What is it with mad scientists and animals? It seems like most mad-scientist-based movies (which comprise about 75 percent of all movies) focus on the crazy doctor’s efforts to turn a person into an animal, or to transfer an animal’s characteristics to a human, or to create an animal-human hybrid. The thing is, these experiments never turn out well. Not once. At best, the mad scientist temporarily becomes whatever it is he was trying to become and then gets killed; at worst, he gets killed before he even gets that far. You’d think that by now the world’s mad scientists would have gotten the message that playing God is invariably fatal and usually gross.
Such is the case in “Sssssss,” a 1973 Universal Pictures release about a weird herpetologist and his unsavory snake fixation. While we allow that “Sssssss” is a fantastic title — it looks AND sounds like a snake! — we do not understand why a person would want to fuse man and serpent into one creature. Snakes do not have arms or legs. Even their most ardent admirers will admit this is a deficiency, especially if one is accustomed to being fully limbed. Yes, if you were a snake you could use your venomous fangs to attack your enemies, but you know what you wouldn’t be able to do? Close your eyes. Being all sleek and slithery is kind of cool, but you know what isn’t? Eating rats.
Our mad scientist is named Dr. Carl Stoner, and he’s played by Strother Martin, who is perhaps best known for saying “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate” in “Cool Hand Luke.” What we’ve got in “Sssssss” is failure to not be insane. During the week, Dr. Stoner is a legitimate herpetologist with some kind of vague affiliation with a university. On Sundays, he operates a live-reptile sideshow out of his home, during which he removes deadly snakes from their enclosures and taunts them for the amusement of the assembled gawking hicks. There is not a lot of money in snake-centered entertainment, but Dr. Stoner doesn’t do it for money, he does it for love, and possibly sexual gratification.
The film begins with Dr. Stoner going to the university to find a new lab assistant. He says his old one, Tim McGraw (seriously), had to leave suddenly due to a family emergency, but we suspect Dr. Stoner is lying. Before the opening credits, we saw Dr. Stoner sell a crate to a shady-looking man, and whatever was inside the crate was doing a lot of moaning and protesting, and the shady-looking man said he thought Dr. Stoner would be hailed as a genius someday, which is what shady types always say about madmen in these movies, usually after the madmen have created some kind of unnatural abomination. We’re going to go out on a limb and guess that the moaning crate and the shady man have something to do with Tim’s disappearance.
In any event, it is very easy, when you are vaguely affiliated with a university, to saunter down to campus now and then and collect a new assistant. They hand them out like course catalogs. Dr. Stoner picks up a dopey, fresh-faced grad student named David, played by Dirk Benedict, later of “A-Team” fame. David, who is eager, enthusiastic, and almost unbelievably dim-witted, hops in Dr. Stoner’s truck and heads back to his snake-infested lab without a second thought, like Bugs Bunny going to Dr. Jekyll’s place. Also in the truck is Dr. Stoner’s pet python, Harry. Dr. Stoner lets Harry drink bourbon, and talks to him as if they were old friends. Upon arriving at the lab, Dr. Stoner shows off his deadliest snakes, does some low-level taunting to get them riled up, milks some venom out of one, and describes the king cobra as “the most cunning, the most vicious, the most insolent of all God’s creatures.” Then he gives David an inoculation to protect against the snake bites he is certain to receive in the coming weeks. David’s reaction is that all of this seems pretty neat-o! A new job, a rambling doctor with an alcoholic snake, some cobra-harassment, and an inoculation, all in one day!
It gets even better for David: Dr. Stoner has a college-aged daughter, Kristina (Heather Menzies), and she is beautiful! Or the 1973 equivalent of beautiful, anyway. She wears big, frumpy eyeglasses and has no idea her snake-charming father is a lunatic. She wonders what happened to his last assistant, Tim McGraw, but she doesn’t wonder hard enough to ask any real questions. Meanwhile, the inoculation Dr. Stoner administered to David was not an inoculation at all, but a serum that will slowly turn David into a snake, obviously.
So this is Dr. Stoner’s plan. Having failed in his efforts to turn Tim McGraw into a snake, and having sold whatever hideous mutant Tim McGraw became to a carnival, he’s now going to try it on poor dumb David. Once he perfects the serum, he will presumably turn himself into a snake, too, since he loves snakes sooooo much and is always carrying on about how awesome they are, and how noble they are, and if he were a snake then he and Harry could get married, they could get gay snake married, and live happily ever after, just the two of them, Dr. Stoner and Harry, the same-sex snake couple. Won’t that be grand, when Dr. Stoner is a snake?
In the meantime, he has to keep David from realizing what he’s doing to him. This is easy, as David is quite stupid. His skin starts flaking off after a couple days — the way it does after you get a sunburn, or when you are a snake — and Dr. Stoner convinces him this is just a minor reaction to the inoculation. When David’s body temperature starts dropping, he gets the same explanation. For the viewer, it becomes an experiment in gullibility: How much complete crap will David believe before he catches on? Will he EVER catch on? Or will he still be thinking “Huh, more side effects!” when he’s unhinging his jaw and swallow house cats?
Dr. Stoner is always milking venom out of his snakes. Heaven only knows what he does with it. One day he tries to get some from a black mamba and gets bitten. A snakebite is but a minor nuisance to one whose bloodstream is filled with as much anti-venom as Dr. Stoner’s, but he quits harassing this particular snake for the day anyway, declaring, “I’ll milk you tomorrow, you African bastard!” You will agree that whatever faults this movie may have, making Strother Martin yell “I’ll milk you tomorrow, you African bastard!” at a snake is not among them.
Back to David. A jerk he knows from school picks a fight with him one night in town, and David bites him, because he’s sort of snake-like now. Then the guy, whose name is Steve (everyone was named Steve in 1973), comes to Dr. Stoner’s house to hit on Kristina, and maybe to fight with David some more, and he accidentally kills Harry the python. Devastated, Dr. Stoner sneaks over to Steve’s apartment afterward with a poisonous serpent, which bites Steve, and Steve dies. This is good news for Dr. Stoner, who can finally mark “YES” on the Academy of Mad Scientists application form where it asks, “Have you ever used whichever animal is the object of your obsession to carry out a vendetta against an enemy?”
But then there is bad news for Dr. Stoner. His daughter, Kristina, is becoming rather cozy with David. The young man would be a fine suitor — he’s polite, well-groomed, has no visible tattoos — were it not for the fact that he is days away from becoming a snake. As much as Dr. Stoner loooooves snakes, he evidently doesn’t want his daughter marrying one, because he is racist. As the snakification process near its completion, David is going to become rather poisonous (not to mention scaly), and exposure to his blood could be deadly. So Dr. Stoner, without explaining why, exactly, warns Kristina not to have sex with David. His error is in doing this approximately 10 minutes after she has sex with David. This is why parents should have the “birds and the bees and the snakes” conversation with their children when they’re still young.
Everything turns out more or less the way you’d expect. We learn the fate of Tim McGraw (carnival sideshow), David turns into a real live cobra, Dr. Stoner is fatally bitten by another cobra, the cops arrive, Kristina screams a lot, and so forth. (No word on whether Kristina is pregnant with David’s snakelings.) “Sssssss” is very proud of the fact that it used actual live snakes in almost every scene, which gives it an air of creepiness that can only be achieved by, um, putting a bunch of snakes in front of a camera and filming them.