I give one thumb up to Cult of the Cobra, a Universal Studios film about a woman who changes into a cobra to exact revenge against six buddies for sacrilegious acts they committed while serving overseas in the Army. Faith Domergue, a former teen girlfriend of (adult) Howard Hughes, shines as the cobra-woman in this cult movie classic. The script allows Faith Domergue to portray one of the few three-dimensional characters in Universal horror films of the fifties. The first twenty minutes of the film also feature imaginative art direction from two of the most creative minds at Universal Studios.Many other aspects of this film, however, are undistinguished.
At the end of World War II, six soldiers, all close friends, tour a bazaar in “Asia.” One soldier, an over-enthusiastic amateur photographer, pays a snake charmer a few dollars to photograph the man holding a cobra. For a hundred dollars, the snake charmer offers to take all six to a secret ceremony of the Lamians, a cobra-worshipping cult. There he promises they will see a snake change into a woman. Outsiders are forbidden to see the ritual, he cautions, and no photographs are permitted.
At the ceremony a woman in a skin-tight snake costume arises from a large basket and dances with two men. By the end of the ceremony, the photographer can’t bear to pass up anymore opportunities to take a picture. Using a rather large flash camera, he takes a photo of the cobra-woman slinking back into the basket. A melee ensues. Undaunted by the confusion, the photographer lifts the lid of the basket to see the woman and finds a cobra instead. He grabs the basket and runs with it. The high priest of the Lamians shouts that the Cobra goddess will take revenge and kill the soldiers one by one.
A cobra bites the photographer, and he is the first to die. The rest encounter a dangerous woman named Lisa Moya when they return to the United States.
Faith Domergue, the Lead
Top billing in this film goes to Faith Domergue, and she earns it. Giving perhaps her best screen performance, Domergue makes us interested in cobra-woman Lisa Moya. Moya destroys men because she doesn’t believe a man could ever love her. In the film Moya grows from a cold killer into a warm-blooded woman. Domergue’s convincing performance enables us to excuse the lame special effects more easily.
According to IMDb, five of the six actors playing the Armybuddies in the film later went on to success in television. Who would guess it from this film? Here the boys were hired just for their looks. If they weren’t such familiar faces, it would be hard to tell them apart.
Direction and Cinematography
The IMDb entry on director Francis D. Lyon reveals that he was already directing television dramas when he made Cult of the Cobra. Whereas his experiences in television may have helped him cut costs, much of the direction of the film fails to make use of the more mature technology of black-and-white filmmaking. Lyon’s direction also suppresses the creativity of cinematographer Russell Metty, who later shows his mastery of black-and-white film in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil.
The film credits two art directors, Alexander Golitzen and John Meehan, both Academy-Award winners. The art direction in the first twenty minutes of the film is notable; the remainder is more typical of Meehan’s later work on Leave It to Beaver.
The filmmakers apply little imagination to the transformation of Lisa Moya into a cobra. Puppets represent the snake throughout the film. The snake puppet works best as a shadow.
The music of this film is competent and transparent. It’s a generic and undistinguished studio product.
- The dance number at the Lamian ceremony combines ballet and burlesque. The dancer leaves her clothes on.
- Kathleen Hughes (no relation to Howard) gives a very stilted performance. On the other hand, she's only in the movie to scream at a snake.
- Clearly, this film appeared far before Edward Said’s Orientalism. Some may take offense at the filmmakers’ presentation of non-American culture.
An earlier version of this article, featuring both the poster for the movie and the original movie trailer, appeared October 16, 2012, on Triond's Cinemaroll website: