As many of you are aware, Strother Martin was my mother’s cousin. He lived with her family for a period of time when he was going to college and they were pretty close. When I was growing up in the 1960’s I remember going to his home with Helen out in Agoura Hills for dinner on several occasions. One time when we were out there we visited a Animal Rescue Ranch, it might be the one Tippi Hedren ran but I’m not sure. I do know that as a kid I didn’t like the baked beans Helen served one night and she told me to skip the next dinner. I was embarrassed because I was rude to my Mom’s family. Helen seemed to forgive me though because later on as an adult, I was always greeted warmly when she came to my parent’s place for dinner after Strother (Jay to all of us) had passed away. I know the date of his death because it was the night before my wedding. My Mom did not tell us, and I was so busy that I did not even realize they had not made it down for the service. I found out reading the paper a couple of days into our honeymoon and immediately called home. Mom said she did not want it to overshadow the day so she had just kept quiet. I was to discover over the years that she was pretty good at that kind of thing.
Sssssss, is one of the few starring roles Jay had in the movies. It was a B-type picture, but I am happy to point out that the producers were Zanuck/Brown, who two years later would create the greatest adventure/action picture of all time, (If you don’t know,I’m not going to tell you). A couple of years before, he also starred in a low budget horror film called the Brotherhood of Satan. Brotherhood was not a summer release so it will not make this blog, but I am proud to stand up for Sssssss, as a good example of a 1970’s style horror film. There are limited special effects, some good make-up, a creepy concept and some fine performers. Those things can go a long way in entertaining people. Cynical modern audiences might scoff at some of the visual concepts or plot points, a remake of this movie would feature CGI to a ridiculous degree. That is when the idea and the actors would become less important to telling a story.
Jay plays Dr. Stoner, an expert on snake venom and snakes. He is involved in some secretive research. The opening of the film, is a very creepy scene that features two good actors and a sound effect on the audio track that will give you nightmares, and you will see nothing. The story then sets up a couple of revenge plot elements and lays the foundation for some slow building ickyness. If snakes creep you out, this would make a good double feature with “Snakes on a Plane”. You will see how effects and concept don’t always make a movie better, sometime it is just different. Anyway, Dr. Stoner and his daughter run a research lab, and they do a venom milking show as a way to raise money. The new lab assistant from the University is given injections to help protect him from snake bite, or so he thinks.
The actors are all competent. Dirk Bendict plays the new assistant. He has some whiny moments because of the thing that happens to him, but he also gets to chase the girl in the lake naked. This was a sexy scene that is cleverly covered up by key placement of tree branches and leaves in the foreground. I don’t remember that from when the film played in theaters, and I can’ imagine any reason why it would be added later, except for TV showings. I was fifteen when the movie came out, so I probably imagined a lot more than was actually there. I remember thinking that the girl played by Heather Menzies was very attractive. She comes across very nerd like in the movie, so she may not have hit the spot for everyone, but she was my cup of tea at the time. I may be biased, but I thought Strother was great. He plays the role with the right amount of sympathy, sadness and crazy as a loon goofiness. There is a nice scene where he is reading Walt Whitman to a snake, and he is slightly drunk. It comes off as a little weird but also kind of sweet. The snake is his closest friend, and when bad things happen, he plays out the part like a geek based Charles Bronson. Richard Shull, another well known character actor, plays Dr. Stoner’s nemesis, and he is pretty good at being pompous. The comeuppance he gets is disturbing with just one or two camera shots. This would be an unnecessary CGI shot today, good for shock value and laughs but not adding to the horror. This movie played on a double bill with “The Boy who Cried Werewolf”, a movie I remember not at all. This was one of the final examples of a studio booking two films together. Double features continued for another 15 years, but the movies were put together by the theater management rather than the distributor.
The resolution of the movie is a little abrupt, but it coveys a strong horror response in one of our lead characters. It is definitely a 70’s style shot and cut, designed to leave the audience aghast. The movie is not a world beater, but it has enough creeps and a fine performance from the star to justify seeing it. Jay was a nice man and an excellent actor. He died too young and he would have been great in some 80’s movies also. He worked with Paul Newman a half dozen times, and John Wayne about the same. Most people will remember him from the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke, where he utters the famous line”What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate”. His costars in this movie are not as famous, but one of them is a King. (Cobra that is.)