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 little 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…
If 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 shivery 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 Notes: 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.