Freak Nights: The Sideshow in Horror Cinema

Freak Nights: The Sideshow in Horror Cinema, Review #3

Sssssss (1973)

Directed by Bernard L. Kowalski

By Amy M. Vaughn

The film, Sssssss is, not surprisingly, about snakes. More to the point, it is about a mad scientist who is determined to speed up the next step in evolution by creating a snake-human hybrid. Unfortunately, he’s having to break more than a few eggs to make this particular omelet, and the intro to the movie shows him selling a failed experiment to the owner of a sideshow.

Most of Sssssss centers on two things. Firstly, snakes—frequent and extended scenes with snakes. So many, in fact, that there’s a statement at the beginning of the film that says, “All the reptiles in this film are real. . . . We want to thank the cast and crew for their courageous efforts while being exposed to extremely hazardous conditions.” William Castle (the father of the schlock spectacle experience) would be proud!

The second focus of this film is a young Dirk Benedict, better known as Starbuck in the original Battlestar Galactica (1978) and as Templeton “Faceman” Peck on the A-Team (1983-1987), being slowly turned into (spoiler!) a snake. But before he fully turns, he takes the mad doctor’s daughter to the carnival, where we get to see the sideshow, including the failed experiment from the beginning.

Besides the Snakeman, the sideshow has several other attractions, among them are little people; a Strong Man; brother and sister “Siamese” twins (which is highly unlikely since conjoined twins are monozygotic); a man with two noses, who appears to have a second nose stuck onto the side of his original nose; and Sam Lee the Seal Boy, played by Felix Silla, an actor and stunt man with nearly 50 acting credits to his name, who is also a little person. But most interesting to me is the actor who played the Snakeman.

Sssssss was the film debut of Noble Craig, who lost both legs, an arm, and much of the sight in his right eye in the Vietnam War. After Sssssss, he would go on to have parts in Poltergeist II, Big Trouble in Little China, The Blob, A Nightmare on Elm Street V, and Bride of Re-animator. All of which makes one wonder, did horror movies take over the role of the sideshow, not only becoming a medium for disgust and fear, but also providing the differently bodied with a forum to make a living displaying themselves? Or is being in a movie somehow different? Is acting the role of a sideshow act different than being a sideshow act?

Sssssss Noble Craig as the Snakeman

Later, when the daughter returns to the carnival to learn the truth, we see the sideshow performers sitting around backstage. They may have unusual bodies, but they’re portrayed as regular folks off the clock, which reminds us that neither born freaks nor made freaks are the villains of this piece. As with every mad scientist story, hubris is the culprit.

Besides posing questions and being perhaps Dirk Benedict’s least dignified role ever, this movie doesn’t have much to recommend it: some gaping plot holes, some really terrible science, some snakes that sound like scared pigs. The best thing about Sssssss is that somebody got to name a movie Sssssss.

2.5 out of 5 Snakemen

Available from very well-stocked video stores, as a very poor quality version on YouTube, or to buy from eBay or Amazon.

Amy M. Vaughn is the author of Skull Nuggets and the editor of Dog Doors to Outer Space. She is also a contributing editor at Babou 691. Her newest novella, Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel, will be released this October from Thicke & Vaney Books.

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