Cult Of The Cobra (1955) dir. Francis D. Lyon
Starring: Faith Domergue, Richard Long, Marshall Thompson, David Janssen
Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw
While one cannot justify delivering more than two-and-a-half stars for this copycat of Val Lewton’s “The Cat People”, it is a rating that doesn’t adequately represent the picture’s considerable entertainment value and its extremely interesting commentary on post-war life in America. “Cult of the Cobra” is another film from Universal Home Video’s magnificent DVD box-set “The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection” and though it lacks panache (save for the terrific cinematography of Russell Metty), it represents just the sort of picture that home consumption appears to have been invented for – a medium to deliver product that might otherwise be consigned to a slag-heap of forgotten cinematic refuse. And for “Cult of the Cobra”, the fate of neglect would be a shame. In spite of Francis D. Lyon’s perfunctory direction, there’s something extremely haunting about this story of a group of young American soldiers who have survived the horrors of war and yet, when the clouds of strife are lifted, find themselves stalked and cut-down on home turf by a mysterious, evil and (naturally) foreign killer.
While some contemporary audiences get all high and mighty in their idiotically myopic political correctness when it comes to the ethnocentrism of older pictures, they should just swallow a humour pill and enjoy the fact that the film begins in Asia. Yes, Asia! The film does not specify where EXACTLY in Asia we are – all that really matters is that we are not in AMERICA and that our brawny, normal, American and WHITE heroes are in a mysterious, foreign land. Foreign, in this context equals EVIL!!!!! And even though we’re supposed to be in “Asia”, we’re really in some crazed never-never-land of cloaked, turban-adorned snake charmers. Looking for some exotic action before returning to their normal lives back in America, our motley heroes manage to buy their way into a mysterious ceremony of snake worshippers where they witness a boner-inducing cobra-charming burlesque routine then interrupt the proceedings in that brashly rude, American way when one of them snaps a flash photo and then, to make matters worse, they engage in a brawl with these foreigners and steal their sacred snake basket. One of the soldiers at a later juncture opines that perhaps they went a “little too far”. You bet, fella! These goddamn foreign snake charmers don’t take to your kind at the best of times and now you’re in for one kick-ass curse that’s not only going to follow your infidel rump back to the homeland, but to your ever-loving grave. And believe, there ain’t nothing Homeland Security can do about cobra curses.
As the picture progresses, things get especially entertaining back in America when we primarily follow the adventures of roomies Richard Long (the eventual star of T.V.’s “Nanny and the Professor”) and Marshall Thompson (eventual star of T.V.’s “Daktari”) as they vie for the affections of wholesome platinum blonde apple-pie babe Kathleen Hughes. When she eventually picks stalwart hunk Richard Long to be her main swordsman, Marshall Thompson dejectedly finds himself in the arms of the mysterious, exotic and FOREIGN Faith Domergue. And a good thing too: Faith Domergue represents everything that was so great about 50s movie babes – nice full lips, melt-in-your-mouth curves and sex appeal that never lets up. (Domergue was especially semen-draining to young, pud-pulling male movie-goers in “This Island Earth”.) Domergue, of course, is an agent of the cobra-worshippers and her mission is to kill each and every last one of the infidel soldiers.
The cast and the vaguely derivative (but compelling) screenplay work overtime. Russell Metty, the cinematographer, especially delivers the goods. Metty, who shot most of Douglas Sirk’s great melodramas and, lest we forget, Orson Welles’s “Touch Of Evil”, contributes marvelous lighting and some really effective cobra point of view shots. One only wishes that Francis Lyon wasn’t such a dull director. His lack of voice is what keeps this picture from really soaring. It’s unfortunate, since Lyon was a great editor (he won an Oscar for his astounding cutting on the classic boxing picture “Body and Soul”), but as a director, he played things strictly by the numbers. This workmanlike approach is not always a bad thing in a director, but this picture is so entertaining to begin with that one wants it to be better than it ultimately is.
Alas, they can’t all be masterpieces. If they were, the world would actually be a dull place (oddly enough). It’s probably enough that this picture exists and that it’s as fun and interesting as it is. One does wonder, however, what it might have been like with a livelier directorial presence at the helm – a Jack Arnold, a Richard Fleischer, a Joseph Lewis or an Edgar Ulmer – or, for that matter, a producer like Val Lewton. In fact, any one of those directors and Lyon editing (instead of directing) might have delivered the goods.
It’s still a good picture though. Seeing these hunky, fresh-faced young soldiers get mysteriously whacked by the stunning Faith Domergue will keep you on the edge of your seat. And, you know what? I’m almost inclined to revise my two-and-one-half stars a little more in the direction of Heaven. I won’t, but one can dream, can’t one?
“Cult of the Cobra” is available on DVD in Universal Home Video’s “Classic Ultimate Sci-Fi Collection”
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