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CULT OF THE COBRA (1955)
|“The Cobra Goddess will avenge herself! One by one, you will all die!”|
Director: Francis D. Lyon
Starring: Faith Domergue, Marshall Thompson, Richard Long, Kathleen Hughes, James Dobson, David Janssen, Jack Kelly, William Reynolds, Leonard Strong, Walter Coy
Screenplay: Jerry Davis, Cecil Maiden and Richard Collins, based upon a story by Jerry Davis
Synopsis: Shortly before shipping home at the end of World War II, six American air-force officers explore an Asian bazaar. A snake charmer, Daru (Leonard Strong), allows the men to take pictures of him holding a cobra. Paul Abel (Richard Long) mentions the strange cult of the Lamians, who worship snakes and believe that there are people who can transform into them. Daru says quietly that, for a price, Paul can see this happen.... That night, Daru takes the men to the secret Lamian temple, provides them with cloaks and the password, and impresses upon them the danger of what they are doing, warning them that if caught, it will mean their deaths. The six go ahead, and observe a ceremonial dance symbolising the rescue of the Lamian people by their Cobra Goddess. As the lithe figure of the female dancer slides back into a woven basket, the inebriated Nick Hommel (James Dobson) disregards the warnings of Daru and takes a photograph. The temple then erupts as the Lamians react in outrage, and their high priest pronounces a death curse on the intruders. A desperate struggle follows. Nick tears free of two Lamians who have attacked him and seizes from the stage the woven basket – which now contains a cobra – before fleeing. Daru is slain by his fellow Lamians, while the other servicemen resort to setting the temple on fire to effect their escape. They speed away in their jeep, only to slam to a halt when they see Nick lying in the road, a woman standing over him. Tom Markel (Marshall Thompson) pursues the woman, but she evades him. He returns to Nick, who is suffering from snake bite. As Tom tends him, Paul looks worriedly at the empty woven basket lying in the road.... Recovering in hospital, Nick apologises to the others for his conduct and assures them that he will be fit to ship out the next day – but as he settles down to sleep, something appears from the darkness and slips into his room through an open window. As it rears up over him, Nick opens his eyes – and screams.... Devastated by Nick’s death, his friends must still ship out. Paul worries aloud that the high priest’s curse may have been more than words. The others scoff, turning the conversation to their plans for civilian life, and ribbing Tom and Paul who, as well as being roommates, are romantic rivals for an actress named Julia Thompson (Kathleen Hughes). This rivalry is settled when, a fortnight after the friends’ return to New York, Julia accepts Paul’s proposal. Tom is deeply hurt, but struggles to be gracious. Alone at home that night, Tom is startled by a scream coming from the apartment across the passageway. He forces his way in, and finds a beautiful, terrified woman, Lisa Moyer (Faith Domergue), who speaks brokenly of an intruder. Tom calms and makes friends with her, then persuades her to spend a day with him. When the two arrive home that evening, Tom invites Lisa into his apartment to meet Paul. There, she shows an intense interest in a photograph of the six friends during their service days. Later that night, Rico Nardi (David Janssen) locks up his bowling-alley and begins to drive home. Suddenly, in his rear-view mirror, he catches sight of something in the back seat, something that strikes at him.... The car swerves, crashes and flips, and Rico is killed. As a crowd begins to gather, a breathless Lisa slips away into the shadows....
Comments: The horror genre was surprisingly tardy in attempting to exploit the universal phenomenon of ophidiophobia, but it finally happened, at least after a fashion, in 1955’s Cult Of The Cobra. In truth, this is less a killer snake film than it is a re-working of Cat People, although it boasts very few of that film’s unsettling ambiguities. Cult Of The Cobra makes no attempt to disguise either the identity of its villain or the reality of her supernatural abilities. It moves from set-piece to set-piece with a flatness of direction that even some beautifully moody black and white cinematography from Russell Metty cannot entirely disguise, and barely tries to build suspense around the fate of its characters. Yet for all these shortcomings, Cult Of The Cobra is by no means an entirely negligible work – although it could be fairly said that, as far as it is interesting, it seems to be so almost in spite of itself. This is one of those films that gives the impression of saying rather more than its makers ever intended, or perhaps even realised, glancing at such issues as cultural and religious insensitivity, and the consequences of failing to take responsibility for your actions, before taking a long hard look at some of the psycho-sexual issues of the post-war American male, all under the guise of asking that most poignant and unanswerable of questions – why must I be a were-cobra in love?
Cult Of The Cobra gets off to an unfortunate start by – ten years after World War II, and two years after Korea – setting its action in “Asia”; or, if you prefer the attitude taken by the film’s advertising art, in “the Mystic East”. If we care to give the screenwriters the benefit of the doubt here, we can suggest that they were reluctant to identify their Lamian cult with one particular country – although in fact, the depiction of the Lamians in Cult Of The Cobra indicates some interesting ambivalence on the part of the film-makers, and perhaps a little more fair-mindedness than you might expect. On one hand, they are the same set of faceless “foreigners” that has colourful-ed up countless action movies from Gunga Din to The Temple Of Doom, designated “evil” just by their difference from our supposed identification characters. (Let’s face it: the very use of the word “cult” is a dead giveaway, although I suppose you could claim that here they were as much interested in the word’s alliterative aspects as its negative implications.) The temple, the robes, the ceremony are all familiar from a hundred films where we are encouraged to find such practitioners either repellent or risible – exactly as the characters of Cult Of The Cobra do, treating the Lamian ritual as a kind of nightclub act staged for their entertainment.
(The irony here is that the ritual is enacted by, obviously, a pair of professional dancers, who are billed only as “The Carlssons”, and probably were a nightclub act.)
Hidden under their robes, the six friends watch in some bemusement a dance routine symbolising an attack on the Lamian people, and the death of the aggressor at the hands, or rather fangs, of the Cobra Goddess. The latter emerges from a woven basket, a lithe figure entirely encased in a thin, shimmering material, and does a sort of interpretative dance that ends with her wrapped around the body of the sword-wielding invader and “biting” his throat. (As cobra dances go, this one has it all over Maria Montez’s effort in Cobra Woman in terms of credibility....but is, of course, not nearly as much fun.) The Goddess is slithering her way back into her basket – which is, we notice, not nearly big enough to hold an adult woman – when the inevitable happens: a flashbulb goes off. So do the Lamians. Nick Hommel, evidently figuring that he isn’t in nearly enough trouble already, breaks free of two Lamians for have seized him and rushes, not for the exit, but for the stage. There he grabs the woven basket, which – in a moment of staggering casualness – now contains a cobra. Nick slams down the lid and bolts. His friends, meanwhile, are engaged in fist-fights with the Lamians, and getting off easy: the unfortunate Daru gets a sword in his guts. The servicemen then set fire to the hangings in the temple and under this cover make their escape – although of course, they’re not getting off that easy. “The Cobra Goddess will avenge herself!” shouts a rightly outraged Lamian priest. “One by one, you will all die!”
(Alas for Cult Of The Cobra, these days this dramatic climax is one of unintentional hilarity: the priest is played by an unbilled Edward Platt, whose unexpected appearance is guaranteed to provoke a laugh.)
This curse is not long in making itself felt. Nick Hommel is found unconscious in the road, a snake bite on his throat and a woman standing over him – she melting into the shadows as Tom Markel pursues her unavailingly. Returning to his friends, Tom finds Paul staring worriedly into the discarded basket, now empty. Tom then kneels down and “treats” Nick in the classical movie way: by cutting the wound and sucking out the venom.
You may, if you please, consider the following a Community Service Announcement:
My friends, in the event of snakebite, do not, DO NOT, do what the movies do. Don’t try sucking the venom out. Don’t cut the puncture marks. And in particular don’t do it if, like Nick Hommel, the victim has a bite mark directly over the jugular vein!!
Nick ends up in the military hospital, where he and his friends discuss the night’s events with a stunning lack of concern, not just treating the experience as no more than a lark, but literally laughing about it. “Boy, those guys at the temple really blew their top!” comments Nick with a disbelieving shake of the head, to which Paul replies judiciously, “Well – they had a right to be sore.”
They had a right to be sore!!??
Let’s review, shall we? These six men have bribed their way into a religious ceremony forbidden to outsiders. They have photographed it. They have disrupted the ritual. They have stolen the basket containing, perhaps literally, the Lamians’ Cobra Goddess. They have violently beaten up the members of the congregation who took exception to their presence. They have set a temple on fire. They have gotten their guide killed.
Yes, I think you could say that the Lamians had – “a right to be sore”....
And it is here that Cult Of The Cobra becomes rather interesting, inasmuch as it, too, seems to consider that the Lamians had a right to be sore. Although there is an unavoidable emotional component to this story of six friends who, as they put it, “made it all the way through the war without a scratch”, only to drop dead one by one on the streets of New York, the film never really asks us to sympathise overly with the men’s fate, or suggests that they didn’t have it coming. This attitude is best illustrated by what, on the face of it, seems like a most unfair distribution of snaky justice.
When you get right down to it, everything that happens in Cult Of The Cobra is the fault of Paul Abel – who is, I should mention at this point, a scientist by profession. It is Paul who leaps at Daru’s offer to smuggle the men into the ceremony, persuading his friends to go along, even at the risk of their lives. They have no interest in the subject, killing their boredom with alcohol as Paul, oblivious to their disinterest, expounds at length on the various cultures that have legends of human-animal metamorphosis. (You could also argue that Paul should have anticipated what the combination of alcohol and a camera fetish would lead to in the case of Nick Hommel.)
Yet of the six sinners, Paul is the only one never to be in serious danger of the Cobra Goddess’s retribution – perhaps because, if he is the prime transgressor, he is also the only one of the group to accept responsibility for that transgression. It is Paul alone who sees a dark omen in the empty basket lying by the unconscious Nick; he alone who, after Nick’s death, is prepared to contemplate the unthinkable: that the Lamian priest’s words were far more than just an empty threat. (One of the touches I like best about Cult Of The Cobra is its suggestion that it is because Paul is a scientist that he is open-minded enough to contemplate the reality of the curse.) The others, in contrast, don’t want to know. Although deeply shaken by Nick’s death, they dismiss it as a freak tragedy and scoff at Paul’s concerns. Intent upon resuming their civilian lives, they – far too easily – banish the events at the temple from their thoughts.
For Paul, however, the memory of that night is never far from his mind; and after Rico’s death, he tells Julia his fears. The language in this scene is as revealing as its content. Although I have credited Paul with accepting the blame for what is happening to his friends, his choice of words indicates an ongoing reluctance to come fully to terms with the situation. He tells Julia that he and the others “got mixed up with a snake cult”, and that “what we saw was pretty ugly” and that “it ended in the snake charmer’s death” – but never at any point is there a reference to what we did. Paul’s evasiveness, particularly considering that he is speaking to his fiancée, highlights the fact that on a certain level, Cult Of The Cobra is a tale of servicemen misbehaving themselves overseas, and of the nasty things that such men sometimes bring back to the supposed sanctity of their civilian homes.
However, when Julia shows a tendency to mock at the Lamians – “That’s a religion?” she responds laughingly – Paul won’t have it: “They’re as serious about it as we are about ours.” (Based on what we see of the various characters, this sentiment perhaps sells the Lamians a little short.) Critically, Paul has recognised that he and his friends have done something really wrong, something that, were it done to them, they would consider an intolerable offence.
And it is this chastened frame of mind that ultimately protects Paul from his potential fate, putting him on guard and allowing his to recognise, when it arrives, Retribution – aka Miss Lisa Moyer.
Although as a genre actress, Faith Domergue is probably better known for her other two 1955 efforts, This Island Earth and It Came From Beneath The Sea, her performance in Cult Of The Cobra is the definitive one of her career – as far as it was a performance. At the time this film was made, Ms Domergue was going through a painful divorce, and the strain of her personal problems is clearly evident onscreen, in the droop of her full lips and the weariness in her huge dark eyes. (Aware of the toll being taken on her, Ms Domergue begged director Francis D. Lyon to avoid shooting close-ups of her as much as possible. He chose to ignore her: this film is full of lingering close shots.) Perversely, this is quite perfect for Lisa, conveying effortlessly her growing misery of spirit as her feelings for Tom begin to interfere with her mission. Truth be told, Faith Domergue was not a particularly strong actress, but her iconic value here is incalculable. She looks serpentine. We wonder neither at Tom’s instant attraction to her, nor at Paul’s instinctive sense that there is something profoundly wrong about her.
As I have indicated, the surface of Cult Of The Cobra, whatever subtext might be lurking beneath it, is amusingly prosaic. It makes no bones at all about Lisa, who or what she is, and what she’s there for. The initial deaths are enacted just as baldly. In each case we see the victim reacting in horror as a snake – or rather, its shadow – rears up, then strikes. Thus, Rico dies when his car crashes; Carl, when he backs away onto the balcony of his apartment, and falls off; and Pete when, having tied Lisa to Carl’s death, he unwisely confronts her in her apartment. If the film makes no effort to disguise Lisa’s true nature, neither does it grant us the gratification of acting like a “real” monster movie, and giving us a series of transformation scenes. What we get instead are POV shots and shadows, with occasional deployment of the subjective “lens-eye” effect from It Came From Outer Space.
The only spark of imagination comes with the killing of Pete, where we see Lisa’s shadow on the wall suddenly melt into the shadow of a snake. Cult Of The Cobra does feel compelled to adhere to tradition at its climax, however, when after Lisa is killed in her snake form, she changes back into her human form – which was a major mistake. No transformation story can entirely avoid the issue of Where do the clothes go?, of course, but Cult Of The Cobra turns tragedy into laughter by having Lisa’s post-mortem morph accompanied not just by the reappearance of the cape she was wearing over her evening gown, but also that of her exceedingly abundant bling.
But if Cult Of The Cobra stumbles and bumbles its way through the conventions of the horror film, it scores an unexpected bulls-eye in its depiction of its central relationship – which is not the one between its conventional romantic couple, Paul and Julia, but that which develops between its monster and her potential victim.
Much of Cult Of The Cobra is spent in consideration of Tom Markel, and the psychology of these scenes is remarkably acute. We are alerted early on to a romantic rivalry between Tom and Paul over Julia. It is Paul whom she chooses; and when she breaks the news to Tom, he is bitterly hurt.
(Understandably – how would you like to be thrown over for a scientist? Tom vents his feelings via the snarky observation that, after her marriage, Julia will have to keep working, because, “Paul will never be anything more than a research assistant!” Ooh, ouch!)
That very night – while Paul is conveniently if hurtfully out with Julia – hysterical screams draw Tom into the apartment over the way, where he finds Lisa, beautiful, vulnerable and apparently in need of protection. Before he leaves her apartment, he has pressured her into spending the day with him – overtly in order to demonstrate to her the attractions of New York City, in truth in order to demonstrate to his friends that he is, after all, a “real man”, despite Julia’s preference for Paul.
What is curious about all this is that Tom has been assigned the mental state usually reserved for women; that is, he has been brought to consider himself a failure as a man because he isn’t “in a relationship”. To regain his feelings of self-esteem, he has to get himself a “relationship”, any “relationship”, and as soon as possible; and when it comes to Lisa, he simply will not take ‘no’ for an answer. For all that urban myth would have us believe that the 1950s represented the pinnacle of “home” and “marriage” and “family values”, the plain fact is that numerous films from that era – with genre films curiously prominent amongst them – paint a disturbing picture of the relationship between the sexes.
To modern eyes, Tom Markel’s behaviour is horrifying. His pursuit of Lisa is unrelenting to the point of obsession. He barges his way into her apartment on the slightest of pretexts, constantly demanding to know where she has been and what she has been doing. After barely hours of acquaintance, he is presenting her to all and sundry as “my girl”. He forces a kiss on her that she has made clear she does not want. He punches out his friend, Carl, not so much for dancing with Lisa, but because Lisa evidently enjoyed it – and having done so, he seizes Lisa by the wrist and literally drags her away from the party, presumably to find somewhere less rife with masculine competition. When Lisa leaves her gloves in his apartment, Tom crosses the hall to return them, and when Lisa doesn’t answer his knock, he not merely lets himself in (she lent him the keys earlier in the evening so that he could get some ice), but upon finding her gone, curls up on her couch and waits for her to get home. Time and again in Cult Of The Cobra, we are reminded very forcibly that this film was made at a time when love meant never having to say you’re sorry for behaving like a stalker.
The creepiness of Tom’s behaviour is hardly mitigated by the fact that – as we are aware, even if he is not – Lisa has put herself in his way precisely in order to be stalked. Tom and his romantic desperation are Lisa’s ticket to her list of victims. It is a nice touch that she puts all her efforts into targeting the more domestic Paul and Tom, rather than the tom-catting Carl and Pete, evidently considering that she can get close enough to the latter two without any particular effort – and she’s right. (Rico, the only one of the group not defined by his relationships with women, is dispatched as quickly as possible.)
Of course, looked at squarely, Lisa’s scheme for gaining access to the doomed men does nothing but raise an endless list of unanswered questions. How did Lisa know where to find her victims? What would she have done had an apartment next to Paul and Tom’s not “happened” to be vacant? – or if Tom hadn’t been so embarrassingly needy? – or if these men, after serving in the same air force unit, had not also turned out, not just to all live in New York, but within walking distance of one another? Where does Lisa get her clothes? – her jewellery? – her money? How, exactly, does a Lamian Cobra Goddess go about applying for a passport? And above all, why should a Lamian Cobra Goddess manifest herself in a human form so very attractive to American men? (We see Lisa clearly enough when Nick is attacked, and this is her “natural” form.)
Also unaddressed is the question of why our Lamian Cobra Goddess should start to fall for Tom – and not just because we are likely to find Tom’s conduct repellent in the extreme. Like so many female “monsters” and “aliens” in films of this time – I suppose, of all times – Lisa is hampered in her mission when she finds herself struggling with “this thing called love”. This really makes any sense only in a Hitchcockian sort of way. (Don’t worry, I haven’t run quite mad: I assure you that this is the only time I will mention Alfred Hitchcock and Cult Of The Cobra in the same breath!) That is to say, as happens in films like North By Northwest and Vertigo, what we have here is a case of a morally ambiguous girl falling for a man primarily out of guilt for setting him up in the first place.
Be that as it may, when it comes to the others on her list, Lisa wastes no time. The circumstances of Carl’s death – falling off his balcony after the party during which Tom decked him – attract the attention of the police as Rico’s car crash did not. For one thing, blood was found at the scene that did not belong to the victim, staining a broken statuette. (Carl threw it at the snake, and now Lisa has a cut on her arm.) Having succeeded in clearing himself of suspicion, Pete begins to wonder what, exactly, Lisa was doing around Carl’s apartment at the time of his death....and makes the mistake of confronting her about it.
Paul, meanwhile, has felt his vague apprehensions about Lisa harden into conviction; and he tells the investigating cop all about the Lamian curse. Remarkably, the cop neither laughs in his face nor tosses him into a cell to sleep it off, but rather orders toxicological testing to be done on Carl’s body. This confirms that he died of snake bite (the puncture wounds on Carl’s throat having, we infer, escaped the notice of the medical examiner: not very likely, with a cobra bite). Although not accepting Paul’s story of metamorphosis, the cop does agree to bring Lisa in for questioning, and so they go looking for her – finding instead Pete’s dead body, fang marks on the neck.
All this is happening, by the way, on the night of Julia’s New York debut (the timeline of this film is fairly ludicrous), and Tom has escorted Lisa to the theatre, where our climax plays itself out. Tom and Lisa are separated when he is called to the phone, while she takes the opportunity to slip up to Julia’s dressing-room, where she expects to find Paul. Instead it is Julia who returns there during the first intermission. Julia has had one narrow escape from Lisa, saved by the timely delivery of Paul’s laundry after responding to his request that she talk to Lisa and try to take a measure of her character by stupidly blabbing on about cults and snakes and “Paul’s theory”. Now, she finds herself caught in a confined space, with a cobra between herself and the door....
Tom is forced by the facts of Pete’s death to accept the truth about Lisa. Numb with shock, he searches unavailingly for his deadly love, until he hears screams coming from upstairs.....
Bursting into Julia’s dressing-room, Tom has time only for one horrified stare before he leaps to Julia’s rescue, fighting the cobra with all means at his disposal – such as they are. Now, either Lisa in snake form is the most ineffectual cobra ever, or – she won’t really fight back against Tom, instead allowing herself to be simply pushed through a window and off a balcony in a scene as embarrassing as it is unique. At least, I’m pretty sure this is the only movie out there in which the monster is defeated by a feathery wrap and a coat rack.
But if the means of Lisa’s demise, and her final transformation, are laughable, it is not these images with which Cult Of The Cobra leaves us, but rather with sombre footage of an emotionally shattered Tom, first kneeling over Lisa’s body with his head clutched in his hands, then slowly, silently, wandering away into the night.... As much as it is a horror film, Cult Of The Cobra is a study of sexual inadequacy – or, more correctly, of the fear of sexual inadequacy, and of the intolerable pressures that some people feel compelled to put upon themselves in order to live up to an artificial idea of what constitutes being “a success”.
And here we have the overriding irony of the film. For all that it is so focussed upon men and women and relationships, and the perceptions and assumptions that surround them, the grim closing scene of Cult Of The Cobra functions as a tart reminder that despite what our society too often has to say upon the subject, there are many things in life much worse than just being single.