The first film I want to dissect is a B-Movie called Cult of the Cobra from 1955.
If you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to stream it from here first before reading further.
Anytime I cover something that has a free stream I’ll link or embed the stream at the top first so you can avoid spoilers. It will be interesting to find out if people’s viewing experience is different if watched before or after the analysis. Of course, if you’ve already seen it, there’s no virgin experience.
As a primer…what you’re likely to expect from these posts are closer to film-school essays than reviews. It’s not that I don’t have a simple subjective opinion on the film as a piece of entertainment, but I want this blog to highlight other aspects that, as a passive viewer, you might not consciously know is there. So on with the show…
Most old horror movies like this were regulars in New England via Creature Feature on Channel 56. And I’m sure to cover a few of these on this blog. However, I sure don’t remember this.
It would be easy to tear the film to shreds in an Elvira or MST3K sort of way, but I’ll leave that to the countless others who play that game. I’ve got other reasons for highlighting this film, which, if you simply go by Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB, is pretty bad.
Having gone to film school, whenever I watch something, there’s a part of me that’s able to guess what the overall intent or purpose was of the filmmakers. They may not have lived up to the intent, but they should be given some credit for trying something different.
An example of a good sci-fi movie that did something different was The Day the Earth Stood Still. Its marketing of the film was classic B-movie sensationalism. Witness one of the original posters with a gorilla-like hand grasping the earth and the damsel in distress.
This marketing was a bait-and-switch. The film subverted audience expectations by presenting a friendly alien who was merely treated as an enemy through prejudice (OK, so he had that scary ultimatum too.)
Surprise is hard to come by because human beings are born to detect patterns. You don’t have to have gone to film school to begin to predict plot-points. All you have to do is watch a lot of movies. And today, with so much entertainment at our beckoned call, most of us have, to the point where literally everything feels repetitive and trope-like. I suspect first-time viewers of The Twilight Zone these days could, in large part, detect the ironic twists in ways the original audience couldn’t. So to subvert audience expectations is really the hardest thing to do, and only gets harder as audiences become more and more saturated with media.
Another way to surprise them is by blending multiple genres. I never watched Warm Bodies, but it’s a good example of the kind of “genre mashup” cinema that is increasingly common these days.
It’s hard to do this without it being a spoof. Whenever you take two ingredients that, on paper, really don’t seem like they belong together, and you somehow make it work, that’s an achievement, like fitting a square peg into a round hole.
So what does this have to do with this modest little B-movie?
Cult of the Cobra is an unlikely mashup of a monster movie and a romance. And the most improbable thing is that the romance is between the monster and one of her chosen victims!
Just that high concept alone is either an act of courage or stupidity on the part of the filmmakers, but what about the execution?
Well, to me (here comes the review part, folks, subjectivity) it actually works!
Why does it work? Mostly because of Faith Domergue playing the monster as a human being, not a monster.
In the world of story, characters fall into roles. When these roles are written too narrowly, only to serve the plot, then the characters feel flat or wooden. They don’t seem to think or feel or act the way real people do. They only do what the story needs them to do to move the plot forward, like pieces of a board-game. There’s no way to completely eliminate this problem because a film has a limited amount of time to tell its story. The story focuses on the protagonist and the surrounding characters can’t be given equal focus. So while in the real world everyone is the star of their own life drama, in a film, only the core leads are given enough screen-time and autonomy to feel like real people.
Within the horror genre, a monster antagonist is often simply a force of nature and not a true character. And that’s the establishing genre of Cult of the Cobra.
Our Porky’s-like band of army buddies party-crashes an Indiana-Jones-like cult-ceremony in the midst of some unidentifiable exotic location and are marked for death as a result, but not before treating the target 1950s teenage audience to a mildly-erotic ballet-dance number in a skin-tight “snake” outfit.
By the time they’ve escaped and are flying home, one of their brothers has been bitten and later finished-off by a lamia, (a name I remember from my AD&D days). Think of a lamia as a snake version of a werewolf, but in this case, the transformations are controllable.
RANT: In a modern film it would feel compulsory to provide more back-story on where this cult came from and what its purpose was. Are lamias born that way or trained? And yes, by the end of it I was left wondering, but in older films, these things are left sketchier. It’s not really a flaw if you think of stories like this as more in the realm of a fable rather than something that needs to feel plausible. That’s one of the problems with today’s films, like overwrought superhero epics. They feel compelled to rationalize every aspect of the supernatural and superhuman with some technobabble. In the end, it’s all make-believe and you need to suspend-disbelief as a child would.
After the boys make it back to civilization, the film establishes the status quo of 1950s swinging-playboy existence that will soon be disrupted, in typical horror movie style, with one of them getting killed after another by the lamia who has moved next door to our protagonist, Tom, and taken the vaguely Spanish pseudonym of “Lisa Moya”.
At this point the film is operating sort of like a slasher flick such as Friday the 13th, or a monster horror movie like Alien. But like The Omen, the murders are conducted in such a way that they could be explained away as an accident. Therefore at first, it just looks like some really bad luck. All the more reason for the boys to maintain denial that they are being afflicted by the curse long enough for Tom to meet and fall in love with Lisa.
It’s here that what started out as a fairly pedestrian B-movie begins to get interesting in the way it blends two seemingly incongruent genres into one.
It’s a short film and there are really only a few key scenes to develop the romance. It does this with a great deal of economy. Again, in a more modern film, these scenes would probably be longer and more drawn-out. I would have liked more of the romance, but the film ultimately needs to see-saw between the horror and the romance. It’s that pendulum swing that makes it interesting.
Since the romance is really the redeeming part of the film, I’ll be mostly highlighting these scenes. In the first meeting, it appears as if Lisa has lured Tom across the hall under the pretense that an intruder has broken into her room. Her malicious intentions are telegraphed to the audience via typical horror movie lighting:
What’s a little different about this moment is Faith Domergue’s facial expression. In a typical movie in this genre, an “evil” character would be squinting her eyes and looking really angry. But there’s a hesitance here, even a vulnerability. It’s at this moment the audience should be questioning how much Lisa is killing out of a personal vendetta to avenge the sin of busting in on the cult, vs. her being driven like a pawn. Cults, of course, operate on the principle of brainwashing.
Because Lisa is too hesitant, not transforming into Cobra form fast enough, Tom comes back out from the other room and grabs the phone with the intention of calling the police. The lights are back on again and Lisa’s convenient trap feels like it’s been disrupted. In order to better ensnare her prey, she feigns an advance by asking him to stay for coffee. In the course of a brief exchange, though, it seems as if Lisa has let go of any residual ill-intent. The play-acting flirtation seems to give way to genuine flirtation. The ongoing ambiguity of her motives as the film progresses is the main attraction. The film has set her up as the killer, and yet, given the distance she now enjoys from her puppet-masters, she seems to want to resist the limitations of being just a killer.
By the time Tom says “I’m friendly”, Lisa has gone completely off-script. She breaks into a smile that seems genuine, and as if to telegraph to the audience that she’s given him a reprieve, says, “you can go if you want to.”
But the film won’t leave it at that. It has to push the envelope further. Where only seconds before Lisa was about to kill Tom, now Tom’s asking her for a date and Lisa is accepting and initiating physical contact, palm-reading him.
And yet, despite it all, the scene needs to end with the horror lighting effect once more, which leaves you guessing whether Lisa’s change of heart is really genuine or simply her biding her time.
Next, the film continues in romance-mode as Tom rattles off, in exposition mode, a list of all of the date-activities they’ve been up to in downtown New York City. If you had just tuned in now you might be thinking you’re watching a B&W version of Splash.
The effect on the audience of the film’s tone shifting back and forth is a milder version of what Quentin Tarantino likes to do, like the scene where Beatrix Kiddo strikes a truce in a fight when she tells the female assassin she’s pregnant.
The reason why Quentin Tarantino likes to subvert expectations is because he got his start working in a video rental place. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, and when you get to that point, just to be able to watch your own work in the end and not feel like you’ve just spit out yet another by-the-numbers genre film, you need to mix it up. I doubt the filmmakers of this picture were thinking on this level. Maybe it was thought of as more of a gimmick, but it’s what helps make it rise above typical B-movie fare.
After Lisa (in cobra-form) triggers David Janssen (of The Fugitive fame) to get into a fatal car accident, we’re back into romance-mode at a pre-Rock n Roll singles party where Lisa’s motives are made ambiguous again since she’s dancing with one of the other guys. Clearly a lure to find the right time and place to bump him off too.
It’s at this point in the film where you’d probably think she has no true feelings for Tom and is just deciding to string him along until some convenient situation where she can kill him. Many films operate on this aspect of the manipulative Femme Fatale. The most well-known classic is Double Indemnity. More recently the theme repeats in Being John Malkovich or The Dark Knight Rises. There’s also more prurient horror examples like the Species franchise that link the killing to the sex act. Depending on your point of view this could be seen as a misogynistic trope. Then again there’s plenty of this with flipped genders. Just tune into Lifetime Channel, for instance. What it does is play up the primal fear we all have of asymmetrical relationships where you think the other party feels more than they actually do, or fear that there’s some ulterior motive. There’s an inherent vulnerability in reaching out to another human being. It’s that fear-factor that is a common theme between romance and horror. It’s just that one is emotional and one is physical.
By the mid-point of the film, Paul is starting to suspect Lisa is the killer, as he talks it through in a scene with his fiance. The actress here provides the worst acting-performance in the film. It’s this horror aspect that is the most unremarkable part of the film, while at the same time, there’s a cozy comfort in it moving through such familiar midnite-movie territory, like animals sensing and freaking out over Lisa.
Later on, just such a convenient scenario opens up for Lisa to turn into a Cobra and finish Tom when she sends him off to her apartment to get ice. But instead, she picks up a picture frame of Tom and Paul together with Julia, their mutual object of affection in the middle (the bad-actress). The music turns wistful. She pauses and moves forward, as if to get ready to transform, and yet she doesn’t. She puts the frame back down again and sits down on the couch. Lisa is going off-script again.
At first her motives seem mostly a matter of satisfying her curiosity, as she interrogates Tom about feelings she has for Julia, and whether he’s just on the rebound. By now the film has entered into melodrama, while at the same time, in the back of your mind, you have to keep reminding yourself that Lisa already had blood on her hands. There’s an unease in getting into an unfolding romance like this. In a way, that unease is not unlike what she’s starting to feel, as her human conscience begins to come to unexpected life. When Tom professes his love, Lisa asks questions as a child might, to try to learn what it is.
After catching herself, she breaks away to her apartment, but when Tom uses the typical plausible-deniability excuse of returning her gloves to knock on her door, he uses the keys she gave him to get in, finding her gone. Lisa’s gotta tend to her work, bumping off the guy she was flirting with at the party by scaring him out the window. It’s important to note that the murders are very clean. Not that it matters, but it would probably be harder to sustain this back and forth with the romance if she were simply a Jason-style axe murder. For the most part she either bites her victims or scares them into a fatal accident. As killers go, she’s kind of on the mild side.
When she comes back, Tom is on her couch, and she hovers over him still in cobra form, a golden opportunity to kill, and yet she doesn’t.
By now the film has to really state which way Lisa’s going to go, at least with respect to Tom, and so she finally lets it out, of course in coded language. This is the scene that is the crux of the entire film. And from this point, Lisa really becomes the true protagonist. But how can this be???
It’s here the film bursts forth into melodrama again, with Lisa shedding her stoicism and professing her (first) love for Tom and trying to push him away. Again, in isolation the scene could come out of any number of romances about doomed lovers, like Romeo and Juliet. The mashup is a literal mashup in the sense that the two of them can’t be lovers simply because the film started out as a curse-revenge horror flick. The romance story literally crashed into the horror movie. The demands the cult place on Lisa are not unlike the demands of a B-movie horror film to rack up a body-count. From this perspective, the scene could be taken as “meta”, an awareness of the constraints placed on fictional characters within clearly defined genre.
Lisa is the only one fully aware that she is inhabiting two kinds of films at the same time, and she has no way to reconcile the dilemma. She started out as a cardboard monster but it’s at this moment where she becomes real, ala Pinocchio. This inner-change is why she is the functional protagonist.
Unfortunately, from this moment onward, like Romeo and Juliet, it becomes an unfolding tragedy. Lisa’s already gotten too much blood on her hands, and the noose is circling in, as Paul’s fiance is researching snake cults, leading to an implied near-kill from a Lisa who is now becoming consumed with simple self-preservation.
This suspicion comes to a head when she’s directly accused by the roommate of the guy who was dancing with her in at the party. A perfunctory kill as Lisa prepares to go out for a night at the theater with Tom.
It’s here that Tom and Lisa have their last dramatic scene together. Lisa probes Tom to see how much he knows, while still playing innocent. Clearly she knows if she actually told him the truth that it would not end well. The only way she can protect his feelings is to lie.
After Tom relates the story of the Cult to Lisa, she says she doesn’t care about Paul, only Tom. So it becomes clear that she’s planning to spare Tom and only Tom. But she hasn’t worked out how to untangle this mess and live happily ever after. A common problem in doomed relationships to think that love will conquer all.
By now the film’s running out of time, and the audience is probably wondering whether these two will be able to at least get it on once before the shit hits the fan, and here’s the payoff.
But yet again, while watching the film you have to keep reminding yourself that this is a horror movie and she’s a killer. It feels somehow dirty or immoral to care about Lisa and feel sympathetic, and yet I do. The same could be said for redemption stories. Think of the body-count Darth Vader racked up before he finally turned and threw the Emperor down the shaft.
But alas, this is ultimately a horror movie, not a redemption story, and it’s not going to have a happy ending. It’s all about converging fatal consequences.
I’ve seen criticisms of the final “fight” scene with Lisa in cobra-form vs. Tom, and how easily he subdued her by simply throwing a cape on her. But I’m not sure by the time he burst in the room that she was any more prepared to kill him than in the earlier scene. There was really nothing left for her to do but kind of panic and try to survive. But it is ironic that Tom winds up being the one to kill Lisa rather than the other way around. It’s just that even in the end, he was clueless about it, until he finally saw her body transform back.
And on that somber note, the film ends.
I don’t know a heck of a lot of the context or behind the scenes of this film other than that Faith Domergue was going through a breakup with her husband at the time. I don’t really know who to credit for the film’s merits but they are all wrapped up in her genre-bending portrayal of a sympathetic killer who develops a conscience and at times feels like a victim herself. It’s never answered how she became what she is. One can only infer that she was brainwashed since birth to do the cult’s bidding. It’s the gaps in the story that allow one to fill them in with your imagination however you want. And that always makes for a more enjoyable viewing experience than to expect a film to connect all the dots for you.
I would like to hear what other people think of this one, even if it’s just to tell me that I over-analyzed it to death.