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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Cult Film Faves Not On DVD: Night of the Cobra Woman (1972) review


Marlene Clark (Lena Aruza), Joy Bang (Joanna), Roger Garrett (Sam Duff), Vic Diaz (Lope), Rosemarie Gil (Francisca)

Directed by Andrew Meyer

***WARNING! This review contains an image of nudity***

"...They say that once bitten by the Firebrand Cobra, it can possess your very soul -- that the action of the venom in your bloodstream keeps you always young."

The Short Version: This Filipino lensed flick released through Roger Corman's New World Pictures is a curious, if somewhat unsatisfying blend of mythology, horror, science fiction, exploitation and a love story tossed into the proverbial low budget blender. The resulting concoction is a bizarre tale of serpentine love and revenge that confuses as to whether we're supposed to pity Marlene Clark's slithery snake woman, or vilify her. A battle between a cobra and an eagle is symbolic of multi-cultural divinities. Not strange enough for alternative cinema, and not sleazy enough to please trash fans, this will most likely be best appreciated by those familiar with the culture and snake movie completists.

During an unspecified time in WW2, a nurse named Lena investigates a hidden cave while searching for rare roots and herbs. She's bitten by a cobra whose bite has a strange side-effect. Its venom possessing unique properties, Lena eventually forms a symbiotic relationship with the serpent. The powerful poison enables her to maintain her youth only by seducing and killing men. Without fresh victims, a side-effect of the poison will cause her to age rapidly. Some three decades later, a young female UNICEF doctor is in the Philippines working on experiments with snakes and developing anti-venom when her boyfriend Sam arrives. He eventually crosses paths with Lena, her reptilian allure, and a trail of male corpses.

To label Filipino exploitation movies as weird is both an understatement and redundant. But the term is suitably applicable here in Andrew Meyer's uneven, thoroughly bizarre movie. Those expecting a straight up killer snake/revenge picture may be disappointed. There are enough ingredients here for a brisk 77 minutes of Passion Pit heaven, but the film feels fractured at times. Scenes begin and end abruptly while plot points barely mentioned are left unexplained. Not only that, but the picture often feels more experimental in approach as opposed to being just a Drive In movie, and rarely plays out the way you expect it to.

According to Roger Corman, much of this movie was made on the spot and his advice to first time director Meyer that he'd have to flesh out what he'd done went unheeded. So the viewer is left to piece together this intriguing, but failed hodgepodge of ideas without the benefit of a stable, cohesive narrative. 

The picture further confuses things with a peculiar mix of Haitian and Filipino mythologies involving assorted gods and deities. Foreign pictures about snakes and serpent demons were prolific cinematic fodder in Asian film markets of this time period -- particularly in Hong Kong and Indonesian productions.

The movie doesn't go into any great detail regarding its folkloric content, it simply uses the superstitious trappings as scenic decor to dress up the exploitation value. Even so, the Philippines are rich in mythology; and while this film glosses over it, what's here will likely only be of interest to the most sincere of fans that enjoy Filipino cinema.

The main male character, Sam Duff, boasts of his pet eagle on a few occasions, and this bird is significant to a plot point later in the movie. In Filipino legends, Amihan was a revered bird god believed to be a savior of man. Sam's eagle ends up in a death struggle with the seemingly invulnerable snake spirit, Movini in a symbolic clash of cultural divinities.

Snakes likewise have a strong presence in Filipino mythology, but there appears to be some non-Asian myths utilized here, too. The cave where Lena resides with her reptilian consort contains a large statue she worships and refers to as Damballa, a powerful Haitian voodoo snake god. With a black lead actress in the form of the sexy Marlene Clark, it only seems fitting there would be lore emblematic of black culture. Aside from the multi-cultural clash, NIGHT OF THE COBRA WOMAN ends up a bizarre potpourri horror thriller made all the more curious -- even frustrating -- with its dabs of exploitation and romanticism.

The acting is static across the board. Clark is the only one who seems vested in the material, although she seems indifferent to the film at times; possibly because the film is never focused, nor is the script successful in drawing a clear-cut hero or villain. Like some of its plot points, the title cobra woman is a muddled creation confusing the viewer as to whether we're supposed to feel sympathy for her, or not. Lena's vampiric tendencies of killing random men on a daily basis is exacerbated when she uses her human sex toy, Sam, as a vessel for getting her more men to venomize. 

The scenes of Clark molting her skin are arguably the grossest shots in the film; and there are a few. In some instances she's shedding during intercourse, although the skin-stripping occurs post coital. Not only do these sex scenes insinuate bestiality (or whatever the term would be for snake sex), but the camera caresses Clark's sexy frame as she peels her skin off like she's removing garments or hosiery from her body.

Regarding the sex quotient, there's a subtext here associating intercourse with disease. It may not have been intentional, but the correlation is palpable. Lena passes her "sickness" onto Sam Duff. When he begins suffering from the same "disease" after having sex with Lena, he has to receive transfusions of the venom mixture to keep his body from eroding. The same happens to Lena's victims she seduces; once she's had her way with them, their life ends shortly thereafter. 

Perennial Filipino film star Vic Diaz takes on two roles here -- one as a Japanese rapist during the beginning of the movie and the other, a pitiable, deformed hunchback whose sad state is due to having made love to Lena. Why it didn't kill him is never explained, but his character of Lope and his mother Francisca feign servitude to Lena in an effort to get revenge against her.

Joy Bang (probably the greatest porn name never devised) is the pretty scientist whose boyfriend ends up in the slithery arms of Lena. She tries to win him back, but incurs the cobra woman's wrath. She's about as bland as everybody else and fails to convince as either a medical doctor, or an actress. She had a relatively short career, also appearing in the cult favorite MESSIAH OF EVIL (1973).

NIGHT OF THE COBRA WOMAN (1972) fails to live up to its lurid title, and fails at being a satisfying exploitation feature. It does have sex, nudity and enough bizarro qualities to make it an appealing 'B' level quickie, but it never feels assured of what it wants to be from one scene to the next. Just when it's on the cusp of wrapping itself around its inherent trashiness, it slithers into other territory. If only there were more scenes as squirm-inducing as the 'skin stripping' sequence, we'd have something with a bit more fang for the buck.


Jack J said...

You're right, interesting but could have - should have - been a lot better. I have a dvdr boot from ZDD that originates from the old ntsc vhs. Is that a tv broadcast you've got there?

venoms5 said...

Yeah, I recorded it off of Epix Drive In channel a few nights ago. That's their logo in the lower right corner on a bunch of the images. They show lots of Corman movies among other things. What's the running time on that one, Jack? This broadcast runs 77 minutes. I have a Corman book that lists the film at 85 minutes.

Hal said...

Great minds thinking alike; I've been preparing a Horn Section review since DVR'ing it Sunday night. :-)

venoms5 said...

Ha! I'll be sure to check out your thoughts on this one, too, Hal. :)

Jack J said...

I've just checked my ZDD dvd and it runs around 78 minutes but it could easily be dark picture at the end (which I didn't check) making it a minute longer than your tv version. There were about 30 seconds of dark picture before the film starts + vhs logo. But then again, who's to say if anything was cut out of the tv print. o_O

Jack J said...

Oh, and the tv print definitely has the better picture quality! Besides, the vhs that was used for the bootleg was worn in places. >_<

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