Sssssss/Ssssnake (1973) ***
You know what you just don’t see in movies anymore? Mad science. I mean mad science— science that doesn’t just run counter to everything accepted by reputable practitioners in the field, but which also would serve no imaginable sane purpose even if it could be made to work the way it’s supposed to. Well the science in Sssssss (evidently the significance of the title wasn’t obvious enough for the Brits, so the movie goes by Ssssnake on the other side of the Atlantic) is pretty fucking mad, even when looked at in the company of similar films from the 30’s and 40’s. In Sssssss, the mad scientist has somehow come to the conclusion that cobras— cobras!— will inherit the Earth once humanity has poisoned and polluted and nuked its way to extinction, and with that in mind, he’s working on a way to devolve human beings into snakes. Of course...
The scientist of whom I speak is Dr. Carl Stoner (Strother Martin, from The Brotherhood of Satan and Nightwing), an accomplished herpetologist who lives alone with his daughter, Kristina (Heather Menzies, of Piranha and the “Logan’s Run” TV show), and a shitpile of snakes. We know immediately that Stoner is up to no good, because our first look at him comes as he sells some sort of creature— which he describes as a failed experiment— to a carnie named Kogen (Buck Rogers in the 25th Century’s Tim O’Connor). Let’s face it, a researcher who was on the up-and-up simply wouldn’t do this, certainly not at 4:00 in the morning! The next day, Stoner goes to the nearest university to see an old colleague of his to ask for two favors. For one thing, Dr. Ken Daniels (Richard B. Shull, of Cockfighter and The Pack) happens to be on the committee holding the purse-strings for Stoner’s research grant. For another, Stoner’s grad student assistant has run out on him, and he needs a new one. Perhaps Daniels could recommend someone? In fact he can, and young David Blake (Dirk Benedict, of “Battlestar Galactica” fame) soon moves from his dorm room into the spare bedroom of the Stoner house.
Like I said, Stoner has lots and lots of snakes, and many of them are extremely venomous. He’s got rattlesnakes and pit vipers and coral snakes and black mambas, and even a red-tailed boa named Harry with whom he likes to share his bourbon. But the star of his ophidian menagerie is unquestionably the king cobra. In fact, so impressive is this snake that Stoner raises a bit of extra money by making public spectacles out of his efforts to milk the king cobra for its venom. Now the thing about working closely with so many snakes is that you’re virtually guaranteed to get bitten at some point. Consequently, Dr. Stoner subjects himself, his daughter, and anyone he hires as an assistant to a rigorous regimen of venom inoculations designed to confer immunity to the serpents’ poisons. In fact, Stoner tells his new assistant that by this point, the only snake whose bite might still be able to kill him is that of the king cobra; though several of his other snakes have more potent venom on a gram-for-gram basis, the king cobra injects so much venom when it strikes that the scientist isn’t entirely certain that its bite can be immunized against. What? You say that sounds like a plot point? Yeah. You’re probably right.
Anyway, David begins his immunization shots, but he’s a bit surprised at the effects. First, his skin starts peeling like you wouldn’t believe— picture the results of the worst sunburn you’ve ever had, and then imagine that happening over every square inch of your body. Then his body temperature starts to drop, finally leveling out somewhere around 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Finally, although, David himself can’t quite place it, he gets the feeling there’s something just slightly different about his face. In point of fact, it’s his nose and his eyelids— the former is flattening almost imperceptibly, while the latter are receding toward his sockets. And as none of these things are apparently happening to either Dr. Stoner or Kristina, it seems fairly safe to say that there’s something other than just cobra venom in those injections David’s getting. Indeed. You will note that every one of the changes that comes over the hapless young student makes him bear just a little more resemblance to a snake. This is by design, for (as I’ve already explained) Dr. Stoner is looking for a way to make humans more survivable by turning them into intelligent king cobras. I imagine you now have some idea what was in that box the doctor sold Kogen in the first scene, along with what really became of Stoner’s vanished assistant.
Obviously it sucks to be David at this point, but it sucks to be Kristina, too, because the two kids have gone and fallen in sappy science-geek love with each other. (Note, by the way, that this is surely the only movie ever made that features a sappy science-geek coed skinny dipping scene.) Kristina, for her part, has no idea what her father is up to, so she’s just as scared as her new boyfriend when things start to get really weird for him. Yeah, well just let her wait ‘til she gets back from the phony snake-procurement errand Dad sends her on, and finds out (mostly by accident) both what happened to David’s predecessor (the girl pays a visit to the freak tent at Kogen’s carnival) and that David himself is proving to be a far more successful experimental subject than that last one!
Sounds pretty stupid, right? And to be fair, it is. But Sssssss is saved from its own stupidity by a combination of a surprisingly strong performance from Strother Martin and the constant presence of oodles of real, live snakes. If you’re one of the many thousands of people who harbor a morbid fear of snakes, you’re likely to find Sssssss getting under your skin in spite of itself. Conversely, if you’re part of the rather smaller club that considers snakes beautiful and fascinating, then there’s a good chance you’ll be too thrilled at the prospect of getting to see so many different species in action to care much about the numerous shortcomings of the script or the more serious failings of the special effects. Either way, the two king cobras basically own this movie outright. Strother Martin does a great job with his oddly genial mad scientist, and Heather Menzies is pretty good in her similarly off-kilter role (how often do you see a movie with a female romantic lead who thinks nothing of handling a full-grown reticulated python?), but neither one of them can compete with the star power of a ten-foot cobra. As Bruce Campbell would say, hail to the king, baby!