Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Cult of the Cobra

[This is a contribution to the Spirit Of Ed Wood Blog-a-Thon currently running at Cinema Styles from July 6 to July 12. Greg at Cinema Styles has opened up this week-long event to posts about legendary B-movie maker Ed Wood, as well as any likeminded examples of low-budget sci-fi and horror filmmaking. I'll be following his lead this week with a series of posts about 50s sci-fi.]

Cult of the Cobra is a great movie on paper, if only on paper. It's a lurid, potentially chilling story, a truly inventive premise for a B horror flick. While waiting out the last few days of their tour of duty, a group of American GIs stationed "somewhere in Asia" get a chance to witness a strange ritual never seen by Western eyes: the ceremony of a snake-worshipping cult whose members believe that humans can transform into snakes. They're discovered at the temple, however, and barely make their escape, as the cult's priest screams a curse after them, promising them that they will die. The soldiers head back to America, but they're then stalked by the snake goddess herself, a slinky, seductive woman who slithers into their lives and kills them one by one. It sounds great, right? Sounds campy and fun? You want to see it already, don't you? Don't bother; like so many of the low-budget, indifferently made sci-fi and horror flicks pouring out of Hollywood's underbelly throughout its Golden Age, Cult of the Cobra is far more interesting in theory than in execution. Its plot would suggest a sexy, creepy thriller, but in actuality it's simply plodding and predictable, methodically draining all the fun out of its campy central idea.

Well, not quite all the fun, maybe. There's still fun to be had here, though much of it rests with Faith Domergue, who plays the cobra woman Lisa. Domergue, a Howard Hughes discovery who smoldered her way through some great low-budget genre fare in the 50s, is the perfect choice for the sinister, chilly Lisa. Her big black eyes, with their heavy lids, always seem guarded, distant, and her distinctive mouth is a twisted scrawl best suited to a sneer or a frown. She gets the big moments here, the dramatic, ambiguous closeups, her face bathed in light, accentuating the pools of shadows that formed at her cheekbones. She's creepy and mysterious, even if there's no real mystery about her; it's obvious from the moment she appears who she is and why she's around.

Upon Lisa's first appearance, she immediately attracts the attention of Tom (Marshall Thompson), one of the servicemen. He's nursing a broken heart, since the girl he loved, Julia (Kathleen Hughes) had decided to marry Tom's service buddy Paul (Richard Long). Tom tries to be happy for the couple, but can't get over the loss until he stumbles into Lisa's arms. As Tom falls in love with Lisa, she's stalking around the city at night, visiting his friends and killing them one by one, just like the priest's curse had promised. All of this makes Paul, somewhat improbably, suspicious of Lisa — not that he has any reason to be, just that she seems "strange" to him. Ultimately, the film is about the tension between its pair of female archetypes: the chirpy, sweet blonde and the dark, troubled, seductive brunette. Julia and Lisa make an interesting pair of opposites, particularly in the memorable scene where they finally meet, Julia's wide-eyed innocence and earnestness contrasting against Lisa's barely contained turmoil.

The film develops Lisa as a figure of danger and destruction. Like the noir femme fatale — a role Domergue excelled at as well — Lisa is a corrupting force, using her sexual energy as a weapon, a shield, a tool to turn against the men who want her. The other men sense that she's dangerous, but Tom just knows he loves her. Paul says that he thinks she's "bad for him," but one wonders why — he certainly doesn't know she's a killer cobra in disguise, doesn't know anything about her other than what he sees on the surface. It's just obvious, because she's dark and "different" from other girls. She doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, doesn't giggle and throw herself at men the way a perpetually smiling party girl does at one of the friends' parties. Julia, in contrast, is sweet and warm and unguarded, as Hughes does her best Marilyn Monroe impersonation (not that her best is very good: she mostly just purses her lips a lot and arches her eyebrows so high they look like they're about to fly off the top of her head). She's the girl you're supposed to want to marry; Lisa is the dangerous yet appealing girl you're too afraid to ask. These clichés are at the center of the film's depiction of these two women, and the tension between them is fascinating even though they only come face to face once.

There's certainly not much else that's fascinating about this film. Lisa's transformations between snake and woman all happen offscreen, for the obvious reason that it would doubtless look silly if they'd tried to show it onscreen. (And when they finally do, during the finale, it's so laughable it winds up being one of the film's most enjoyable moments.) Even her attacks are mostly unseen; at most, a shadow of a cobra's profile appears as the snake creeps closer to its victim. Director Francis D. Lyon doesn't have much of a sense of pacing. The scenes leading up to each attack are interminable and slack, with tension building only to be tossed away. At one point, one of the men is about to be attacked at the bowling alley where he works. Lyon shows Lisa in the area, shows the open window leading inside, shows the mysterious stirring in the back that knocks over a bowling pin. But then nothing happens, the man walks outside, is interrupted and has a conversation, walks back inside, comes out again, gets in his car — and is then finally attacked as expected. The timing is all off, the tension fizzles out as Lyon spends too long simply watching this guy going about his business, doing mundane tasks. So much of the film is like this, just slightly off in its timing and pacing, expending long stretches of time on prosaic moments while rushing through the encounters with the actual supernatural horror elements.

The film's main problem (besides the unfortunate shift in Lisa's character to make her declare her scaly love for Tom) is that it's just one big tease. There's nothing there: the "mystery" is so obvious it barely deserves to be called one, and the killings are sloppily executed and obviously hamstrung by the lack of an effects budget. The absence of any real shots of the snake shouldn't be a problem if the director had been capable of creating suspense and terror in other ways — one imagines what 40s horror producer Val Lewton would have done with the pungent psychosexual subtexts of this material, or with the potential for creating horror in the shadows, in what isn't seen rather than what is. Instead, this is a missed opportunity, an inventive premise squandered in a lame, dull film.


Fox said...

As Tom falls in love with Lisa, she's stalking around the city at night, visiting his friends and killing them one by one...

As you said, "on paper" this is a great movie... and on your blog as well! That above morsel sounds juicy enough.

But the problem with the movie sounds like the two ladies don't square off enough. I still love the idea of it though: a movie about temptress serpent woman that is bad for us, yet we can't resist. Maybe it's just that I identify with that predicament too well.

Uncle Gustav said...

I'm uncertain about how often or how long it was common practice in Hollywood (or elsewhere), but I do know that, beginning in the 1950s, the head honchos at American International Pictures would think up a film's title first, then design the poster art, at which point a screenwriter would be assigned to build a script around title and ad. It wouldn't surprise me if Universal-International conducted business in the same manner. Like so much of their product at the time, Cult of the Cobra had a terrific ad campaign which the finished film couldn't hope to live up to.

Ed Howard said...

Fox, resist the serpent woman! It's for your own good. I'm with you, though, I was really excited to see this one based on the plot description.

Flickhead, that's the way Val Lewton would be assigned projects as well, where the studio would just hand him a title and tell him to make a movie around it. Of course that turned out well -- but in the hands of less ingenious filmmakers, that's obviously a recipe for disaster. Hollywood's always had a knack for marketing, sometimes less of a knack for actually making the films to live up to that marketing.

Sam Juliano said...

"one imagines what 40s horror producer Val Lewton would have done with the pungent psychosexual subtexts of this material, or with the potential for creating horror in the shadows, in what isn't seen rather than what is. Instead, this is a missed opportunity...."

Indeed Ed. This is a lame film, despite the most promising conceit. Hence, your earlier comment that the film is much better in 'theory than execution' is one I concur with. One could fairly contend here that the film is a kind of re-working of CAT PEOPLE, and Russell Metty's moody cinematography fits right in the Lewton mold, especially since this film unfolds in a series of 'set pieces.'

You really nail the essence of Faith Domerque's performance here. She surely "looks" serpentine, and this is her finest performance in a career that also includes the B classics, THIS ISLAND EARTH and IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA.

Ed Howard said...

Sam, yes, it's probably a fair guess that this was an attempt to rip off the sublime Lewton/Tourneur Cat People, right down to the mild "foreignness" of the threatening woman. Domergue is definitely great here despite the other problems with the film. She was also great, playing a very similar character, as a femme fatale in Where Danger Lives.

Arbogast said...

I love this movie, so y'all can go to Hell. To Hell!

Greg said...

Ed, once again thank you so much for your daily contributions.

I've not seen Cult of the Cobra and I notice that Arbogast has cursed all of you to hell. To HELL!

Hmmm... so, I wonder, is it now going to be like the movie. Will each one of you be picked off, killed by snake-like woman, one by one, thanks to Arbo?

Anyway, I shall see this if only to know which of you has made the right call.

Mark my words: I will be the final judge. FINAL!

Ed Howard said...

Oh no Arbo's cursed me... hey, who's that sexy brunette who just walked in? I'll just turn my back on her for a second... Ahhhhh a snake, oh no, I'm dy--

Arbogast said...

Fuck 'im up, fuck 'im up!

Arbogast said...

Uh, oh, oh... no, what I meant to say was how terribly tragic and how could this happen?