Tuesday 24 June 2014

Sssssss [1973]

SSSSSSS is an American horror film (with sci-fi elements) that was directed by Bernard L. Kowalski and originally released by Universal in July 1973.  It stars Strother Martin, Dirk Benedict and Heather Menzies. David Blake is a financially embarrassed student (is there any other kind?) who takes a job with a Dr Carl Stoner, a brilliant but equally hard up scientist who is conducting snake-based research which he needs help with.  On the side, Stoner runs a snake-handling show at his isolated farmhouse / laboratory where he lives with his daughter Kristina. On his first day at work David is injected with what Stoner claims is a serum that will protect him from accidental snake bites... and that's when the problems begin.

SSSSSSS is one of those movies I first became aware of when I was kid poring over the pages of my horror books and magazines.  It had a startling image of a man-snake, an image that has stayed with me through the years.  It's only this year that I eventually got round to seeing the movie and inevitable its something of a disappointment.  The 10 year-old kid in me would have enjoyed a lot less than the current me because it's bloodless, talky, dull to look at and has too much love interest. He would have enjoyed watching Dirk THE A-TEAM / BATTLESTAR GALACTICA Benedict but wouldn't have paid any attention to Strother Martin who is the best thing in it.

Dr Stoner looks remarkably excited by the prospect of peeling dead skin from David's back

To be honessssssst it looks like a TV movie and I suspect that it what it was intended to be until the producers or the networks decided it was too out there for television and turned it into a cinema feature. That may explain the brief nudity and an entirely irrelevant skinny dipping sequence.

There's not a lot of horror in it and even if there were the low quality special effects would probably negate its impact.  In fact it's almost as if Kowalksi was determined to undercut any chances the film might have had so badly is it executed, the structure in particular.  What I mean by that is the 'who' is apparent from the outset, the 'why' is established shortly after that and the 'what' is shown halfway through.

Dr Stoner doing his snake tricks.  N.B. If you look closely on the left you can light reflected in the sheet of glass between the cameraman and the snake; there's a similar still of Harrison Ford in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK [1981].

The most effective sssssssequences are the two set in a fairground, which draw heavily on Tod Browning's FREAKS [1932].  In the first, David and Kristina are there on a date and are drawn to the Hall of Freaks, enticed by the barker's promise of a Snake Man.

Ssssssscream if you wanna go faster!

This sequence this still that I remember from my childhood and, in this specific context, it's unsettling but faintly comic.  In the second sequence, Kristina goes there alone determined to find out the truth; we basically see the same shots again but in this second context it is both revolting and pitiful.

I've just realised this snakeman looks like the husband of a girl I used to fancy at school

There's really not much else to say about SSSSSSS.  Everything proceeds very slowly and the audience is one step ahead of the script all the way.  Once in a while the film grinds to a halt to set up a murder by snake which are perforce contrived because it's extremely difficult to get any sane person to go within a hundred yards of a venomous snake.  Worse still the film's climax is so ridiculous as to be literally laughable.  I can't believe there's any other film which expects you to feel horrified by angry mongoose.

A snake's eye view of Dirk Benedict as David Blake.  And I'm not even kidding.

Dirk Benedict was a good looking man in his youth and the film exploits that as much as it can: he must be shirtless in about 75% of his scenes.  Consequently he's not required to do much acting other than act surprised at each stage of his progression into a snake.  I think he's a better actor than he's given credit for though - he must have something to have starred in two enormously successful TV shows.  Having said that, his film career never got going at all.  A quick scan of his career credits suggests that he has an ambivalent attitude towards acting and show business: for someone who has been around since the early 70s he really hasn't done much work, especially when you consider THE A-TEAM stopped in 1987.

Strother Martin as Dr Stoner.  Up to no good, as usual.

Strother Martin is a favourite of mine, as regular readers will know.  This a rare leading role for him and despite its cruddiness he really gets his teeth into it, if you'll pardon the expression.

Heather Menzies has two claims to fame: firstly, she was one of the von Trapp children (Louisa to be precise) in the staggeringly popular Nazi singalong THE SOUND OF MUSIC [1965]; second, I believe she was the first of said clan to later take her clothes off in a movie (in Joe Dante's excellent JAWS ripoff PIRANHA [1978]).  These two linked claims to cinematic immortality say an awful lot about the hand dealt to women in Hollywood, and an equal amount about what audiences want to see.

Heather Menzies as Kristina Stoner.  Wearing glasses in movies is shorthand for bookish, from which we can extrapolate virtue.  In every sense.

A couple of supporting players worth mentioning.  The first is Richard B. Shull who plays an inquisitive university administrator.  Shull was a consummate character actor who worked in mainstream and independent features, including one of my favourites: Monte Hellman's COCKFIGHTER [1974].  On top of that he was, by all accounts, one of those rare things - a character actor who was even more off the wall in real life than he was on screen, like Timothy Carey.  Keep an eye out for him because he's really good, like Walter Matthau but more so.

Richard B. Shull as Dr Daniels

Another familiar face is Reb Brown who plays the muscle-bound bully Steve Randall, in this his film debut. Brown gets stereotyped in tough guy roles, which is understandable when you have a physique like his, but he's a decent actor for all that.  He's probably best known for his role in Ted Kotcheff's UNCOMMON VALOR [1983] but he's been in loads of delirious movies too, working with directors like Bruno Mattei, Antonio Margherit and Albert Pyun.  I have a film on my 'to watch' pile called NIGHT CLAWS that was released last year.  Brown was dragged back to the screen after an absence of 15 years for this tale of a killer Bigfoot; it's got my name written all over it, so watch this space.

Reb Brown threatens our hero

Finally there's Tim O'Connor in a small role as the fairground proprietor who has a less than legit business partnership with Dr Stoner.  An almighty career he's had has Tim, dating back to the 1940s, although he will almost certainly be remembered as the slightly crotchety old bloke in the TV show BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY.

Tim O'Connor (L) as Kogen, inspecting his latest purchase from Dr Stoner

I should also mention Ted Grossman who plays the slightly dim-witted sheriff (is there any other kind?). Grossman, or rather Grossman's leg, is familiar to all lovers of delirious cinema from his, or rather its, appearance in JAWS [1975] as the poor bloke who gets his leg bitten off in the pond.  That's the second time I've mentioned JAWS in reference to SSSSSSS, which should come as no surprise because both films were produced by Richard Zanuck and David Brown.

No comments:

Post a Comment