Filmmaker Theo Love wisely begins ALABAMA SNAKE with the only part of this lurid tale of religion, sex, and booze that is not in dispute. That would be when two paramedics drive down a dark country road, on October 4, 1991, sirens and flashing lights off, only to find Darlene Summerford stumbling towards them, clutching her swollen and blacked arm where she said a snake had bitten her. Was it attempted murder? A regretted suicide attempt? A diabolical scheme to frame her husband, Glenn? RASHOMON may have been the inspiration for Loves documentary, but it is the framework for something more profound that the absolute nature of truth. Instead, he presents a cogent and illuminating consideration of the nature of belief, both sacred and profane.
Our guide through the five chapters of the story is Dr. Thomas G. Burton, retired college professor, folklorist, and co-founder of the Archives of Appalachia. In the course of his mission to document the area’s distinct culture before it disappeared, he became particularly interested in a Pentecostal sect that takes Mark 16:18 literally (They shall take up serpents), and include snake-handling, venomous snakes, as part of its observance and practice. From there, the story of Glenn Summerford, a hell-raiser turned snake-handling preacher accused of trying to kill his wife with a five-foot rattlesnake proved irresistible.
Burton annotates the story with his own experiences attending services decades ago, and a gloss on what serpents, and women, represent to this fundamentalist group. He is the tour guide to a way of life that is alien, even to those in rural Scottsboro, AL, who did not know that the serpent handlers had oved down from the hills where they originated. While we meet many of the protagonists, including those paramedics, the chief investigator (still bemused by the idea of a snake as a murder weapon), and Glenn and Darlene’s adult son, Marty, Glenn is absent. His side is told via the cassette recordings Burton made. His version is the penultimate chapter. The final one is reserved for Darlene, whose character and veracity have been widely discussed before we see her in the present for the first time, and who proves to be the most enigmatic character in the story. Before that are chapters of court testimony; Glenn’s transition from bullied kid to hellion who could punch a man so hard that his eye would pop out to hitting bottom after unfathomable tragedy and rebounding with an unlikely, feverish, religious redemption. Was it real? According to Marty, and testimony from congregants, Glenn had the gift of healing, and would pray so fervently that the knees of his pants would be burned when he stood up afterwards. As for Darlene, we see a troubled woman with her own checkered past and a belief that the demons inside her are very real, and not worth the trouble of banishing the way Glenn used to do for others during the nightly services they both used to attend.
Love juxtaposes bleached video from that time with flashbacks filmed like the southern gothic that it is. He uses a light touch with tropes of horror and grand guignol that ground the story in its time and place while setting a mood of uncertainty that lends plausibility to mutually exclusive scenarios. He gives the epilogue to Burton and to Glenn and their discussion of fire and the first Pentecost, from which we get Pentecostal. Burton, still greatly disappointed that his anointing so many years ago by a Pentecostal snake-handler didn’t result in being born again, listens without response to Glenn’s literal interpretation and the assertion that only the spiritual will understand. His only coda a reminder that Glenn’s faith demands that he subsume himself entirely to God’s will, affording Love a punch line, and us all a lingering curiosity to feel as passionately about something as Glenn did about his version of God