Monday, October 15, 2012

31 Horrors: Sssssss (#8)

Wherein I attempt to watch 31 horror films over the course of October. 31 horror films that I have never seen before, from obscure to acclaimed classics. We'll see how well I go in actually finding the time to watch and then write about them in some way.

Let's ignore the, quite frankly, ridiculous title of this 1973 killer snake flick Sssssss (also known as Ssssnake in the UK), and move on to the fact that, ya know, it's actually kinda good!

The film begins with a warning label slash thank you card to the cast and crew, stating that the animals used in the making of Sssssss were not defanged and that the people involved in the production genuinely put their lives on the line to make it. "It" being a film that was one of the last films ever made specifically for a double feature - it played alongside The Boy Who Cried Werewolf - which is a nifty lil fact to know. As I watched it I actually thought the movie had the visual aesthetic of a TV movie. It was directed by Bernard L. Kowalski, whose previous film was indeed a TV one, and it shows, although he definitely amped it up with the lovely use of widescreen. Still, it has a pale wash over it that lacks a certain cinematic quality, and yet one that befits a film of this kind.

Anyway, I'm getting a bit sidetracked. I really enjoyed Sssssss! I had trepidations to watch it, after discovering it hidden amongst my flatmate's DVD collection, as snakes give me the willies. Oh sure, they're not quite as bad as, say, the spiders in Arachnophobia, but they're still creepy. There's a disturbing nature to the creatures, and seeing the flaky, scaly flesh of these reptiles meant I have no trouble believing the filmmakers' claims that they're the real deal is true and not some made up wannabe urban legend that they invented for notoriety sake.

Written by Hal Dresner and Daniel C. Striepeke, Sssssss does a good job of setting up the mechanics of a "killer snake" movie without merely relying on - oh, I dunno - a truck transporting a collection of deadly snakes overturning, unleashing the hissing horror upon a small town of unsuspecting victims. Strother Martin is quite deliciously sinister as snake expert Dr Carl Stoner and Dirk Benedict is also surprisingly fine as his milquetoast assistant/experiment subject. I particularly enjoyed Heather Menzies, too, whose Diane Keaton shag revealed a shoulda been scream queen (she also made Piranha, but that's about it as far as Menzies and genre fare go). Knowing she was one of the Von Trapp kids in The Sound of Music just adds to my fondness for her performance. She's especially impressive in the film's final 30 minutes.

And, look, can I mention this? Yes, of course I can. You've come to expect it, haven't you?

Yes, that Dirk Benedict was quite a good looking man back in the day. He wasn't cast as "the faceman" on The A-Team for his brain. That last shot is a from a skinny dipping scene that was presumably to feature more nudity that it eventually did. It's quite obvious throughout the scene that some particularly fake-looking foliage had been superimposed over the image of Benedict and Menzies' bare bottoms. Bless 'em. Shame though, amiright?

What I didn't expect from Sssssss, however, was that about half way in it would become a homage to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho! In a turn of narrative events that had me guffawing (at 1.30am, mind you!), several nods to the masterful 1960 film become obvious. No more so, of course, than this film's own rendition of the famed shower scene that sees Strother Martin's character, initially a protagonist until his obvious evil deeds became known, enter the bathroom of a character and sets a black mamba snake into it behind the curtain. A flurry of edited reaction shots later and the Doctor takes back and snake and exits the bathroom, and the apartment, leaving the victim to collapse onto the bathroom floor, dead. Hello! It certainly helps that the victim is the incredibly good looking cult beefcake Reb Brown. What's that you say? Screencaps... oh sure!

There's more, but none quite as overt as that shower scene. Even the music attempts to bring back memories of Hitch. It's a strange scene for sure, but one that made many innocuous moments thereafter look like sly references. Unrelated to Psycho, but there was even a scene with echoes of Saw a whole 30 years prior to that movie's inception!

So, yes, I was quite impressed with Sssssss. Despite its flaws (1970s transitional visual effects do not look good, you guys!), it ends up a rather effective chiller that doesn't necessarily play in to the regular tropes of the killer animal genre. I mean, how many movies do you know feature a final sequence where in a king cobra snake and a mongoose fight it out to the death before an ambiguous ending on the protagonist's fate? Not many I presume. B

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