Friday, March 26, 2010

Feature Length Review: 'Sssssss' (1973)

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The genre cinema of the 1970s gave birth to some very special monster movies, many of which have stood the test of time and remain cult classics to this day. Alien, Piranha, King Kong (1976 version) and of course, the granddaddy of them all, Jaws, helped usher in a new wave of man-eating nightmares that would forever solidify audience aversion to yet another selection of angry animals and keep us away from many of our regular recreational environments – most notably the ocean. On the contrary, many of these financially successful films also gave way to a slew of imitators and right out rip-offs with varying degrees of quality as a result. However, one film that did manage to set itself apart from the deadly swarm, if not simply for its playful shlock and sense of humor, was Bernard Kowalski’s gloriously titled Sssssss about a mad scientist who conducts human experiments with snake venom in the hope of engineering a super-serpent with an immune system more powerful than anything known to man. Sound ridiculous? Of course it does. But it’s precisely this absurd sense of logic that makes the film so endearing and enjoyable to watch.

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THE LOWDOWN:
Fanatical yet passionate scientist Dr Carl Stoner (Strother Martin) is desperately in need of an extended grant from the local university in order to further fund his experiments into the medical benefits of snake venom upon human subjects. College student David (Dirk Benedict) is recommended to Stoner as a potential assistant/subject and thus volunteers himself in a series of daily tests conducted during his accommodation at the elderly practitioner’s secluded home. Unbeknownst to her father, Stoner’s daughter, Kristine (Heather Menzies) soon becomes a love interest for David and two embark on a secret relationship that endangers the experiments – perhaps irreversibly. Furthermore, when the authorities suspect Stoner in connection with a series of unexplained deaths in the town the young college boy begins to question his master’s real motives, especially when his skin starts to changing into scales!

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THE TERROR TALE & ITS TIMING: Upon it’s release in 1973, Sssssss was distributed as a double bill alongside Nathan H. Juran’s The Boy Who Cried Werewolf; one of Universal’s last programmed double features. In many ways this reflected the end of an era as moviegoers gradually grew bored of creature feature fare, instead beginning to favor more socially-relevant horrors in the form of shockers like Last House on the Left and The Exorcist. And even though the public zeitgeist was changing toward a more intellectual, introspective breed of horror film there still remained the odd monster mash lingering amid the extreme offerings of 42nd street New York and Texas drive-ins. One story idea so prevalent in exploitation horror cinema is that of metamorphosis: an induced biological process by which an animal (or human) undergoes a physical transformation, more often than not into that of a violent manifestation hell-bent on wreaking havoc to those around it. Such monsters are often created against their will and more likely than not subjected to violent harassment and persecution by those who fear their existence, only to later become victims of bloodshed themselves through acts of retribution. The very notion of bodily transformation beyond one’s control is a terrifying one, however the treatment of many early horrors tended to liken the concept to that of a joke, rarely taking the idea seriously for the purpose of generating scares. Case in point: Sssssss.

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For the most part screenwriter Hal Dresner paces the films’ prose in a relatively predictable format, akin to the conventions normally inherent in the ‘nature-run-amok’ sub-genre. For example, Stoner is an atypical Dr Frankenstein; self obsessed, demanding and forever toying with the laws of nature in order to satisfy his own personal crusade. Comparatively, David is a na├»ve and clueless subject who never questions the deeper meanings of the experiments he’s being asked to undergo, instead finding far more interest in the pretty young woman residing in the bedroom next door. When the dim-witted authorities finally begin to suspect the right persons, their presence is almost always too late and the incompetence of their actions often result in at least one unnecessary death. And while there may be few narrative surprises and little novelty to be had, Kowalski’s direction is fittingly tongue-in-cheek and his awareness of the innate absurdity of the material often saves the film from any genuine embarrassment the film could have suffered otherwise. In the end, Sssssss earns it’s pennies not from being old hat but rather for its lighthearted temperament toward the preposterous.

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DOOMED CHARACTERS: Like many actors of his generation, Strother Martin in many ways didn’t achieve significant notoriety and respect until relatively late in his screen career, despite an impressive resume. A gifted and versatile actor, Martin commands a sterling presence and genuine believability as the film’s calm yet cunning scientist; his complete confidence in the delivery of hematologic mumbo jumbo and the ability to switch between the composed and the catatonic is simply a joy to watch. There is a certain likeability to Stoner when observing his dedication and commitment to the appreciation and preservation of the snake species; an empathy which makes him distinctively different from most horror movie villains. Even though the audience is aware of his master plan and the potentially damaging effects it may have on the unsuspecting David, we still want to see him achieve his goals and bare witness to the horrific creation, however beneficial it’s purpose to mankind may be (in theory). Ultimately, his over-ambition becomes his weakness and therein lies the true horror of the film.

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THE LOOK OF FEAR: Indicative of its subject matter, Sssssss is a relatively bare bones production; low on visual appeal and rarely stimulating to look at. And while it might not be the prettiest attraction on the market, the film is classically shot by cinematographer Gerald Perry Finnerman, a Hollywood veteran and expert on shadowing a movie’s economical shortcomings. One of the techniques used in order to compensate for the limited resources regarding David’s serpentine metamorphosis is the inclusion of photographic montages illustrating the gestation of hellish emotions in his mind, such as Hieronymus Bosch paintings merged with the organic disasters of earth to give the impression of an inner torment running rampant within that is beyond comprehension. And when the effects work does come into play the results are indeed primitive by today’s standards (i.e., the Lon Chaney-inspired dissolve transformation made famous by The Wolfman), bar some fine prosthetic appliance work on Benedict in the final act. More importantly though, the cast and crew must be commended for their efforts with regard to safety as every snake featured on screen was indeed real and not de-fanged prior to the cameras rolling(!).

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THE SOUND OF FRIGHT: Giving new meaning to the word ‘prolific’, TV-movie composer extraordinaire Patrick Williams unleashes a doom-laden piano accompaniment that, while simple and straightforward, is classically timed and aptly suspenseful for the mayhem on show. Fittingly, the films’ score also finds its inspiration through African music and the instruments native to the Mediterranean south (particularly during the scenes when Stoner lures the King Cobra into submission in order to extract venom) often lending a much needed authenticity to the nature of the animals being paraded. Otherwise, this is pretty standard stuff.

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FINAL THOUGHTS: A vintage piece of animal horror that bares no apologies, Sssssss is a highly enjoyable albeit awfully cheesy piece of 70s shlock. Regardless of all the yellow dairy, Martin’s terrific performance is by far the films’ greatest achievement and the real reason to put forth any quantifiable recommendation, despite the copious creepy crawlies slithering their way through the scenery. Be sure to watch with friends over a glass of wine and other such mind-altering substances.

Dir: Bernard Kowalski
Writer: Hal Dresner
Cast: Strother Martin, Dirk Benedict, Heather Menzies
Run Time: 1973
Country: 99mins
Rating: M15+

2 comments:

  1. Just pure fanboy comments, no review here, I remember having fond memories of "Sssssss" (seven esses), but unfortunately had only seen it on TV a few times (in an edited version) and never before (un-edited) in the theater.


    I'm actually pretty EXCITED to finally see a copy un-edited on DVD, and hope it actually does well in DVD sales!

    In a way, "Sssssss" could be a successor to another Universal horror film, "Tarantula (1955)", what with some actual sex going on in and an almost successful transformation (from man into hybrid animal) in the newer film.

    It is a real joy and pleasure to see Heather Menzies (an absolute babe!) on DVD, after so many years of not, as I recently picked up a copy of this and "Piranha". I really hope movie fan interest in her gets a boost as interest in her old movies picks up!

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  2. Hey there, astronomius.

    I agree, you could even consider 'Sssssss' the bastard son on 'Tarantula', albeit with more (failed) attempts at sincerity toward its subject.

    The DVD is fairly accessible through JB Hifi stores here in Oz. Are you a local? Definitely track it down if you have the time, especially considering you're already a long time fan.

    PS - Heather Menzies is badass.

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