Wednesday, June 01, 2016

On Scream Factory, plus a great new release: Sssssss

Scream Factory - the horror arm of Shout! Factory - is kind of a dangerous label. They put out some fantastic films (like, God bless'em, the Nightbreed director's cut, or, say, Session 9, the "abandoned asylum" psychological horror movie with David Caruso and Peter Mullan, which is one particularly exciting upcoming release, due in mid-August); but they also have an enthusiasm for digging out forgotten flicks that in many cases, while they don't necessarily deserve to be forgotten, don't bear much more than one viewing... like, say, the slasher films Final Exam and Cherry Falls; there are few horror movies that can't be enjoyed at least once, but plenty where once is enough, and there's definitely an element of risk, in these mostly-post-video-store days, in shelling out $25 for blu's of titles like these. I wish I could say I always felt glad I did...

It's really hard not to want to gamble with their titles, however. All the Scream (and Shout!) Factory releases have great packaging, and often do justice in terms of extras to even their lesser films; plus in many cases the label has quite a knack - when not digging out weirdo items that I'd never even heard of, like The Nest - for putting out movies that I, at least, have been curious about for decades. Such is the case with Michael Ritchie's modern-day Caribbean pirate film The Island - actually a Shout! Factory release. It's based on a Peter Benchley novel; his works have been the source of at least one great film (Jaws) and one interesting one (The Deep), plus it stars Michael Caine and David Warner, who has been a favourite of mine since I saw him as Jack the Ripper in the 1979 time-travel adventure Time After Time. I remember the box art from ads in newspapers my parents used to get, back when I was twelve, and remember even then having a positive association with the name David Warner. I've wanted to see it for a really long time, but it never came out, to my knowledge, on VHS, and I never crossed paths with the archive DVD release, though there was one - overpriced, as usual, considering the bare bones, burn-on-demand nature of archive releases. If there's ever a way to have seen this film, since it came out theatrically in 1980, the Scream Blu/DVD combo is it, and I'm probably going to pick it up at some point even though the reviews simply aren't very good. (IMDB reviewers are kinder, and one, Jay Nix, actually deserves points for giving his review a clever title, "Terror on the High C+"). How can you not be compelled by art as cool as THIS, though?

Anyhow, the reason I write is to reassure anyone who shares my concerns that Sssssss, out now on Scream (and which, at $22 something, is actually priced lower at Videomatica than at HMV!), is one of those total winners the label has dug up, and a film that more than deserves their loving Blu-ray treatment. It has one of the most implausible horror movie scenarios of all time (in no way a bad thing, note): a mad scientist (Strother Martin) is performing experiments on human subjects - including original Battlestar Galactica star Dirk Benedict - in the hopes of turning them into a king cobra - which approaches a Human Centipede level of batshit, but is played more-or-less straight up. There's just enough shlockiness afoot that you wonder if the scientist being named Dr. Stoner was a wink at 70's drug culture, though in the film, he's not a toker, but a whisky drinker. So, for that matter, is his python, Harry (presumably that's not real booze he's seen drinking).

Implausible premise aside, this film has so much to go for it: bizarre and inspired creature effects, including a bathroom mirror sequence that surely inspired Cronenberg in The Fly, and a shower sequence that has a lot of fun with its references to Psycho.... plus there are tons of real (and apparently un-defanged) snakes, and real interactions between the snakes and the cast, which includes faces that will be like a warm hug for fans of 70's exploitation, including Heather Menzies - now Heather Menzies-Urich - from Joe Dante's Piranha and Alan Rudolph's Endangered Species, and other vets like Richard B. Shull and Tim O'Connor. Strother Martin does a great job, too, in a thankless role, playing Stoner like a man who is mostly defeated by life. Not only is he bored of the mundane world, he's sick of being ridiculed by his career-oriented peers, and enraged and humiliated by having to hustle for funds. He's forced to treat aspects of his work (like collecting snake venom) like he's a circus sideshow - and, in a particularly memorable opening scene, we see him selling off one of his failures to a carny, swallowing his pride and taking the cash. Still, his ego clings to the hope that his experiments will vindicate him and win him glory, that all his failures and mediocrities will be atoned for by some (deeply improbable) future success; you can - or, well, at least I can - actually identify with the guy, feel a bit sorry for him, as a fuckup Frankenstein whose self-delusions only carry him so far, and whose alcohol consumption isn't quite high enough to entirely obliterate his self-awareness. (The "hero," Dirk Benedict, is quite dull by comparison, actually - a "doofus," as Benedict himself describes him; this is Strother Martin's movie).

Extras include a refreshingly honest, funny interview with the cigar-wielding Benedict, who looks - as he is - like he's in his 70's, but trying to pass for 55, and almost, with freshly-dyed and apparently glossed hair, getting away with it. Seems like a fun guy, and a natural raconteur: unlike so many such interviews, he doesn't just blow smoke up people's asses, saying how great everything was. He raises his eyebrows at least once, telling the story of  his initial encounters with the script, and says, for instance, of director Bernard Kowalski that  "he loved other people's misery, he loved it when I was buried in makeup. And he would cackle, he had this laugh...". Really fun to learn that Strother Martin was terrified of snakes ("which was not a good quality to have when you make a movie where you're a herpetologist" - the whole story will get you laughing aloud). Heather Menzies Urich (widow of the late Robert Urich, who co-starred with her in Endangered Species) appears to do her interview in her home, and is a little more polite than Benedict, but has fun stories about having to hold snakes, who don't always take direction that well.
My one concern with Sssssss is whether snakes actually are hurt or killed in the film; I hope not, but some of the snake deaths do look pretty realistic, and the filmmakers obviously do set a real cobra and real mongoose at odds with each other, for the film's climax - there's no fakery there. One wonders about the cost of killing an imported cobra, versus the cost of constructing a realistic model; you'd imagine that for a low-budget horror film, unless you were talking about people with exceptional moral character, they'd go with whatever's cheapest, and the fact that no one speaks to this point anywhere about the movie, setting snake-lovers minds at ease, makes me fear the worst. There are various articles online about animal harm in movies - this Hollywood Reporter one is an interesting read - but in the end, I have no idea what the case is with Sssssss.

That one concern aside, this film is a real winner, in my books; cheers to Scream Factory for having done it justice. Now if only I could convince my girlfriend to watch it with me...

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