Review: Sssssss

[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]

Like Bug, its current traveling companion, Sssssss (which made the rounds as a top feature in 1973) is a preposterous horror film that never quite gets itself organized enough to make you want to suspend that old disbelief. But it is definitely the better half of the double feature, if for no other reason than that Bernard Kowalski knows a little bit more about making movies than Jeannot Szwarc. Kowalski, a Corman alumnus, knows enough, for example, to play for comedy until he can win audience credulity with more fully developed characters and situations. He knows how to understate, build atmosphere, and even create a middling suspense sequence now and again. And if he hasn’t yet made a good movie, his efforts have not been without their fringe benefits: the memorable caricature of sweaty, sleazy Everglades lowlifes in Attack of the Giant Leeches; the sustained transposition of masculine and feminine sexual imagery in Night of the Blood Beast; the color composition and special effects of Krakatoa—East of Java; and the Fulleresque mise-en-scène of Stiletto.

Sssssss appears to have been built around a single image stolen from Tod Browning’s Freaks—and it is a chilling image, whether or not you happen to believe that herpetologist Carl Stoner (Strother Martin) can turn lab assistant David Blake (Dirk Benedict) into a snake with injections of cobra venom. As far-fetched as it is, everything in the film is properly prepared for; nothing occurs without our having been previously notified—albeit not always subtly—that it could occur. If Kowalski has not yet mastered subtlety, he at least manages some degree of self-control. In a fistfight with the local bully, the lab assistant—already on his way to becoming a snake-man—suddenly lashes out with a fast series of serpentine bites to the bully’s neck. No one mentions it; the camera does not show us a bleeding neck or fang marks; and Dirk Benedict doesn’t hiss. Indeed, the fight is broken up by the sheriff’s patrolmen and we are left believing that, in the brief turmoil of the fracas, we alone saw the snakish gestures. Or, a few scenes after the herpetologist discusses the role of the serpent in the story of Eden, Kowalski has David and Christine (Heather Menzies) go skinny-dipping in a lake, as the camera watches from among verdant foliage, shooting the scene like any other skinny-dipping scene, not calling undue attention to its “meaning.” Just when you think he’s blown it by superimposing a snake over the whole scene, you discover that the snake is merely the first image of a slow dissolve back to the laboratory.

I must hasten to add that Sssssss is no one’s idea of a good movie, despite these touches. Most of the story is absurdly full of holes, though the montage is crisp enough to carry it along. The film is really at its best when it dispenses altogether with its silly metamorphosis of man into cobra and just allows Strother Martin and his lab full of real snakes to occupy the screen. Long after you’ve forgotten Dirk Benedict growing scales and beginning to writhe, you’ll remember the hungry python that eats an entire biology teacher, the black mamba that Dr. Stoner delivers to the bully’s shower (in an outrageous Psycho parody), the heartwarming love of a man for his alcoholic snake, and the casual conviction of Strother Martin introducing his python: “This is Harry, my obedient serpent.”

SSSSSSS
Direction: Bernard Kowalski. Screenplay: Hal Dresner, after a story by Dan Striepeke. Cinematography: Gerald Perry Finnerman. Makeup: Striepeke.
The Players: Strother Martin. Dirk Benedict, Heather Menzies, Richard B. Shull, Jack Ging.

Copyright © 1975 Robert C. Cumbow