A genre story is only as good as its central concept. As films such as Saw and Paranormal Activity have proved, concept alone can carry a film to massive success. A problem with modern entertainment is that the filmmakers and showrunners of today never seem to understand a good concept when they’ve got one, and sometimes fail to execute that idea in the most ideal way. Netflix’s original horror film RATTLESNAKE is a great example of this.
The film tells the story of a mother named Katrina (Carmen Ejogo) and her daughter as they travel cross-country on a road trip from Arizona to Oklahoma. All is going well until they get a flat tire and are forced to pull over. While Katrina is busy changing the tire, her daughter is suddenly bit by an angered rattlesnake. When Katrina realizes what’s happened, she panics and heads to a nearby small town called Tulia for help. A strange woman in a trailer offers to help save her daughter’s life, and remarks that they’ll “discuss payment” at a later time. Katrina is confused by this statement, but goes along with the treatment, desperate to save her child. Miraculously, the woman’s treatment appears to work, but Katrina still rushes her daughter to the local hospital to be certain. The doctors at the hospital find no evidence of a snake bite on Katrina’s daughter, and wonder whether or not Katrina is making the whole thing up.
As Katrina struggles to wrap her head around these mysterious circumstances, she is visited by an odd stranger who once again brings up Katrina’s “payment.” When Katrina begins to talk medical insurance, the man informs her that’s not the sort of payment he’s speaking of. He then tells Katrina that a soul is required in exchange for saving the soul of her daughter. A confused Katrina begins to deduce that man is asking her to kill someone to repay the debt of her daughter’s salvation. The man informs her that she has until sundown to kill a human of her choosing, and that if she fails to comply, her daughter will be returned to her dying state—an ability he quickly demonstrates to show Katrina he means business. A distraught Katrina contemplates contacting authorities, but quickly surrenders to the other-worldly powers at play, and begins to plot the murder she’ll commit to save her daughter’s life.
Here is where I return to my initial point of good concept versus poor execution. Cinema and television seem to have a modern problem with a “more is more” mentality that tends to suffocate any concept with potential. This is why I’m not a huge fan of shows like Black Mirror because I feel they sacrifice the integrity of a concept in favor of filling that hour-long runtime. More is not more typically, and this becomes RATTLESNAKE’s fatal flaw. The film has some genuinely interesting moments, mostly aided by a fabulous performance from Carmen Ejogo. The concept overall is a good one, and one that would feel right at home as part of a classic anthology series. However, the concept is muddled down by the film’s feature-length, sucking out its life and filling it with bloat that begins to clutch at straws to hit that 90-minute sweet spot. The best thing a storyteller can do is show restraint, and although RATTLESNAKE features eerie visuals, solid performances, and sharp direction, it fails to remain concise and focused.
Writer/director Zak Hilditch clearly has talent—he flexes his genre muscles several times throughout the film, and the story really shines its brightest during the tense, suspenseful moments. It’s a shame we couldn’t see this story as a featured chapter of Shudder’s Creepshow series, or on Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone. Nevertheless I’m enthusiastic about Hilditch’s future, and look forward to seeing what nightmares he can conjure up. Overall, if you’re looking for a horror-thriller to casually throw on late at night as you’re winding down for the evening, RATTLESNAKE wouldn’t be the worst choice you could make—but temper your expectations, and dream of a day when entertainment allows itself to be brief once again.
RATTLESNAKE is now available to stream globally on Netflix.