SSSSSSS (1973) Blu-ray
Director: Bernard Kowalski
Scream Factory/Shout! Factory

Shortly after leaving Fox for Universal (and a couple of years before major success with JAWS), Darryl Zanuck was executive producer (along with partner David Brown) for this low-budget mad scientist/science fiction effort directed by the man behind such 1950s AIP drive-in titles as THE GIANT LEECHES and NIGHT OF THE BLOOD BEAST. Veteran make-up designer Dan Striepeke (known for his work on the "Planet of the Apes" films and 1974 TV series) also produced for the first and only time to date, and wrote the story treatment which is actually a throwback to something AIP would have done back in the 1950s, but definitely updated for more sophisticated moviegoers.

Strother Martin (BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN) stars as Dr. Stoner, an philologist (a scientist specializing in snakes) who runs a snake farm – which is open to the public for a Sunday morning Cobra show – as well as doing research in his lab, filled with caged, cold blooded creatures. Needing a new assistant for the summer, he hires friendly yet naïve college student David (played by a very young Dirk Benedict of "Battlestar Galactica" and "The A-Team" fame) who soon after is given regular injections of an "immunization serum" since he'll be around dangerous snakes all day. Of course, since Dr. Stoner is something of a mad scientist, these injections are intended for his ultimate plan: to transform a man into a male species of King Cobra. David discovers layers of his skin shedding, his facial features starting to change (eventually turning a shade of green) and he later grows scales! He is also romantically involved with Stoner's cute and brainy colleague/daughter Kristina (Heather Menzies, PIRANHA) and when she visits a carnival's freakshow to get a glimpse at one of dad's "failed" experiments, she begins to realize the truth about what is happening to her new beau.

With a rather silly premise which includes a totally oblivious victim/leading man, SSSSSSS still has enough ingredients to please B movie fans, and anyone with even the slightest discomfort at the site of venomous snakes (most of them shipped over from Thailand) will have something to be queasy about here. A credit to any film genre, Strother Martin gives another meaty performance as a determined nutcase who talks to his array of pet snakes, sinisterly employing them to get rid of his enemies, including a dumb bullying jock (Reb Brown, HOWLING 2: YOUR SISTER IS A WEREWOLF) who gets bit on the foot in the shower, and a sleazy rival professor (familiar character actor Richard B. Shull, THE BIG BUS) who is soon sporting a Boa around his upper body. Real snakes are seen attacking, slithering and biting, and these scenes are done well and carefully editing (when a fake Cobra puppet head is briefly seen confronting Martin, it's hardly noticeable). Credit also has to be given to the three leads, especially Martin, who handle the snakes like pros and there’s one very nail-biting scene where the actor is bitten by a little one when removing it from its glass tank (naturally, in scenes with the King Cobra, the actors are protected by undetectable plexiglass).

John Chambers (also known for his Oscar-winning achievements on the "Planet of the Apes" films) assisted Striepeke with the make-up, which is pretty impressive, especially when viewing the failed "snake man" experiment, played by Noble Craig, an actor with no legs and one arm who later appeared in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, THE BLOB remake, and BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR. Later in the film, Benedict sports the same scaly make-up design before his character is transformed into a full-fledged, blue-eyed King Cobra. Veteran character actor and future “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” star Tim O'Connor plays the unscrupulous sideshow operator, and yet another individual involved with PLANET OF THE APES, Felix Silla (also on “Buck Rogers” as robot Twiki; they must have had the same agent) appears briefly as one of the sideshow attractions: “The Seal Boy”. Veteran western and TV actor Jack Ging (HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER) plays the sheriff, and his deputy is played by venerable stuntman Ted Grossman (INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM): both gentleman get to help carry an incredibly long python (with Menzies holding its head). The music is by Pat Williams, better known for his work on TV sitcoms and detective shows (including “Mary Tyler Moore” and “The Bob Newhart Show”).

Universal originally packaged the film with THE BOY WHO CRIED WEREWOLF (which will finally be having its home video debut courtesy of Scream Factory’s upcoming Blu-ray), making the program one of the last double bills released by the studio. After its initial theatrical release, the film got a lot of mileage and played in prime-time on NBC’s “Saturday Night Movies” in 1976 before being a staple on local late-night television. It was issued as a Super 8 film digest (a 400 foot sound edition which ran less than 20 minutes) and eventually made it to VHS and then DVD, with Shout! Factory’s Scream Factory arm now licensing it from Universal for a most-welcomed Blu-ray release.

Scream Factory presents SSSSSSS on Blu-ray in 1080p in its original 1.85:1 theatrical ratio, and the high definition image looks quite impressive. The presentation is free of blemishes and defects and creates a solid picture with excellent detail. Colors are rich and vibrant, with natural flesh tones and solid black levels. The well-defined grain structure gives it an organic, filmic appearance that’s pleasing to the eye. The English DTS-HD 2.0 mono audio track English track has good fidelity and dynamic range, and optional English subtitles are also included. The noticeable optical obscuring of brief nudity involving the two young leads – in the form of superimposed foliage and a lamp's silhouette during a skinny-dipping and living room love-making scene – was apparently in the original release print (this was also the case with Universal's previous VHS and DVD releases), as it was given a PG rating which it still carries.

Scream Factory has furnished this Blu-ray with two excellent new interview featurettes. “My Reptilian Past With Dirk Benedict” (17:39) has the enthusiastic cigar smoking actor sitting down to discuss when he auditioned for Dick Zanuck, whom he got on well with, though he wanted to do more stage work and wasn’t really interested in starring in a movie, but it's apparent he had a lot of fun making it. He calls his character “thankless”, he mentions that director Kowalski had a wicked sense of humor, and reveals that Martin was terrified of snakes but loved doing the movie and took it very seriously (he also tells a hilarious anecdote about Martin when he learned he was to be bitten by a snake). Benedict also describes the extended make-up process he endured under Striepeke, Chambers and their crew, and describes the large Universal Studios make-up room (where he went to have his head cast) and the celebrities he encountered there. “The Herpetologist’s Daughter With Heather Menzies-Urich” (15:09) has the actress (and widow of the late TV icon Robert Urich) discussing being asked if she was afraid of snakes on the audition and giving an answer that would lead her to be cast. She tells how the producers were hands on, that director Kowalski was wonderful, that Martin was an amazing actor and human being (who became a father figure to her) and that she remained good friends with Benedict after the shooting. About the slithering cast-mates, the actress says the snakes were actually docile and fun to work with (the King Cobra was one she didn’t want to get near) and she describes how she held the python’s head to render it immobile. Rounding out the extras is a still gallery featuring movie memorabilia from all over (in other parts of the world, the film is titled “SSSSNAKE” or “SSSNAKE”), behind the scenes stills and production photos; a bunch of radio spots for the SSSSSSS/WEREWOLF combo; a full frame American trailer; and an anamorphic German trailer. (George R. Reis)