Snake Charmer: The Spree (1998)

Dave heads over to Canada to quizzically gaze at Tommy Lee Wallace’s demented crime-thriller.

With a small herd of dark horses under his belt in Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) and Fright Night Part 2 (1988), then the airing of Stephen King’s It (1990) miniseries at the turn of the ‘90s, there’d be no reason to suggest that director Tommy Lee Wallace wouldn’t pepper the next decade or so with a similar selection of cult chillers. Well, he was certainly busy, pumping out a decuple of small screen shows before returning to the macabre post-millennium with another sequel, the commendable Vampires: Los Muertos (2002). His ten TV movies in between, though, were a real mixed bag, ranging from Russian-American baseball beats (The Comrades of Summer (1992)), to the third adaptation of a Joy Adamson book (Born Free: A New Adventure (1996)) and a Hitchcock remake (Once You Meet a Stranger (1996)). THE SPREE is certainly the picture that stands out from this era of Wallace’s career. It’s not entirely successful, but nor is it entirely mediocre. Instead, it straddles the fine line between the two, schizophrenically flitting from barmy to brilliant in the blink of a cut.

Xinia Kelly (Jennifer Beals) is a limber cat burglar impressively adept at ransacking all kinds of opulent properties. It seems to be a career she was drawn to as an act of rebellion against her absent alcoholic father and her mother (Rita Moreno), with whom she still struggles to forge a meaningful relationship. Clearly, her Daddy issues are what lead her to a passionate affair with an older man, the wonderfully named Bram Hatcher (!) (Powers Boothe), who she hooks up with in a club one evening. Bram convinces Xinia that he’s a snake wrangler and she wastes no time in assessing his mamba – but the following morning she discovers a law enforcement badge in his truck and begins to question whether this is an entangled attempt at entrapment.

“If you’re gonna bust me, Bram, you better make sure that you can find more in my car that a spare tyre and a bottle of Obsession,” bristles Xinia, and it’s the perfect example of the dynamism that Livia Linden and Percy Angress’ script can reach. The downside is that when they uncover each other’s motive at the halfway point, it’s a cue for everything to get a little more preposterous than it already was. Not that I had an issue with that, because Wallace keeps everything moving at such a pace that you’re willing to forgive the cockeyed coherence for the sake of entertainment.

Beals and Powers are an odd casting decision, and one that’s exacerbated even more during their first sex scene. But out from beneath the covers they deliver great performances. Garry Chalk, Canada’s hardest working actor [1], is an ideal pick for Bram’s former partner who smells a rat, although John Cassini (as Xinia’s fence) and Rita Moreno are both a little underused.

Shot in British Columbia, The Spree aired on Showtime subsidiary, The Movie Channel, on 18th April 1998 before coming to VHS soon after on MGM Home Video (NB – it had reached the U.K. by July ’98).

Canada ● 1998 ● Thriller, TVM ● 98mins

Jennifer Beals, Powers Boothe, Garry Chalk, Rita Moreno ● Dir. Tommy Lee Wallace ● Wri. Livia Linden, Percy Angress

U.K. VHS art courtesy of Video Collector

[1] Over four-hundred credits to date throughout his relentlessly busy, forty-year career.

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