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Film Review: Sssssss (1973)

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SYNOPSIS:

A scientist specializing in the study of snakes, believes that human beings will never survive the coming disasters and holocausts he foresees. His solution is to create a composite creature from the DNA of a man and a king cobra that will be better suited for survival.

REVIEW:

Before I get into my review of Sssssss, I want to give you a couple warnings. First, there will be SPOILERS. Besides folks, the movie was released over 40 years ago. My guess is that most of you have already seen it or at least know the story. Second, I love this movie far more than it deserves. A big part of that love has a lot to do with the people involved in its making, but more about that later. Consider yourself forewarned.

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Sssssss is the story of Dr. Stoner (Strother Martin), a herpetologist specializing in snakes. He lives in his combination home and laboratory with his daughter, Kristina (Heather Menzies-Urich), who helps him care for his snakes. Stoner  milks the snakes for their venom which is then sold to anti-venom producers. The two also conduct weekend shows open to the public, during which Stoner “charms” a king cobra and demonstrates venom milking while Kristina acts as emcee.

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Dr. Stoner is in need of a new student research assistant and hires David (Dirk Benedict) to join their happy home and snake farm. David and Kristina have an obvious mutual attraction and begin to spend time together almost immediately.

The good doctor’s public persona is rather benign, but there’s a hidden motive to his fascination and research with snakes. Dr. Stoner believes that the downfall of mankind is nigh unless they are soon able to move to a new existence, a higher stage of development. Not surprisingly, the good doctor is convinced that this improved state of existence will include a mutually beneficial melding of snake and human DNA.

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To this end, Stoner is attempting to create the first creature of the new evolution by transforming his unsuspecting student research assistants through a series of injections. He convinces his assistants that the injections are required in order to immunize them against snake venom. His first attempt is a failure and the resulting half-man, half-snake is sold to Kogan (Tim O’Connor), who operates a carnival freak show. Hence, his need for a new assistant, David, to replace his failure. David’s “immunization” begins immediately when he is hired.

So what is it I love so much about Sssssss? (By the way, if you’re only interested in reading about this movie and not a lot of background about the filmmakers and actors, you might want to skip ahead a few paragraphs.)

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First, the executive producers are Richard Zanuck and David Brown, who went on to produce Jaws. In fact, Sssssss is the first Zanuck-Brown production. Second, the director is Bernard L. Kowalski. Probably best known for Krakatoa, East of Java (1969) and extensive work in television, Kowalski began his career with Night of the Blood Beast (1958) and Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959). Third, the screenplay is written by Hal Dresner who also penned the script for The Eiger Sanction (1975).

Next, Nick Marcellino and John Chambers are credited with creative makeup design. Chambers is well known for his work on the original Star Trek TV series and is credited with creating Spock’s prosthetic ears. Over his career, he’s won a variety of awards for his makeup, including an honorary Oscar in 1969 for his work on Planet of the Apes (1968). Chambers also created disguise kits for the CIA and was a key member of the team whose story was told in Argo (2012), in which he was played by John Goodman.

Daniel C. Striepeke is also shown in IMDb as an uncredited contributor to creative makeup design. Striepeke has makeup department credits on a long list of Hollywood blockbusters, including Oscar nominations for Forrest Gump (1994) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hollywood Makeup Artist and Hair Stylist Guild Awards in 2004.

The litany continues with the three lead actors. Strother Martin is probably best known for his roles in Cool Hand Luke (1967), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), and a half-dozen John Wayne vehicles. Genre fans may also recall his roles in The Brotherhood of Satan (1971) and Nightwing (1979). Dirk Benedict was 28 at the release of Sssssss but his boyish good looks fit perfectly as a 20-year-old college student. This was Benedict’s third acting credit but he went on to make a name for himself as Starbuck in the original Battlestar Galactica (1978-79) and as The Face in The A-Team (1983-87). Heather Menzies-Urich may be the most interesting of the leads. She payed Louisa in The Sound of Music (1965), but was also in Logan’s Run (1977-78), the TV movie Captain America (1979), and Piranha (1978).

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I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention Reb Brown. In Sssssss, he plays Steve Randall, a stereotypical dumb jock. Later in his career, he played the title role alongside Heather Menzies-Urich in the 1979 TV movie, Captain America. He also appeared in Howling II (1985) and Yor, the Hunter from the Future (1983). Finally, Jack Ging plays the local sheriff. You might not be able to place the name, but I guarantee you’ll remember his face. Ging is one of those omnipresent character actors that has appeared in a long list of TV shows and movies. For instance, in 1973, he was also in High Plans Drifter.

So how did they do?

In terms of direction and storytelling, Sssssss is well-paced and the dialogue comes off as very natural. All of the characters’ actions make sense within the story. The ending is horrifying and leaves the story wide open for a sequel, though it never happened.

The practical effects and makeup were pretty good for the era. David goes through several progressive changes during his transformation. For me it all worked, as did the half-man, half-snake that was formerly Stoner’s first student assistant. They both had the uncomfortable feel of realism as experienced through a traveling freak show. The final transformation was accomplished through a series of lap dissolves with progressive makeup, similar to The Wolf Man (1941). However, while The Wolf Man used 17 face shots for the dissolves, Sssssss uses only five or six, making for a much less convincing change.

There’s a great scene where Richard B. Shull, as Stoner’s academic nemesis, is trapped in a basement with a giant anaconda. You can probably guess who wins that confrontation. Just for emphasis, we’re treated to a special shot of Shull’s foot as it disappears. The scale is obviously off, but it’s still a wonderful shot!

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I also enjoyed the acting. It’s hard to imagine the same Strother Martin from Cool Hand Luke or Butch Casssidy and the Sundance Kid playing a lab coated scientist, but he does a fine job. I never once doubted his role or questioned the casting. Benedict and Menzies-Urich sell their roles and their budding relationship. She also does horrified and frantic screaming very believably. Benedict plays a college student to perfection with an air of youthful acceptance to whatever Stoner tells him. There’s a great fight scene between Benedict and Brown where the beefy Brown literally hurls the smaller Benedict through the air.

There is a bit of an oddity in a couple scenes that were originally shot containing some nudity. Presumably, the producers or studio wanted a PG rating, so the nudity was covered up by placing leaves and branches in the foreground after the scene was shot. It’s so incredibly obvious that it’s hard to miss. I would’ve rather seen the nudity but in the end, it only adds to the character and eccentricities of the production.

It’s also widely reported that all of the snakes are real and still have their fangs and venom. There are only a couple shots where a model or puppet is used in place of the king cobra. Several times, we see Strother Martin handling live snakes using the tools of a snake handler. I found that to be a truly impressive commitment to realism.

At first I was put off by the sounds the snakes made, assuming they weren’t realistic and were added for dramatic effect. However, after a quick search of the noise a king cobra makes, I discovered that the noises in the movie were not that far off from reality.

Sssssss was originally released in 1973 by Universal as a double feature with The Boy Who Cried Werewolf, and received an April 26, 2016 Blu-ray release from Scream Factory. Incidentally, Scream Factory has also announced a Blu-ray release of The Boy Who Cried Werewolf for July 26, 2016. It’s a great world we live in.

Despite its faults, I give Sssssss a 4 out of 5 loudly hissing, king cobras. But that’s just me.

Bonus Features

    • NEW My Reptilian Past – An Interview With Actor Dirk Benedict
    • NEW The Herpetologist’s Daughter – An Interview With Heather Menzies
    • Photo Gallery
    • Theatrical Trailers
    • Radio Spots

Sssssss is now available on bluray from Shout Factory

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