From the Archives: Alabama Snake blurs the line between true crime and real folklore

From the Archives: Alabama Snake blurs the line between true crime and real folklore

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

In Scottsboro, Alabama, beyond the Piggly Wiggly and up in the mountains you’ll find a different breed of individual. This individual takes our unfair stereotypes of the south and cranks them into a terrifying territory. A territory where southern Pentecostal ministries have services in the middle of the woods, and where the largely self-appointed ministers will often perform/orate/churchify while handling deadly poisonous snakes. Why? Well, while the official answer is probably close to “because Jesus,” I’d imagine the real answer is somewhere at the intersection of ego, a lack of education, drug and alcohol addiction, and that god-given human trait of “so afraid of death that we’re willing to believe anything in its stead.”

At the outset of Alabama Snake, which tells the story of an extremely bizarre murder attempt, we get a window into one of these ceremonies courtesy of folklorist, Dr. Thomas G. Burton, who guides us through much of the overall narrative. This particular mass, presented in a terribly spooky home video format, doesn’t go too well. A man in the front row is bitten by one of the poisonous snakes, and as he slowly loses consciousness, his fellow idiots — I mean parishioners — gather around him and start chanting and praying for him to recover. He is ultimately carried out of the mass, slumped over the shoulders of his peers. While his fate beyond this point is not revealed, we can be reasonably sure it wasn’t a free ride to Harvard.

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The reason this backwoods ceremony is presented to us is because of its connection to the crime at the center of the film. Back in 1991 Pentecostal minister Glenn Summerford was accused of trying to murder his wife Darlene. He denies it wholeheartedly, but has been serving a 99 year sentence for the crime nonetheless. While it’s not uncommon for the aggressively pious to actually be monsters, what is uncommon is the method he allegedly used: a poisonous snake bite. How does one do such a thing? Well, to hear Darlene tell the story, it’s pretty easy: he pointed a gun to her head and demanded she put her hand into a rattlesnake enclosure. To hear him tell it, Darlene was nuts and suicidal, and is now trying to blame him for her botched attempt at taking her own life.

Both stories are pretty easy to believe once you meet these two upsetting characters, but the point of Alabama Snake isn’t to assign blame, but rather to explore how such a crazily specific crime can remain so ambiguous (despite there being an official legal ending to it all). Having a folklorist lead the way is a smart move too, as it helps the film to move beyond a recitation of facts and into a more surreal territory that links the brand of religious mythology espoused by this region to the motivations behind such a horrifying event. Whether or not you believe in mystical beings in an adjacent world who have sway over our behaviors, and whose brand of magic relates directly to snakes, is irrelevant. But one cannot divorce the motivations of this potentially evil act from the woo-woo that the people to which it occurred believe.

Alabama Snake is written and directed by Theo Love (co-written by Bryan Storkel), who weaves archival footage/audio, interviews, and re-enactments into a surprisingly dense narrative about the alleged crime, the people involved, and how their idea of community plays into the whole thing. And believe you me, it gets so much wilder than I’ve described up to this point. What I’ve covered is just the tip of the iceberg. Love has a lot of fun with the re-enactments, going visually big in with each and every one, invoking the imagery of many horror films in the demonic canon. Love’s slight editorializing comes through in these portions, and while the intended humorous tone doesn’t always land (it’s not always clear that it’s supposed to be humorous until the movie ends), it’s a really clever way to avoid stepping on the facts while also giving the film a pointed story. This also helps to avoid the feeling that the subjects of the documentary are being made fun of. They aren’t, but their plight is one that clearly makes Love chuckle.

It’s hard to decide just who to believe as the details of the crime unfold, because both the attempted murderer and his victim give compelling reasons why their story is accurate, while also accidentally saying things so completely batshit insane that it seems no word out of either of their mouths should be trusted. But this is pretty congruent to the ultimate goal of the documentary: get everyone’s point of view, tie it to folklore, and then leave the audience wondering how it’s possible that we’re all the same species. Yeah, these people seem pretty foreign, but they are indeed real people with thoughts, feelings, needs, and beliefs, and who all may be totally different had they been born and raised a thousand miles away in any direction from where they stand. So while Alabama Snake is a true crime doc on its surface, it’s also a deft exploration of the idea that folklore may be occasionally mystical, but it all comes from real people with real lives and sometimes dangerous imaginations.

Alabama Snake is now on HBO and HBO Max.

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