Directed by: Bernard L. Kowalski
Starring: Strother Martin, Dirk Benedict, Heather Menzies-Urich, Richard B. Shull, Tim O’Connor, Jack Ging, Kathleen King, Reb Brown, Ted Grossman
1/2 (out of 4)
Hail to the king, baby!
WARNING: Some Spoilers Ahead
An early 70s version of the mad scientist/monster movie, Sssssss is a curious film, not as dated as I expected. Its title an obvious gimmick (imagine ordering tickets to it!), it has a few interesting features to recommend it – the most notable being the love of (and attention to detail regarding) the Ophidia suborder (we get to learn about pythons, black mambas, urutus, and the big guy – the king cobra). The plot engine that runs Sssssss reminds me a little of The Island Of Dr. Moreau; Strother Martin plays mad genuis Dr. Stoner, a herpetologist and expert in snakes with very strange ideas about where humanity is headed and what needs to be done to save it. His plan is to borrow poor unsuspecting college student David (Dirk Benedict in one of his first roles) and gradually turn him into a snake, and these new human/snake hybrids will inherit the earth.
One of Jigsaw’s earlier traps.
Yeah, the concept is a bit cheeseball and – spoiler warning – that goes for the last 20 minutes when Dirk does transform into a cobra in a low-budget effects scene. However, the transformation happens late – Sssssss actually spends time on multiple subplots including a love story involving David and Dr. Stoner’s daughter Kristina (Heather Menzies-Urich – very cute), professional/academic rivalry between the mad doc and his superior at the university (Richard Shull), and a bit of trouble with “neanderthal” football player Steve Randall, a guy who seems to be perpetually hostile. By the way, Steve is played by Reb Brown in his very first role. Yes, my friends, Dirk Benedict and Reb Brown together in a monster snake horror movie. That alone is probably worth the price of admission.
It’s not easy bein’ green.
Truth be told, Sssssss is mostly Dr. Stoner’s story – he’s a misunderstood scientist who gets by selling the venom obtained from various Ophidia while running a sideshow where people pay to see him wrestle a king cobra. He’s a bit of a snake himself in that he’s tricky – the kindly father who loves his daughter but in his downtime enjoys reading Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman to his pet snake Henry, that is, when he’s not plotting the death of his enemies (through the use of snakes, naturally) and injecting god-knows-what into Dirk Benedict under the guise of “innoculations.” Elsewhere in the film, Lucifer’s manifestation in the garden of Eden is referenced a few times, and we get a nice introduction to the capabilities and personalities of the black mamba and king cobra. There’s a funny scene of Dirk Benedict and Heather Menzies skinny dipping that is carefully censored for a respectable PG rating (the way the foliage obstructs their nudity made me think of a scene from Austin Powers). It seems like a metaphor for Adam and Eve in the garden (and Kristina is legally blind without her glasses, unable to “see” their nakedness – nice touch).
Wait till you catch my Vegas act…
Sssssss is slightly undone by its bizarre ending, which stops on a freeze frame. It feels unfinished. And at the risk of another spoiler, I must ask the question: if Stoner is so concerned with mankind’s survival by way of mutating into a more powerful creature, why didn’t he try making David into a mongoose? It seems obvious who is going to come out on top here. But hey – the performances are good and Sssssss comes off overall as a drive-in movie that wants to be more than that. It’s flawed but it has ambition, and we all learn something about snakes in the meantime.