In 1975, Richard Zanuck and David Brown rev­o­lu­tion­ized the mon­ster movie by pro­duc­ing an influ­en­tial hit called Jaws.  That film proved that mon­ster flicks could rise to Hollywood cred­i­bil­i­ty and block­buster suc­cess if given the prop­er ambi­tious treat­ment.  However, the duo got their pro­duc­ing career rolling a few years ear­lier with a crea­ture-themed scare flick that had a more old-fash­ioned pedi­gree: Sssssss!  This hum­ble but suc­cess­ful Sssssss-poslit­tle film offered an amus­ing­ly retro take on its sub­gen­re right before Jaws took the gen­re to box office respectabil­i­ty.

Sssssss! is an inter­est­ing mix of mad sci­en­tist flick and rep­tile-fear hor­ror.  The anti­hero is Dr. Stoner (Strother Martin), a qui­et and dri­ven soul who is bare­ly hang­ing on to a pro­fes­sor job as he devotes every spare moment to exper­i­ments with snake ven­om.  His ambi­tion is to help mankind evolve with a tur­bu­lent era and he’s will­ing to bend the rules of con­ven­tion­al moral­i­ty to do it.  He cons naïve col­lege stu­dent David(Dirk Benedict) into tak­ing a job as his assis­tant, qui­et­ly mak­ing David a test sub­ject for exper­i­ment that involves blur­ring the line between human and rep­tile.  Complications arise when Stoner’s daugh­ter Kristina (Heather Menzies) devel­ops feel­ing for David and the dis­ap­pear­ance of Stoner’s last assis­tant gets the cops inter­est­ed…

Sssssss-01If that plot­line sounds old-fash­ioned, you’re not mis­tak­en: Sssssss! often feels like a ‘50s mon­ster flick got caught in a time­warp and popped out in the ear­ly ‘70s.  Hal Dresner’s script makes a few con­ces­sions to then-cur­rent trends with Stoner com­mit­ting a few Willard/Stanley-inspired killings with stan­dard-sized snakes but at heart this is an old-school mad sci­en­tist flick.  It’s more than a lit­tle con­trived — the plot relies on both David and Kristina being dumb as rocks — but it also packs in plen­ty of cheap thrills, mad sci­en­tist phi­los­o­phiz­ing and an end­ing that’s sur­pris­ing­ly cru­el for a PG-rat­ed film.

Fittingly, this tale was direct­ed by a vet­er­an of ‘50s mon­ster fare in Bernard Kowalski, who had Attack Of The Giant Leeches on his c.v.  He was doing more tele­vi­sion by this time and that’s reflect­ed in the brisk yet unob­tru­sive direc­tion here — but he under­stands what the hor­ror crowd wants and deliv­ers a vari­ety of skin-crawl­ing moments sup­port­ed by slick cam­er­a­work from Gerald Perry Finnerman and a shiv­erSssssss-vhsy score from Patrick Williams.  He also gets a lot of mileage out of some great trans­for­ma­tion make­up by Dan Striepeke and John Chambers in the film’s third act but the most enter­tain­ing set­piece might be a riff on Psycho where some­one in a show­er gets an unwant­ed vis­it from a snake.

Finally, the major stu­dio back­ing means there’s an above-aver­age lev­el of act­ing tal­ent prop­ping the whole enter­prise up.  Benedict and Menzies bring a lot of charm to roles that could oth­er­wise be grat­ing.  The back­ing cast is also a lot of fun: Richard B. Shull is amus­ing­ly smarmy as Stoner’s col­lege boss, Reb Brown is appro­pri­ate­ly mean and dumb as a jock bul­ly and Buck Rogers fans will be amused to see Tim O’Connor, that show’s kind­ly Dr. Huer, as a mean and griz­zled carny here.  However, the show ulti­mate­ly belongs to Martin.  He does an inspired vari­a­tion on the usu­al mad sci­en­tist, giv­ing him a qui­et and calm qual­i­ty that cuts again­st the grain.  His cool, ratio­nal approach to his vil­lainy is creepier that the usu­al rant-and-rage approach and Martin gives it a grav­i­tas that makes his work a joy to watch.

In short, Sssssss! is a throw­back that makes old-school cheap thrills fun.  Any sur­vey of the ‘70s revenge-of-nature or mad sci­ence cycles is incom­plete with­out its cheap thrills.

Blu-Ray NSssssss-bluotes: Scream Factory picked this cat­a­log fave up for a blu-ray and the results are worth the buy for fans.  The trans­fer is crisp and col­or­ful and the loss­less pre­sen­ta­tion of the mono mix sounds rock-solid.

Fans will be hap­py to see that there are a cou­ple of extras thrown in.  The first is a chat with Dirk Benedict (17:39), who is amus­ing­ly irrev­er­ent as he looks back at one of his first big roles.  He freely admits his char­ac­ter was a doo­fus and tells great sto­ries about what char­ac­ters Kowalski and Martin were.  He also gives a detailed account of the rig­ors of his make­up in the sec­ond half of the film.

Heather Menzies-Urich also appears for her own inter­view (15:09).  She reflects fond­ly on both her direc­tor and the cast, with spe­cial warmth for Martin, and tells some hair-rais­ing tales of han­dling snakes for the film.  An ani­mat­ed image gallery, a pair of trail­ers and set of four radio spots close things out.