That's quite the provocative piece of artwork for what boils down to an old-fashioned tale of science gone amok. The mad-genius and vision of Dr. Stoner (Strother Martin) and his diabolical experiments of de-evolution -- or tampering in God's domain, if you will, and getting homo-sapiens back in touch with their reptilian roots, is a man out of time in 1974, and rightfully belongs with his Eisenhower era colleagues Deemer, Blake and Branding.
Yeah, I know, that title is kind of retarded, but don't let it deter you from catching this fine fractured flick. People often ask me what's the most disturbing thing I've ever seen on screen, and that used to be contestable between a lot of nominees until I put together what I saw and heard in Ssssss and the debate came to a crashing halt.
The gist of Stoner's crack-pot experiments is to turn his unsuspecting lab assistant (-- played by a pre-Starbuck, Dirk Bendedict) into human/cobra hybrid. Now, in most films, these metamorphosis scenes are usually quite painful. Here, the sinister transformation is slow, protracted, and extremely painful to the Nth degree. And when Stoner's daughter (Heather Menzies) begins to suspect that her father is up to something with her new boyfriend, and while tracking down a few leads, she stumbles upon the old man's first and failed attempt.
And here is where my skin starts to crawl. Sold off to some freak show, Stoner's previous lab assistant has been reduced to something akin to Jon Bonham. At the very beginning of the film, we hear something pathetically wailing and caterwauling as Stoner strikes a deal with sideshow owner, something not quite human. And when we finally get a look at the thing, we can see it in his eyes, something very human, trapped, forever, an impudent lump, with no ability or means to communicate aside from that insidious mewling, pleading for help. Help that will never, ever come.
And that, folks, that realization, with auditory assist, is the most disturbing thing I've ever encountered on screen.
Taking up these ear-curdling cries is Benedict, as each painful stage peels off more of his humanity like the skin he's currently shedding. And though the heroine is on the right track to possibly abort the final stages, it's already too late, and the film continues its somber and morbid tone until the bitter end.
Sssssss (1973) Zanuck/Brown Productions :: Universal Pictures / EP: Richard D. Zanuck, David Brown / P: Dan Striepeke / AP: Robert Butner / D: Bernard L. Kowalski / W: Hal Dresner / C: Gerald Perry Finnerman / E: Robert Watts / M: Patrick Williams / S: Strother Martin, Dirk Benedict, Heather Menzies, Richard B. Shull, Reb Brown