The Appalachian Preacher Who Tried to Murder His Wife via Snake Bite
Move aside, “Hillbilly Elegy”—the new HBO documentary “Alabama Snake” is the riveting (and terrifying) depiction of Appalachia that people need to see.
An authentic portrait of messy, volatile Appalachian life that stands in sharp contrast to Ron Howard’s phony Hillbilly Elegy, Alabama Snake is a true-crime saga brimming with crazy. As with his prior The Legend of Cocaine Island, director Theo Love’s documentary (debuting Dec. 9 on HBO) has a decidedly unique and outlandish tale to tell, and he gussies it up with a surplus of style, employing a flashy non-fiction approach that doesn’t always jibe with the material at hand, but certainly keeps things lively.
Alabama Snake concerns an incident that took place on Oct. 4, 1991, in Scottsboro, Alabama, a sleepy town that was home to Glenn Summerford, his second wife Darlene, and their young son Marty. A 911 call summoned an ambulance to the family’s remote residence, where paramedics discovered Darlene suffering from a snakebite wound to her hand. Recognizing that she was in severe distress, they raced her first to a local hospital that didn’t have any anti-venom, and then 90 miles away to a Birmingham medical establishment that did. Darlene survived this affliction and, once recuperated, she knew exactly who to point the finger at for her near-fatal ordeal.
According to Darlene, her snakebite was the result of Glenn, a Pentecostal preacher who kept various serpents in a shed on their property. At his small, dingy church, Glenn led parishioners in fiery sermons about God and the devil that involved speaking in tongues and handling snakes, which somehow proved that the handler was possessed with the divine spirit’s power. Darlene claimed that Glenn had accused her of cheating on him and, as punishment, had forced her, at gunpoint, to stick her hand in one of his snake boxes and suffer a bite, both on that Friday night, and then again—after a day of running errands, and denying her medical treatment—on Saturday evening. It was a cold-blooded assassination attempt via reptile.
This outrageous attack quickly attracted media attention, especially once Glenn was arrested and charged with attempted murder. Since he already had two prior felony convictions on his record, Glenn faced a mandatory 99-year sentence if found guilty—and guilty he was found, following a two-and-a-half day trial. That should have ended this bizarre episode. Yet guided by folklorist, filmmaker and “closet anthropologist” Dr. Thomas G. Burton, Alabama Snake revisits it with an eye toward not only deciphering the truth about what really took place on that fateful night, but investigating the larger Appalachian culture that spawned it in the first place.
What it uncovers is a thicket of poverty, substance abuse, and religious zealotry, all of which combined to beget this sordid and bonkers situation. Burton’s history with this milieu dates back to the late 1960s, when he and a colleague began archiving Appalachian stories, beliefs, and traditions as a means of preserving and understanding the rural culture. As part of that process, they made a 1973 film called They Shall Take Up Serpents about a Pentecostal church service. At this gathering, attendees gyrated, flailed, and spoke in wacko languages, and they also handled snakes—leading one individual to suffer a bite and have to be taken away. Scenes from Burton’s doc expose the extremeness of such mountain people rituals, and set the scene for the ensuing depiction of Glenn and Darlene’s dysfunctional bond.
Before director Love dives into the central crime, though, he traces Glenn’s journey from a picked-on boy whose stepfather taught him to stand up for himself with his fists, to a young man whose taste for alcohol went hand-in-hand with his fondness for violence. Glenn’s first wife Doris recounts how, after Glenn nearly murdered a man during a fight for cash, their house was torched, killing their youngest daughter. This tragedy sent Glenn spiraling out of control, and when asked if she thinks her abusive ex was capable of killing someone, Doris pauses before confessing, “possibly.”
Glenn was by most accounts a mean son of a bitch, and he got hitched to Darlene while he was still married to Doris (he even tied the knot on Doris’ birthday, because that’s just the kind of cruel guy he was). Their union was also explosive, but eventually, Glenn had a transformative conversion to Christ, and he and Darlene began handling snakes in front of their congregation—behavior that Alabama Snake depicts via old VHS movies of their services. That footage, along with police videos of their home, underline the ramshackle nature of their life together, and the unhinged fire-brimstone-and-booze environment they called their own.
Alabama Snake would be cut and dried if not for Glenn’s competing account of his marriage to Darlene and the infamous night in question, which comes courtesy of lengthy audio-tape interviews he gave to Burton. In those chats, Glenn paints a far different picture of Darlene and himself, which creates a measure of ambiguity that director Love milks for all its worth—especially since he also gets Darlene on-camera, looking much worse for wear, to provide her version of events. The film does its best to make the truth appear slippery, although ultimately, it’s hard to believe the courts didn’t get this particular verdict right.
To amplify the drama of Glenn and Darlene’s relationship and deadly skirmish, Alabama Snake complements its talking-head interviews and pre-existing VHS clips with ominous dramatic recreations that cast the proceedings as a veritable horror movie. From evocative close-ups of wind chimes, hanging coke bottles, and flowing robes, to portentous shots of shadowy figures and slithering snakes, Love goes overboard with the amped-up Hollywood devices, which help generate a level of what-comes-next intrigue. At the same time, though, such glossiness feels at odds with the grungy, haphazard reality of these circumstances. By fashioning his subject matter as a studio-grade thriller, he loses sight of the action’s more mundane menace and madness.
Best, then, to take Alabama’s Snake’s overcooked aesthetics as a tongue-in-cheek nod to the legitimate insanity of this backwoods legend—a notion that becomes easier to accept as the film proceeds down its wild path toward a climax seemingly modeled on the finale of Robert Eggers’ The Witch.