Strother Martin shines as mad scientist Dr. Carl Stoner, wanting to save the human race by helping them “evolve” into cobras in Sssssss, the last of the drive-in double bills from Universal in 1973.
The Production: 3.5/5
Dr. Carl Stoner (Strother Martin) feels man is on the verge of extinction, and the only way to for man to survive is to evolve. Being a herpetologist, and with the depletion of fossil fuels (this is the early 1970s), Stoner believes only the cold-blooded are likely to survive. When his latest experiment fails, he sells the results to Kogen (Tim O’Conner), the owner of a travelling carnival to use in his sideshow. In need of an assistant and additional funding, Stoner visits the department head at the local college, Dr. Daniels (Richard B. Schull), who thinks Stoner to be a crackpot and practically has Stoner on his hands and knees begging for assistance. Daniels assigns one of his students, David Blake (Dirk Benedict), to Stoner. David is incredibly naive and accepts the assignment, which he quickly finds out includes so-called inoculations to snake venom and living in the doctor’s home with his nerdy daughter Kristina (Heather Menzies). What David doesn’t know is that those inoculations are transforming his body, causing him to shed the outer layer of his skin at first, and eventually transforming him into a cobra.
Yes, Ssssssss is a relatively silly movie, and it knows it, never taking itself too seriously. Credit has to go to the director, Bernard L. Kowalski, whose resume includes the Roger Corman produced Night of the Blood Beast and Attack of the Killer Leeches, and to one of the best character actors of all time, Strother Martin, who brings a believability and sympathy to his portrayal of Stoner. We know his beliefs and intentions are wrong, but we also know that he firmly believes he is doing the right thing. Dirk Benedict brings enough goofiness and naivete to David to make him believable. Heather Menzies plays Kristina as a free spirit of sorts, believing in her father’s work in extracting venom for medicinal purposes but completely unaware of his true intentions. Richard B. Schull brings a real sleaziness to Dr. Daniels that will have the audience cheering his eventual fate. Fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 may recognize Reb Brown (from Space Mutiny) as the school bully and jock Steve Randall. Sssssss has a place in history: it was the last of the drive-in double features from Universal, it was the first film produced by Richard Zanuck and David Brown (who would go on to produce The Sting and Jaws, to name a few), and was the movie playing at the drive-in in Steven Spielberg’s first theatrical feature, The Sugarland Express.
3D Rating: NA
Universal has provided Shout! Factory with a very nice 1080p transfer, compressed using the AVC codec, and retaining the film’s intended 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Colors are consistent and never oversaturated, with realistic flesh tones (well, except when David begins to turn green before his final transformation). Contrast is also very good, with deep blacks that provide excellent shadow detail. And overall, detail is quite good, allowing the viewer to see the scales on many of the snakes, but also revealing the badly applied mattes used during the skinny dipping scene to avoid an R rating. There is some occasional softness to the image, some of it evident during optical transitions and obvious frame blow-ups, but nothing to be overly concerned about.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack does its job with increased fidelity and dynamic range. Dialogue is clear and understandable for the most part (Strother Martin does mumble a few lines of dialogue), and the score by Patrick Williams is present but never overpowering. The track is free of any noticeable hiss, pops, or crackles.
Special Features: 3/5
My Reptilian Past with Dirk Benedict (1080p; 17:39): This is a very entertaining interview in which Benedict discusses his audition for the film with Richard Zanuck, the naivete of his character, and has some amusing stories about working with the director and Strother Martin.
The Herpetologist’s Daughter with Heather Menzies (1080p; 15:09): The actress discusses how she was cast in the film, working with Strother Martin, and comparing her experiences on Sssssss and Piranha.
Photo Gallery (1080p; 3:40): A collection of production stills, lobby cards, and movie posters.
Radio Spots (1:29): Don’t say it, hissss it! Four archival radio spots for the film.
Theatrical Trailers (1080p; 4:10): Two trailers are provided, the domestic trailer in a cropped and faded 1.33:1 and a much better looking international trailer in 1.85:1 (in German?) calling the film Snake Cobra!
Reversible Cover Insert: Choose between a standard cover or the film’s re-issue artwork (adding the fact that it was produced by the same team that made Jaws).
Sssssss is a fun little horror gem from the 1970s, finally available on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory’s Scream Factory imprint. I would have liked a few more extras on the disc, but these new interview segments are good enough to satisfy most fans of the film.