In 1958 a political novel, The Ugly American, became an influential bestseller in the U.S. It’s a fictional account of the failure of American foreign aid workers in an imaginary Asian country to win over the local population or effect any real change due to their arrogance and ignorance of their host country’s culture and customs. The irony of the novel is that the title character, a homely engineer by the name of Atkins, is the only American who really gets it– he lives with the locals, works with them as equals, understands their needs, and makes meaningful, if somewhat small scale, improvements to his adopted village. The book’s title has since become a catch phrase for loud, ignorant American tourists who make fools of themselves in places they can barely understand or appreciate.
Cult of the Cobra is a B-movie forerunner of The Ugly American, featuring a similar sort of arrogance and ignorance, but with immediate, tragic consequences. The film’s titles provide a somewhat cryptic introduction to the melodrama to come:
Slender hangs illusion, fragile the thread to reality.
Always the question: Is it true?
Truth is in the mind and the mind of man varies with time and place.
The time is 1945. The place is Asia.
World War II has ended, the good guys have won, and 6 G.I.’s who’ve helped defend the free world are taking in the sights at a colorful, bustling marketplace in a non-specific Asian country (which looks like India to me, i.e., South Asia). As you might expect of members of a victorious army, they are brash, happy-go-lucky, and generally full of themselves. They take an interest in a snake charmer, gathering around to take pictures and pummel him with questions about his dangerous occupation. The sensitive, educated member of the group, Paul Able (Richard Long), relates a story of a local cult that worships snakes and believes its members can transform into snakes and back again. The snake charmer becomes quiet and apprehensive during Paul’s story, but then can’t help but blurt out that the cult, the Lamians, is real, and he is a member. Obviously hurting for money, he offers to sneak the G.I.s into a secret Lamian ceremony for $100, guaranteeing them that they will be the first outsiders ever to witness it.
The Americans agree, completely unaware of the danger. The snake charmer warns them that they must not take pictures, or be discovered as intruders, or a terrible fate awaits them — they will systematically be hunted down and killed. The night of the ceremony, the Americans get drunk at a local bar. They clown around and make wisecracks with the exception of Paul, who’s not sure that crashing the Lamian party is such a good idea after all. The snake charmer disguises them in ridiculous hooded robes, and they hike up to the ornate Lamian temple, their army boots clearly showing under the robes. A password is all that’s needed to get them in (“snake eyes” perhaps?).
The curious Americans don’t get to see a person actually transform into a snake and back again, but they are treated to a surreal interpretive dance depicting the Snake Goddess saving the Lamians from their enemies. (The “Carlssons” are credited with the dance sequence.) One of the real dimwits in the group, Nick (James Dobson) takes out a camera that he’s hidden under his robe and snaps a picture of the dancers. After the flash goes off, all hell breaks loose. The enraged Lamians try to capture the clueless G.I.s as the temple priest calls the Curse of the Cobra down upon them. The hapless snake charmer is put to the sword for sneaking the infidels into the ceremony. As the Americans make their escape, they knock over a torch, and the temple goes up in flames.
The G.I.s take off in a jeep, but then realize they’ve left idiot Nick behind. Somehow, they come across their unconscious friend in a dark alleyway. Paul sees a beautiful, mysterious woman with haunting eyes hovering nearby, but is too distracted to pay much attention. One of the group notices bite marks on Nick’s neck. They hustle him off to the hospital. Some time later, they’re huddled around Nick’s hospital bed, congratulating themselves on a quick getaway. An almost fully-recovered Nick offers up a lame excuse about being drunk the night of the ceremony, which his friends quickly and happily accept. Talk about ugly Americans! After disrupting a sacred religious ceremony, getting their guide killed, and burning down an ancient temple, they banter away as if they’d just pulled off a fraternity prank.
The G.I.s are obviously excited that they’re going home and back to civilian life, but their smiles are soon erased when Nick, who seemed to be getting well, unexpectedly dies. One of the doctors observes that his body, which had been purged of the cobra venom from the first bite, was filled with venom again. Score 1 for the Cult of the Cobra. We get to see this first revenge killing through a “cobra-cam” shot as the reptile slithers through an open window and onto the hospital bed. An added optical effect simulates a watery, fish-eye view as the cobra strikes at the hapless soldier.
Once on board the transport plane, the surviving G.I.s quickly forget poor old Nick and trade happy stories about what they plan to do when they get back home. (By this time I imagine the average viewer has lost all patience or sympathy with these callous dolts and is rooting for the Cobra people.) Little do they know that their happy civilian lives are going to be cut short, for the Cobra Cult’s curse is real, and death is slithering inexorably toward them. Conveniently for the avenging cult, the surviving ex-Army buddies all live in the same area of New York city.
Early on, straight-arrow Tom Markel (Marshall Thompson) loses out to sensitive, erudite Paul in competition for the affections of pretty blond Julia Thompson (Kathleen Hughes). On the rebound, he falls straight into the arms of a new neighbor– alluring, sloe-eyed Lisa Moya (Faith Domergue). In falling for the temptress, infatuated Tom unwittingly becomes an accomplice in the demise of his comrades. Paul, seemingly the only one of the group with any brain power, quickly suspects something’s not quite right with Lisa, but Tom does not want to hear it from the man who stole his sweetheart.
Cult of the Cobra plays like an homage to Lewton’s and Tourneur’s Cat People (1942). The photography is effectively dark and moody. The city seems to be shrouded in permanent night. The tension slowly builds as it dawns on the survivors that the curse is real, were-cobras are real, and they all just might be toast. The whole city seems to be alive and trying to get at them. Hands suddenly reach out of the darkness. Cars come screeching around street corners. Shadows seem to take on a life of their own, morphing into strange, snake-like shapes. Even mundane objects like bowling pins take on an aura of mystery and menace. A couple of them tremble and fall over for no earthly reason as Rico Nardi (David Janssen) — another of the army buddies — closes up his bowling alley late at night. This one small, curious incident sets in motion a chain of events that ends in Rico’s death.
While it has its share of awkward plot contrivances, Cult of the Cobra delivers solid suspense with a capable cast. As one of Universal-International’s more modest horror-fantasy offerings of the 1950s, it’s long been overshadowed by its A-list cousin the Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954). But it deserves a viewing for its great, moody photography, its Lewtonesque touches, and its very unusual “cobra’s eye view-cam.”
- Cult of the Cobra (1955)
- Universal-International Studios
- Directed by: Francis D. Lyon
- Written by: Jerry Davis, Cecil Maiden, and Richard Collins
- Starring: Faith Domergue (Lisa Moya), Richard Long (Paul Able), Marshall Thompson (Tom Markel), Kathleen Hughes (Julia Thompson)
- Check out: The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection, Vols. 1 & 2
Dishin’ the Dirt Behind the Scenes: In an interview with Tom Weaver (Science Fiction Confidential, McFarland, 2002), Kathleen Hughes recalls how unpleasant it was on the set, and how much she and the director disliked one another: “[I] came down with just horrible intestinal flu a few days into the picture– a kind of intestinal flu where you don’t know which end is going to erupt first [laughs]! I was deathly ill and I was in bed for a couple of days, and they kept calling me and saying, ‘We need you, come back, come back!’ I came back, and just by chance I walked past the assistant director’s desk and saw there were notes to the front office or the production office that said I had held up production by coming in late!”
For more reviews of obscure but worthwhile B horror and sci-fi films, see my blog, Films From Beyond the Time Barrier.
See also Films From Beyond on YouTube.