Cult of the Cobra (1955) [31 Days of American Horror Review]

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Director: Francis D. Lyon
Starring:  Faith Domergue, Kathleen Hughes, Richard Long, Jack Kelly, David Janssen, Marshall Thompson, Edward Platt

In modern-day New York a young woman arrives from an exotic, far-away country and enters into a love affair with a man unaware that she is not all that she seems. That beautiful young woman is something more than human, something animalistic and deadly…she can change and when she does, people die.

No, it’s not Cat People. It certainly would like to be, but Universal’s Cult Of The Cobra is a much less subtle affair.

Substituting Serbia for Asia (just Asia, it’s vague and lazy. Go with it.) and snakes for panthers, it switches the curse concept from the woman to the victims, making for a more pedestrian narrative all round. It’s a well-worn idea of westerners doing something they shouldn’t in an exotic location and being picked off one by one as a result.

Saying that, Cult Of The Cobra is a really enjoyable film once you accept its obvious influences and limitations.

A group of six American Air Force officers stationed overseas are looking for thrills before being shipped back home.  They encounter Daru, a snake charmer, who offers to take them to witness a secret ritual of the cult of Lamia. Daru explains they are snake worshippers who forbid outsiders to witness their rituals, but smuggles the group in for money.

One of the group, Nick Hommel (James Dobson) is drunk and is exposed taking a photo. Escaping with their lives, the group catch up with Hommel, who has seemingly been bitten by a snake but quickly recovers. The next day though, Nick is dead and the five survivors return home.

Once back in New York, Tom (Marshall Thompson) is rejected by Julia (Kathleen Hughes) who picks Paul (Richard Long) over him. Disconsolate, he meets Lisa Moyer (Faith Domergue), a beautiful new neighbour across the hall who is initially terrified of an unseen intruder in her apartment. Tom feels protective of her, as well as an attraction and the pair begin to see more of each other.

One by one though, the surviving members of the group begin to die mysterious deaths. Was the curse placed on them by the Lamian cult real? Can the followers really transform into snakes? And what connection does this strange young woman who has come into their lives have to the deaths?

It’s not high art, but in taking the basic bones of Cat People and turning it into a run of the mill horror, Francis D.Lyon’s film is a lot of fun.

The opening scenes in “Asia” are pretty vague and slightly dodgy, but the ritual itself is well-handled and nicely atmospheric. It’s a basic set and there’s not a whole amount to it, but it feels menacing and bizarre, like something we really shouldn’t be watching. Which is the point, after all.

Once back in the Big Apple, there’s a real feeling of vivid, bustling life in the big city. The love triangle between Julia, Tom and Paul feels awkward at first, like it purely exists to drive Tom into a relationship with Lisa, but in all honesty, that could have happened just as easily without it.

Why? Because Lisa Moyer is absolutely captivating. Played by Howard Hughes’ one-time protegé/lover Faith Domergue, she’s the difference between Cult Of The Cobra being a bog-standard pot-boiler and a worthwhile film.

Domergue absolutely steals every scene she’s in, portraying herself as a vulnerable young woman, but brilliantly, she delivers an icy, cold malevolence underneath it all. She’s as exotic as she is stunning, which is why more than one male in the film immediately falls for her charms, but she’s always, always radiating something else too. She’s a predator and those men are her prey. They’re just too spellbound by her to notice.

It’s a different kind of vulnerable that Simone Simon delivered in Cat People, as Lisa is fully accepting of her nature and is actually the villain of the piece. Well, as close as it gets to a villain. Those airmen should have had more respect for the culture of the land they were in, but nobody deserves to be slowly picked of by a mystical snake woman.

Smartly, we generally just see the woman and not the snake. There’s the odd shadow, or a snake-eye view of the victims, but with budgets limited, keeping the fake snake we see at the end was a smart move. Anyway, it’s actually more tense *not* to see what’s going on most of the time and this is no different.

The death scenes are brilliantly tense too, each one drip-feeding the horror about to unfold as the doomed airmen realise what is going on. One by one, they meet their end and each one is massively enjoyable.

More than anything, Cult of the Cobra feels like a film out of time. It’s idea of Westerners bringing back an ancient curse from a far-off land is one that would have been more at home in the ‘30s or ‘40s. Seeing it smack bang in the middle of the 1950s makes it a refreshingly retro throwback in an era where it’s generally all about science going mad and atomic horror.

There’s not much here we haven’t seen in some combination before, but it’s all rehashed so well, it doesn’t really matter. A nice central premise, some griping murder set-pieces and a career-best performance from the (in this film at least) astonishing Faith Domergue, mate Cult Of The Cobra if not a classic, certainly a must-see example of entertaining ‘50s horror that takes it cues from the decade before rather than contemporary real-world events.

Rating: 3.5/5.

JULESAVThe Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy

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