THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Two years before hitting the jackpot with Steven Spielberg's Jaws, producers David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck brought the world Sssssss. Like their later shark-inspired hit, the film was designed to tap into viewers' fear of a particular creature, in this case snakes. While nowhere near as successful – Bernard L. Kowalski was no Spielberg – this goofy little chiller offers up enough oddball fun to be genuinely amusing. It's the kind of picture that would be great to see at a drive-in. Scream Factory releases Sssssss on Blu-ray April 26.
Strother Martin plays Dr. Stoner, a scientist who specializes in snake research. He hires a new lab assistant, David (Dirk Benedict), to help him. David quickly becomes attracted to Stoner's daughter Kristina (Heather Menzies). What neither of them knows is that the doctor is working on developing a special serum that will transform human beings into snakes. Why? Who knows! Who cares! It only matters that he intends for David to be his test subject.
There are two sides to Sssssss. The first hour provides lots of information about snakes, including which ones are venomous and which aren't, how they are fed, and how they attack. Many scenes are designed to play on inherent fears about the creatures. This is exacerbated by the fact that, as pre-credit onscreen text explains, the actors are handling real snakes here. (Watch Strother Martin get bit!) Stoner wrangles a king cobra, people get snakes wrapped around arms or other body parts, bites occur. You get the picture. It's undeniably squirm-inducing.
The last half-hour, on the other hand, abruptly turns into a deliriously out-there creature feature, with David morphing into a massive snake, thanks to some of the most hilariously dated visual effects you're likely to see. Even better, the movie never explains how an adult male's body mass is so radically altered. We're just supposed to take it for granted that it happens. There's nothing scary about any of this, but the third act is so absurdly funny that you won't mind. The old-school monster-making is sufficiently entertaining.
You could not make this movie today. Or at least not parts of it. We're told early on that the only thing a king cobra snake is afraid of is a mongoose. So, of course, they unleashed a real mongoose on a real king cobra and allowed them to fight on camera. At one point, the mongoose sinks its teeth into the snake's side and blood splatters up onto a wall. It's actually pretty ghastly to watch these creatures fighting to the death for real. But again, the fact that it's so different from anything we would be treated to today is part of Sssssss's appeal.
Scream Factory's Blu-ray comes with some nice bonus features. There are two lengthy interview segments, one with the exuberant Dirk Benedict and the other with Heather Menzies. Both actors recount the crazy experience of working with real snakes for this unusual movie. They have some great tales to tell. A photo gallery and theatrical trailers are here too. One of the trailers is German, and it's hilarious to see the way they sell this crazy thing.
A longer retrospective documentary would have been nice, given the pure oddity of Sssssss, but on balance, this is another strong Scream Factory release. Get it if you like a healthy serving of wacky with your horror.
For more information on this title, please visit the Scream Factory website.
Sssssss is rated PG for language and awesome snake-related violence. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.
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