Thursday, July 15, 2010

Sssssss…What a Great Snake Movie!!!

I saw Sssssss, a minor cult classic, when it was originally released in 1973. I remember my little brother calling the movie theatre just to make the girl working in the box office say the title (the ad line was: “Don’t say it…hiss it!”). He thought that was so funny. It was the first time I saw Dirk Benedict and I became an instant fan.

The film begins with some creepy “thing” making odd sounds in a wooden box. Dr. Stoner, an ophiologist, is selling the noisy contents in the box to another man. Stoner owns a snake farm where he extracts venom from a variety of poisonous snakes. He even “wrangles” with his King Cobra in front of an audience for money. The doc recruits a young man named David Blake (Benedict) to be his new assistant at the farm. It seems that Dr. Stoner’s former lab assistant just packed up and left him. David is instantly attracted to the doctor’s daughter, Kristina (Heather Menzes). Why David thinks that Kristina is cute is beyond me. She wears large round glasses and has a bad multi-layered hair style!! Considering she posed in Playboy magazine, one would think that she would look better. However, Dirk is really cute!

Soon, we discover that Dr. Stoner is very strange. He and Kristina have a pet python they both talk to like a human best friend. And we know something is amiss when the good old doc starts giving David injections of snake venom. When David asks why he is getting injections that make him sick and cause bizarre dreams, the doc tells him it will protect him from the poisons if he is bitten. It’s not long before David’s skin begins to peel, but the doc says it’s just a normal reaction. David believes him and keeps getting the injections.

Eventually, David and Kristina end up alone in the woods and go skinny dipping. Now you might think that these two will be completely naked. They do take their clothes off, but these silly leaves cover their exposed parts. Considering Menzies’s pose in Playboy, I have often suspected that the viewer might have seen more in this scene. Afterwards, David and Kristina go to a carnival where David gets beaten up by a local bully in front of Kristina. Meanwhile, Dr. Stoner, who is alone in the house, tells Harry the python that snakes are perfect creatures because they don’t make him sick and they don’t complain. He says the world would a better place with just reptiles. Stoner says that snakes can evolve and are God’s perfect creatures. If only man could evolve like the snakes, humanity could survive.

That night, the bully, Steve Randall (Reb Brown), comes to Dr. Stoner’s house and climbs into Kristina’s window. Harry the pet python attacks the intruder. Randall falls out of the window, but survives and kills Harry. Dr. Stoner wants revenge for Harry’s death, so he takes a Black Mamba snake to town and sneaks into the bully’s house. He puts the poisonous Mamba in the shower and Randall dies from its bite. The snake’s venom makes it look like the bully died from a heart attack.

Later, the sheriff comes to Stoner’s house and asks about his former assistant, Tim, who has disappeared. It seems his family has reported him as missing. Stoner tells the sheriff that Tim just left and never came back. Stoner confronts his daughter about having sex with David. She tells him it is none of his business. Her father says it is dangerous if she has sex because of David’s venom inoculations. You can’t help but wonder what is the doc up to?

Stoner sends his daughter to pick up a snake. While she is gone, David begins to transform into “something.” His skin changes in texture and color, his eyes get smaller, and his head becomes more rounded. While Kristina is waiting for the snake to arrive, the postman tells her about a “snake-man” he saw in the carnival in town. He says it looked so real that it gave him the creeps. Kristina tells him it is obviously a fake, but the postman convinces her to go and see it for herself. What will Kristina find at the carnival and what will be David’s fate?

Surprisingly, there are several religious references in Sssssss. When Dr. Stoner talks to Harry the Python, he says how snakes are God’s most perfect species and can even survive an apocalypse. The skinny dipping scene in the forest is reminiscent of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

The make-up used on David’s character is good, as are the special effects for the snake-man. In the scenes where Dr. Stoner milks the snakes, the reptiles were real (except for one part where Martin grabs the King Cobra’s head and a puppet is used). A snake actually bit Strother Martin in the movie. The King Cobras were flown in from Thailand,and the Python was from Singapore. Benedict and Menzies had to handle the real snakes, too. The herpetological library used in the movie is a real one. The Spanish title for this movie was Ssssilbido de muerte which translated in English means “Hiss of Death.” Martin actually used a hypodermic needle and really punctured Benedict’s arm during the injection scenes.

Sssssss was directed by Bernard L. Kowalski, who did many pilots for television shows such as Richard Diamond, Private Detective (1957) and NYPD (1967). He was the executive producer for Baretta (1975) and worked on many Mission: Impossible episodes. He started out in movies by playing an extra in two Errol Flynn movies, Dodge City (1939) and Virginia City (1940).

Dirk Benedict is most famous for playing Starbuck in the original Battlestar Galactica (1978) television series and as Templeton “Face” Peck in The A-Team. Heather Menzies gained modest fame for playing Louisa von Trapp in The Sound of Music (1965). She was married to Robert Urich for 27 years until his death in 2002 from cancer. Urich was in the television series Vegas (1978) and Spenser: For Hire (1985).

Strother Martin is best remembered for his role as The Captain in Cool Hand Luke, where he uttered that film’s classic line: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” He was also in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1967) and Slap Shot (1977) with Paul Newman. Strother Martin died in 1980.

Yes, Sssssss is a cheesy horror film, but it was scary to me the first time I saw it and has gained a minor cult following over the year. I hadn’t seen it since 1973 before I watched it again recently. It didn’t scare me as much this second time around. Still, Sssssss is an original and effective low-budget picture that’s worth watching—if you aren’t afraid of snakes.


  1. Excellent review, Aki! I agree that "Sssssss" (seven S's; I have to count them every time I write the title) is original and wholly entertaining. Good performances, but my favorite parts of the film are the slow build-up (like a slithering snake before it strikes) and the fact that real snakes monopolize the screen. And I noticed the religious aspects, too; Dr. Stoner seems to be playing God throughout the film.

    As you said, "Ssssss" is -- oops, forgot an S -- a little "cheesy," but it's well made and not without charm. I think that if the same film were made today, it would be much cheesier and not at all memorable. But this "Sssssss" is sssssssomething to be remembered!

  2. I concur with Sark! This is a genuine forgotten fave although there's enough cheese for several large pizzas. The make-up on the "snake man" in the carnival is downright eerie. But what I remember best about this movie is Strother Martin. It seems like it's the closest he came to a starring role and the part is perfect for him. Strother had a gift for coming across as a wounded soul. But sometimes, he twisted that harmlessness to something disturbing. The best example is probably his performance as The Captain in COOL HAND LUKE, but he does the same in Sssssss. You start out feeling sorry for him, but that slowly fades as you see the depths he will go to create his "new humanity." This was a wonderful pick for this month's theme, Aki.

  3. Aki, I love this cheesy mad-doctor film. Even though I have not seen it for years.

  4. Aki, I like a little extra cheese now and then. You did a great job profiling "Sssssss!" I think Strother Martin's character is fascinating in this picture because he doesn't seem to have a reason to victimize Dirk Benedict. The poster photo is really excellent! I also liked the blue snake man photo. I wonder if the Blue Man Group got their motivation from this? Interesting thought. Awesome post, Aki!

  5. Aki, I have an abnormal fear of snakes...suffice to say I have never seen this film. I didn't even want to read your article, but I did and I enjoyed it. I'm glad I wasn't working at the theater your brother kept calling.

  6. Aki, I'm a little late with my comment, but I hope you see it. I remember this movie, and being freaked out by the blue snake man. I loved your little personal story about your brother calling to make the girl hiss the name. That's something I would have done!

  7. Great review of a movie I had forgotten. Those mad scientist movies were always a favorite of mine and Strother certainly qualifies as one in this film. I especially like the scene of the snake man in the carnival.

  8. I totally remember this movie from television when I was around 8, and I remember being completely transfixed and thinking the whole thing was very creepy. Watch your Favorite Movies in DISH Network @ $24.99/Month

  9. does anyone know the movie where..a man and woman dive for coral snakes and extract the venom..and then something about this creepy stalker guy who is working with them?