I love it when a film’s main character is an eccentric nutjob. I don’t mean a character remembered for an over the top performance by an actor, like a Captain Jack Sparrow or even the Joker. I’m referring to characters who have quirks so wild they defy typical Hollywood tropes. Take the main character in 1972’s Stanley, Tim Ochopee (veteran soap opera actor Chris Robinson).
Tim is a Seminole who was drafted to go off and fight in Vietnam. He harbors massive amounts of resentment, all justified, towards the government of the white man. His response to this, and PTSD, has been to pull back from society, moving to a lonely cabin in the Everglades. But, isolation was not enough for Tim. He has a fascination with snakes. He loves them and considers himself their protector. His two favorites are the titular Stanley and Hazel, a pair of rattlesnakes that he is breeding. He croons to them. He pets them lovingly. He takes Stanley with him everywhere, and gives Stanley orders like he’s a dog and not a reptile. He thinks of Stanley and Hazel as husband and wife. All meaning Tim gets from his life, he derives from his snakes. And, he will kill for them.
One must see the film to understand just how weird of a dude is Tim. He really has lost all confidence in humanity, pulling back from his tribe just as much as from the society built by we European conquerors. All he wants is to roll around on his cabin floor with his snakes, making a meagre living by providing venomous specimens to a local doctor for milking.
But, the outside world shatters Tim’s carefully constructed isolation, in the form of clothier Richard Thomkins (Alex Rocco). Thomkins specializes in items made from snakeskin, and wants to pay Tim for any snakes he captures. Tim turns him down, but that doesn’t stop Thomkins. He sends his cronies into the Everglades to hunt snakes, and Tim takes it upon himself to stop them. As the film goes on, Tim becomes more and more loony, leading to one of the stranger denouements I’ve seen in a shitty movie.
Screenwriter Gary Crutcher and director William Grefé have created a protagonist who might be better off under psychiatric care. They also plopped him into a movie where shitty characters abound, creating a feedback loop between their eccentric behavior and Tim’s. Besides the doctor, Tim provides snakes for a burlesque act performed by Gloria Calvin (Marcia Knight). Thomkins’s hunters are a pair of low IQ dopes who ooze racism and rape. Meanwhile, Thomkins’s relationship with his daughter, Susie (Susan Carroll), is downright shocking. Thomkins treats her like a piece of meat, and in their more disturbing exchanges, she seems to respond to his flirtations. Scenes featuring this pair cannot end quickly enough.
Rocco’s performance is identical to the work he did in The Godfather, only this character is, somehow, more of a scumbag. He also has a fascination with his snakeskin products akin to Tim’s fascination with the still-living variety.
This is a character driven film. The events of the plot are too thin for it to be otherwise. In their own, horrible, ways, each character is fascinating for their various quirks and obsessions. There isn’t a way to root for any of them, however. That includes Susie, who is a peripheral character until the film’s climax. As for Tim, it’s hard to be on his side when his view of right and wrong is not necessarily held by a viewer. There is a strong conservation message to his character, but his own actions undercut this. Grefé, however, did even more to undercut the film’s message of conservation. Let’s just say that animals were harmed in the making of this film.
Stanley is a bizarre relic of the drive-in era. It’s one of those films that makes a viewer wonder how it got made. It doesn’t go in for the type of spectacle needed to divert attention from the efforts of Hollywood’s major studios, and its leading character could be a huge turnoff to many viewers. It hints at sleaze, yet doesn’t deliver. The film would have benefited, I think, from a greater dedication to absurdity by the filmmakers. It’s weird, but not weird enough.
Stanley is an obscure film, and will remain so. It’s also not that watchable, taking over the #225 spot from The She-Creature. Find something else to watch.