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Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.
This week, we celebrate Anaconda, which hit theaters on April 11, 1997. A camp classic and an unlikely trendsetter, the action-horror film starred Jennifer Lopez as Terri, a determined documentarian who has traveled to the Amazon to make a movie about the mysterious Shirishama tribe. She is joined in this endeavor by her trusty creative team — including cameraman Danny (Ice Cube), anthropologist Steven (Eric Stoltz), and soundman Gary (Owen Wilson) — and along the way, they encounter Paul (Jon Voight), a batty snake hunter with an oddly fluctuating accent who befriends them, only to take over their expedition. He’s after big game, you see: a ginormous anaconda that enjoys devouring humans after squeezing the life out of them.
If Terri and her team are going to get out alive, they’ll have to work with this psychopath. Spoiler alert: Not everyone makes it.
Anaconda didn’t try to hide its tongue-in-cheek tone. This was very much meant to be a Z-grade monster movie that, ideally, you’d watch at a drive-in — if you could find one, of course. From its peekaboo scares to Voight’s knowingly hammy performance as the menacing bad guy, Anaconda invited audiences to shriek and laugh in equal measure. Where other movies were exploring the possibilities of this new special effects technology known as computer graphics, director Luis Llosa’s thriller was an enjoyably creaky, low-budget affair. “Do you know that snake got paid more than we did?” Ice Cube said years later. “They paid that snake, like, $10 million to build that dumb thing.”
But the anaconda’s very un-cutting-edge look was part of the charm. So was the bizarre mixture of mismatched acting talent brought to bear on this cheese-fest. Lopez was transitioning from dancer and singer to actress, earning acclaim for her breakthrough role in 1997’s Selena, which came out just a few weeks before Anaconda. (Out of Sight would follow the next year.) Ice Cube had enjoyed a multi-platinum recording career in N.W.A. and then as a solo artist, and he’d proved himself on the big screen with both dramas (Boyz n the Hood) and comedies (Friday). Wilson was the goofy guy from Bottle Rocket and The Cable Guy. Voight was an Oscar winner who’d become a go-to character actor in big studio movies like Heat and Mission: Impossible. And all of them took a backseat to a fake snake with a bad attitude.
Why was it a big deal at the time? The mid-to-late ‘90s was a halcyon period for disaster movies. The two highest-grossing films of 1996 were Independence Day and Twister — gonzo blockbusters that celebrated widespread destruction caused by, respectively, aliens and Mother Nature. Earlier in the decade, the lighthearted monster movies Arachnophobia and Tremors had demonstrated that there was a market for killer-critter horror films that spoofed the genre’s overblown tendencies. Anaconda was a perfect amalgam of the two trends, operating less as an outright comedy and more like a very silly “serious” movie — it played the scares straight, except the whole thing was so ridiculous that it was hard to keep from laughing.
You couldn’t have asked for a better filmmaker to deliver the goods than Llosa, who had previously made the proficient-but-hokey genre flicks Sniper and The Specialist. What was great about movies like Independence Day and Tremors was that they relished how fun that kind of escapist popcorn entertainment is — Anaconda merely amped up the giddy thrills, with Llosa wrapping the whole thing in a dopey, winking package. It didn’t matter that the digital anaconda looked terrible, or that the dialogue contained gems like “Is it just me, or does the jungle make you really, really horny?” Viewers wanted to switch off their brains and enjoy the film’s precision campiness.
What was the impact? Anaconda got terrible reviews — not to mention six Razzie nominations, including Worst Picture, Worst Director, and Worst New Star (for the snake). But Roger Ebert was one of its few champions, understanding the movie’s primal, goofy appeal. “It’s a slick, scary, funny Creature Feature, beautifully photographed and splendidly acted in high adventure style,” he wrote, and audiences agreed. Anaconda debuted at No. 1, knocking the comedy colossus Liar Liar out of the top spot. The film ruled the box office for two weeks. (Fittingly, it was dethroned by a disaster movie, Volcano.)
The movie ended up being a smash, pulling in about $137 million worldwide on a reported $45 million budget, and spawning a sequel, 2004’s Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid, and several television tie-in movies. But more importantly, Anaconda paved the way for the increasingly ludicrous animals-gone-wild horror movies that would soon dominate the landscape. Deep Blue Sea and Snakes on a Plane both owe Anaconda a debt — and that’s to say nothing of SYFY’s own Sharknado series. (You could argue that French horror filmmaker Alexandre Aja’s entire Hollywood career — he’s the mastermind behind so-bad-they’re-genius killer-critter movies like Piranha 3D and Crawl — wouldn’t have happened without Anaconda’s success.) Terri’s screaming crew proved that bad special effects and thinly drawn characters weren’t an impediment to profits when making a creature feature. If anything, those seeming deficiencies ended up being a large part of the draw.
Ironically, the world of wonderfully cheesy horror movies has now come full circle. After the surprise success of 2018’s The Meg, Sony (which put out the original Anaconda) started exploring plans early this year to reboot the property. According to The Hollywood Reporter, “The studio is aiming to take what was a simple and relatively cheap programmer with a B-movie concept and eventize it in scope and budget.” If it worked for a supersized shark, why not a snake?
Has it held up? The better question would probably be “Is it still as terrifically silly?” And that answer is an emphatic "Yes." Anaconda was never “good” in the conventional sense — the acting is overwrought, the drama is unconvincing, and the scares are all pretty stupid — but its primal man-versus-enormous-serpent premise remains deeply delightful.
Not that you can get the cast to talk much about the film these days. When Lopez discussed her most iconic roles in an interview with GQ, she just laughed at the mention of Anaconda, finally saying, “It was an amazing cast. It was kind of this, like, sci-fi crazy monster movie.” She seemed bewildered by its success. “That was a hit, Out of Sight wasn’t — there you go.” (She wasn’t quite as dismissive at the time: “[The studio] offered me the choice of Fools Rush In or Anaconda, but I chose the fun B-movie because the Fools script wasn’t strong enough,” she claimed in 1998.) Meanwhile, Wilson once admitted, “I’ve never seen that movie all the way through. I’ve seen that scene where you can almost see my face through the snake’s belly.”
But even if Anaconda’s stars may be slightly embarrassed by the movie, it has its passionate fans. Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Mike Nelson devoted one of Rifftrax’s live shows to Anaconda, which he still treasures.
“It really sort of tickles me in a perfect way,” he said. “It’s a really good B-movie.”
Anaconda never aspired to be anything more than that, but its slithery influence can still be felt to this day.