Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A LOOK BACK AT FRANCIS D. LYON'S CULT OF THE COBRA


Reviewed by Steve Fenton.

Directed by Francis D. Lyon in 1955, here we have some vintage Universal Pictures cheese-kitsch, this time with a pronounced – if resoundingly tame – “horror” angle (of sorts).  I originally saw this back in about 1978 on a regional Saturday late-night horror host show called Count Zappula’s Horror House, which I received over the airwaves – often with really poor reception! – via rabbit-ear antenna up in Northern Ontario (the former uranium mining boomtown of Elliot Lake, to be exact), piped in from Traverse City, Michigan.  Even back then when I was but a mere teenager who hadn’t seen anywhere near as many horror movies as I have by now, I recognized COTC for what it was (and still is): namely a lukewarm would-be thriller with very little in the way of any genuine style or pizzazz.  Indeed, it must have looked pretty dated even on its initial release, but has since, if not actually improved with age, then at the very least grown a bit more bearable (at least to me).  I viewed it a couple more times during the ‘80s and ‘90s courtesy of Toronto telly (on the local channel CKVR as a really beat-up TV release print, as I recall), then I never saw it again until, back in around 2009, I picked up Universal Studios Home Entertainment’s 10-film DVD box set “The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection”, which included the film more or less as filler; even though there is nary a true science-fiction element to be found in it and it is strictly of the supernatural spooky fantasy school, with mild (very mild) horror aspects.  That said, kind of like I was seeing it in a whole new light almost as if for the very first time again, it wasn’t until I saw it in this pristinely presented digital disc format that I was finally able to better appreciate the film’s relatively genuine virtues, that were at least brightened and made more apparent by the optimal presentation; which, conversely, also tends to accentuate its more negative qualities too.

After bribing a native snake-charmer named Daru for the privilege, five American servicemen stationed in the Middle East and led by wholesome hero Tom Markel (Marshall FIRST MAN INTO SPACE / FIEND WITHOUT A FACE Thompson) spy upon a forbidden sacred ceremony of the secret snake-worshipping cult of “Lamians”.  No less than Get Smart’s future “Chief” Edward Platt of all people fills an uncredited bit part as the cult’s leader, who delivers the snaky curse down on the interloping Yanks’ heads with extreme prejudice (“The Cobra Goddess will avenge herself! One by one you will die!”).  Upon being discovered, the Yankee infidels are cursed to suffer the wrath of the shape-shifting serpent sect.  After one of their comrades is struck down by what appears to be a deadly cobra – and indeed is, as well as something more besides – the rest return Stateside to civilian life following the war (WW2).

In Noo Yawk City, Thompson meets his new neighbour, a mysteriously exotic, sultry woman calling herself Lisa Moya (smoky dark brunette Howard Hughes protégé Faith Domergue, who is arguably best known for her leading lady turn in Universal’s big-budget sci-fi adventure THIS ISLAND EARTH [also from ‘55]), with whom he quickly becomes infatuated, despite her initial icy aloofness towards him; indeed, she acts this way with most everybody she meets.  She remains distant and anxious about allowing a romance to develop – and with good reason, as it happens.  More murders of Thompson’s ex-Army buddies follow (including ‘70s TV’s future Harry O, David Janssen), and it is soon revealed that Faith is responsible: being able to revert to cobra form in order to fulfill her destiny as harbinger of the Lamians’ lingering vengeance (her condition was facetiously dubbed “cobranthropy” by Tim Lucas in an old issue of his Video Watchdog zine).  Vampire-like bite marks are left on the necks of her/its victims.  Investing a faintly eerie tone into the generally bland and largely non-atmospheric proceedings, the weresnake’s ‘fish-eye’ lens P.O.V. shots are reminiscent of those previously used to represent the view through the eyes – sorry, eye – of the cyclopean alien xenomorph in Jack Arnold’s Unipix sci-fi classic IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953).  In another still more direct connection to that earlier film, second female lead here is filled by peppy blonde Kathleen Hughes, who had performed a similar function in IT.  For CULT, sorely torn between which hunky he-man hero to marry, rather than choosing Thompson’s really boring character, she instead opts for the ever-so-slightly less boring Paul Able (Richard – known for short as “Dick”! – Long [!!]).  As the perky, pointy-chested, tight-topped Julia here, like a model auditioning for a toothpaste commercial she smiles way too much, which was possibly a directorial decision intended to provide ‘vivacious’ night-and-day contrast with Domergue’s gloomy, sullen character, who scarcely ever cracks a smile.

 As the cold-blooded if not-hearted snake girl, Domergue gives cats, dogs and horses alike the willies, and even secondary hero Long gets a bad vibe off her, presumably just because he’s so dang wholesome he can sniff-out badness from a mile off; and he can smell it all over Domergue’s moodily melancholy character like stink on shit.  An attempt is made to generate some pathos for her lot (i.e., is dictated by the Lamian cult’s influence) rather than being a conscious choice on her part.  For the film’s sole decidedly lame ‘transformation’ sequence, we simply see Domergue’s shadow thrown in profile on a wall while ‘changing’ into that of a stiff rubber cobra via a crude now-you-see-her / now-you-don’t dissolve technique which was old news even in Georges Méliès’ day.  It was for this seeming laziness and indifference in the SFX department why I’ve so long considered COTC largely such a non-event, simply because, if they had at least injected a bit more creative energy into the more fantastical components of the narrative it might have been one whole helluva lot more consistently entertaining than it is (or rather isn’t, for the most part).

In some scenes it is positively painful to watch how hard Long is trying not to crack-up while delivering his dialogue (but with a handle like Dick Long, he’s one to laugh!  And what better name for playing hero in a snake movie; even if it is perhaps more suited to a porno star!).  David Janssen fills a supporting part as Italo-American bowling alley proprietor Rico Nardi, who gets fatally snake-bit while driving (indicative of the low budget imposed on this lesser league Universal horror, a shot of his flipping automobile was merely stock footage spliced in from another film which evidently dated from back in the ‘40s sometime.  I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it before somewhere along the line, but I couldn’t place it).

Like Alfred Shaughnessy’s substantially superior Brit thriller CAT GIRL (1957), starring future Hammer glamour puss Barbara Shelley in the equivalent Domergue part, CULT OF THE COBRA is largely a quickie redo of Lewton’s influential CAT PEOPLE (1943), with the sexually-repressed anti-heroine (“She who is a snake, and yet a woman”) changing into a vengeful animal whenever she dares heed the natural human feminine urges throbbing within her loins; although this fermenting erotic undertow is decidedly downplayed here so as not to risk offending even the average all-American girl-next-door’s upstandingly upright and uptight great-grandmother back in ultrasensitive McCarthyist Middle America.  However, Domergue’s volcanically smouldering presence and a frantic native dancing girl undulating slinkily about in a condom-snug “snakeskin” body stocking provide the requisite helping of cheesecake, and that dancer’s floorshow – seen early into the action – makes for about the film’s liveliest sequence, simply by contrast with much of the dreary goings on elsewhere in the runtime.  As with other “animal girl” entries of the era (e.g., Susan Cabot’s The WASP WOMAN [1959] and Coleen Gray’s The LEECH WOMAN [1960], the latter another Universal pic included with the same DVD set cited above), Faith’s bestial inclinations eventually prove to be her undoing, which comes as no surprise to anyone…apparently not even she herself.

Dick Long and the cobra.

True to its emulative Lewtonesque roots, the film even includes a so-called “bus” shot (i.e., false scare); which was thus named after the famous scene in CAT PEOPLE where – right at a key moment during the suspenseful build-up – a bus unexpectedly and jarringly pulls into the frame and noisily slams on its airbrakes, causing untold numbers of viewers to jump clear out of their seats upon the film’s original release.  Back in the ‘40s, such a technique was still relatively fresh, although by now it has become old hat (virtually every so-called horror film nowadays contains more than one such ‘false alarm”, that’s how much the gimmick has been done to death and then some since).

As for CULT OF THE COBRA, like I said above, my initial exposure to the film was more than 30 years ago, and even back then I was left distinctly underwhelmed by it.  While its new millennial disc release has improved its standing somewhat in my eyes, it still registers for the large part as none-too-exciting.  But for me, probably just due to simple nostalgia, it has acquired a strange sort of ambiguous reputation in my memory, and I have come to regard it with roughly equal parts affection and contempt.  So you could say it had at least some sort of an effect on me, for what it’s worth, be it for better or worse…probably a bit of both.  If that sounds like some sort of backhanded compliment, it’s about the best I can do, I’m afraid.

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