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Friday, July 23, 2021

Sssssss (1973) review

Strother Martin (Dr. Carl Stoner), Dirk Benedict (David Blake), Heather Menzies (Kristina Stoner), Richard B. Shull (Dr. Ken Daniels), Tim O'Conner (Kogen), Jack Ging (Sheriff Dale Hardison), Reb Brown (Steve Randall), Noble Craig (The Snake Man)

Directed by Bernard Kowalski

The Short Version: From the producers of JAWS (1975) and some of the award winning makeup artists from PLANET OF THE APES (1968) comes the most unusual killer snake movie that ever slithered across a movie screen. Strother Martin, in a quieter version of Dr. Frankenstein, is a mad scientist dedicated to mixing man with serpents at an isolated country house while selling off his failed experiments to a nearby carnival. It feels like a TV Movie with some added scenes of exploitation, but director Bernard Kowalski's movie does something no other snake flick did; and that's impress character into some of its cold-blooded co-stars that may make some viewers feel a little warm inside. SSSSSSS is modest SciFi-Horror, if sssssssurprisingly potent.
Dr. Stoner is a herpetologist specializing in snakes. He runs a scientific research lab out of his isolated country home, occasionally putting on small-scale shows with King Cobras with the help of his daughter. Requiring a new assistant, Stoner hires the young David Blake; who learns too late he has been an unwitting subject in Stoner's real intentions--to ensure some semblance of mankind survives a future holocaust by way of injections that will turn men into snakes.
Movies about snakes slithering amuck follow the traditional genre narrative with only slight variance. SSSSSSS is probably the first film to exclusively feature killer snakes (FROGS from 1972 had a snake attack among its array of herpe-horror), so it was a trendsetter. Additionally, its unique storyline melds various themes and ideas from other movies like FREAKS (1932) and WILLARD (1971). It's also fascinating in its genre for something else it does with its ophidian co-stars, but we'll get to that momentarily...

Director Bernard Kowalski started out in low budget horror with flicks like NIGHT OF THE BLOOD BEAST (1958) and ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES (1959) before getting into bigger budgeted, more ambitious fare with KRAKATOA, EAST OF JAVA (1969), STILETTO (1969), and MACHO CALLAHAN (1970). His career as a Hollywood director didn't pan out, so Kowalski found a home helming dozens of TV movies and episodes of countless television shows. One of his few theatrical features between his newfound settlement on the small screen was the Universal SciFi-Horror, SSSSSSS (1973); the only movie whose title you don't say it, you hiss it (as per its memorable tagline).
Kowalski's work isn't often the subject of conversation, but he's certainly got some intriguing titles on his resume--in a career that began in low budget science fiction; then on to bigger budgeted, and or mainstream fare; then back down into the lower rung again, where he settled into television movies and episodic programming. SSSSSSS (1973) is the best and most fascinating of his handful of SciFi pictures. Oddly enough, it feels like a Made For TV movie; but one that's punctuated by a few shock moments and a surprisingly strong pedigree.

Produced by Richard Zanuck and David Brown (before the executive duo would perform the same function on JAWS), the production also had Oscar winning makeup artist John Chambers on board. Chambers (along with others like Tom Burman and Daniel Striepeke; the latter a writer and producer on SSSSSSS) created and headed the makeup team that made the facial and full body appliances seen in the movie.
The man-into-snake transformation was highly touted and, while it certainly is a highlight, it's mildly disappointing. Dr. Stoner wants to initiate the next stage in man's evolution; so you expect this arcane conjoining of a human with a scaly reptile to have features of both; something along the lines of the Snake Man in the underrated DREAMSCAPE (1984). Instead, Stoner's unwitting test subject is turned into a King Cobra while retaining the intelligence of man. He doesn't have time to figure out a method of escape, though, as he's immediately attacked by a mongoose in the final minutes of the movie.

The other main attraction is, of course, the real snakes the actors interact with on-screen. SSSSSSS (1973) shows off some imposing specimens--including some of the most venomous in the world. Some three King Cobras were imported along with an African Python (that eats a man whole!), and that frighteningly fast fangster, the Black Mamba. There's also a docile Boa Constrictor named Harry, Stoner's "obedient serpent" as he calls him.
Harry is one of the bright spots in this unusual movie. Probably for the only time in cinema history a snake was not only a main character, but the script by Hal Dresner (based on the story by Daniel Striepeke) does something astonishing by deriving sympathy for Harry; imbuing the snake with human characteristics. If you ever wanted to see a snake drink beer you'll see that here. If you ever wanted to see a snake listen intently while his master reads a book to him, you'll see that too. Harry figured prominently in the film's promotion as well; participating in some of the off-camera publicity photographs with the actors. As for the more lethal co-stars...

A Black Mamba can end your life with just two drops of its venom; or, a single bite has enough venom to wipe out 10 men. At lengths ranging from 8-14 feet long, it's the second fastest snake in the world; so running away from one probably won't save you. There's a few shots where you see the actors being bitten by the Black Mamba, too. Presumably, the Mamba is either defanged or it's a different species of snake subbing for one. Sadly, this question and others aren't asked on either of the two interviews present on the blu-ray extras. 

The King Cobras seen in the movie make up some of the creepiest footage you'll ever see in a film featuring snakes. The largest venomous snake in the world grows anywhere from 10 to 18ft in length and, unlike giant CGI snakes that move faster than some cars in films like ANACONDA (1996), these real reptiles slither slowly, and they're even scarier when they're not moving at all; doing a Michael Myers impersonation, staring at you from the inside of their glass tank. King Cobras can raise themselves up as high as 6 feet and, while their venom isn't as powerful as some smaller snakes, the amount of venom injected from a single bite is enough to kill 20 men.
Anyone reading this has likely seen popular character actor Strother Martin a multitude of times in small, if memorable roles; but fans are going to love seeing him in a rare lead role. Martin essayed dozens of quirky, demented characters over the course of his career; and as Dr. Stoner, while certainly coming off as being of sound mind and body on the outside, has darker, more deranged intentions.
What makes Strother's portrayal even better is that he reportedly was terrified of snakes. You'd never know that by the ease in which he shares the screen with them. The way he handles them in his lab makes it appear it's a second profession. The scenes with him and Harry sharing alcoholic beverages and reading a book together are both funny and genuinely touching. Likely inspired by WILLARD (1971), Harry is strictly a pet as opposed to an instrument of revenge.

A really good selection of Martin's character roles can be found in his GUNSMOKE (1955-1975) appearances; some of which were written by Sam Peckinpah. In every one of them he either plays a kindly, if wholeheartedly naive individual (season four's 'The Constable'); or an easily manipulated retarded man (season one's 'Cooter'; season two's 'Dooley Surrenders'); or crazed lunatics (season twenty's 'Island in the Desert' Parts 1 and 2). One of his best turns on the show would be one of the darkest of the series' B/W days (which is saying a lot) in 'No Hands'. In it, Martin plays Timble, a good, charitable woodcarver who runs afoul of the psychotic Pa Ginnis (DUKES OF HAZZARDs Denver Pyle) and his quartet of equally depraved and doting sons. This episode is one of a handful that could've been among the TWILIGHT ZONE roster.

Strother Martin would be a regular face in numerous westerns (including many with John Wayne) like THE WILD BUNCH (1969) and HANNIE CAULDER (1971); and other movies like HARD TIMES (1975) starring Charles Bronson; as well as dozens of television programs; one of special interest being 'The Grave', a classic horror episode from THE TWILIGHT ZONE's third season. Easily one of his most famous portrayals came in COOL HAND LUKE (1967) where he played as the villainous Captain, delivering the classic line, "What we've got here is failure to communicate".

You'd never guess it by the countless parts he played, but in his teenage years, Martin was an accomplished swimmer. Sadly, this amazing character actor would die from a heart attack on August 1st, 1980 aged 61.

Dirk Benedict's character is very likable, if wholly naive. His level of gullibility is staggering; even after he's come to the realization he's been Dr. Stoner's guinea pig the entire time, he still looks to the man for help. The scenes between him and Heather Menzies are more successful in developing their burgeoning relationship that we all know is going to end in tragedy. This type of movie seldom spends much time on romance, but the script balances it well against the light moments of horror and PG levels of sleaze.
Menzies is likewise saddled with a level of naivety as Dr. Stoner's daughter. She is excellent in the role of Kristina to the point you believe Menzies IS that bespectacled, shy, and virginal girl. The relationship between she and Benedict is another strong attribute of an otherwise little-discussed movie. There are two scenes involving nudity between the two lovers; but these moments have been covered in post with strategically placed fauna or household items to ensure the film's PG rating.
Heather Menzies played the polar opposite of the meek Kristina in PIRANHA (1978), as a spunky reporter who, along with Bradford Dillman, uncovers a military plot involving genetically altered piranha that have been unleashed into a lakeside community water supply.
Aside from Strother Martin's misguided aspirations, a more straightforward villain is played by fan favorite Reb Brown. An early role for the muscular actor, Brown was an athlete off-screen and plays one on it here as short-tempered football player Steve Randall. You can see his future acting style on display; with all the shouting and easily agitated behavior patterns largely showcased in his Italian movies like STRIKE COMMANDO (1986) and ROBOWAR (1988) a large segment of his cult following is known for. In his prime, Brown was a striking physical presence, and oftentimes roles he was given took advantage of that; whether in small parts playing antagonists, or lead roles as a Stallone or Schwarzenegger type action hero.
He's best known, though, for playing CAPTAIN AMERICA in two Made For TV movies in 1979. They're comparable to the WONDER WOMAN (1976-1979) television series starring Lynda Carter, but less so to the seriousness of THE INCREDIBLE HULK (1978-1982) series starring Bill Bixby. His other memorable work in movies include BIG WEDNESDAY (1978), UNCOMMON VALOR (1983), and DEATH OF A SOLDIER (1986).
Billed here as Nobel Craig, military vet Noble Craig lost both his legs and right arm after stepping on a land mine in Vietnam in 1969. SSSSSSS (1973) was his first movie appearance, making his debut as Tim, Dr. Stoner's previous assistant and failed experiment. Sold to a local carnival, Tim is a sideshow attraction for curious onlookers as The Snake Man. Craig later appeared in movies like POLTERGEIST 2: THE OTHER SIDE (1986) and in the finale of BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR (1990). Noble's life was a movie-worthy story in itself. One of many stories of Strength Through Adversity, Noble never let his war-caused handicaps inhibit his life in any way. The man also survived cancer; was an avid hunter, ran a skeet range, drove himself around, was heavy into water sports, and raised five kids. Despite losing most of his limbs, Noble Craig lived a full life. He died April 26th, 2018.

SSSSSSS (1973) is one of those forgotten movies that people have a fleeting recollection of seeing in the wee hours of the morning in the late 1970s. Languishing in obscurity for near two decades before surfacing on VHS in the late 90s and DVD in the early 2000s, it's more of an interesting, well-made curio than anything in the classic mold. If you've a fear of snakes you'll want to stay far away from this one. For everyone else, SSSSSSS (1973) is quite well made, and possibly the best of its kind. It only carries a moderate bite but it's well worth getting wrapped up into for 100 minutes.

This review is representative of the Scream Factory blu-ray. Specs and Extras: 1080p 1.85:1; interviews with Dirk Benedict and Heather Menzies; photo gallery; theatrical trailers; running time: 01:38:51

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