Written by: Hal Dresner, Dan Striepeke
Directed by: Bernard L. Kowalski
Starring: Strother Martin, Dirk Benedict, and Heather Menzies-Urich
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman(@brettgallman)
Once this motion picture sinks its fangs into you, you'll never be the same.
Had Zanuck/Brown Productions only been responsible for Jaws, it would have left an indelible mark on the film industry by making Steven Spielberg a Hollywood commodity, if not a household name. A look beyond this, however, reveals an eclectic (and surprisingly sparse) collaboration between these two studio-era titans. Together, they oversaw everything from The Sting to obscure slasher flick The Island, which hardly seems surprising once you realize that each dipped their toes into genre waters on occasion at Fox before teaming up to oversee The Exorcist at Warner Brothers.
One might even presume that their hearts were truly invested in horror fare, especially since their first production at Zanucuk/Brown was Sssssss, a curious, grungy little number that almost feels like it escaped from a regional drive-in circuit. It feels less the product of two studio fixtures and more the mischievous work of exploitation hucksters looking to ride the disreputable wave of 70s eco-thrillers, particularly the weird strand of snake pictures that slithered into theaters for a stretch. Letís just say no one would have ever guessed this same duo would revolutionize the film industry a couple of years later based on Sssssss, an unassuming but not altogether inauspicious debut for the production outfit.
Set near a sleepy college town, the film follows the shady exploits of Dr. Carl Stoner (Strother Martin), a brilliant and well-respected herpetologist specializing in snakes. Heís currently in need of further funding and an assistant (because his previous one totally, certainly left because of an ďillness in the familyĒ), so he hits up the local college and eventually presses promising student David Blake (Dirk Benedict) into service. Along with Stonerís daughter Kristina (Heather Menzies), the two experiment on snakes, working to extract venom in order to develop antibodies to counteract the poison. Unbeknownst to David, however, Stoner harbors hidden, sinister ambitions involving snake and human geneticsóand heís the main subject.
Stonerís designs are much more obvious to an audience made immediately suspicious of him during the prologue, wherein he conducts some hushed business with a weird associate. Neither party has to come out and say it, but itís clear Stoner has been up to no good and needs help making something (or perhaps someone) disappear. Itís the sort of narrative structure that puts viewers a half-step ahead of the oblivious victims, and it humorously shades everything Stoner does. When he gives David a tour of his lab, it sort of reeks of someone being shown their eventual grave. Martin tries his best to provide a reassuring presence with his disarming lilt and genteel posturing, but, at the end of the day, heís a dude who likes to read Walt Whitman to his pet snakes. Itíd be a huge twist if he werenít some kind of mad doctor.
This is practically never a possibility though, especially once Davidís skin begins to peel (ďjust a normal side effectĒ of venom immunization, Stoner assures him, practically inviting snickers), meaning itís only a matter of how long the script will stretch and tease out the inevitable. It turns out to be rather prolonged, perhaps too much so: in the absence of any plot developments, the film toys with the dramatic irony born out of Davidís obliviousness. One standout scene finds David and Kristina (who inevitably develop a relationship) visiting a local carnival that features a freakshow housing the usual array of freaks. Naturally, the couple scoffs at the existence of the ďSnake-Man,Ē yet canít help but take a curious glimpse. As the audience begins connecting the dots, it becomes obvious that David has just paid money to lock eyes with and gawk at his own future; he doesnít know it yet, but heís due for a similar fate (if not something even worse).
When Sssssss isnít caught up in this morbid irony, itís splitting time between outrageous showmanship and gratuitous violence. An on-screen title at the beginning of the film informs the audience that the reptiles on display here are real, including the king cobras and pythons that were imported from across the globe. More than that, the production infamously didnít defang the creatures, meaning the cast and crew was very much at risk at all times. Itís not quite Roar levels of batshit insanity that could never, ever happen today, but it inspires some level of awe all the same. While this exploitative sense of danger hovers about all the scenes featuring snakes, some directly prey on it, like a bit where Stoner wrangles up a highly poisonous snake and extracts its venom for gawking onlookers. What the scene lacks in relevance it makes up for with a sheer, shameless hucksterism thatís too delightful to ignore. This is a film put on by folks who know its audience is only there to similarly rubberneck, secretly reveling in the danger that something awful could happen.
Fortunately, the film does not oblige with any actual carnage (again, Roar itís not); it does, however, provide some grisly asides to satisfy the audienceís bloodlust. Stonerís preoccupation with experimenting on his new assistant doesnít keep him from also being at total fucking psycho towards anyone who might interfere, whether itís a rival, jerk-ass professor (Richard Shull) or a loudmouth football star (Reb Brown) who hits on his daughter. Again, these sequences arenít completely vital to the plot, but any killer snake movie worth its salt should probably actually feature killer snakes doing their thing. In this case, that even includes recreating the shower scene from Psycho with Reb Brownís bare ass as he sings ďOn Top of Old Smokey.Ē
Scenes like this give the impression that Sssssss is kind of a goof, which is often hard to deny: itís a low-rent, grubby little critter-feature where Strother Martin attempts to transform a guy into a snake, directed with few frills by Bernard L. Kowalski, who opts for low-lighting and stolid camerawork to heighten the grim inevitability here. Occasionally, he captures some genuinely disturbing moments of body horror that feel striking in their prescience. Sssssss is not the first to dabble in such visceral, transformative horrors, but it was among the first films to linger on such horrifying visuals. The Snake-Man effect is pure nightmare fuel, a portrait of a damned, agonizing soul trapped in a twisted, mangled body, left only with the ability to cry out in anguish. Davidís own transformation takes on a different tenor but is skin-crawling all the same, save perhaps for a wacky effects sequence thatís perhaps a touch on the nose. The final result is dehumanizing all the same, an existentially terrifying fate that recalls the utter helplessness of The Fly (and simultaneously anticipating its remake).
In this respect, itís interesting that Kowalski acts as an unwitting, unsung ferryman who shuttled the genre from one era to another. Having directed Night of the Blood Beast and Attack of the Giant Leeches back in the 50s, he was no stranger to such creepy-crawly fare, and Sssssss occasionally recalls the charm of those old B-movies. However, it also feels much grimmer, perhaps acting as a reflection the growing pessimism of the 70s, where figurative snakes ran amok. Even its status as one of the last Universal films to be released as part of an old-school double feature feels appropriate, as thereís a sense that weíre witnessing a perverse riff on a genre staple. Genuine pessimism abounds during a finale thatís less a conclusion and more an unhinged cacophony of shrieks and howls, a complete and utter antithesis to the rousing, blockbuster sentiment Zanuck and Brown would cultivate just two years later.
Sssssss is now available on Blu-ray courtesy of Shout Factory, whose disc is outfitted with an assortment of trailers, stills, and television/radio spots. Theyíve also produced separate interviews (each clocking in at about 15 minutes apiece) with Benedict and Menzies, both of whom share anecdotal recollections about their involvement with the film.
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