Saturday, February 7, 2015

Cult Classics from Dimension X: Sssssss (1973)

 Cult Classics from Dimension X: Sssssss (1973)

If a movie revolves around a demented scientist named Dr. Stoner, who is experimenting on his teenage assistant in an attempt to turn him into a snake, it may be a cult classic.  Bonus points are awarded if the mad scientist in question is doing this because he has strange views.  Essentially, he is trying to prepare his species for an impending apocalypse that he believes will destroy humanity but leave snakes unharmed.  Yet, despite the fact that our mad scientist is named Dr. Stoner and he comes armed with a kooky scheme, the reason that Sssssss actually works is the serious and deliberate nature of the piece.  The plot sounds like one of those cheesy horror flicks where the lousy effects and the unintended laughs are plentiful.  Now, there are lousy effects and unintended laughs on display here, but the picture is surprisingly grounded and far less sensational than one might expect.

This is what happens when you take a job for a dude named Dr. Stoner.
 The body count is pretty low and the acting is pretty damn good.  Strother Martin does a great job of bringing levity to a role that most anyone else would have gone overboard with.  His Dr. Stoner is a believable lunatic and not some cackling maniac, and he is very adept with the snakes.  He is totally convincing and this is essential as the film is centered on his bizarre experiments.  Dirk Benedict is a bit wooden as Dr. Stoner's ill-fated assistant, David, but he is also innocent and naive enough to bring genuine sympathy to the part.  Heather Menzies is given most of the big dramatic bits as Dr. Stoner's daughter, Kristina, and she proves thoroughly capable.  The rest of the cast is game and Reb Brown makes his film debut as a macho bully who makes an impact in a meager role.

The snakes are the star attraction here and there are plenty of them.  A variety of species grace the screen, to include cobras, a black mamba, a python, and various others.  The footage with the reptiles is impressive and next to Strother Martin's presence, said footage is the movie's biggest asset.  The effects work that we are treated to as Dr. Stoner works to transform David into a snake is far less impressive, but the acting and the script nearly compensate for these hokey visuals.

The snakes are the star of Sssssss and this guy gets top billing.
At the end of the day, Sssssss is far from a great film, and it may not even be a good one.  Yet it is far superior to the movie most would expect based on the title and the plot--and yes, the fact that we're dealing with a Dr. Stoner.  The acting is surprisingly worthwhile, and the wealth of footage with live snakes and the thoughtful approach that Bernard L. Kowalski took with his direction make for a surprisingly effective cult classic.  If you're a fan of horror films, snakes, and mad scientists, this Sssssss is for you.  Pick up your copy today, and when you do, tell them that Dr. Stoner sent you.

 Sssssss Trivia:

Allegedly, the only shots in the film featuring a fake snake are when Dr. Stoner grabs the king cobra and when the police shoot the king cobra at the end.  It has been stated numerous times that the actors interacted with real snakes (to include 5 king cobras), none of which were defanged, and all of which had full venom capabilities.  Whether this is accurate or not, the cast (Strother Martin in particular) is extremely comfortable with their reptilian co-stars.

In addition to the cast and crew working with live snakes, the mongoose/cobra battle in the closing reel is not a product of special effects.  The final outcome of this throwdown isn't shown, but it certainly appears as though the cobra is going down.  

The scene where Dirk Benedict and Heather Menzies go skinny-dipping featured nudity.  The leaves that conceal the talent's pink parts were added in post-production in a successful bid to avoid an R rating.

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