Snake Dancer (AKA Glenda) has the distinction of being South Africa’s only sexploitation movie, and it’s an interesting oddity.
Glenda Kemp achieved both celebrity and notoriety in South Africa as the Sunday School teacher who became the country’s most famous stripper. In a conservative and intensely religious nation that was bound to land her in trouble, and it did. Glenda was (and is, as she’s still alive) an intriguing mix - a deeply religious woman who had absolutely no inhibitions about her body.
To film-maker Dirk de Villiers Glenda’s story sounded like ideal material for a movie, and he was even more convinced it was a good idea when he managed to persuade Glenda to play herself in the movie. Given South Africa’s incredibly strict censorship it had to be made in two versions - a very tame version for domestic release and a very much raunchier international version. He had high hopes for the movie but sadly those hopes were to be dashed. The domestic version had to be made so tame that no-one was interested in seeing it. The international version had potential but unfortunately de Villiers, although already an experienced film-maker, was a complete novice when it came to dealing with international distributors and the movie sank without trace. It was also a matter of bad timing - by 1976 even the international version was too tame.
The movie takes a few liberties with Glenda’s life story (especially in the ending) but in its essentials it follows her career relatively closely.
As the movie opens Glenda is a girl who dreams of being a dancer. Her foster-parents want her to become a teacher but while she finishes her studies she never lets go of that dream. She studies ballet but the first turning point in her life comes when she gets a job as a go-go dancer in a nightclub. She loves this job but the second turning point in her life comes when she is persuaded, very reluctantly, to moonlight as a stripper. She discovers that she likes this very much indeed.
Her act, which combines stripping with dancing and snakes, is a sensation. Snakes are the other passion in her life. She has a pet python and he becomes part of her act. As her fame grows she finds that she is also attracting some very unwanted attention from the police who are determined to save South Africa from such filth. This is quite perplexing to Glenda as she honestly cannot understand why anyone would find her act offensive. She considers herself to be a dancer, not a stripper. She just happens to do most of her dancing naked.
Her notoriety as South Africa’s queen of strip-tease also causes her some major boyfriend problems. She and Ken are in love and intend to get married but Ken is very conservative and cannot cope with the idea of being married to a stripper.
That’s the basics of the plot and while it’s fairly slender it’s as much of a plot as you expect in a sexploitation movie. The real highlights of the movie are Glenda’s dancing sequences. She’s certainly uninhibited and she finds very imaginative things to do with snakes.
Getting Glenda to play herself was a pretty shrewd move. It garnered the movie lots of publicity in South Africa but she also does a pretty reasonable job. As an actress Glenda Kemp is quite adequate; as a dancer it’s unlikely that anyone else could have matched her enthusiasm. The character needs to be a combination of innocence with a complete absence of inhibition and she achieves that because she really was like that. She just plays herself and it works.
The movie mostly avoids taking an overt political stance but it’s clearly a movie about freedom versus repression and it makes its point effectively enough. The fact that Glenda is so likeable certainly helps. And when she tells reporters that her act is really quite innocent we have no doubt she honestly believes it.
Dirk de Villiers proves to be a perfectly competent director and it’s generally a well-made film although sometimes he gets a little carried away by the flashbacks.
This is no masterpiece but it’s entertaining enough as long as you accept it for what it is - the purpose of the movie is to show us Glenda Kemp dancing naked, and that’s what it delivers.
Mondo Macabro have included some enticing extras with this one. There’s a documentary on South African cult cinema. It turns out there isn’t very much in the way of South African cult cinema but the doco does provide some intriguing insights into a film industry that I certainly knew nothing about. There’s also an interview with the director.
This one is not exactly a must-buy but it’s better than its reputation and its obscurity would suggest.