Sssssss Blu-ray Review
Written by Robert Gold
Blu-ray released by Scream Factory
Directed by Bernard Kowalski
Written by Hal Dresner
1973, 99 minutes, Rated PG
Blu-ray released on April 26th, 2016
Strother Martin as Dr. Carl Stoner
Dirk Benedict as David Blake
Heather Menzies as Kristina
Richard B. Shull as Dr. Daniels
Reb Brown as Steve Randall
Tim O’Connor as Kogen
Jack Ging as Sheriff Hardison
Dr. Carl Stoner is an acclaimed herpetologist studying the medical uses for deadly snake venom at a rural research facility he operates with his daughter Kristina. His new assistant David Blake is eager to help around the lab and understands that working in close proximity with such dangerous reptiles requires a series of inoculations. David doesn’t think twice about the daily injections, but there are some bizarre side effects to these shots, including peeling skin, hallucinations, physical exhaustion and a growing sense of – all right, to hell with it, Stoner is turning David into a giant snake man. Sssssssurprise!
It’s not really a spoiler that the good doctor is a little mad, as pretty much everyone except the intern suspects there’s something not right going on around here. Stoner believes that mankind must evolve in order to survive and that the best pathway to success is cross-breeding humans with the king cobra. The benefits of a human-snake hybrid are never discussed, but when the first attempt fails, Stoner is content to abandon any responsibility and sell the experiment to a traveling carnival. He also raises money on the side by performing a live snake demonstration for members of the local community, while encouraging generous donations. It is no surprise that when people in town disappear, the police are pretty quick to pay the scientist a visit. David and Kristina are falling in love, but will their relationship survive the challenges brought by her father’s scientific meddling?
Sssssss is an enjoyable homage to countless monster movies of the 1950s that never takes itself too seriously. The plot is simple, the acting respectable and the make-up effects surprisingly solid, all of which are a pleasant treat considering the campy nature of the material. The script plods along, but screenwriter Hal Dresner (The Eiger Sanction) gets the job done as he handily switches tone from serious to satirical. The characters are all a bit loopy and remain blind to each other’s eccentricities, carrying on as though nothing bizarre is happening. Director Bernard Kowalski (Attack of the Giant Leeches) maintains a playful tone while subjecting his cast to interactions with highly dangerous serpents. A title card appears before the opening credits informing viewers that the animals used in the film are real and were not defanged. It is impressive to see how frequently actors and snakes appear within the same shot, which reportedly led to more than one instance of an on set bite.
Strother Martin had already accomplished fame for his work in films like Cool Hand Luke (1967) and The Wild Bunch (1969) before agreeing to star as Dr. Carl Stoner. He takes the material seriously and appears to be enjoying the role of mad scientist, without pushing the performance too far over the top. Martin’s talent should be commended, as he makes it look easy to deliver complicated dialogue while handling venomous snakes. Dirk Benedict (Battlestar Galactica) does a serviceable job as David, the unfortunately unobservant lab assistant. This really is an almost thankless role, since once it is revealed that he is being transformed into a beast, the character becomes almost secondary to the desire to see what he is eventually going to look like. Heather Menzies (Piranha) is not your typical final girl, but she brings a believability to Kristina that keeps things grounded even when people around her are being attacked by giant snakes.
Not every film is meant to spark intellectual debate or inspire thoughtful reflection. Sometimes a movie is just a movie, a chance to escape from one’s problems and have a good time. Nobody is going to confuse Sssssss with Citizen Kane, least of all the people who made it. That being said, the producers were not merely talentless schlockmeisters who lacked the ability to make a quality product. Two years later, Richard Zanuck and David Brown would follow up their nature-run-amok snake horror with a little known film called Jaws (1975). I cannot say that Sssssss had the same lasting impact on audiences as their shark movie, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it remains an enjoyable popcorn flick that is best viewed with friends on a summer night.
Video and Audio:
Presented in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Sssssss looks superior to the previous DVD release. This does not appear to be a new transfer, but the elements used are in fine condition. There is an added level of overall brightness and clarity to the picture in HD that was somewhat missing on the standard definition counterpart.
The DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio track delivers where it needs and does so without showing off. Dialogue remains clear and free of distortion and is well-balanced with the musical score.
Optional English subtitles are included for anyone in need.
Dirk Benedict is more than happy to share some amusing anecdotes in My Reptilian Past (18 minutes), an entertaining stroll down memory lane. The man is full of energy and eager to tell tales that are certain to make you smile, particularly one involving Strother Martin’s penis.
The Herpetologist’s Daughter (15 minutes) catches up with Heather Menzies, who also proves to be a good sport when it comes to discussing her work with snakes in this somewhat silly creature-feature.
A collection of trailers and radio spots offer a glimpse at the film’s marketing campaign.
A photo gallery (4 minutes) presents a collection of lobby cards, promotional images and international poster artwork set to the film’s haunting piano score.
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