Being a human is kind of boring. We can't fly, we can't beathe under water, we don't have fangs or claws, and worst of all we don't even have cool tails. I mean, what is that about? Tails are awesome.
It's unsurprising, then, that we should sometimes wish we could turn into something else. But as with most things in life, nobody wants to be transformed into something else without their consent. Sadly, mad scientists don't have much respect for the concept of consent.
Oh, sure, they ofen couch their efforts to turn a human into a gill man, a werewolf, or a king cobra in terms of "bettering humanity" or "helping humanity adjust to climate change." We've all heard that argument before, though, and it's no excuse. "I know you want it" doesn't sound any less awful coming out of a mad scientist's mouth than Robin Thicke's.
Oh, and I really would like to have a word with the person who decided on this film's title. I get the desire to make a title out of onomatopoeia associated with snakes, but it makes the movie really hard to discuss. First, there's the maddening task of remember just how many letters are in the damn title when typing it. ("How long do I just hold down the 's' key?") Second, it's impossible to figure out how to tell someone abut the movie aloud. The film's promo materials advise you, "Don't say it; hiss it!" Great, thanks.
"Hey what are you watching?"Yeah, I think the UK distributors made a wise decison by retitling it Ssssnake. At least there's an actual pronounceable word in that.
"[Makes sound like air escaping]"
"I said, what movie are you watching?"
"I told you, it's [hisses]."
"Fine, don't tell me."
The film opens, in true huckster fashion, with a title card informing us that all the snakes were real and thanking the cast and crew for risking their lives to bring us this film.
After this, we see Dr. Carl Stoner (Strother Martin!) and another man in a tilted fedora loading a crate into a truck just before dawn. Whatever is inside the crate is moaning and whimpering in a vaguely human fashion. The man is Kogen (Tim O'Connor), the owner of a carnival freak show, though that's largely implied here, and he pays Stoner $800 for the thing in the crate. He also tells Stoner that he's a genius and will one day berecognized for it. Though Stoner makes a remark that it isn't often one is congratulated for one's failures, by which we can only assume he means the thing in the crate. Well, his failures sure make freak show owners happy.
We then cut to lecture by Dr. Ken Daniels (Richard B. Schull) about how to tell coral snakes and king snakes apart. One of his students, David Blake (Dirk Benedict, the original Starbuck himself!), is a bit distracted by being forced to pass notes from Steve Randall (Reb Brown, yes he is Big McLargeHuge!) to Kitty Stewart (Kathleen King). When the class is dismissed, we see Stoner waiting in the back. Daniels has Kitty stay behind and looks over the note Steve gave her, and strokes her arm in a clearly unprofessional manner--but one she is obviously accustomed to. However, Stoner interrupts their flirting to take issue with how Daniels delivered the old rhyme about telling coral snakes and coral snake mimics apart--"Red touch yellow, kill a what?"
Daniels dismisses Kitty and he and Stoner get to discussing their old grievances with each other, and to discuss Stoner's extension of funding since Daniels is chairman of the department. Daniels refers to Stoner being the foremost ophiologist, a herpetologist focused on snakes, but Schull says it more like "opthiologist" which isn't a thing. At any rate, Stoner's focus is venom research and it's clear that he's based at least somewhat on Bill Haast, a man bitten by so many venomous snakes in his lifetime that his blood could actually be used for anti-venom.
Well, Stoner isn't there to beg for funding specifically. He needs a grad student to assist him, since his previous assistant left suddenly--in the middle of the night, you might say, though Stoner is too classy to make sly references to the poor bastard's fate. Daniels is reluctant to entrust one of his pupils to Stoner, and Stoner pointing out that he's not "Dr. Frankenstein" just prompts Daniels to squint and say, "You are to me."
Daniels reluctantly admits there is one student who might be a good choice. Though Stoner may want to hurry because said student is obviously David Blake, and right now he's surrounded by Steve and his cronies. Steve blames David for getting Kitty in trouble and David's attempts to sarcasm his way out of it nearly gets him beaten before Stoner can rescue him.
|"Call me Crunch ButtSteak one more time!"
They stop for gas and while Stoner goes to get water for Harry, David manages to attract the ire of the gas station attendant--a hillbilly with missing teeth who doesn't like when people pump their own gas. He spills gasoline on David's pants when yanking the nozzle out and then gets an angry boa constrictor wrapped around his arm for sticking his hand into the truck. David gets to turn the man's earlier words about "teach you to ask before you touch" back on him as Stoner untangles Harry.
Back at the Stoner residence, Stoner introduces David to his daughter, Kristina (Heather Menzies!), who has just come back from visiting his other daughter who just had a baby. She's surprised to hear that Tim, the previous grad student, has left--and Stoner concocts an obviously bogus story about a dead relative. He then shows David his lab, first introducing him to its most harmless resident, a hognose snake--also the most adorable snake in the world. He shows David how the various snakes are tagged, from least to most deadly. He then pulls out a black mamba to milk it of venom--and I'm afraid that my knowledge of venomous snakes is too limited to tell you if Strother Martin is wrestling with a real mamba or a lookalike.
He shows David how to use a "feeder gun" to force-feed the mamba, since he asserts that many snakes will not eat in captivity. (That depends on the snake, obviously) Oddly, the first ingredient he lists off is milk and snakes can't digest milk since they're not mammals, so either the screenwriter dropped the ball on research in that bit or herpetologists in the 1970s still oddly subscribed to the patently false idea that snakes like milk. He then shows David where they keep the venom, which will then be sent out for use in pharmaceuticals. He then shows David to his office, which has a live mongoose (!) in it. He explains that his lab is a family operation and they do shows on Sunday.
Stoner gives David an injection that he claims is the first of several inoculations to help him resist snake bite. The sinister music tells another story. Once David puts his shirt back on, Stoner shows him the real attraction of the lab--an immense king cobra. And let me tell you, the sight of a king cobra is the closest I will ever come to being frightened by seeing a snake. You can't rival the terrifying look of malevolent intelligence in those eyes, nor the regal way it rears up to look at the humans eyeing it. Stoner points out that even after six years, the cobra still wants him dead--and makes reference to the fact that it will get another chance to try and kill him at the next Sunday show. Then, for David's benefit, he tortures the cobra by holding the mongoose close to its pen and the cobra hoods and rears back in horror.
|"What the fuck is that? Keep it away!"
Kristina then comes in and chides Stoner for trying to turn Harry into an alcoholic. She notes that David is doing better and Stoner assures her the boy will be fine. Though poor David is rudely awakened the next morning by the sounds of the show starting outside. Kristina riles up the crowd with facts about how deadly the king cobra is, then introduces her father. She reminds everyone to refrain from flash photography as Stoner coaxes the cobra out into the show pen. And, again, it's quite a show when the stand-in annoys the cobra into threat posturing--which is made even more impressive by the, uh, less than adequate puppet Strother Martin interacts with.
|Not an actual snake puppet, but an amazing approximation!
I still for the life of me cannot figure this scene out, because the snake really bites Strother Martin and it appears to be a black mamba--the inside of its mouth being the dark color that gives the snake its name--so I don't think they used a non-venomous lookalike. It's possible that the snake had been milked just before the shot and they had anti-venom on hand, I suppose, but holy crap my hat's off to Strother Martin.
Talking to Harry, Stoner reveals that his reason for his mad science is that humanity is burning up its natural resources at an alarming rate and soon the world will belong to the cold-blooded animals. I'm slightly distracted, meanwhile, by the decidedly un-snake-like squeaking noises Harry keeps making. Did they really think they needed to make Harry cuter? Meanwhile, David is discovering that his skin is peeling off like when you pour Elmer's glue on your hand. Stoner assures him it's a natural side effect and he's totally not turning into a snake. Nope, not that.
Stoner then gets a visit from Sheriff Dale Hardison (Jack Ging), who used to be a student of Stoner's. He jokes that he wasn't a very good one and Stoner delightfully replies, "Well, I see you found your calling--maintaining the status quo." Hardison then introduces Deputy Morgan Bock (Ted Grossman). After Stoner awkwardly jokes that Bock's name is not spelled like the composer, Bock jokes that maybe Stoner can find them a couple of girls--which Hardison briefly responds to with a perfect "the fuck is wrong with you?" look. They're there for a tour, Hardison says. In the lab, they come upon Kristina with a female reticulated python ("A couple of girls," Stoner jokes) that is apparently sick and not eating.
I have to give Heather Menzies great credit as an actress here. When Stoner enlists the sheriff and deputy's help is moving the sick python to isolation, the python tries to lunge at Hardison and Kristina doesn't break character to drop the angry python and flee.
The python is hauled off to the storm cellar for isolation from the others. Just leaving it loose in the cellar seems a terrible idea, but Stoner assures the men that the cellar door is secure enough. Hardison then mentions he's heard from Tim's aunt that he's been missing for months. Bock comments that kids these days just up and vanish, and for now he and Hardison seem content to leave it at that.
The mongoose is getting increasingly agitated as David gets his next shots. David, whilst eating an apple (subtle), is momentarily transfixed by the king cobra. Kristina then shows him a two-headed snake, and then some hatchling king cobras (which are very clearly not cobras). This segues into more hallucinations, which are conveniently set up as a montage of David's time with Stoner, Kristina, and the snakes.
Next, he and Kristina go to run an errand. On the way back, he stops beside a scenic lake. David ends up talking Kristina into skinny-dipping with him. It takes way less than convincing than you may have guessed. Hilariously, at some point after filming someone decided they wanted to go PG instead of R, so leaves have been awkwardly inserted into the frame via an obvious optical effect to cover the actors' naughty bits.Except for the shots from Kristina's POV, which are blurry because she's not wearing her glasses. The two frolic about, whilst joking about how cold it is.
Stoner records his notes on David's gradual transformation as he walks along a trail by his house. The changes are subtle at this stage--slight lowering of body temperature, flattening of the nostrils, and receding eyelids. He is sure the transformation will accelerate soon. Then he picks up a pigeon and releases it. ...okay, then. I kind of hope that was just Strother Martin being weird.
Kristina and David then go to a carnival. In a comedy bit, we see Bock and Hardison at a shooting gallery--Bock can't hit a thing, while Hardison knocks down all the little ducks. (No word on if he gets Bock the cuddly monkey) Outside a freak show, we see Kogen from the beginning listing his freaks, including a "snake man." Kristina begs off going inside--not because it's cruel and exploitative, but because they're usually fake. So David goes in and gets to see the Snake Man for himself. Boy, that Snake Man (Noble Craig) sure looks like he's the real deal, doesn't he?
|"Hey, hey kid--you got any mice? Maybe a gerbil?"
Meanwhile, Stoner is reading the same Walt Whitman poem to Harry about turning to live with the animals that we last heard Sir Christopher Lee reciting to copulating snails. He then hears Kristina and David pulling up and tells Harry to act sober, to which Harry responds with an admittedly adorable cartoonish hiccup. Trouble is brewing, however, because Steve is getting good and drunk and riled up at the carnival whilst watching a "Kootch Dancer" (Bobbi Kiger) dancing seductively. When her manager offers to let Steve and his buddies have some quality time with her for $10 a piece, Steve gets furious because he's never paid for it in his life. He's apparently still angry about Kristina turning him down and he storms away, over his buddies' objections.
He rides his motorcycle over to the Stoner residence. There, Kristina is settling in for bed after giving Harry some Alka-Seltzer.* Stoner is meanwhile tending to David, who is asking why he's losing weight and why it seems so cold in the lab.
[* Please do not give your snakes Alka-Seltzer. That cannot be good for them. Bourbon is also a bad idea, but I felt that was obvious]
Steve climbs up the wall outside Kirstina's window, clearly intent on sexually assaulting her. However, Harry was sleeping by the window and he quickly comes to his owner's defense. Steve falls out the window, Harry wrapped around his arm. (Odd that Harry doesn't ever use his mouth when attacking, like every angry snake ever) Before Stoner, David, and Kristina can intervene, Steve kills Harry (nooooooo!) and hollers that they're all a bunch of snake freaks before fleeing. Stoner asks if David knows the boy's name.
After a funeral for Harry that involves burning a box with him inside it, Stoner loads the black mamba into a bag and heads into town. David tries to comfort Kristina by telling her that Harry was "only a snake" (fuck you, dude), but Kristina is distracted from his douchiness by the fact that his face looks different. She says this after he suggests she "find another Harry," which has to have been intentional. In town, meanwhile, Steve and Kitty are basking in the afterglow on his water bed. She excitedly pounces on him, eager for round four, while asking if he was scared when the snake attacked him. I'm guessing he left off the part about being attacked during an attempted break-in and sexual assault.
Steve ends up throwing Kitty out, though, because he's in training for football and can't have another round of carnal delights right now. He then walks to the shower in his tighty-whiteys. (Ladies) Outside, Stoner pulls up and finds his way to Steve's apartment. After Kitty leaves, Stoner breaks in. Steve is in the shower and, in order to deprive us of Reb Brown's bare ass, his shower curtain is made out of the same optical effect David Lynch used for the personal shields in Dune. Stoner sneaks in and tosses the black mamba into the shower. In slow-motion we see as Steve accidentally steps on it, and it retaliates by biting his foot. Steve collapses, dead, and Stoner recovers the snake.
So, that was supposed to be the part where we cheer for the mad scientist, right? Because there's no surer way for a movie to get me to root for the so-called villain than having him seek out the man who murdered his beloved snake after attempting to rape his daughter, and kill that bastard with another snake.
At any rate, back at Chez Stoner, Kristina and David are cuddling in the afterglow under a painting of Adam and Eve with the serpent. (We get it already!) He tells her he loves her and she cries because without her glasses she can't see him say it. And clearly he hasn't gotten too snake-like yet, because even without her glasses I'd think Kristina would notice if he had two penises. (Enjoy that mental image, folks!) Stoner then pulls up to the house, delightfully singing "On Top of Old Smokey," which is what Steve was singing in the shower. Man, Strother Martin and the king cobra just steal the hell out of this flick.
Frantically our lovers get dressed and flee from the living room. They don't do the best job of cleaning up their clothes, however. Stoner goes to confront Kristina. He tells her, in no uncertain terms that she's inexperienced and she's throwing herself at the first guy to come along. It turns out, though, that Stoner is more concerned about the fact that David's...blood could have a negative effect on her. Kristina does not take well to being told not to sleep with David and the conversation ends abruptly.
David, meanwhile, has a troubled sleep--and when he awakes he recoils in pain after seeing his reflection in the mirror. Stoner keeps her from going in to see David, though, convincing her it's just an allergic reaction. David talking to her through the door helps, since he's just a bit puffy--although his hands have scales drawn on them! Stoner gets rid of Kristina by sending her to fetch the super rare snake they've just received. Stoner then gives David a sedative, but the poor lad is still freaking out. More injections don't ease his mind, but Stoner is interrupted when Daniels arrives to deliver the bad news that Steve has died of a heart attack--oh, and that the board has rejected Stoner's request for an extension of his grant.
Stoner barely reacts, focusing instead on dismissing Daniels and going back to check on David. David is complaining that his insides feel like they're being rearranged. It turns out that Daniels has decided that Stoner is hiding something and drives just far enough away to park and sneak back to the house--but Stoner sees him coming. Daniels sees David's scaly face through the window, but then Stoner cracks him on the noggin.
Daniels comes to in the cellar and realizes what he saw, but Stoner assures him of two things--one, the cellar is sound proof so his screams won't help him; two, he can find the key to his chains in one of the two tanks before him. As a little Saw-style test of Daniels' herpetological knowledge, one of the tanks contains the harmless Western hognose and the other contains a hognose pit viper. Stoner then leaves him to his choice. Of course, I'm going to assume it was an intentional joke on the filmmakers' part that both snakes are clearly Western hognose snakes.
Daniels grabs a key and unlocks himself, but it turns out that the python in the cellar is finally feeling a lot better. And she's decided that Daniels will make a perfect meal...
|"No, please, I told you already! I don't know where Jennifer Lopez is!"
Stoner, meanwhile, goes to check on Daniels and sees the python with a foot in a fancy shoe disappearing down her gullet. The effect doesn't really work (especially since this particular specimen is definitely too small to have successfully swallowed Daniels whole) but I appreciate what they were going for. I really hope that swallowing that shoe didn't hurt the python, but this was the 1970s so they probably didn't care. Bastards.
Kristina comes into the main carnival tent, trying to convince Kogen to let her see the Snake Man after hours, but he refuses. On her way out, she sneaks into the freak show, though. She sees the Snake Man pitifully flapping the stump of his right arm--and recognizes that it's Tim. Or used to be. Now he's stuck somewhere between snake and man, with no right arm and no legs. She screams in horror as he whimpers pitifully at her and a single tear rolls down his cheek. She runs, screaming, the realization dawning on her as she speeds home.
At the sheriff's station, a tearful Kitty is confessing that she killed Steve by having sex with him three times. Hardison is obviously not taking her at face value, until she mentions Steve telling her he had killed a snake after he took Stoner's daughter home after she had made a pass at him. (So, in his telling of it he took another woman home after she came onto him, and then subsequently she threw a snake at him? And this made Kitty not question banging him like drum?) Then Bock reports that Daniels' wife has called him in missing after he went to Stoner's place. That seals it for Hardison--time to pay a visit to Stoner.
As Kristina speeds home, having driven all night--how far away was that post office?!--Stoner prepares the final injection fro David, already a scaly humanoid strapped to a table. David protests with inarticulate moans and whines, but it's no use. According to Stoner, the new species David is to become will survive pollution, plagues, and Holocausts that will make humanity extinct. Through the magic of cross dissolves and some adorably woeful puppets, David begins to transform into--a cobra. No, not a giant cobra, just a cobra. A cobra with blue eyes, sure, but why wouldn't he just be a man-sized king cobra?
|"Yes, but think of the potential for weight loss companies!"
Even the mongoose went quiet to watch this transformation, but as Stoner intones, "Long live the king," before carrying snake-David to a nearby bath, the little monster goes apeshit again. Basking in his triumph, hubris strikes Stoner and he leaves his new creation to go tell the king cobra, "Your highness; I would like an audience. I demand it." And outside he goes, dragging the cobra from its cage so he can taunt it about being obsolete. The cobra decides to reward Stoner's insolence by biting him repeatedly. And what do you know, even Stoner's blood is no match for a cobra's venom. The satisfied cobra slithers back into its cage.
Unfortunately for David, Chekov's mongoose has broken out of its cage. It doesn't care that David used to be a man, he's just a cobra to it and cobras are food. Kristina arrives to find her father's corpse--and her screams at him, desperate to know what he did to David and horror at finding him dead, bring the cobra's attention to her. She barely escapes a bite and her cries to David are pointless because David is busy fighting for his life against a mongoose. Luckily for Kristina, Hardison and Bock pull up and Hardison blows the cobra's head clean off with his shotgun.
Only then does Kristina hear the mongoose. And in a serious 70s bummer ending, the film closes on a freeze frame of her screaming face as she watches the mongoose tearing at David's skull while Hardison and Bock hold her back. The End.
|"No! He's gonna stain the linoleum!"
After all, while it falls on the PG-rated side of it, there's no question that a story about turning into something else is a form of body horror. The big difference between this movie and David Cronenberg's The Fly is that the transformation is by design--albeit someone else's--and the transformation is much cleaner. It may be just as horrifying in its own way, but it's a lot easier to watch while eating.
This is also, in a lot of ways, a werewolf story--which is why I chose it for this roundtable, obviously. This is, after all, a story of a man turning into an animal and losing his humanity. Which is why, as I alluded to earlier, I found it a little frustrating just how little that was explored as the movie went along. We saw David bite an opponent as though he were a snake, but that was the only time we saw his new serpentine nature taking him over until we literally saw him turning into a snake.
It's a truly wasted opportunity. Imagine how much more mileage this film could have gotten out of that? Imagine David developing a hunger he can't satisfy. What if giving into that hunger meant eating one of the rabbits that Stoner keeps in the lab? What if he was terrified of the mongoose and couldn't understand why? Hell, there isn't even a scene where he gets aggressive with Kristina for no apparent reason. Again, while Strother Martin is a hugely compelling scientist and is more dynamic than Dirk Benedict by a long shot, this feels a bit too much like The Beast Within where the character who should have been the focus ends up more of a McGuffin, Hell, when he turns into a snake he doesn't even go on a rampage of any kind--Stoner gets his comeuppance from the cobra he didn't create, and snake-David is distinguishable by both his blue eyes and apparently gentle nature. I mean, surely we could still feel sympathy for David even if he actually behaved like a ferocious snake!
Of course, saying that David isn't the focus when he should be makes it sound like the movie has a focus and it...kind of doesn't. The closest thing it has to a focus is Stoner's mad science, but the film could just as easily be read as a series of disconnected set pieces. Certainly, the film does a really good job of making them fit, but would the film flow smoother if the subplots involving Steve and Daniels weren't even a part of the script, and the focus was on the Stoner residence almost totally? It's hard to say. It certainly would allow the film the chance to make David's plight matter more to us, beyond the simple horror of what he is facing.
Perhaps to make up for that, this film delivers some serious spectacle. Just the use of real, live venomous snakes in so much of the film is astounding. And that king cobra is an amazing sight all by itself. Plus, while some of its set pieces may seem disconnected, they are unquestionably awesome set pieces and that more than makes up for it in my book.
In the end, while it certainly has its flaws, Sssssss is a pretty enjoyable movie. It's not some unsung classic by any means, but it is a very engaging horror film. Despite its lack of focus, it still delivers a cohesive whole and is certainly never dull. If you're terrified of snakes, it will most likely scare the hell out of you.
Now, someone get me a remake starring Katee Sackhoff, damn it!
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