King of Snake coverAfter producing a few fantasy efforts like Tsu Hong Wu and Monster From the Sea in the decade prior, the middle 1980s saw the Taiwanese film industry make one more go at that particular brand of giant monster cinema indigenous to the Japanese islands. With Toho in the midst of their own daikaiju resurrection at the time the genre may have seemed a safe bet to producers, but 1984’s King of Snake doesn’t look to have made much of an impact either domestically or internationally, where a pair of VHS releases in Japan (where the film’s SFX production generated some small interest) are the sum total of its reach. Like any number of cheaply licensable features from Taiwan, Korea, Thailand and elsewhere, King of Snake was swallowed up by Joseph Lai’s infamous IFD and regurgitated in cinemas and on video, in this case as 1988’s inept gweilo epic Thunder of Gigantic Serpent.

Oddly enough, it’s as the foundation for Thunder of Gigantic Serpent that King of Snake has gained the most notoriety, with its more or less competent giant monster effects providing a bizarre counterpoint to Thunder‘s bottom dollar action scenes. Beyond Thunder‘s modest cult reach King of Snake has remained rather obscure, and not without good reason. King‘s off-balance blend of giant monster rampage, children’s fantasy, and violent mob action have effectively left it a film without an audience, at once too grim for the young and too childish for the old – pity the poor souls tasked with advertising it when new.

Penned by Yiu Hing-Hong (Bruce Lee Against Supermen), King of Snake begins with a successful test of the new R19 process (a big plexiglass box with some wires in it), whose developer (Danny Lee!) hopes to put it towards ending global hunger. The military has its own ideas however, and the General overseeing the project (Paul Chang Chung, The Fast Fists) quickly shifts the project towards militarization. The lead scientist resigns in outrage, while the other researchers begin using the R19 process to make everyday things gigantic – something that’s bound to go well for everyone in the end. Unfortunately for all involved the mob has its eye on the R19 project as well, and soon a gaggle of hitmen descend upon the research lab in an attempt to snatch the device for themselves. A firefight ensues and most of the lab staff are killed, but the R19 device is successfully kept out of mob hands.

All is not well, however. The R19 box quickly finds its way to the curious Ting Ting (a very young Tracy Su Hiu-Lun, You and Me), a girl whose best friend is an intelligent, head-nodding rat snake. Ting Ting decides the box will make the perfect home for her slithery little buddy Mosler, and is even more thrilled when it balloons the critter into a beast a dozen or so feet long. The monster Mosler helps Ting Ting win in competitions against the local boys and even saves her from a burning building, but mob goons on the hunt for the R19 soon come a-knockin’. After beating up Ting Ting’s parents (nothing says “children’s entertainment” like seeing your dad with a gun in his mouth!) and kidnapping the girl the mob sets an electrified trap for the incensed Mosler, but all doesn’t go to plan. The current causes Mosler to grow positively tremendous, and soon the Godzilla-scale snake is trampling everything in its path in pursuit of its beloved Ting Ting…

Mosler and his giant monster antics are easily King of Snake‘s most commendable feature, and offer plenty of reasonable miniature and composite effects shots for those SFX traditionalists out there who are looking for a quick fix. King‘s distinct tokusatsu feel arrives courtesy of effects supervisor YAJIMA Nobuo, a soon-to-be Toei effects director who had been working on television and film projects for the company since the 1960s (including planning on SATO Hajime’s unrealized monster project Devil Manta). While his work here is hardly tops for his career, it’s generally not bad. Say what you will for Mosler himself, but his rampage arrives with plenty of explosive glitz and some decent miniature construction besides, with only an ill-advised model train being truly embarrassing. Less encouraging is King of Snake‘s reliance on stock footage at a few key points, where cropped footage from Gorath and scope material from Tidal Wave and Mothra (this film is native 1.85:1) is crudely incorporated. The climactic jet assault on Mosler is limited by this issue as well, as Yajima’s perfectly competent miniature effects are needlessly fluffed with incongruous scope footage of tanks firing.

While the SFX aspect of King of Snake is fun enough, it takes up far too small a chunk of the running time. The rest is devoted to the film’s bland scramble of plot, which splits its time pretty evenly between dull romantic walk-abouts, mob violence, and Ting Ting’s home life before devolving into extended scenes of the kidnapped girl repeatedly calling out to her serpentine savior. All those plaintive cries of, “Mosler! Mosler!” aside it’s really not that bad. It’s just neither engaging or amusing, which leaves King of Snake feeling a pretty tiresome slog whenever its eponymous star isn’t smashing into something.

And that, I imagine, is a big reason why King of Snake has remained so obscure in the nearly 30 years since it was made – aside from the monster kicks there’s really not much entertainment value here. It almost pains me to say this about the awful retrofit granted it by Joseph Lai’s IFD, but it’s loads more fun, presenting all the neat monster stuff as-made while replacing much of the mob drama with dreadful, hysterical white-guy crime drama all its own. Thunder of Gigantic Serpent is a great time for those with a taste for such things, but King of Snake is pretty “meh” regardless. At least the score is kind of interesting, though not for any legitimate reason. True to form for so many Taiwanese films of the time, King of Snake appropriates music from all over the place, including Once Upon a Time in the WestBig Trouble in Little China, and even Gerry Anderson’s UFO!

King of Snake has no official domestic video release, and the long out-of-print WOO Video VHS tape remains the best quality presentation of it around. That tape arrives with no English option and hardcoded Japanese subtitles, but presents the film at its intended 1.85:1 in a decent video transfer. A later edition from AVA Nippon is more common, but seems to suffer from some generational degradation in comparison to the WOO Video. Those interested in either should keep an eye out on Yahoo Auctions Japan. The WOO Video edition goes under the title 大蛇王: HONG KONG崩壊の序曲 (King of Snake: Overture of Hong Kong’s Collapse), while the AVA Nippon has it renamed 大蛇大戦 (Python Wars). The source transfer is the same for each (only the video-generated title before the show is different), and the images above are taken from the WOO Video edition. A cropped and English subtitled version from a far worse source is shared below, for those crazies among you who don’t want to spend your time and money tracking down 25 year old Japanese video tapes. In this case I really can’t blame you.