Sssssss (1973)

 Based on the title alone, I knew my destiny was to shell out the few bucks needed to purchase this old sci-fi thriller. C’mon, it’s just fun to say, even if it does make you sound like a slight buffoon during a conversation. “Hey, did you see Sssssss last night?” Be prepared for some stares, is all I’m saying. What I found slightly surprising upon watching the film was its being, well, pretty good. You can imagine my being only a tiny bit disappointed, as I fully expected the movie to live up to its cheesy moniker. But alas, I didn’t find myself hating this particular flick. Weird, huh?

As a quick side note, before the main attraction began there were a lot of quick previews for such films as Dune, Battlestar Galactica, and even Mystery Science Theatre 3000: The Movie. All of the previews kept saying how these videos were available because of the recent “sci-fi phenomenon,” which I found very funny. What was happening at the time to warrant such a frenzied attempt to cash in on the science fiction genre? Hasn’t it always been popular? I also found it disturbing how the announcer described MST3k as “madcap.” Yeah, madcap. Can you tell Universal had no idea how to market that movie?

Enough of my babbling. On to the movie! Sssssss begins with some very ominous music and a scene between two men loading a box onto a truck. Inside this box something is moaning, but neither gent seems too worried. It seems the more elderly of the duo, Dr. Carl Stoner, is selling this moaning creature, stating it is one of his “failures.” The other man scoffs at Stoner’s modesty, calling him a genius before driving off into the night. Cue credits, which are huge and bright green and oh-so silly.

After the credits we find ourselves on a college campus where Dr. Stoner arrives at the classroom of Dr. Ken Daniels. Stoner’s field as a scientist, we learn, is the world of snakes, and he’s come to both ask Daniels for a grant extension as well as a student who would be willing to work as his assistant. His last assistant, Tim? Well, he, uh, he just packed up and left suddenly. Very troubling. Daniels is reluctant, since he and Stoner aren’t on the best of terms, but ultimately he suggests David Blake, a good ol’ American boy who comes to live with Stoner and his slightly frumpy yet oddly attractive daughter Kristina. They, of course, will be romantically involved.

It doesn’t take long (specifically no minutes) to see Dr. Stoner is a bit of a wing nut, gabbing on and on about how man must evolve before he destroys himself and the rest of the world. He also starts giving David inoculation shots, which cause the boy to shed his skin and…bite people who attack him at carnivals. And speaking of the carnival, David goes to one and discovers a bizarre Snake Man at the freak show, which just so happens to be overseen by the gentleman from the first scene. Are the pieces falling into place yet? If not, go read a Dr. Seuss book and have a snack.

This is honestly the only negative note I have for Sssssss, which doesn’t even try to create any real suspense because we know from the get-go how nutty Dr. Stoner is despite his appearances to others in the cast. I didn’t get bored, necessarily, but there wasn’t any room for the story to grow. Another nitpick is the film’s really abrupt ending, which had me blinking in a daze and thinking, “O-kay.” It’s as if the movie ran out of funding at the last minute.

Fortunately there are some genuinely gripping scenes, including one where Stoner wrangles with a King Cobra to the delight of wide-eyed tourists. A disclaimer before the film claimed these serpents were fully real and venomous, which though probably untrue (Lord knows how many sci-fi and horror films have tried to spook its audiences with false claims) still put me on edge. Well, and snakes kind of freak me out as a general rule as well.

Other positive points include the acting, which on the whole is decent and almost never over-the-top, and the script, which though redundant does a good job of setting up the character motivations and laying out the plot in a nicely paced fashion. Even though I knew Dr. Stoner would ultimately turn out to be a psychopath, no one in the movie was tipped off simply because the writing kept setting up logical roadblocks. Mind you, the screenplay needed a good bit of work, but it was serviceable.

Sci-fi completists will want to track down this film, as it’s a safe bet for a rainy night with food and friends by your side. But unless you’re especially eager to throw out insults and jokes, don’t be like me and expect Sssssss to deliver on the cheese factor. It’s strictly a serious-minded and altogether classy picture.