Shedding the Skin of Sexism: Gender Politics in 1976’s RATTLERS

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Rattlers

SHOCK’s Lee Gambin takes a thoughtful, sociological look at the 1976 eco-horror RATTLERS.

In the natural horror film or the ecologically themed horror film – a subgenre that truly came to mass fruition during the tumultuous and turbulent seventies – there were character archetypes typically found within the narrative fabric that were extensions and bi-products of societal conditions and the cultural climate. One of the most popular of these prototypes is the sympathetic specialist or the intellectual independent presented as a smart, savvy, beautiful and self-possessed young woman. These characters are generally linked in some way to the natural order, or have a deep understanding of the featured animal/threat and therefore can lead or assist in controlling the devastation that has been unleashed upon unsuspecting civilians tormented by hordes of killer bees, dogs, spiders and so forth.

Katherine Ross in THEY ONLY KILL THEIR MASTERS (1972), Tiffany Bolling in KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS (1977), Robin Riker in ALLIGATOR (1980) and Charlotte Ramping in ORCA(1977) are only a handful of these incredibly sensitive, intelligent and intuitive women scientists who would populate the eco-horror film of the seventies and eighties. Each one of them would present a distinct direct line in fundamentally running the show in that they are the gatekeepers of the information. Also, all of these characters have one thing in common: the vibrant dynamism, meaty back and forths and complicated relationships with their leading men. For the most part, these strong-willed and masterfully constructed female characters are forced to inspire, inform, educate and guide their male counterparts throughout the feature film and to fundamentally get them to act on the matters at hand. Robin Riker essentially instructs Robert Forster on ‘gators, Charlotte Rampling helps Richard Harris understand the nature of killer whales while Tiffany Bolling gets William Shatner to drop the booze and take on violent spiders eager to bring down an entire sunkissed Arizona town.

However, not all of these women are specialists in science or animal behavior, sometimes they are Nancy Drew-types thrown into an investigation, such as Heather Menzies in Piranha (1978). These women are just as dedicated to their work and completely wholeheartedly enthused by getting on top of the truth; as well as providing an enlightened view and concentrated education for their male peers. One of these sleuth-leads is the character of Ann Bradley played by actress Elisabeth Chauvet in the underrated exploitation drive-inn money maker RATTLERS from 1976. Ann Bradley is a photo journalist assigned to help out a herpetologist uncover some shifty cagey business involving the US Army’s involvement in experiments that are causing aggressive and highly deadly behavior in local rattlesnakes in rural California.

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Gender roles and the personal political interplay between men and women are often explored in the eco-horror film, and the social importance and relevance of second-wave feminism in these seventies offerings would also interweave within the plot and influence the writing. Here in Rattlers this is most certainly the case, with Ann and her male lead Dr. Tom Parkinson (Sam Chew) constantly asserting their stance on equal opportunity and concerns relating to careerist ambition and achievement. Of course, this conversational tennis match can most definitely be read as superficial and an ingredient added to maneuver the romantic union and blossoming sexual nature of Ann and Tom’s relationship, but even in a film such as RATTLERS which has an incredibly stoic, rigid and determinedly uncomplicated manner, the sociological interaction between men and women is made palpable and decidedly important. The women’s movement had become influential in the cinema of the seventies and ran hand in hand with environmental awareness which was taking shape and making waves in the public consciousness. Both political ideals were widely covered by the media (albeit under a skewed microcosm) and both left their important mark on the horror genre – which is fundamentally female-centric (covering aspects of feminist teachings), and here in the ecological creature feature sub, highly aware and concerned with matters of disturbance in the natural design. The meeting of these two pillars of social commentary dance a fine balancing act in John McCauley’s RATTLERS.

McCauley would only make one other film more than ten years later called THE DEADLY INTRUDER (1988) which would come way too late in the cyclical fad that was the slasher boom in the early eighties; however, in his low rent stalk’n’slash outing, McCauley would take off from where he left with Rattlers in the gender agenda stakes and make broad commentary on the impact of female vulnerability under the stale scrutiny of the male-gaze and the policing of the male experience. THE DEADLY INTRUDER would present an urban landscape plagued by rape, while in Rattlers, the setting is an airy and gorgeously lit Californian town which looks as though it has been abandoned by Republic Pictures types wrapping up their very last western. When the town is under attack by dangerously aggressive rattlesnakes, our heroes take action – the hard-nosed herpetologist and the feisty photojournalist.

Tom is essentially reluctant to take on a partner (something that is thematically interesting in that it seems he is also, for the first two acts of the feature, disinterested in partnering up in any regard) who is a woman. His sexism is apparent from the get-go. However, he is assured by an official authority that “she” is “worthy” because “she” was in Vietnam to cover the after effects of America’s most notorious and wasteful war. Ann is proven to be a “decent” partner here because of her history, something that will eventually fuel her passionate zeal about women in the workplace and the rights of female workers.

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RATTLERS seems to be obsessed with male/female relations – Ann is assertively feminist in her opinions about women shattering the glass ceiling, and her constant vocalization of her political beliefs are incessantly pitched throughout the film. This however, does not make her character repetitious, instead it heightens her motives, grounds her relationship (both professionally and romantically) with the male lead and her cool handling of heated situations shows us the audience that this is a woman who doesn’t let misogyny get in the way of her work as she investigates the snake attacks that become increasingly popular as the film progresses.

While Ann learns all there is to know about snakes, Tom learns something about acquired feminism and the burgeoning women’s movement in response to the issue of the workplace situation during America’s grueling recession post-Vietnam. What makes the Tom character interesting and complicated is that his sexism is somehow inherit and undiagnosed; ultimately he is likeable and liberal minded and yet the film presents him as a man who discovers his personal misogyny through his partner’s fervent feminism. Ann and Tom both learn and that is the fundamental centerpiece of what could superficially simply be ranked as straight up exploitation; in many regards, RATTLERS makes a hefty point and delivers this point with entertainment clearly in key focus.

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As Tom gradually understands that the US government and the military are a shady and sinister entity that have caused distress for not only the humans attacked and killed by the snakes, but for the environs as well, Ann’s rightful antagonistic view on patriarchy is validated. If the machismo of the US army has caused this disruption in the balance of nature, then her suspicions are reasonable and righteous. RATTLERS intelligently connects the dots – that Ann’s work covering the violent results of the Vietnam War will no doubt resurface in a variant of responsibility; that unmasking the political menace of patriarchal silence is an extension of the importance of her confrontational banter with Tom who stands in for “man as would be stand-by”, but, thanks to woman as informed guide, gradually evolving into “active forthright addressor of dire concerns”. Rattlers may seem to be a drive-inn lowbrow killer snake film, but to ignore the social standings of feminist rhetoric in the make-up of its intentions is a mistake – watch it again!