Cult of the Cobra certainly has a promising title. Does this 1955 Universal horror shocker live up to that title? We shall see.
The movie opens somewhere in Asia in 1945. Six American GIs who will be returning to the States shortly after four years of war are doing a little sight-seeing. An old snake charmer named Daru attracts their attention but the story he has to tell interests them even more. Daru claims that a man can be changed into a snake and a snake can be changed into a man. Or even a woman. Sergeant Paul Able (Richard Long) is already inclined to believe such legends. Although he’s a scientist he also believes in werewolves and vampires as well as shape-shifters. When Daru offers to smuggle the GIs into the temple of the Lamians so that they can see such marvels for themselves he’s anxious to take up the offer. His buddies figure it could be fun so they’re willing to go along.
Everything might have been fine if only Nick (James Dobson) hadn’t tried snapping a few photographs of the ritual. A fine old fight erupts and the six American soldiers are informed that they are now cursed and that the snake goddess will kill them one by one.
Of course they don’t believe there’s anything in this threat, although Paul Able is not so sure.
In fact only five of the six young men make it back to the US alive. One of them dies - of snakebite!
The five survivors settle back into civilian life. Paul Able and Tom Markel (Marshall Thompson) have been competing for the affections of the same girl, Julia (Kathleen Hughes). Paul wins the contest but Tom soon finds consolation when he encounters the beautiful Lisa Moya (Faith Domergue). Tom falls head over heels for Lisa. Lisa is personable enough but anyone not totally smitten by her might find her to be just a little odd. And animals are terrified of her.
As for the curse, the five friends soon have cause to wonder if perhaps there might be something in it after all after yet another mysterious and rather fatal accident.
Of course we’re going to suspect that maybe Lisa is involved, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that she’s a snake goddess or a shape-shifter or a follower of the Lamian cult. Even Paul, despite his belief that such legends may be based on something real, can see that there might be a rational explanation. As for Tom, all he knows is that he’s found the girl of his dreams.
There might not be anything original about the script but it has the right ingredients and they’re combined quite satisfactorily. Director Francis D. Lyon worked mostly in television. There’s nothing startling about the job he does here but it’s a very competently made and well-paced movie and there are a few very effective scenes (the bowling alley scene is vaguely reminiscent of the swimming pool scene in Cat People). Despite the subject matter and the lurid title this does not come across as a particularly cheap or shoddy movie and on the whole it’s played surprisingly straight - in fact it gives the impression of having been made with at least a certain amount of care.
Cult of the Cobra boasts a reasonably solid cast. Richard Long is likeable and manages to make Paul Able just flaky enough for us to accept his belief in various occult legends without being so flaky as to be unconvincing playing a man who is ostensibly a Man of Science. Marshall Thompson is pretty good as Tom, who is perhaps a little naïve where women are concerned (even though he thinks he’s a ladies’ man) but is still a basically sensible ordinary kind of guy even if he is an artist. He is however clearly so besotted by Lisa that he’s no longer entirely rational. Tom is the most complex of the male characters and Thompson makes him interesting and sympathetic even when we find ourselves getting a little frustrated by his excessive devotion to Lisa.
David Janssen, soon to find stardom on TV in Richard Diamond, Private Detective, gets a fairly decent role as the bluff cheerful Rico who likes running a bowling alley more than he liked being in the Army. Kathleen Hughes is perhaps the weak link - Julia is an actress and she’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer and it’s difficult to see why men are fighting over her. William Reynolds brings some intensity to his performance as Pete, another of the hapless GIs.
It is Faith Domergue though who is the star. She has the right kind of slightly exotic beauty and she conveys the necessary mysterious quality as Lisa Moya. She plays Lisa as slightly detached but with genuine emotions as well so that we do have some real doubts about her - she might be an inhuman monster or a victim herself or perhaps she’s been caught up in something sinister. Or perhaps she really is human but just a little odd.
This is one of the five movies in Universal’s Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection: Volume 2, a great DVD set that represents fabulous value for money (The Land Unknown and The Leech Woman are also great fun). Cult of the Cobra was shot in black-and-white and widescreen and the anamorphic transfer is exceptionally good. The only extra is a trailer but given the insanely low price of this set it would be churlish to complain about the lack of extras.
Cult of the Cobra has some genuine chills and it’s consistently entertaining, and Faith Domergue’s performance is enough on its own to justify seeing this one. Highly recommended.