As the tagline instructed, “don’t say it—hiss it,” so what better way to celebrate the Chinese Year of the Snake than with one of the strangest snake movies ever made as it marks its 40th anniversary? As if that’s not reason enough, Sssssss also remains one of the tiny handful of films that allowed perennial character actor Strother Martin to finally get top billing, even if he was overshadowed here by a supporting cast consisting of black mambas, boa constrictors, hog nosed pit vipers, and king cobras.
For 20 years Martin had taken on bit parts in the likes of The Asphalt Jungle, Kiss Me Deadly, and The Wild Bunch, his malleable and nasal Midwestern twang allowing him to play cowboys, two-bit criminals, and nuclear scientists. Then he broke through as the cruel camp boss in Cool Hand Luke, entering the American lexicon when he uttered the immortal line, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” After that, and for the last ten years of his life, the parts finally started getting a little bigger, if not exactly more heroic. In Sssssss he plays a gentle, soft-spoken scientist of the “mad” variety named Dr. Carl Stoner (ironically and appropriately enough, five years later he would again play a character named Stoner in Cheech & Chong’s first film).
As the film opens, he’s selling a mewling, whimpering, and unseen creature in a crate to a sleazy carnival owner. When the carny tells him he’s a genius who will be remembered throughout the ages, Stoner replies “It’s rare to be recognized for one’s failures.” Well, put that together with the title and you can pretty well see where all this is going already.
When he’s not sniping with the head of his department (the equally perennial Richard B. Shull) over grant money, Dr. Stoner spends his days at his home lab, collecting venom from dozens of snakes to sell to pharmaceutical companies. On Sundays he runs a roadside attraction in which he captures and milks a king cobra with his bare hands, And at night he works on proving his theory, namely that if mankind wants to survive his inevitable extinction as a result of pollution, starvation, disease or nuclear war, he needs to accelerate the evolutionary process. More specifically, he needs to evolve, with a little help from Stoner, into a cobra with human intelligence.
Now, there’s kind of a big leap there in logical and semantic terms, but let’s forget about that. It’s Dr. Stoner’s theory and he’s sticking with it. To prove his theory, however, he needs a human subject (well, another one), so recruits a local herpetology major named David (a pre-Battlestar Galactica, pre-A-Team Dirk Benedict) to be a summer intern at his lab. Everything seems fine and friendly and happy for about the first five minutes after David arrives at Stoner’s place. Stoner speaks of the snakes in human terms, and assures David there’s nothing to worry about so long as he’s careful. Then the music tinkles ominously as Stoner gives him his first injection of cobra venom, ostensibly to start building up his immunity. It tinkles ominously again when Stoner mentions all the booster shots he’ll be needing in the weeks to come.
Given it was the film’s big publicity pitch at the time, I guess it’s worth mentioning that with the exception of one king cobra in one sequence (you guess which one), all the snakes in the film are real, complete with fangs and venom. It’s also worth mentioning that Dr. Stoner has a beautiful young daughter named Christina (Heather Menzies from The Sound of Music and Piranha) who knows nothing about the real nature of her dad’s research.
Okay, so you have a handsome young college student, the beautiful young daughter, and a mad scientist in the process of turning the handsome young college student into a human snake. You can see how things might get pretty complicated, and they do, especially after David begins shedding his skin. You can also probably see how the Freudians would have a field day with this number.
Maybe it’s just me, but even as he’s conducting potentially deadly experiments on an unwilling subject, and even as he begins dispatching his enemies using snakes as assassins, my sympathies throughout remained with Stoner. He seemed like such a nice man, and there’s no denying the people he killed were jackasses who deserved it. In that way, as well as the film’s end, there is a clear affinity between Sssssss an 1971’s Willard. That obvious influence aside, the storyline was suggested originally by Dan Striepek. This is the only writing credit Striepek ever received, as he’s spent most of his very busy film career as a makeup artist and special effects man who, among other things, worked on all the Planet of the Apes films prior to this. It makes you wonder if maybe he had an idea of how he might turn a man into a snake onscreen, and so came up with a story that would allow him to try it out. (Not surprisingly, he also handled the film’s makeup and special effects.)
Even if the film really did arise as a cheap excuse to try out a few makeup tricks, it works. During a carnival scene later in the picture we finally get to take a good look at the failed snakeman hidden in the crate in the opening sequence, and I gotta say when I was a kid it scared the shit out of me. Had nightmares about that damn thing. Seeing it as an adult I was impressed first by, yes, the simple but effective special effects, but within the context of the film I was also surprised at how heartbreaking it was, the fear and sadness and helplessness in the creatures eyes as it tries to speak, emitting instead a string of pathetic whimpers. This is especially true of our second glimpse of him, when he and Christina recognize each other and know immediately there’s nothing to be done. The snakeman, in this instance, proves himself to be a far better actor than Ms. Menzies.
For as much as I love it, the film does leave a bit to be desired. Despite having made Night of the Blood Beast, director Bernard Kowalski spend most of his career in television, as did the screenwriter, most of the crew, and a good deal of the cast. As a result Sssssss features the flat lighting, static camera work and unmistakable pedestrian feel of a made-for-TV movie. This was only emphasized by a contrived skinny dipping scene, clearly in the script simply to drop a little nudity into the picture. At the last minute the producers balked and added some carefully positioned leaves in order to insure the PG rating and a network sale. I suppose, though, that if you wanted to join up with the Freudians and analyze the film a bit more deeply than is necessary you could argue that the leaves only contribute to the multiple Garden of Eden references that pop up throughout the script. Myself, I don’t get the idea the filmmakers were thinking that hard about things.
Even if it’s a bit contrived itself, and though in retrospect it had been foreshadowed from the beginning, the film’s climax is still a surprisingly loud and unexpectedly dark one, ending with a great closing shot that would be borrowed by any number of more popular films down the line. For its shortcomings, Sssssss remains a picture with a mad scientist, carnival scenes, snake people, and the great Strother Martin, so I don’t have anything to complain about. There have been plenty of snake movies over the years, from 1944’s Cobra Woman to 1981’s Venom to, yes, Snakes on a Plane, but few were as original or downright odd as this little 40-year-old gem. Of course you might want to skip it if you’re one of those people who has a thing about snakes, but if you’re one of those people who has a thing about snakes you’re gonna have a bad year anyway.
Den of Geek Rating: 3.5 Out of 5 Stars