Oh man, this movie. I can’t even believe some of the things that happen in it, to be perfectly honest with you. It’s another PG-rated 1973 movie — hello, The Baby — that is absolutely berserk.
Directed by Bernard L. Kowalski and written by Hal Dresner (Zorro the Gay Blade) and Daniel C. Striepeke (who also produced this film and did the creative makeup design*; he also did makeup work on everything from Planet of the Apes and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls to Myra Breckinridge, Jaws the Revenge and Can’t Stop the Music before doing make-up for several Tom Hanks-starring movies), Sssssss tells the story of Dr. Carl Stoner (Strother Martin), a man who we first meet as he sells a mysterious creature to a carnival.
Beyond being a herpetologist, Dr. Carl has gone completely and utterly crazy, believing that man is about to undergo an ecological apocalypse and would be better served if we all became amphibians. He brings on David Blake (Dirk Benedict) as his assistant, slowly injecting him with medications that he claims will make him immune to snake bites. Obviously, Blake is a moron because such a vaccination does not exist**. He is not so dumb that he doesn’t instantly start pining for Dr. Carl’s daughter Kristina (Heather Menzies, who was Louisa in The Sound of Music and would appear nude in Playboy the very same year this was made in a pictorial all so creatively titled “Tender Trapp”).
And before you know it, David is having wild Keir Dullea dreams of reptiles when he isn’t turning green. The doctor keeps feeding people to snakes and sending snakes to kill people in showers and one wonders, how has he gotten away with all of these shenanigans in such a small town for so long? Also, the end of this movie is completely off the rails — and the movie is never normal, not for a second, so for it to get weirder is an accomplishment — when David transforms into a king cobra and battles a mongoose before the cops come in blasting with shotguns.
I kind of adore this movie because at once it’s a movie that has an incredibly scholarly take on snakes and how they actually operate while also being a movie with numerous sideshow scenes and two people — the other is Tim McGraw the Snake Man who is played by Noble Craig, a Vietnam vet who lost lose both of his legs, his right arm and most of the sight in his right eye and used that handicap to become a living special effect in movies like this, Poltergeist II, the remake of The Blob, Bride of the Re-Animator, A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child and Big Trouble In Little China — are transformed into snake men.
In case you think that this movie was safe to make, the venomous king cobras in it were not defanged. Instead, they were kept at their full potency and milked of their venom every day.
This movie has some great alternate titles, like O Homem-Cobra (The Snake Man) in Brazil, SSSSKobra and Ssssnake in Finland — and Sssssnake Kobra in Germany — as well as Ssssilbido de Muerte (Whisper of Death) in Mexico and Hissssss and SSSSnake in the U.S.
Honestly, drop what you’re doing and watch this movie right now.
*The actual effects are by John Chambers, who created Spock’s ears, and Nick Marcellino.
**I take that back. My research has show that there is a rattlesnake vaccine, so there you go.