A snake-handling religious sect in a rural southern town where the preacher tries to murder his wife by making her get bit by one of the venomous reptiles. The titillating topic could (should?) evoke side-eye superiority, jaw dropping curiosity and pathos all at the same time. In Alabama Snake (HBO) it could, but it doesn’t.
Doesn’t Sink Its Teeth In
Alabama Snake (HBO) has a lot of aspects to educate and entertain us. It could take us inside a rural Appalachian community, the type of community that’s typically very insular. We could learn about snake-handling sects of the Pentecostals, which are typically even more insular. We could learn about the culture of violence and abuse. Or we could follow the investigation and trial. The story was even featured on the 90s fabulous Salle Jesse Raphael.
And Alabama Snake does look at all these, but only manages to scratch the surface on each of those topics. We learn that their literal interpretation of the Bible demands that they handle snakes. We hear from some church members who insist their pastor would never weaponize reptiles and will be loyal no matter what the evidence shows. We hear how Glen Summerford’s violent childhood turned into a violent adulthood. We meet both of his long-suffering wives. And the verdict in the case? That’s in by the end of chapter 2.
We don’t really get a deep dive into any of them.
Heaven Help ‘Em
The new HBO documentary looks at the 30-year-old case of Glen Summerford and his wife, Darlene. He was a drinkin’, smokin’ hellion who racked up two felony convictions early in life. She was an impressionable 19-year-old girl from the mountains who was raised to find a man, any man, and have kids. She says she regretted marrying him the same day she said ‘I do.’
Our guide through the lurid tale of fanaticism and betrayal is Dr. Thomas Burton, a onetime member of a snake church who is now a retired college professor, folklorist, and co-founder of the Archives of Appalachia. He has hours of taped phone conversations with Glen, who is still locked up.
We hear from the wife he tried to kill and the wife he probably didn’t try to kill. We hear from the investigators, the DA, and the judge. The judge, by the way, seemed to doubt Glen’s guilt, lamenting that since it was his third strike, there was no choice but to give him a 99-year-sentence. The paramedics who were called to save Darlene are still around and take us inside that night. They’ve responded to thousands of calls over the years, but this one definitely sticks out.
Marty, Glen’s son with Darlene, talks with us. He’s probably the most intriguing character. He gets plenty of screen time late in the show. And while he doesn’t say a whole lot, you can tell there is a lot he wants to say. Maybe he’s holding out for his own deal at Netflix.
And speaking of the rival streamer.. what makes this most disappointing is this is clearly trying to be Tiger King with snakes. But it fails on all levels.
In Tiger King, people come into Joe Exotic’s orbit on their own. Maybe they love big cats. Maybe crazy attracts crazy. And they all had a self-serving angle. I cringed and laughed at every episode. But I feel pity for the people in Alabama Snake, even Glen. They are living sad lives after playing the sad cards life dealt them.
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
A Snake Bite. There’s a British version of this that involves lager and beer, but that’s not nearly as fun as what we do in America. I’m pouring the whisky and lime juice. It’ll bite me harder than Alabama Snake.