MONOCHROME MANOR Presents:
CULT OF THE COBRA (1955)
Review by Steve Van Samson
Down a particularly twisted road, over an old bridge and up, up on the very top of a hill where no one goes, stands a forgotten manse. With a sudden clap of thunder, the nameplate flashes—MONOCHROME MANOR. Standing here, nearly forgotten, is a place out of time. A place where bookshelves move, portraits leer, and, on nights just like this… old black and white movies are screened in the house’s totally plush theater room.
Tonight’s Feature: CULT OF THE COBRA (1955)
I’m willing to bet that the term “Creature Double Feature” is a familiar one. For many who grew up in the Boston or Philadelphia areas in the 1970s and 1980s, it is sure to bring to mind lazy Saturday afternoons whiled away in front of the old “boob tube”—conjuring visions of rubber monstrosities, flying saucers and lovely damsels in mid-recoil. The program’s format was simple: Creature Double Feature broadcast two horror/sci-fi/monster movies (usually B pictures from the 30s through the 50s) back-to-back. A huge hit with younger viewers, the show ran for eleven years, introducing a whole new generation to cheese-ball classics of old.
The concept of a double-feature was a success, but it was hardly original. The format can be traced all the way back to the late 19th century, where it was first devised by opera houses. Combining two shorter performances into one long production boosted the value of the ticket for the potential opera goer. Knowing that, let’s fast forward a few decades to the mid-1930s—to an America which was fast in the clutches of a great depression. It was a time when the average American had bigger things to worry about than a night out at the movies. To combat dwindling ticket sales, studios like Universal took a cue from those opera houses of old and added value to every ticket. Combining one big budget production (the A picture) with another that had been produced far more cheaply (the B picture), helped entice moviegoers with a full night of much needed escapism.
In other words, the double-feature had been born.
Initially paired with REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955), CULT OF THE COBRA (1955) is a perfect example of the sort of cheap-o flick studios produced to fill double bills. COTC is an unabashed B picture, but it almost feels as if the movie were striving to rise above its silly script and canned dialogue.
But enough of that…
Our story begins in 1945, in far off… Asia. You’d think the filmmakers could have narrowed things down more than an entire continent, but there you have it. Come to think of it, this Asia looks a lot like India. Hmmm… perhaps director Francis D. Lyon was concerned with cultural backlash and decided to be super general, rather than risk insulting an entire country with things like snake cults and–yup… not three minutes in and we have a white guy in brown face.
Local street performer Daru (Leonard Strong) is currently charming the pants off what we can all can recognize as a cobra. The performance lures a group of U.S. Air Force officers over, who seem fascinated. While one of the men, Cpl. Nick (James Dobson) seems interested only in snapping as many photos as possible, the others begin to ask the charmer about his exotic and deadly trade. After some charming character stuff, another of the Americans steps forward. Sgt. Paul (Richard Long from 1959’s THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL and hit western series THE BIG VALLEY, 1965-1969) is the high-ranking officer here. As such, it’s his job to deliver the following, immortal bit of dialog.
“Hey…” says Sgt. Paul “have you guys ever heard of snakes being changed into people?”
The line plays as ridiculously on screen as it looks in print. Hearing it produces an instantaneous change in the affable snake charmer. Suddenly, Daru starts to pay very close attention, as the loud mouthed American waxes about a tale he heard from an old acquaintance (Dr. Sindar—presumably also from Asia) who spoke of a secret society called Lamians. A cult that not only worshipped, but could literally transform into, serpents! And you know, based on the title CULT OF THE COBRA… probably not garter snakes.
Having heard enough, the snake-charmer speaks up, confirming that the stories are completely true. In fact, not only are the Lamians and their unbelievable rituals real, Daru just so happens to be one of them! What’s more, for the price of 100 American dollars, he will sneak the Air Forcers in for a sneak peek! The only stipulation is that there must be no pictures taken, because if the interlopers are discovered, it will mean certain death for them all—Daru included! Reluctantly, the men agree, though that one stipulation comes as something of a disappointment to Cpl. Nick (the one with the camera).
Side Note #1: The thing about having such a large cast is, names are extremely put-downable. With the exception of Sgt. Paul and Tom (Marshall Thompson), the rest sort of just devolve into a single character trait or stand-out scene. Besides shutterbug Nick, we have Rico (the one with the bowling alley), Carl (the one who gets punched in the face by Tom) and Pete (the one who isn’t Rico or Carl).
Later that night, at a local cafe, Daru meets up with Paul and the gang, dispensing an official-type Lamian robe to each man. Then, after sneaking into an incredibly large and conspicuous temple, the men hunker down to see what $100 American has bought them. The scene that follows is a rather saucy performance—some strange sort of ballet which represents the first time the snake goddess came to the aid of the Lamian people. Two warrior men battle it out beside a conspicuous wicker basket. Eventually, one of them gets the upper hand, but before he can strike the death blow, the top of the basket pops off to reveal a third player. Wearing an extremely memorable body sock, the “snake goddess” slithers into view. Then, coiling her body around the evil warrior, she delivers the kiss of death and slides back into her basket. It’s actually pretty well done and definitely not something you see every day… even in B pictures.
After that though, all hell breaks loose. Nick (the one with the camera) unable to keep it in his pants, has already whipped out his camera. The shutter and resulting flash turns the serene ceremony into a mosh pit, but even as torches are brandished and punches thrown… Nick decides to go and make matters worse! Diving over to the basket, he peers inside to see, not a body sock wearing actress but a real live cobra! Astonished, he slaps the top back on the basket, picks it up and makes for the door–all to the curses of the high priest, who shouts:
“The cobra goddess will avenge herself! One by one, you will die!”
Side Note #2: Now, for the record, I’m all for an outlandish plot. Secret Asian cults? Sure. Women that turn into snakes? Sign me up. Nick sealing the group’s fate for a stinking picture that could not possibly have been taken stealthily given his gigantic flash bulb? Not so much. But… as with many of these old B pictures, the charm of CULT OF THE COBRA (1955) lies not in its ability to make a ton of sense.
Sgt. Paul and the rest are able to make it out of the temple alive (after setting the place on fire—another WTF! decision) and rush to catch up with Nick (the one with the camera and now, one pilfered snake goddess). Unfortunately, they find their friend sprawled out in the street. Above him stands a mysterious woman in black robes, whom Tom unsuccessfully chases after. Nick, meanwhile, is discovered to have been bitten by something with two fangs and plenty of venom—can’t imagine what. Needless to say, the poor likeable idiot never gets to develop that last roll of film.
The remainder of CULT OF THE COBRA takes place not in “ASIA” but New York City. We catch up with Sgt. Paul and the rest, some months later. The five men, having completed their final tour of duty, are trying their best to acclimate to civilian life.
Having moved into a rather posh apartment within a row house, Tom (the one besides Sgt. Paul whose name you’ll remember) is awakened one night by hysterical screams! He leaps out of bed, “heroically” barging into the unit across the way. There he finds a woman he does not know, screaming her fool head off. Once calm enough to speak, the woman claims to have awoken to discover an intruder in her bedroom. Again, Tom leaps into action, pointedly probing the premises. But after finding neither hide nor hair, he returns to the woman—Lisa, played by Faith Domergue (THIS ISLAND EARTH, 1955, WHERE DANGER LIVES, 1950). Though Tom takes quite the shine to his new neighbor, we as audience members trust Lisa about as far as we can throw her. This is partly due to her penchant for shifty glances, but also because when the remaining five Air Force officers start dropping like flies, Lisa is never far from the scene of the crime.
But is the curse of the Lamian priest real? Can a beautiful woman really metamorphose into a venomous killer serpent and be back before supper?
All in all, CULT OF THE COBRA (1955) is a fun little film that falls short in areas like logic, acting quality, keeping the audience guessing, dialog, and general tension building… but is (and I mean this) not without merit. The cinematography, for example, is gorgeous. Many scenes are shot as if they were meant for the grand, sweeping romance pictures of old. Close-ups of longing looks and passionate kisses and near-kisses that turn at the last second would seem more at home in GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), than a movie about sexy serpent cults. The sets are varied and extravagant—from the exotic “Asian” temples to the beautiful interior shots in the row house and a bowling alley with the classiest facade you’ve ever seen! And if the real star of the picture (the top billed Faith Domergue) shows limited emotional range, it should also be noted that she is fairly mesmerizing. In many shots her eyes are lit with a thin beam of light, exactly how Todd Browning handled Bela Lugosi in DRACULA (1931).
Long story short, if you’re looking to round out the second half of a creature double-feature… you could do a lot worse than CULT OF THE COBRA (1955). However, if you insist on pairing it with Val Lewton’s CAT PEOPLE (1942), just make sure CULT goes first.
© Copyright 2017 by Steve Van Samson