Sssssss (1973)

DECEMBER 29, 2010


Sometimes, I’d rather watch a flat out shit film than one that was just ‘off’, because it’s too frustrating to see cool ideas and scenarios botched by a terrible pace or nonsensical censorship. Sssssss is one such film; the concept is awesome and even scary, but the film’s piss-poor structure keeps it from being a winner; if I had any power at all, I’d have a remake of this movie in development ASAP.

I’ve seen enough movies to usually accurately gauge how much is left based on the way the movie is going. Even a movie like Memento, which is told backwards, reached an obvious point where it seemed things were about to be wrapped up. However, in Sssssss’ case, I was more inclined to believe that Netflix’s transfer was broken or maybe the film was actually just the first half of a two part story when I saw that only 8 minutes were left (including credits), because the plot had just reached the point that should have been the end of the second act. This isn’t a slow burn, it’s literally two acts of a story awkwardly converted into three. Whereas most movies of this type would have the end of the 2nd act be the point where the monster breaks free or becomes fully formed, the end of this movie’s 2nd act is roughly the point where the monster finally starts turning at all.

And even that would be OK if it was more tragic, but since the movie spends more time with its mad scientist villain that its tragic would-be hero, I never got attached enough to him to really care. Dirk Benedict is cheesy as all hell, sure, so there’s already some “Ah go ahead and kill him” feeling, but a few more scenes devoted to his character could have helped immensely once he began to turn into a snake (yes, that’s the movie’s plot – not a snake-like man, an actual snake). Granted, the mad scientist guy is crazy enough to be entertaining, but by focusing on him the whole time, it renders the big finale not only abrupt and incredibly weak, but also anticlimactic.

The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be any way for Benedict to become human again, so the stakes are already pretty low. But also, he doesn’t even get revenge on the scientist! He gets attacked by another, presumably not-originally-human snake, while the Bene-snake fights a mongoose, a fight we don’t even get to see the outcome of – they just cut to Benedict’s girlfriend screaming (so I guess we can assume he lost to the mongoose).

Also, this is as "exciting" as the action gets in the entire movie. Like I said, it takes forever for him to turn, so until then it’s just the scientist talking to and/or about snakes, and occasionally getting revenge on folks. Those scenes are also confined to the film’s latter portion, but at least they are more satisfying than the climax. In one example, he goes to the house of a jock douche who had killed one of his snakes while snooping around the lab, and tosses another snake into the shower with him. The other one’s even better – he chains a professional rival in his basement and produces two keys and two snakes – one snake is lethal, the other harmless, but he can’t tell which is which. It’s like an early Jigsaw trap!

Hilariously, it doesn’t even matter, because he ends up getting eaten by the 18 foot King Cobra snake, which we are told is the “most dangerous of all living things”, which I call bullshit on – a grizzly or great white would eat the ever living fuck out of one of those things. We’re also told that one bite “has enough venom to kill 30 men”, which is a fairly worthless statistic. Enough venom to kill one man would mean just as much – it would have to BITE 30 men to actually kill 30 men, right? Dead is dead.

There’s also the matter of the inane “blocks” in scenes that have partial nudity. Considering how talky it is, I can’t imagine anyone but adults wanting to see this movie, but apparently someone had a different opinion, because in post, odd objects were placed in the “foreground” over shots that had nudity. The jarring leaves and branches in the skinny-dipping scene were one thing, but later they put what I guess is supposed to be a giant lamp over a half nude girl, one that moves along with the shot. Why not just cut the scene? She wasn’t even a victim – she’s boinking the jock douche and takes off before the scientist even shows up. Could have just cut the whole scene, lessened the movie’s excessive length (98 minutes) and not had distracting nonsense. Nope, a giant superimposed lamp made more sense.

Shockingly, the producers of this character and suspense challenged movie are none another than Zanuck and Brown, who just two years later would produce a movie called Jaws. Guess the genius of that film can be chalked up to someone else...

Now, like I said, it’s not a bad movie, it’s a frustrating one. A mad scientist turning folks into snakes and getting revenge on those who wronged him is an awesome idea. The gradual snake-turning effects are pretty decent for the time, and I loved how Benedict started showing snake-like instincts before he physically began changing. There’s a scene where he’s at a carnival and that same jock douche starts harassing him, and rather than take a swing like a normal person, he jumps up and sort of wraps himself around the guys torso and tries to bite him. It’s pretty hilarious. It’s also the first moment of action in the movie, occurring right around the 50 minute mark or so.

I remember this because right after this scene, I had to stop it in order to make it down to the New Beverly for Godfather Part III, which I had successfully avoided for the past 20 years. Luckily for Sssssss, it was even worse (couldn’t have guessed that the low budget killer snake movie would be superior to something that shockingly earned a Best Picture nomination), but I was surprised to discover that both films had abrupt endings that weren’t dramatically satisfying in any way. I don’t need Michael Corleone to go down in a Scarface-like blaze of glory, but for Christ’s sake, would it have killed them to resolve anyone else’s character or at least provide context for that final scene? Where’s Kay or Anthony? And for all the shit Sofia Coppola’s acting gets (which I prefer to her films, for what it’s worth), at least it was entertaining, and it was hardly the only problem with the movie; it was terrible whether she was on-screen or not. At least Sssssss disappointed me in half the time.

Final note - I could swear I have seen the house/lab in another movie before. Anyone else recognize it? The IMDb didn’t have the “filming locations”. Also, if you want to watch on instant, you have to do so today or tomorrow – it’s going away. Thus, if you seek frustratingly slow-paced movies about folks being turned into snakes, you’ll have to make other plans.

What say you?


  1. I always forget how many S's are in the title.

    Also, how long do you say the title? 1 second? 2?

  2. You know, I watched Sssssss a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it, and reading your review makes me want to go and re-watch it, perhaps with my 14 year old son who gets a kick out this sort of thing. Thanks for reminding me about this one!

  3. Well, I guess you didn't like it as much as I do. Many of your criticisms are quite valid, but...I don't know. Somehow this film works for me, big time, in a kind of the-whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts way. My wife and I both saw this movie (separately) back in 1979 or '80, and it terrified us equally back then. I came across the DVD at a rental store back in 2005, and thought it would be a gas for us to see it again...but lo and behold, its like we were returned to childhood, and just as creeped out as we were the first time! That doesn't happen very often. The best scenes are arguably the ones with Strother Martin's previous lab assistant, who didn't quite manage to change all the way into a snake, and was stuck in some hideous, mammalian-reptile hybrid.

    I do agree that this film positively screams for a remake.

    "Hilariously, it doesn’t even matter, because he ends up getting eaten by the 18 foot King Cobra snake"

    That particular snake was actually supposed to be a python.

  4. Those leaves were ridiculous. I must have walked out of the room for the lamp scene. Still, I remember this movie from my youth so it's a sentimental favorite of mine, even though every one of your points are accurate. I was pleased to see Reb Brown in the movie. He'll always be a favorite of mine since Mystery Science Theater 3000 took on that Sci-fi movie he was in where he drove around in something akin to a mini zamboni or floor polisher.

  5. That house/lab you thought you recognized may be the one in Psycho.


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