Thursday, November 29, 2012

Perhaps the hardest to spell title ever

Ssssssss (1973)
Starring: Strother Martin, Dirk Benedict, Heather Menzies, Richard B. Shull, Tim O'Connor, and Jack Ging
Director: Bernard L. Kowalski
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

 Dr. Carl Stoner (Martin) is the world's leading snake expert, yet he labors in obscurity, mostly shunning the academic community and gaining some of his research funding by conducting sideshow-like demonstrations of snake venom extraction. But he is working on a very important research project--one which he believes can save the world--and his new lab assistant (Benedict) is about to become his latest test subject.

The awkwardly named "Ssssssss" (that's seven esses) is a well-crafted throwback to the monster movies of the 1940s and 1950s, complete with a brilliant-but-bonkers scientist who is scorned by the academic establishment and who works in his isolated lab with his beautiful daughter, the hunky younger scientist who becomes her love interest, and the creatures he creates for the good of SCIENCE!

But the film is more than that. It takes all the classic elements (and throws in a carnival freakshow and a bumbling town sheriff just to make the film feel even more like one of the classics) and deploys them in such a way that even the most experienced watcher of B-movies will be kept guessing as to exactly what's going to happen next.

The only complaint I can think to mount against the film is that an aspect of the ending is a little hard for me to accept. But, given that this is a movie about a mad scientist who is trying to turn people into snakes, I can't be too picky...

A key to the film's success is the performance by Strother Martin as the mad scientist. Martin is a talented actor who gives an A-level performance in this B-level movie, and his character's affection for the animals used in his research--especially Henry, the snake that is his best friend and drinking buddy--along with his obvious love for his daughter makes it so viewers like him. Even though Dr. Stoner is doing something horrible to an innocent and equally likable character--David the Lab Assistant--we can't help but root for him as the film progresses. Some expert screenwriting that brings perfectly timed encounters with the film's antagonists (an obnoxious jock and repulsive university lecturer) makes sure the audience remains in Stoner's camp up to the end. 

Not since "The Ape" has there been a mad scientist that I've felt more favorably disposed toward, even as I knew it was going to end badly for him and he was going to pull other characters down with him. 

Whether you love or hate "mad doctor" movies, if you have a love of horror films that rely on good acting and interesting characters rather than gore and cheap scares, I think you'll enjoy "Sssssss".

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