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HBO's Alabama Snake Wriggles Away From Easy Analysis

A Pentecostal preacher is accused of attempted murder in this new doc that's long on atmosphere and ambiguity.
  • A felony snakebite is only one layer of the story in HBO's Alabama Snake.
    A felony snakebite is only one layer of the story in HBO's Alabama Snake.

    The editor-in-chief of the daily newsletter Best Evidence, Sarah D. Bunting knows a thing or two about true crime. Her weekly column here on Primetimer is dedicated to all things true crime TV.

    Alabama Snake bills itself as "the story," singular, of a Pentecostal preacher named Glenn Summerford who was convicted of trying to murder his wife Darlene with a rattlesnake. But in director and co-writer Theo Love's telling, that story contains at least half a dozen other stories, and I still can't decide whether Love's decision to lean into evocatively artistic re-enactments and atmospherics a la Errol Morris is the only sensible way to tackle such a baroque group of nested narratives... or if it's a gorgeously unsettling cop-out.

    Initially Love does try to follow a traditional format: the paramedics who answered the call on that fateful October night in 1991 tell us what they found and what happened next; local law enforcement officers enter the case; we see a group of cops "collecting" a huge diamondback snake as "evidence," a process punctuated by the occasional shriek of terror and burst of nervous giggles. Local historian Dr. Thomas Burton turns up periodically to give us context for the practice of snake-handling in Pentecostal congregations, and Love pulls liberally from tapes Burton recorded of his interviews with Summerford following his conviction. In addition to cops and EMTs, Love also interviews a stenographer who translates court transcripts, as well as Summerford's son and both of his wives, who share their versions of how Darlene got bitten and what led everyone involved to that juncture.

    There is just so much material to unpack here, and I can completely understand why Love may have looked at it, decided he couldn't possibly organize it into an 85-minute runtime, and chose to dump it all out and let us draw our own conclusions. That's probably what I'd do — but that's why I review documentaries instead of making them. A documentarian has to make the tough choices about what to include and how to structure it. In Alabama Snake, it kind of seems like Love and his co-producer/co-writer Bryan Storkel chose not to choose, relying instead on flavorful but highly subjective testimony from the parties involved, paired with vivid re-enactments reminiscent of certain sequences in The Jinx. To be fair, these re-enactments really work; I admired their commitment (to revolting realism, in one case; to cartoonish horror, in another). So much of the Summerfords' story boils down to he-said/she-said that presenting both sides with little in the way evidentiary comment is, in a way, a subtle underlining of function with form.

    But the ongoing debate over the intent of that snakebite is just one of the stories that leads into the snake's box. Take the house fire that killed Summerford's toddler daughter; the still-unsolved arson was probably a direct result of Summerford making enemies after he knocked a man's eyes out (you heard me) in a brawl, and his resulting grief led Summerford to boozing, and womanizing and marrying 19-year-old Darlene under another name before he was properly divorced from his first wife, Doris. Investigation Discovery could get a limited series out of just that — but wait, there's more...

    When Darlene turns up on camera, she seems altered, words pouring out of her so fast (and slurred) that the film has to caption her, and then we learn of Darlene's previous attempts at suicide, and that she had a child taken away before she married Glenn "due to her misconduct," and that one of Glenn's sons accused her of forcing them to have sex with her when they were young teenagers, a charge another son denies "entirely."

    There's even more still, and here's where I think Alabama Snake misses an opportunity, because as much background and texture as Dr. Burton tries to provide about Pentecostal snake-handling belief systems and the relationship of these congregants to the community, by the end of the film the viewer doesn't have a great grasp of which Bible verses are interpreted in what way, or whether the town of Scottsboro tacitly allowed more outré forms of worship to continue as long as they didn't have to interact with them. A comment is made early in the film that Summerford was put on trial for his religious practices generally, not the snakebite incident specifically, but that idea isn't explored any further.

    Did I mention that Summerford escaped from prison in 2003? Because he did. Okay, he was located 45 minutes later "in a dumpster," but still. When your documentary tacks this information into the last five minutes as a near throwaway, you may have bitten off more than a feature-length documentary can chew. And look, maybe there really isn't that much more to say about his truncated escape beyond "Summerford threw himself in the garbage; it didn't work out."

    Maybe Love and Storkel edited a version of Alabama Snake with more talking-head interviews that attempted to explain communal ecstasies and why people genuinely believe they've witnessed actual physical demons "cast out" of fellow worshippers, and maybe that footage felt too preachy, or appeared to miss the point. Maybe the details of a young mother's "misconduct" are less important than the idea that one of the figurative demons confronting her was a lack of support for her depression and mental illness. I don't love documentary programming that laboriously explains every little thing; sometimes uncertainty is just as compelling. Alabama Snake may be one of those times.

    Alabama Snake airs on HBO December 9 at 9:00 PM ET.

    Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. Find her at her true-crime newsletter, Best Evidence, and on TV podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This.

    TOPICS: Alabama Snake, HBO, True Crime