The poster for this 1955 Universal film serves up the question: “Can a woman’s beauty be changed to a thing of TERROR?”
Well, seeing as how we’re into the tenth season of “Bridezillas” . . .
But on to the subject at hand.
I have to confess that there was a time when I was really afraid of snakes. The condition was such that I would get up and leave the room when I knew a snake would be making an appearance in a movie or television show (e.g. the “Double Danger” episode of “Jonny Quest”). Call me silly, call me overly-reactive . . .
Thank you. But I wanted to say that I eventually grew out of the condition. This goes a way, though, to explain how “Cult of the Cobra” was something of a problem for me whenever it appeared on the schedule for “Project Terror” or “Shock Theater”.
(And yes, I was aware that it was a rubber snake. I didn’t care. A snake was a snake was a snake . . .*)
(*Armchair Freudians are free to run wild with that one.)
“Cult of the Cobra” has been on my mind recently and I decided to give it a look and pass my thoughts and such to the rest of you. Briefly: as a horror film it’s not particularly all that scary (except for small boys who’re scared of snakes), and it telegraphs what’s going to happen so far in advance that it ought to have been declared an annex of Western Union (get your parents or grandparents to explain that one). But as an example of 1950s fluff straight out of the Universal Studios horror stable it pretty much works.
It could be said that the director, Francis D. Lyons, was banking more on the effect of the snake than in any sort of prowess in film making. Obviously better as an editor than a director (in the former role he worked on productions such as Menzies “Things to Come”, and the interesting little Horner film “Red Planet Mars”), Lyons would demonstrate with “Cult of the Cobra” that he was far better suited to the television assignments he’d take later on. The same goes for the writers: Jerry Davis, Cecil Maiden and Richard Collins (keeping in mind Uncle Mikey’s rule of thumb about the quality of a film being inverse to the number of people needed to write it). Considering that three guys worked on this, the plot is actually paper-thin. In 1945 (as the story goes) six American soldiers are about to be shipped home, and the film opens with them wandering about the bazaar of an undisclosed Near Eastern town. Desperate for something memorable to do they manage to talk a local into taking them to a meeting of a secret snake-worshiping cult. This is the sort of thing which happened before shopping malls were invented.
Time for a brief editorial segue. The plot of this film hinges on the notion that American G.I.’s could be so monumentally stupid as to try a desecrate a foreign temple. Not that the characters were bluntly chauvinistic or anything (no: “Big deal! It’s not as if it were a real religion. No hymns or collection plates”), but I guess it’s a tendency among more contemporary domestic viewers to consider how these guys would’ve felt if a band of loutish cultists decided to sneak their way into one of their churches. What’s especially tragic is that one of the lead characters, Paul Able, is something of an academic and is mildly interested in the notion of the cult’s belief that people could transform themselves into snakes. You think he would’ve put up more of a fight.
Able, by the way, is played by television veteran Richard Long. In fact one of the strengths of “Cult of the Cobra” lies in its casting. So many of the cast (notably Long, David Janssen, Marshall Thompson, Kathleen Hughes and Jack Kelly) would make considerable marks on episode television later on.
We also get Edward Platt as the leader of the snake cult, which is one of the reasons veteran video junkies such as myself tend to snicker when watching the movie today. Obviously too white bread to effectively play a Near Eastern (compare with, for example, Lee J. Cobb in “Anna and the King of Siam”) one almost expects him to shout: “I’ll sic secret agent Maxwell Smart on you! I’ll curse you with the Cone of Silence”. Fortunately (or no), this doesn’t happen.
The soldiers manage to disguise themselves as cult members and slip into the temple. During the ceremony one of them (played by James Dobson) decides it’d be Oh So Clever to secretly take a photograph of the proceedings . . . using a WHACKING BIG FLASH GUN! Naturally the Deal Goes Down and a fist fight breaks out as Our Heroes attempt to make a getaway (using a jeep which they thought no one would notice parked outside the temple).
(It’s never mentioned in the film, but one can feel safe in presuming these clowns were dishonorably discharged from the Army on the grounds of being outright idiots!)
High Priest Platt puts a curse on the departing infidels, and their escape is also witnessed by a Mysterious Female who had been part of the ceremony. Dobson is injured and has to spend the night in a local military hospital. For all practical purposes he seems to be on the mend . . . but, later that night, he meets with a Gruesome (and, in the eyes of Your Humble Correspondent, well-deserved) Demise.
His surviving buddies manage to make it safely home to New York City (with Janssen making much of how he’s taking over his father’s Greenwich Village bowling alley). We also learn that Long and Thompson are roommates who’ve been competing for the affections of the same girl (played by Kathleen Hughes. The way Long and Thompson discuss her it is mildly hoped that they’d try cutting her in half in order to settle the matter. Sadly this option never arises).
(By the way: I’ve checked and there actually is bowling to be found in Greenwich Village. I was admittedly surprised, but I guess Archie Bunker and the others had to go somewhere. And I’m digressing again.)
Once home we find that Hughes has decided to marry Long; leading to a chorus of “No hard feelings, old man” and similar sentiments. Thompson is notably down in the dumps but is soon smiling again because he almost immediately hooks up with a dark-haired beauty that has moved into the next apartment. In point of fact, the lady is none other than the Mysterious Female mentioned earlier. She’s played by genre stalwart Faith Domergue, And yes, that name should be readily recognizable, seeing as how she was also in “This Island Earth”, “It Came From Beneath the Sea”, “Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet” and similar films where her spiritual sister Mara Corday wasn’t available.
Besides having been seen earlier in the film, it soon becomes quickly obvious that There’s Something Weird About Faith. She doesn’t smoke or drink, animals run from her and she knows absolutely nothing about kissing (at least at first). Even more telling, her appearances in the movie are heralded by the playing of creepy music on the soundtrack. None of this fazes Thompson who immediately proceeds to woo her. The ardor he feels for the lady (and her slowly growing responses) work to overshadow the fact that, within a few weeks, most of the remaining group of war buddies are killed under Bizarre Circumstances. Autopsies of the bodies indicate the presence of large amounts of COBRA VENOM! Fang marks are found on another of the bodies. Could it be . . .
(Say! If a close friend suffers a snakebite can it be said that he’s been nipped in the bud? Haw haw . . . I kill myself sometimes. I really do.)
Meanwhile, Thompson and Faith are growing closer together (Thompson ignoring things such as the fact that his girlfriend spends a lot of time coiled up on a sunny rock, or shedding her skin every so often. And yes, I made those things up. But the way the story unwinds she might as well have done them). Faith, in fact, is starting to feel so much towards Thompson that she’s becoming less and less confident about Certain Issues (and no, I won’t say she’s losing Faith).
(Oh, I just did. Well . . .)
Halfway through the film the viewer experiences something of an epiphany. What we’re seeing is a rough remake of Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 classic “Cat People”. Simply scratch out “cat” and insert “cobra”. Faith is cast in Simone Simon’s role, with Thompson playing the Kent Smith part (and Kathleen Hughes as a sort of back alley version of Jane Randolph). Along with all the romantic ambiguity we get lot of shots of Faith wandering the darkened sidewalks of Greenwich Village (which look far less like NYC and more obviously like the standard Universal urban backlot set). There’s even a small version of the classic “swimming pool” scene from the Tourneur film, only it takes place in the bowling alley which is run by Janssen’s character, and is nowhere near as effective.
(Hey! If a snake pursues a victim in a bowling alley does that mean it’s trying to make a strike? Oh boy, I’m rocking now huh, kids?)
Russell Metty’s cinematography, although nicely clear, doesn’t match the noir-ish mood of what Nicolas Musuraca and Tourneur managed with “Cat People”. Not that it would’ve helped because so much of the plot is abundantly clear practically from the get-go. The only thing worth following is in wondering how the remaining members of the original group of friends are going to meet their end, and whether or not Faith will work up the gumption to try and eliminate Thompson. There’s really more suspense to be found in the ingredients used to make bottled ketchup.
And the special effects are, for a mid-1950s horror film, predictable. Other than a fairly effective shot of Faith’s shadow being replaced by that of a cobra (at least we presume it’s a cobra and not a large ping-pong paddle . . . although “Cult of the Ping-Pong Paddles” might’ve been more interesting), we’re treated to a low budget retro-transformation at the end. There’s also a few “cobra POV” shots (employing the same wobbly distorted lens feature we saw a few years earlier in “It Came From Outer Space”), giving the targeted actors a chance to emote fully into the camera. As for the cobra itself it’s not bad for a rubber snake being manipulated off-screen (another reason to have the attacks filmed as night shots). I’ll give it a B-minus.
One gets the impression that everyone is trying their best here. A more imaginative director/writer/cinematographer team might’ve produced something truly horrific. “Cult of the Cobra” tried to get by solely on the strength of its premise, but the execution didn’t follow up on the tease. What the story needed was someone with a bit more mayhem in his soul, and Lyons was simply too nice a guy for the job. The film definitely needed more bite.
And, on that rough attempt at humor, I’ll leave it alone for the time being.