Watching Sssssss is kind of like taking a questionably reputable college course that slowly descends into madness, mostly because Strother Martin is your professor. This 1973 film directed by Bernard L. Kowalski and written by Hal Dresner starts out like a herpetological seminar, featuring dozens of snakes in captivity (snakesploitation, maybe?) and a pretty believable representation of what a snake enthusiast’s research might look like, before quickly turning into the Frankensteinian nightmare that was always promised. Kowalski also throws in quite a few references to Adam and Eve tempted by the serpent for good measure. It’s a film that almost always hits the right notes for a creature feature with mad scientist overtones: part education, part sci-fi debauchery.
The film follows Dr. Carl Stoner (Martin), a herpetologist ostracized from the rest of the community because of his questionable research methods; without a grant or university funding, he’s forced to turn to the local college students for his assistants, quickly finding David Blake (Dirk Benedict) a suitable replacement for his last student, who unexpectedly left because of a “family issue.” Blake joins the research team and immediately begins receiving strange venom inoculations from Dr. Stoner that are meant to protect him from poison but actually cause him to turn into a snake slowly, with all of the horrifying side effects that would entail. It’s okay, though, because Blake falls in love with Stoner’s daughter Kristina (Heather Menzies-Urich), so they’ll try to work something out.
As stated previously, Sssssss‘s (damn that’s a lot of s’s) entire first act, and much of its second, relies on education the audience. Martin is excellent as Stoner, really capturing the enthusiasm of someone who has devoted his entire life to snakes. While many might find Kowalski’s direction too slow, the lead-up is actually quite entertaining for those truly interested in snakes; the script takes liberties with the information it provides, but observing the snakes and their habits carries the film forward, aided by Martin’s half-comedic, half-insane delivery. At the same time, this is clearly a film that requires some audience participation in the conceit; no one in their right mind would submit to some mystery serum that contains snake venom without checking for an FDA approval.
Once Blake begins his body modification process, things really get interesting. Stoner turns from eccentric older man to crazed scientist in the blink of an eye, and Sssssss relies on Martin to sell the part. He does, and despite the film’s often lighthearted tone, Sssssss becomes chilling in its final act. Part of that comes from the bleakness of the plot; once Blake starts turning into a snake, there’s really no stopping it. An earlier scene where Blake and Kristina meet a snake man at the carnival cements this process – Stoner’s done it before, and Blake’s helplessness to stop it is haunting.
Sssssss doesn’t boast the best special effects, but it makes up for it by using real snakes in most of its scenes. There are a couple with clearly puppeteered snakes – one with Martin and a king cobra being the most obvious, and for good reason – but cast members really did sustain snake bites for use in the film, especially in one shower death sequence. That alone makes Sssssss an interesting B-movie – it doesn’t often take itself seriously, but the use of real snakes does help to create verisimilitude.
Kowalski’s attempts to equate Blake and Kristina to a modern-day Adam and Eve, “tempted” by the serpent Dr. Stoner, is somewhat messy, but it works well enough without getting in the way of the overarching plot. Their relationship is probably the weakest part of the film, but also necessary to make Blake’s death even worse. Still, the superimposed foliage over Blake and Kristina skinny-dipping is probably not one of Kowalski’s finer moments.
Sssssss is a surprisingly fun movie, full of intentional B-movie camp and a number of unique snakes. Menzies-Urich and Benedict put in good showings, but they are certainly overshadowed by Martin; without him, the film would lack a lot of the personality it achieves. For fans of creature-features and body transformation, this classic is definitely sssssssizzling. [/wptab]
Special Features Review
Sssssss looks great on this Blu-Ray from Scream Factory, presented in 1.85:1 ratio with no serious issues besides a few scratches I noticed in the opening minutes and two shots that had noticeable drops in quality. Other than that, I was pleasantly surprised to see Sssssss looking so good. Audio is presented in 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio and sounds very clean and crisp. English subtitles are also included.
Surprisingly, there is about a half hour of new special features on this release. The first is an interview with Dirk Benedict, who smokes a cigar while discussing his work on Sssssss and relating a couple of stories about Strother Martin on set – including one where he attempted to drive away. This is about 17 minutes long.
The second is an interview with Heather Menzies-Urich, who discusses her initial fear of working with the snakes and how she eventually got used to it – except for one time when she was handling a large python. This special lasts another 15 minutes.
Also included is a photo gallery, trailer, and radio spots (unlisted on the box art). Alternate reversible cover art (featuring the other title, Sssssnake) rounds out the package.[/wptab]