Thursday, 14 August 2014

The Snake Woman (1961)

The Snake Woman is an ultra low budget 1961 British horror movie that turns out to be better than one might have expected. It’s no masterpiece but it’s a competent exercise in subtle horror, relying entirely on atmosphere to compensate for a complete lack of either gore or special effects.

Dr Addison (John Cazabon) is a research scientist who has been working on the theory that snake venom can be used to treat mental disturbances. He’s been trying out this experimental treatment on his own wife, apparently with some success. What he doesn’t know is whether this treatment will have any effect on their unborn child. He will soon have the answer to that question.

The child, a girl, is born and it’s obvious right at the start that she’s slightly odd. She has no eyelids and her body temperature is very very low indeed. The midwife attending the birth is a bit of a local witch and she has no doubt that the child is a serpent-child and is evil.

The villagers are inclined to take a similarly dim view of Dr Addison’s experiments. It is after all 1890 and in rural England they don’t hold with experimenting with snakes. The villagers express their concerns in a rather proactive manner by burning down Dr Addison’s snake-house, accidently killing Dr Addison in the process. You generally expect the scene with the massed villagers armed with flaming torches to come at the end of a horror movie but in this case they get to do their flaming torches stuff very early on.

The doctor attending the birth, Dr Murton (Arnold Marlé), is a kindly old gentleman so he rescues the newborn child. He’s about to go to Africa on a scientific expedition so he leaves the child with a local shepherd. 

Twenty years later the doctor returns to find that the girl, who had a rather sinister reputation, has disappeared although the villagers have no doubt she is still around. 

This inhabitants of this particular village have a remarkable propensity to die from snake-bite. Colonel Wynborn who spent many years in India has no doubt that in each case death resulted from the bite of a king cobra, which is of course impossible. But the colonel has seen the bite of the king cobra hundreds of times and he is convinced he is right. 

The colonel has managed to persuade an old friend who works for Scotland Yard to send an officer to investigate. The officer chosen is not only young and keen, he also has a scientific background. He soon makes the acquaintance of the now elderly and thoroughly unhinged midwife who is convinced that the young policeman is the destined instrument for the destruction of the serpent-woman. He is not too enthusiastic about the prospect, having met the serpent-woman and having noted that she is a rather attractive young woman. He is however determined to do something about the rash of snake-bite deaths.

Director Sidney J. Furie would go on to have a long and interesting career and to make some very stylish movies such as The Ipcress File. Having a talented (albeit fairly inexperienced) director at the helm is what makes The Snake Woman a better movie than it has any right to be given that it was clearly made on a minuscule budget. Furie did not have either the time or the money to do anything flashy with this picture but he does bring a considerable degree of competence to proceedings.

One of the pitfalls of making science fiction or horror movies on zero budgets is the temptation to attempt special effects that are much too ambitious. Furie wisely avoids special effects altogether, apart from one very brief moment at the end. 

Mostly Furie relies on achieving as much atmosphere as he can without spending any money and the results are quite satisfactory.

The acting is reasonably competent. John McCarthy is an adequate hero. Susan Travers as Atheris the snake-woman looks beautiful and exotic which is all her role really requires.

The Snake Woman is one of four movies in the Timeless Horror - Movies 4 You set from Shout Factory and Timeless Media. All four movies come on one single-sided DVD, at an amazingly cheap price.

The Snake Woman is not an overlooked masterpiece but it’s a solid, surprisingly well-made and fairly entertaining horror flick. Recommended.

No comments: