I will say this for 2009's Anacondas: Trail of Blood - it's not much, but I'll say it - it's surprising that a film made directly back-to-back with Anaconda 3: Offspring isn't much worse. Comparing the two films, there's absolutely no contest: the fourth movie in the Anaconda franchise (and the last one, barring a 2015 crossover with the Lake Placid franchise) is a distinct, if not always substantial improvement on its immediate predecessor. It's considerably better-paced, most importantly: at 89 minutes, it's only two minutes shorter than Offspring, but it's not remotely as draggy and disordered. The story basically just does one thing, unlike the two-things-with-a-prologue approach taken by that film, which is appreciated in the context of a made-for-cable movie about a mutant CGI snake.

The thing this time: in the wake of the last film, Wexel Hall scientist Peter Reysner (Zoltan Butuc) has gone rogue, taking the last surviving test anaconda to a mine deep in the Romanian woods, where he has managed to create a stable population of blood orchids to continue his experiments. I was definitely not expecting this level of commitment to series mythology in the fourth Anaconda film, but I'm honestly a little charmed by it. Peter has discovered that the right distillation of hybrid blood orchids can not only prolong life, but effectively make  his subjects invincible: he has found his anacondas can even re-grow their heads, in a goofy and delightful visual effect that goes right up to the limits of what this film's CGI budget can afford, and what level of gore the Sci Fi Channel censors are comfortable with. Shortly after thus catching us up to speed, he is devoured by his own creation.

Wexel Hall executive Murdoch (John Rhys-Davies, given more to do than in Offspring, but does it with less hammy élan) sends a team led by Eugene (Emil Hostina) - ah, yes, "Eugene", great bone-chilling name for a mercenary - to find Peter's serum. Meanwhile, Dr. Amanda Hayes (Crystal Allen), still traumatised by her experiences last time, has dedicated herself to find Peter's lab and eradicating it, destroying any risk of the giant snakes making their way into the world once and for all; she runs into Alex (Călin Stanciu), a hiker, and drags him into her quest. And in the same stretch of the woods, a team of some kind of scientists played by Anglo men and Romanian women are happily bumbling along, on their way to a research camp that has been the site of a slaughter that also demonstrates how much gore the censors were okay with. It's, like, a gory film. We're not talking '70s grind house levels here, but there are quite a few more jets and puddles of blood than I was expecting, across the film's running time.

It's appreciated. We're a long way from the low heights of 1997's Anaconda and 2004's Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid, neither one of which is any damn good as a horror movie, but both of which at least were shot in tropical rainforests. And there really is a certain presence that those environments bring to the film, a sense of claustrophobic, ominous green, along with the unyielding muddy wetness of a good-sized river. They're not scary - they're not even tense - but they've got some moody atmosphere. The Romanian forest can't compete with that, particularly not with the way that director and cinematographer Don E. FauntLeRoy approaches it, as a bright, clean space full of strong, slightly yellow-tinted light and plenty of open room below the trees. What Trail of Blood at least offers in return that Offspring couldn't is an air of violence. The anaconda this time around (side note on the inconsistent series titling: Anaconda 3 had multiple anacondas, while Anacondas 4 has one. Bless their hearts) is openly a monster, redesigned with a bolder color scheme - methinks the filmmakers did not realise that pythons and anacondas are different animals - and a head like a video game dinosaur. Last time, the anacondas were goofy cartoons; this time, it's a goofy cartoon with a villainous personality. Basically, in fact, it has been turned into a velociraptor. And this turns out to make it much easier to tolerate: it pushes the film over the final hump from creature feature to slasher movie, only in this case the slasher is a however-many-feet-long snake. But it still has the delight in butchery: Peter's notes early on suggest that it is more aggressive because his experiments have led it to need more food than the average constrictor, but it seems to leave a lot of uneaten, mangled corpses in its wake. No, it just enjoys killing for sport. Good for it.

Christ knows this shift doesn't make Trail of Blood good. It is still pretty terrible, in fact, with acting that's even worse than Offspring (Allen has gone from being an awkward embarrassment to best in show, and not because she improved), and absolutely no pretense to giving its ample collection of human-shaped snake bait any kind of distinct personalities; I was able to keep track of Alex almost solely because of his extremely awful hair, and Linden Ashby's Jackson, one of the scientists, because he's the only male in the cast who speaks with an American accent. The CGI is a tiny improvement from Offspring - the snake moves at least slightly like a snake, even if it still seems untroubled by gravity - but this is mostly just because it's trying even less for realism, not because there's anything about it that's admirable or feels up  the standards of 1989, let alone 2009.

But it's not so thoroughly boring, at least. Indeed, as it gets closer to the ending, it starts to go pretty altogether silly, with a mildly over-the-top supervillain moment for Murdoch followed by an extremely over-the-top and physically inscrutable chase sequence. And by making the anaconda somekind of Frankensteinian psycho killer rather than just an improbably large hungry animal, the film is able to extract more of a legitimate feeling of menace from its set-up than the utterly pointless adventures in an abandoned farm that took up at least two hours of Offspring's running time. The bar for success here is so low that you could slither over it, but Trail of Blood at least finds its franchise returning to the reality that a good monster movie just needs to be fast-paced and full of death scenes to be at least watchable in that "I have no standards and this genre is comfort food" way. It's actually, sort of, fun - not very fun, but it's the first time I've felt even a little itch to say that word about this series since the first Anaconda.

Reviews in this series
Anaconda (Llosa, 1997)
Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid (Little, 2004)
Anaconda 3: Offspring (FauntLeRoy, 2008)
Anacondas: Trail of Blood (FauntLeRoy, 2009)
Lake Placid vs. Anaconda (Stone, 2015)