All notes and summary below by Stephen Weaver (2006).
Notes: Universal Studios.
Starring Strother Martin, Dirk Benedict, Heather Menzies, Richard B. Shull.
Directed: Bernard L. Kowalski
Snake Kill Factor: Reasons why a snake should be an effective monster.
1.Movement: Snakes have no legs, yet move quickly and mysteriously, unlike humans.
2.Poison: Many snakes are quite venomous.
3.Locale: Snakes are found in many places in the United States, but also can be fairly exotic.
4.Strength: Some snakes can kill a person through constriction.
5.Borderstepper Quality: Snakes move with no legs and live on the ground, unlike many other animals.
Sssssss begins with a mysterious scene involving two men exchanging something hidden inside a sort of caged crate. From inside that crate, we hear a strange, inhuman moaning. The man taking the crate appears to be some sort of carnival barker. The man giving the crate, however, is the scientist Dr. Carl Stoner, a snake specialist. This opening scene begins a good sense of suspense that extends throughout the movie. The thing in the crate has been quite dehumanized, to the point where we can’t tell what it even was or is.
After this scene, we see Dr. Stoner visiting a reluctant colleague, asking for a new student as a potential assistant. Despite their disagreements, the colleague, Dr. Ken Daniels, gives him David Blake. Blake is fairly anxious about the situation, especially so due to Stoner’s habit of keeping his pet snake Harry loose everywhere, including his car. Stoner takes Blake to his laboratory and home and shows him the ropes, every once in a while mentioning his old assistant, Tim, who “disappeared.”
Stoner describes his method of “immunization” to Blake, wherein he injects small portions of cobra venom to build up immunity. He also introduces Blake to “the King,” the residing king cobra, whom Stoner oddly personifies as an overseeing lord. Stoner injects Blake with the venom, and describes his views of humanity. He believes that cold-blooded creatures will have the advantage if fuel shortages are true. This would be a nice point, if it were true. In fact, cold-blooded creatures don’t actually thrive in cold temperatures; instead, they need external heat to live, unlike warm-blooded animals, which can create their own heat. By Stoner’s views, cold-blooded creatures would be hurt more. Oh well.
After a bizarre, feverish dream involving devil imagery and the human body, David wakes up to find his skin peeling off. When he wanders around the laboratory, he is caught in the gaze of the king cobra. We are introduced to Stoner’s daughter, Kristina, who also studies snakes. She and David are attracted to one another, and the images of their attraction are interspersed with images of the king cobra seemingly watching over its subjects, as well as David being injected with Stoner’s serum.
David and Kristina attend a carnival where David sees the freak show, completed with a visit to the Snake Man, a creature with snakelike skin and stubs for arms and legs. He is caught in its gaze, and tries to leave, but is caught by a former classmate, the rude jock Steve Randall, who tries to pick up Kristina. She refuses his advances, which causes him to pick a fight. David fights back, trying to bite Steve. They leave, but Steve tracks Kristina down, attempting to climb through her window. Stoner’s snake, Harry, attacks Steve, but Harry is killed. Dr. Stoner delivers a funeral for Harry, and Kristina is very upset.
Dr. Stoner, angry about his snake friend’s death, finds Steve and drops a black mamba into his shower, then retrieves it after Steve is dead. At home, he talks to Kristina about her relationship with David, and learns from Dr. Daniels that his grant money has been cut off. David wakes up again after another batch of injections, but is horrified at his appearance in the mirror, which the audience is unable to see. In a well-crafted, suspenseful scene, we instead follow Dr. Daniels as he snoops around the complex, until he finds a window to the laboratory, through which he, and the audience, sees David’s face, covered in greenish, scaled skin and set with snakelike features. Dr. Stoner finds the Dr. Daniels and drugs him, leaving him in a basement where he will test his ophidiological knowledge as the correct key to the door is in one of two cages, one containing a harmless snake, the other a visually similar, deadly one. Daniels does pass the test, but is struck by a backup python hidden in the ceiling, who coils and eats Daniels.
In the meantime, Kristina has discovered that her father is up to no good, and returns to the carnival to see the Snake Man. When she does, she recognizes him as Dr. Stoner’s old assistant, and she returns home. Dr. Stoner talks to David, telling him that he is the next stage in human evolution, the first successful snake man. As he delivers his final injections, David turns into an actual, normally sized king cobra. With this success, Dr. Stoner takes his original king cobra out into their staging area, explaining to the snake what has happened to David. The cobra bites Stoner, and he dies quickly, just as Kristina returns. The police arrive, and shoot the cobra to pieces. David, on the other hand, has faced Dr. Stoner’s escaped mongoose, which, as a cobra’s natural enemy, has attacked him. In the final shots of the film, Kristina gets inside the lab just as the mongoose kills David.
Sssssss is not the usual monster horror film. Instead, it uses a suspenseful transformation sequence that spans the whole movie, with enough time used to cover David’s reactions to the changes. However, some problems still occur. One odd issue is a seeming misogynistic quality. The only real women portrayed aside from Kristina are Steve’s girlfriend, none too bright, and a topless dancer that Steve watches at the carnival. Even Kristina is at one point left to wash dishes, saying something along the lines that this is what the women are for. This doesn’t seem to have any point to the plot, but it happened a few too times to be coincidental.
More important to the plot was the portrayal of Dr. Stoner. At times, he is a sympathetic man, hurt by the death of his beloved pet/friend Harry. At other times, he delivers his factually inaccurate vision of snake tomorrow, speaking officially to his king cobra. David’s changes are excellently horrific, up until the end, when somehow he transforms into a real snake. The build up to the carnival’s Snake Man is very well-done, with an inhuman creature that is nicely disturbing. David, however, just becomes a snake, and is no longer any sort of borderstepper. Even with the whole film’s suspension of reality, it seems too much that these treatments would turn a man into a real snake. If it weren’t for these points, Sssssss could be a very effective movie, but it does still feature a main character killed by a mongoose.