Long, lazy, hot summer days in a small Australian coastal town didn’t offer a young girl much more than the lifestyle depicted in the coming-of-age classic Puberty Blues (1981). I escaped head first into movies at a very early age, back when you could still go to your local milk bar to hire a video nasty to indulge in, accompanied by a generous bag of mixed lollies for only 50 cents. My idea of a rocking Saturday night in. With a little help from Australia’s very own “Mr. Movies” – TV host Bill Collins, I was introduced to a variety of different genres along with the classic Universal horror movies. I devoured everything I could get my hands on, from The Invisible Man (1933) to my beloved Maniac (1981) – the latter a film banned by the BBFC, but released uncut in Australia.
For my first contribution to Diabolique’s “Gods & Monsters” column I have chosen to cover two Universal monster films – one old, one more recent – with a comparison piece on Captive Wild Woman (1943) and Sssssss (1973) – that’s seven S’s. Both movies feature a mad scientist creating bestial humans with terrible consequences, and both feature the use of real animals (which as I will discuss later, adds greatly to the viewing experience) combined with some of the worst transformation scenes you’ll ever have the misfortune of viewing!
“Once this motion picture sinks its fangs into you, you’ll never be the same”
A pre-title card opens Sssssss, declaring that all the reptiles used in the film were real – and stating: “We wish to thank the cast and crew for their courageous efforts while being exposed to extremely hazardous conditions”.
Arguably Universal’s most critically and financially successful monster movie of all time was a shark film that hit the screens in 1975. Only a few years prior, the Jaws producing team of Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown had dipped their toes in the water and launched the lesser known and less successful Sssssss onto an unsuspecting cinema-going public. One of the reasons that Jaws worked so well was that filmmaker Steven Spielberg chose to only fleetingly reveal the creature. If only this creative decision had also been applied to Zanuck and Brown’s serpentine epic. Journeyman director Bernard L. Kowalski was no stranger to the sci-fi/horror genre with his work for American International Pictures on Night of the Blood Beast (1958) and Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959). Kowalski was also one of the busiest directors when it came to made-for-TV movies and series. Boasting an impressive small screen CV with such shows as Columbo (1971-2003), The Streets of San Francisco (1972-1977) and The Rockford Files (1974-1980) to name a few, Kowalski would have been a familiar face to Zanuck and Brown on the Universal back lot in the early 70’s and the perfect no-nonsense filmmaker to steer Sssssss into production.
Dr. Carl Stoner (Strother Martin) is the (tried and true) immoral and mad scientist who specializes in snake research. He has had numerous former helpers disappear and is on the lookout for a new assistant when David Blake (Dirk Benedict), a poor, naive college student in need of a part time job enters his lab. What David doesn’t know is that the Doctor has been secretly working on developing a special serum that will transform human beings into snakes, and David will play a significant – and ultimately tragic – role in this research.
The first hour of Sssssss is a slow burn. Dr. Stoner slowly and methodically begins injecting David, purportedly as a safeguard against being bitten by a snake in his lab. While the Doctor continues his top-secret work, an unsuspecting David falls in love with his daughter Kristina Stoner (Piranha’s Heather Menzies). David soon starts to experience strange side effects and the film turns into an unapologetically wacky creature feature with David mutating into a massive snake, with the aid of an amputee stand-in who was without his legs and one of his arms – and some not-so-special effects. The final snake transformation was achieved by shooting with a locked-off camera and dissolving shots as further make-up/prosthetics were applied. This is the same technique featured in The Wolf Man (1941) some 30 years earlier. Hollywood horror transformation scenes weren’t really revolutionized until 1981, with both The Howling and An American Werewolf in London finally showing us the change from man to beast in a single shot with no cuts or dissolves.
The final transformation scene in Sssssss is not without its merits. I felt a sense of underlying sadness throughout the whole film, from the trusting naivety of David to the numerous enslaved carnival freaks. The transformation scene gave me an uneasy feeling much like the final scene in the movie Freaks (1932) when the sideshow “attractions” banded together and carried out a brutal revenge that left the conniving Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) knowing what it truly meant to be a “freak.”
John Chambers – the Legendary Hollywood make-up man and CIA operative (John Goodman portrayed him in Argo) – provided the deliriously imaginative make-up for Sssssss. He won an Academy Award for the classic Planet of the Apes (1968) and worked on its sequels as well as other genre favourites such as Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and the 1977 adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau.
Just like Jaws, Sssssss was also designed to tap into the viewers’ fear of a particular creature. The use of real snakes lent a certain amount of cache to this film which certainly added to its overall effectiveness and largely compensated for the mediocre acting of the cast. One particular anxiety-inducing scene depicts a mongoose finally escaping from his cage to attack the king cobra (previously David) in a fight to the death.
The acting in Sssssss may have been mediocre, but the snakes were the real S-s-s-s-stars!
“Torn by strange desires”
A pre-title card includes the following written statement: “We hereby make grateful acknowledgement to Mr. Clyde Beatty for his cooperation and inimitable talent in staging the thrilling animal sequences in this picture”.
Captive Wild Woman (1943) was the first instalment in a trilogy that I’d wager you have never heard of. The heartless and maniacal Dr. Sigmund Walters (veteran screen villain John Carradine) has devoted his life’s work to gland research. Walters is convinced that if he transplants the glands from one species to another he can bring about physical change. Animal trainer Fred Mason (Milburn Stone) has returned from his latest safari with a throng of animals including a gorilla named Cheela for his employer John Whipple (Lloyd Corrigan), the owner of Whipple Circus. Fred quickly forms a bond with the affectionate Cheela who displays some human characteristics.
Evelyn Ankers stars as Beth Colman, Fred’s fiancée whose sister Dorothy has taken ill and is now in the hands of the formidable Dr. Walters. Walters has been looking for larger animals to experiment on and becomes intrigued upon meeting Cheela the gorilla. He soon sets about transplanting glandular material from Dorothy to Cheela who transforms into a sultry and exotic young woman now named Paula Dupree (played by actress Acquanetta whom the Universal publicity department dubbed “The Venezualan Volcano” even though she hailed from Wyoming). Paula remembers nothing of her previous existence and has newfound hypnotic powers over animals along with a raging jealous streak. She becomes attracted to Fred, but she goes “ape” when she discovers Fred is engaged to the lovely Beth.
We soon find out Paula is definitely not a woman to “monkey” with.
B-Movie actress Evelyn Ankers was a staple of Universal’s horror films in the 1940s, earning her the nickname “The Queen of Screamers.” After appearing in small roles in a number of British movies in the 1930s, Ankers immigrated to the United States and was signed to a contract by Universal in 1940. Her Universal debut was in one of the better Abbott and Costello comedy-horror pictures, Hold that Ghost (1941). She later appeared in the genre classic The Wolf Man (1941) opposite Lon Chaney Jr., another staple of the Universal Horror era. Before long Ankers found herself cast into the horror picture abyss and appearing opposite Chaney in three more fright films, The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Son of Dracula (1943) and The Frozen Ghost (1945). Ankers also starred in The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944), generally regarded as Universal’s last entry in the Invisible Man series. In Captive Wild Woman Ankers is again wasted in a peripheral role, leaving the way open for the scene stealing John Carradine to command the screen.
The movie boasts a skillful transformation scene (for its time) with famed Hollywood makeup artist Jack Pierce performing his magic of turning men – or in this case women – into monsters. Pierce transformed Boris Karloff into one of the most iconic of movie monsters for Frankenstein (1931), attached the widow’s peak to Bela Lugosi for Dracula (1931) and designed the impressive ape makeup in its various stages for Captive Wild Woman. Combined with the use of filters to show Acquanetta’s face suddenly darken (similar to the transformation in 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and effective dissolves (as mentioned, pioneered in The Wolf Man), we have our transformation scene.
Captive Wild Woman is an entertaining ride with the added attraction of ferocious lions and tigers – and these qualities establish the film as a very unique and welcome addition to the Universal pantheon of horror goodies. The scenes involving savage lions and tigers performing various daring feats are genuinely gripping and exciting and quite impressive for its time. The editing is mostly effective in convincing us that Milburn Stone and the big cats are actually in the same cage together, and George Robinson’s crisp black and white cinematography makes fantastic use of fades and dissolves. The film makes extensive use of footage from Universal’s The Big Cage (1933), a circus themed star vehicle for animal tamer Clyde Beatty whose skills as a lion tamer brought him fame and celebrity. Usually a supporting actor, Milburn Stone was given a leading role due to his physical resemblance to Beatty, making it easier to match old footage to new.
Oscar nominated Director Edward Dmytryk had an impressive Hollywood career that spanned 50 years. Most famous for helming The Caine Mutiny (1954) and The Young Lions (1958), Dmytryk also directed Hitler’s Children (1943), one of the most successful B movies of all time, and excelled in fashioning taut, hard boiled film noir movies in the 1940’s including Murder My Sweet (1944) and Crossfire (1947). However after being named one of the Hollywood Ten, a group of blacklisted film industry professionals who refused to testify during the McCarthy-era ‘Red scare’, Dmytryk’s career took a steep dive and he served out his days on the sets of muddled international co-productions such as Shalako (1968) and Bluebeard (1972).
The movie score was composed by Hans J. Salter who immigrated to America in 1937 and was quickly put under contract at Universal, where he worked for nearly 30 years. His most celebrated scores were for horror and science fiction films including The Wolf Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). Captive Wild Woman’s musical score is made up of stock tracks familiar from other Universal horror movies of the day – nothing new but perfectly in keeping with the company’s large scale horror output of the time.
Captive Wild Woman spawned two poorly received sequels, Jungle Woman (1944) and Jungle Captive (1945) which have aided in giving the original film an unfairly poor reputation amongst fans of the classic Universal horror films. Paula the ape woman sadly did not live up to being the female monster character that Universal had hoped – and the film’s two sequels found little interest. Regardless of this, when viewed today Captive Wild Woman is still entertaining and enjoyable – and is certainly briskly paced clocking in at a mere 61 mins.
Both Captive Wild Woman and Sssssss provide prime examples of the immoral and mad scientist with a PhD in Crazy. Like so many before them – think Island of Lost Souls (1932), The Alligator People (1965) and later on in one of my favourite films, Silent Rage (1981) – it seems a lot of mad doctorates have been handed out, and it’s amazing how many super villains have advanced degrees. If horror movies have taught us anything it’s never to trust a scientist. That’s a lesson firmly told in these two Universal productions from generations apart that both depict in their own enjoyably second-rate way the classic story of man believing he was God.