Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Guilty Pleasures: Sssssss (1973)

You might remember Phil Hall as the author of an excellent book that I reviewed back on the blog in August of 2016 entitled In Search of Lost Films; Hall, a film critic/journalist who has contributed to the likes of Film Threat and American Movie Classics Magazine, also wrote The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time, published in 2013 through BearManor Media—the book company owned and operated by my Facebook compadre Ben Ohmart.  (Phil is also a Facebook chum, in the interest of full disclosure.)  A couple months after I wrote the review for In Search of Lost Films for the blog, Phil posted a link to a FilmSnobbery.com article (in the Psychotronic Film Society group on Facebook) entitled “FilmSnobbery’s 25 Worst Films Ever Made” (he’s a contributor to that website as well).

Most of what I know about the subject of cinematic stinkers has been gleaned from the masterminds at World O’Crap, Scott and S.Z. and their splendid cinematic fromage compendium Better Living Through Bad Movies.  I’m no expert; I would define a bad movie as filtered through the sensibility of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (“I know it when I see it.”)  But I always get a kick out of perusing these lists; the FilmSnobbery rankings feature bad movies I’ve seen (Manos: The Hands of Fate, Plan 9 from Outer Space) and a good many I’ve managed to avoid (The Room, Gigli).  There are a few on the list that I might quibble over: for example, I hate Titanic (1997) with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns but I’m not sure it would qualify as one of the worst I’ve ever watched (I just wish I could get those three hours and 14 minutes of my life back).  Likewise, Seven Years in Tibet (1997—or as I called it after leaving the theatre, “Seven Years in My Seat”); again, not a movie I would watch even if a gun were placed to my temple but I’ve invested precious man-hours in more terrible movies.

There was one movie on the FilmSnobbery list that made me say “Aw, hell no!”  (Okay, there were actually two—I’ll admit 1988’s Club Paradise isn’t a good movie but any movie with Jimmy Cliff should not be on a “worst film” list…that’s just plain wrong.)  And that is Sssssss (1973), an unabashedly goofy flick that I fondly remember from my childhood…and when Kismet gave me an opportunity to revisit it when I saw it in the On Demand listings during a recent Starz Encore freeview, I found to my delight it still holds up well provided you’re not expecting something along the lines of Grand Illusion (1937).

Sssssss (don’t say it—hiss it) illustrates that if there is one thing guaranteed to bring about complete disaster in the world of science…it’s casting Strother Martin as a mad scientist.  He’s ophidiologist Carl Stoner (ophidiologist is a fancy word for a guy what studies snakes), and he’s convinced that humanity is on a runaway bobsled to H-E-double-hockey-sticks what with the pollution and other ecological disasters looming on the horizon.  Stoner is conducting unorthodox experiments on human guinea pigs—his former assistant has even been sold as a “snake man” to a carnival freak show operated by a man named Kogen (Tim O’Connor)—and his latest victim is a college student, David Blake (Dirk Benedict), who doesn’t suspect a thing when Stoner starts giving him mysterious injections (the doc explains that they’re anti-venom inoculations, in case David’s bitten by any of the severely poisonous snakes Stoner’s lab).

Carl has a daughter in Kristina (Heather Menzies), who becomes quite attracted to David and one night as Carl is running an errand (Stoner is exacting revenge on a boorish college football jock [Reb Brown] who killed his best friend, a snake answering to “Harry”) allows herself to be deflowered by him.  Carl doesn’t take this news too well…but let’s be honest—if you were slowly turning your prospective son-in-law into a king cobra you might be a bit skittish about the possibility of impregnating your daughter and unleashing a race of snake children into the world.  (Then again…why would this bother you if you’ve pretty much given up on the human race?)

Sssssss fails because it emulates the films that inspired it all too closely: the story moves forward at a laboriously slow pace, and its threadbare plot makes it all too easy for the viewer to pick apart its plot holes and implausible elements,” notes Donald Guarisco at Rovi.com.  “To make matters worse, the characterizations and dialogue never rise above the level of a subpar comic book and the anticlimactic finale is likely to frustrate even the most patient viewer.”  Picky, picky, picky.  I knew going into the damn thing what its main “implausible element” was—you got some maniacal mastermind wanting to transform someone into a snake, ferchrissake!  For what it’s worth, I’m a patient viewer and I had no problem with the finale—I even enjoyed how it’s not tied up in a pretty pink bow.  I love Sssssss because it’s a delightful throwback to those great Universal science-run-amuck films of the 1950s (notably Tarantula); yes, I know the plot is ludicrous but I don’t care.  It’s a horror movie—not a documentary.

But the main reason why I’m such a fan of this film can be summed up in two words: Strother Martin.  Strother Martin—a character great whom I always associate as the sweaty weasel running the cantina in a sparsely-populated Western town—is a scientist.  A mad scientist.  Granted, any character Strother plays in a movie is bound to be a bit…eccentric, shall we say.  But you know pretty much within a minute or two after the opening credits that the cheese slid off Stoner’s cracker long ago, and to compound the perception that Doc Carl isn’t all there his rival is played by Richard B. Shull.  (I would want to see either man’s doctorate before attending any of their classes.)  As Andrew “Grover” Leal noted on Facebook, “Let’s face it—you’d think twice before buying roadside produce from Strother Martin.”

Sssssss has quite a few familiar TV faces (folks under contract to Universal, I’m guessing) in its cast; Dirk “The A-Team” Benedict (in his second feature film) plays the doomed David (Benedict can also be seen in Battlestar Galactica reruns, now showing on a MeTV near you) and Menzies (who would later appear with Bradford Dillman in the TDOY fave Piranha [1978]), as the fetching Kristina, co-starred with Gregory Harrison in a small screen series based on Logan’s Run (1976).  You know Tim O’Connor from a gazillion turns in movies and TV series (O’Connor turned 90 about a month ago—happy belated birthday, Tim!) as well as Jack Ging (also on The A-Team as “General Fulbright”), Charles Seel (The Road West), and Reb Brown (Yor!), last seen here on the blog in Fast Break (1979).

The special make-up effects—the creation of John Chambers (Planet of the Apes) and Nick Marcellino—give the silly proceedings a hella boost, and when Sssssss was originally released in 1973 it was released on a double bill with The Boy Who Cried Werewolf (1973).  As someone who’s an admitted ophidiophobic (a fancy word for fear of snakes), there’s really no reason why I should be a fan of this movie…but I am.  (Shull’s demise in this movie is particularly memorable!)

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