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Friday, August 27, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Movie Review
"Anacondas" cleverly feeds on primal fears

By Tom Keogh
Special to The Seattle Times

JASIN BOLAND / AP
From left, KaDee Strickland (Sam), Johnny Messner (Bill) and Karl Yune (Tran) co-star in the action horror film "Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid."
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"Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid" has two kinds of fear going for it. One is the I'm-running-through-a-tropical-jungle-with-a-big-snake-trying-to-eat-my-face variety, and on that score the film is quite efficient and even cleverly understated. The other kind is more of a surreal shock, such as an enormous, dead anaconda whose belly is ripped open to reveal the bare legs of a woman within. One doesn't easily forget such a picture; it speaks to an audience like an open-faced nightmare.

In general, if moviegoers are willing to sit in the dark, staring at giant snakes that slither through brackish waters and which pop up to yank helpless souls below, we're pretty much in the realm of the subconscious. So "Anacondas," a sequel to the semifarcical 1997 "Anaconda," wisely prods not only ordinary phobias about big, bad serpents but also universal terrors of the dark, of narrow spaces, of drowning, of falling, of spiders and much more.

Unnerving and tongue-in-cheek, "Anacondas" is similar to "Anaconda," which boasted a fun cast (Jennifer Lopez, Ice Cube) in an intentionally self-conscious, B-movie setting. Where "Anaconda" concerned a film crew getting picked off by a hungry snake, its follow-up begins with another doomed mission.

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***
"Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid," starring Johnny Messner, KaDee Strickland, Matthew Marsden, Morris Chesnut. Directed by Dwight Little, from a screenplay by John Claflin and Daniel Zelman and Michael Miner and Ed Neumeier. Rated PG-13 for violence, language, and scary images. 99 minutes. Several theaters.

A team of scientists rushes to Borneo to find a fountain-of-youth orchid. They stand to make billions synthesizing its chemical formula, so there's not a lot of disagreement about traveling upriver in the rain on a broken-down boat skippered by a gruff, American expatriate, Bill (Johnny Messner). What they don't know is that anacondas eat the flower, allowing the beasts to live longer and grow (and grow).

For a while, director Dwight Little and the cast have fun stirring the pot as lone wolf Bill, determined leader Jack (Matthew Marsden), attractive assistant Sam (KaDee Strickland), and several others flirt and bicker while churning through rough waters. A disaster strands everyone in the forest, replacing dreams of vast wealth with basic survival instincts. Except for greedy Jack, that is, who turns out to be a snake in his own right.

The actors have a good time with outrageous echoes of bygone potboilers. Strickland keeps a straight face with such shopworn lines as "That's either the bravest or most stupid thing I've ever seen." Messner nails the obligatory scene in which his Bogart knock-off opens up about the troubles that led him to his Amazonian anonymity.

The anacondas themselves are used sparingly, opening other possibilities in psychological horror. In one memorable scene, a character is paralyzed by a spider bite while an anaconda sizes him up for lunch.

"Everything out here gets eaten," Bill says of the jungle. "Anacondas" has a way of driving that point home with primitive emotion.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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