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Mike’s Review: Sssssss (1973)


★★★ out of ★★★★★
Directed by Bernard L. Kowalski.

Don’t say it…hissss it! The tagline from the trailer for the most unusual horror film ever made really hits the nail on the head. 

Part Disney family adventure film, part 1950s scientific-techno-babble, part ABC After School Special, and part truly horrifying and sad Frankenstein-esque science gone wrong story, Sssssss is a wild ride for sure. 

Sssssss was directed by Bernard L. Kowalski. Interestingly he had a 62 year career as a director, but this would be one of his only films. The bulk of his career was spent toiling in the likes of the Streets of San Francisco, Banacek, and Baretta. Make no mistake, Sssssss is no cop-drama. It’s all horror. Well, mostly. 

Sssssss follows once-esteemed herpetologist, Dr. Stoner (the great Strother Martin — Cool Hand Luke, True Grit, and The Brotherhood of Satan) whose methods and scientific proclivities have become problematic for his ophiology pals. Dr. Stoner is effectively sequestered to his self-exiled research facility/roadside attraction. He and his daughter Kristine (Heather Menzies, Piranha) extract and sell snake venom and conduct weekend shows with the most menacing of all snakes, the King Cobra. 

Problem is, Dr. Stoner has other ideas and those ideas are as far out as you can image. He’s become convinced that by injecting human subjects with extreme doses of the highly psychedelic King Cobra venom (read: it’s not really psychedelic) he can slowly transform humans in to…SNAKES!

ATMOSfx! Woo!
Snake people really are this creepy.

With the unwitting assistance of his daughter Kristina, Dr. Stoner employs a budding young research assistant, David (Dirk Benedict A-Team and Battlestar Galactica), to try a couple heaping doses of King Cobra venom. David’s skin begins to peel, his body temperature begins to drop, and his face begins a slow and gruesome alteration. But, heck, it’s all the name of science. 

It turns out that Dr. Stoner has tried his freaky science on others, and in one case in particular, they ended up as a voiceless side-show freak in a traveling carnival. Rest assured the local police and others are on to Dr. Stoner and his sloppy slithering becomes his undoing. Weirdly, his daughter Kristina, with who he is rather close, is completely unaware of his mad science experiments. 

It takes quite some time for Sssssss to get going. The first act of the film is a slow trudge of character development that takes an exceptional amount of time to unfold. However, once the final act of Sssssss begins, the film becomes a wild affair replete with some truly exceptional — and we’re NOT being facetious — 1970s makeup and special effects. 

Dr. Stoner may not be remembered in the same way as Dr. Frankenstein or even Seth Brundle, but don’t be fooled, his science-gone-wrong contributions still stand as a great cautionary tall tale. Sssssss may be from 1973, but it’s messaging and character development are still deeply relevant. 

Sssssss is Rated PG and blu-rays are available from Shout Factory!

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