted to start a new life on this road trip from Phoenix to Oklahoma, is weighing whom she should kill to keep her kid from succumbing to ridiculous purple-face makeup effects. She leaves the daughter in the small-town hospital for an entire day with complete strangers to act against the curse, just one of a multitude of baffling character choices.

A “scary” scene from ‘Rattlesnake’, on Netflix.

You can probably write the rest in your head if you’ve seen just a handful of horror movies. Katrina stalks potential victims in a guilty, sweaty rush while the soundtrack booms and honks ominously, reminding us that this level of audio foreboding should only be allowed for filmmakers as gifted as Ari Aster.

There’s very little tension and a lot of silliness, starting with the idea that the film takes place around the town of Tulia, Texas, where huge mountains loom in almost every outdoor shot. There’s even a climax in (checks notes) some giant Texas canyons. But Hilditch filmed Rattlesnake in New Mexico, and it shows.

The film premiered at the Austin Film Festival, concluding just minutes before it landed on Netflix. Hilditch said in a post-screening Q&A that he wrote the script in a mad dash before his son was born and that Netflix rushed the film into production soon after. “It’s me doing my best Stephen King impersonation,” he said, but if this were vintage King, it would be smarter and much richer in characterization, even as a short story.

We learn next to nothing about Katrina or her daughter, and nearly every character they encounter is a cookie-cutter horror type from better films. Spooky kid? Check. Weird priest? Check. Aggro trucker threatening our hero with a tire iron? You got it. Other people who exist only as a story contrivance or a poor-dialogue delivery system. At one point, a bartender in her 20s is trying to get an abusive couple to exit. She yells at them to, “Go on, git!” a phrase no Texan has uttered since maybe 1983.

Stronger performances, sharper dialogue, and less-predictable plot turns may have saved Rattlesnake from turning out middling and unnecessary amid better streaming horror options.

Instead, it’s snakebit and dying in the dust.

Omar Gallaga

Omar L. Gallaga is a technology culture writer, formerly of the Austin American-Statesman, but he's not interested in fixing your printer. He's written for Rolling Stone, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Television Without Pity, Previously.tv and NPR, where he was a blogger and on-air tech correspondent for "All Things Considered." He's a founding member of Austin's Latino Comedy Project, which recently concluded a two-year run of its original sketch-comedy show, "Gentrifucked."

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