Black Mamba (1974) **½
With a title like Black Mamba, you might have figured this was a movie about— oh, I don’t know— maybe a killer snake? Yeah, well you might have figured Snake People was about snake people, too. Actually, Black Mamba is a lot like Snake People, for not only do both movies promise us snakes which they have little intention of delivering, they both give us instead some pretty crazy tropical black magic. The key difference (apart, I mean, from this movie hailing from the Philippines, while the other is of Mexican origin) is that Black Mamba is really a pretty decent little voodoo flick.
It’s hard to go wrong by starting with a grave robbery. Black Mamba’s opening-scene tomb-breaker is a bestial hunchback (Willie Nepomuceno) who seeks not the bodies of the dead, but the valuables that were buried with them. In particular, we see him make off with a golden ring worked into the likeness of a hooded face. The bauble in question turns up the next day in the local general store, where the shopkeeper (Alfonso Carvajal, from The Mad Doctor of Blood Island and Black Mama, White Mama) sells it to a woman (Marlene Clark, of The Beast Must Die and Beware! The Blob) dressed in what looks to be mourning attire. That ring gets the woman into trouble an unspecified amount of time later, for it happens to catch the eye of Elena (Pilar Pilapil), its original owner and the widow of the man from whose grave it was pilfered, while she and the ring-wearer are attending services in the same church. Elena has angry words with the other woman after the mass concludes, and though we don’t get to hear the argument (in a surprising touch of artiness, the confrontation scene plays silent apart from the insistent pealing of the church bells), one gets the distinct impression that they have met somewhere before. And indeed they have; shortly thereafter, the woman who bought the ring has a flashback revealing that she had been the dead man’s girlfriend before Elena came along, putting a very different spin on everything that has happened since she saw the ring in the store’s front window. And as if the flashback itself hadn’t served as sufficient cause for reappraisal, the furnishings of the room in which it transpires demonstrate pretty conclusively that Elena’s rival is a witch.
As for Elena, her husband’s death left her with apparently few resources for supporting her son, Michael (Steve Maniquez), and she is relying, at least for the time being, on the charity of her sister, Barbara Gomez (Rosemarie Gil, of Naked Vengeance and Devil Woman). Barbara’s husband, Fred (Eddie Garcia, from Blood of the Vampires and Beast of Blood), is evidently an extremely successful businessman of some kind, although we’ll never learn precisely what he does for a living. The important thing is that the Gomezes live in easily the biggest and poshest house in their little town, and Fred’s income is such that he professes no hardship in supporting Elena and her son indefinitely. Elena’s present living arrangements entail a certain amount of friction, however, for Fred is disconcertingly open about believing that he picked the wrong sister. This is because all evidence indicates that Barbara is infertile, and there’s nothing Fred wants more than to be a father. He may be able to scratch his parental itch to some extent by playing surrogate dad to Michael, but that outlet will exist only so long as Elena remains in the house. Needless to say, Fred is in no hurry to see his sister-in-law make good her intention of moving to Manila.
On the night following the altercation in church, the witch, evidently hell-bent on preventing the hunchback from corroborating any story that Elena might tell the authorities regarding the stolen ring, uses her magic to eliminate him. Old Quasimodo is back in the cemetery, and as soon as he cracks open a coffin, the witch reanimates the body inside, literally scaring the grave-robber to death. This proves not to be a very smart move in the long run, though, as the dead body beside the open tomb inevitably draws attention from the local chief of police (Angelo Ventura, from Beyond Atlantis and The Twilight People), who quickly calls in Dr. Paul Morgan (John Ashley, of Frankenstein’s Daughter and Beast of the Yellow Night) to help him figure out what killed the hunchback. What makes this a potentially serious development for the witch is that Morgan has ties to practically everybody on whom she will be setting her sights in the coming days, meaning that he’ll be in as good a position as anyone to spot the pattern of mysterious misadventures as it forms. It is to Morgan that the shopkeeper turns when the witch places a curse on him, haunting him with visions of death and eventually striking him down by breaking the humanoid candle she was using as his effigy. Paul and his old mentor (Subas Herrero, from Savage Sisters and Bamboo Gods and Iron Men) wind up performing the autopsy on the shopkeeper, too, when a spectacularly failed burglary at the general store (the would-be thief is killed by one of the witch’s familiars, a Siamese cat with the power to assume the form of the Grim Reaper) leads to the discovery of the old man’s body. More importantly, Paul is also beginning (much to Fred’s consternation) a tentative romance with Elena. Morgan is therefore on the scene when the witch, in the form of a little blackbird, steals Elena’s handkerchief in order to make a voodoo doll of her. He is there to lead her treatment when the ensuing campaign of paranormal persecution begins to take its toll on Elena’s nerves. He is able to help Fred intervene when Barbara hires an exorcist (Andres Centenara, from The Big Bird Cage and Brides of Blood) to drive out the witch’s influence via a dangerous course of sympathetic magic. (The exorcist flogs Elena with a whip made from a stingray’s tail; the idea is that each blow will be felt by the witch as well.) Eventually, Morgan sees enough really weird shit that he begins to take seriously the possibility that Elena has been cursed by a witch— at least to the extent of accepting that Elena and her unknown enemy’s mutual belief in black magic is enough to make the curse as good as real for both parties. With a little help from the local librarian (Jaime Fabregas), Paul sets out to find the supposed magician, and combat her on her own terms. Of course, the witch has allies, too, having placed her second familiar (a speckled, gray snake that is the closest we’ll ever get to the titular black mamba) within the Gomez household in the guise of a nurse (Laurice Guillen).
Although it is compromised by paltry production values and a lethargic pace (to say nothing of the conspicuous absence of any black mambas), Black Mamba impressed me a good deal more than I was expecting it to. Working in the Philippines seems to have done wonders for John Ashley’s acting. Maybe he just grew up, or maybe his increasingly obvious has-been-hood gave him the perspective necessary to jettison the leftover performing tics from his previous career as a failed teen heartthrob, but by the mid-1970’s, he had most definitely mastered the trick of working within his limitations instead of ramming headlong into them the way he had in earlier years. He’s still as far from greatness as he ever was, but like Lon Chaney Jr. in his prime, the John Ashley of Black Mamba and its contemporaries has found something he can do, and has made the most of it. And if we’re comparing Ashley to the younger Chaney, then we might liken writer Carl Kuntze and director George Rowe to frequent Chaney collaborators Curt and Robert Siodmak, respectively. Both men bring an unaffected, workmanlike solidity to Black Mamba, marshalling their not-always-adequate resources (both material and creative) to occasionally striking effect. Kuntze in particular wins my respect for bringing Paul Morgan into the witch-hunting business on terms that square completely with the determinedly rationalist worldview that he displays throughout the first two thirds of the film. We may know the witch’s powers are real, but Morgan has no reason to; by making him approach witchcraft as (in the words of the librarian) “one of the oldest forms of psychological warfare,” Kuntze gives the doctor plausible license to fight fire with fire, without ever having to set up the usual “Whoa… There really is such a thing as magic!” scene. As for Rowe, his most admirable contributions are probably his success in wringing a bit of honest creepiness out of that two-bit Grim Reaper and the surprisingly un-crass way in which he deploys Black Mamba’s most notorious exploitation gambit, the use of stock autopsy footage in the scene where Morgan and the other doctor give the shopkeeper his post-mortem examination. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “tasteful” (I’m not convinced there is a tasteful way to recycle clips of real-life medical examiners chopping real-life holes in a real-life dead guy’s thoracic cavity), but Rowe does at least manage to make it seem not flagrantly disrespectful. But Black Mamba’s best feature is probably the easiest to overlook— the absolutely first-rate soundtrack by Lamberto H. Avellana Jr. Avellana seems never to have scored another movie, either before or since, and that’s a damn shame. His prickly, almost atonal music is eerie in the extreme, and gives a sizeable assist even to such overwhelmingly stupid scenes as the one that has the witch and a chorus line of crimson-clad women we’ve never seen before performing a sort of interpretive dance for the amusement of Satan and his goat-headed minions. Anybody who can so much as lead you to imagine the possibility of selling something like that deserves a great deal of respect.