31 Monsters in 31 Days: Sssssss

Before winning the Best Picture Oscar for THE STING and changing movies irrevocably with JAWS, producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown brought us this underappreciated gem. Directed by Bernard L. Kowalski, Universal released SSSSSSS in 1973 on a double bill with the great-title-meh-movie THE BOY WHO CRIED WEREWOLF. And while the story adheres fairly close to the standard mad-scientist formula, what sets this movie apart is that it plays its monster largely for pathos than scares.

The plot concerns herpetologist Strother Martin, who’s using king cobras to exact revenge on those who’ve wronged him while turning lab assistant Dirk Benedict into a six-foot snake. (I think we’ll skip the Freudian analysis here and assume it was for fright value, okay?) SSSSSSS benefits from better-than-usual production values (though it is a low-budget production it has a studio veneer most B pictures of the era can’t match) and a game cast, to say nothing of its use of genuine venomous snakes. It’s entertaining if not surprising, with a very ’70s downbeat ending.

But what makes the picture memorable–for me, anyway–is the Snake-Man featured midway through the film. One of Martin’s previous assistants, and a foreshadow of Benedict’s fate, this Snake-Man sits as an exhibit at a local sideshow, doing little but stare at the crowd with his lidless, beady eyes. I found this incredibly disturbing at age nine; this was one of the first movies that affected me on a visceral level, beyond the mere “Wow, this is scary.” Perhaps it’s because ol’ Snake-Man is most likely praying for a quick visit from a mongoose during his time on stage.

Even today SSSSSSS has a melancholy, almost bleak tone that’s hard to shake; it almost negates the film’s entertainment value. Yet it’s still a film worth checking out, as it rarely receives much attention nowadays.

(For more scary snake-men see David Patrick Kelly in DREAMSCAPE.)

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