Cobra Woman (1944) -**˝
Right off the bat, let me say that this is not the movie its title would seem to imply. With a handle like Cobra Woman, most people would probably expect some kind of tacky, sub-Cat People were-cobra flick. There are indeed a few were-snake movies out there (Cult of the Cobra and The Reptile being only the most obvious examples), but this is not one of them. Instead, Cobra Woman is a would-be adventure spectacle from Universal, which is hilariously hampered at every turn by an idiotic script, disgraceful acting, shoddy sets, and agonizingly corny comic relief. The bad jokes stop it from being as entertaining as it should be, but it’s still a sight to behold.
Ramu is a white guy living in India, who I would be inclined to think was an Englishman were it not for his rather implausible name and the fact that he’s played by the unmistakably American John Hall (from The Invisible Man’s Revenge and The Beach Girls and the Monster). As it is, I have no idea where in the hell he’s supposed to be from, and I refuse to burn out any more of my brain cells by trying to figure it out. Ramu is engaged to marry a young woman named Tollea, who is explicitly supposed to be a native— this is an even funnier casting screw-up, in that Maria Montez (from Siren of Atlantis and Arabian Nights) is also as white as they come and she speaks with an impenetrable Mexican accent. Anyway, we meet the two of them while they hang out together by the river on the morning of their wedding day, playing with Tollea’s pet comic relief chimp and shoveling exposition at us in jagged, indigestible clods. Evidently, Tollea was adopted by MacDonald the Cartoon Scotsman (Moroni Olsen, of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves), has been raised sort-of Christian by him and his friend, Father Paul (Samuel S. Hinds, from Man-Made Monster and Son of Dracula), and has spent her whole life beset by some kind of angst related to a pair of mysterious round scars on the inside of her right wrist which she’s had since before she can remember. (Or at any rate, they’re supposed to be scars— actually, the strange wounds look like they were inflicted about fifteen minutes ago.)
Meanwhile, elsewhere along the riverbank, Ramu’s pet Indian boy, Kado (Sabu, from The Thief of Bagdad and the infamous Jungle Hell, who at the age of twenty looks almost young enough to be playing this character), encounters a blind, mute peddler headed toward the village where all of our major characters live. The peddler (Lon Chaney Jr., taking a break from cheap-ass horror movies to make a cheap-ass South Seas adventure flick) behaves rather suspiciously when Kado tries to talk to him, but even more suspicious is what he does when the boy finally leaves him alone: he rolls his eyes back down out of their sockets to reveal that he can see after all.
So do you think this guy might be coming to disrupt the wedding for some reason? Good call. It turns out the big man hails from the dreaded Cobra Island, and he is in town to abduct Tollea and take her there. Why? Because Tollea herself is originally from Cobra Island, of course. As MacDonald tells Ramu after the girl has been successfully shanghaied, he was once shipwrecked on Cobra Island, and only narrowly escaped death at the hands of its intensely xenophobic natives through some means that the screenwriters were too lazy to invent— MacDonald says he was tortured into unconsciousness, and when he came to, he was back on his mysteriously repaired boat, drifting in the general direction of home. And wonder of wonders, stashed in the hold of the boat was a little baby girl... MacDonald advises Ramu simply to accept Tollea’s abduction. He says there is nothing to be gained by trying to rescue her except a grisly, prolonged death. But this would be one short, boring movie if Ramu actually listened to his intended father-in-law’s advice, and the very next day, Ramu is on a dinky little skiff bound for Cobra Island. And unbeknownst to him, Kado is stowed away below the forward deck with a poison-dart blowgun he got from MacDonald.
Ramu finds reason to be thankful for Kado’s unauthorized accompaniment of him on his very first night on Cobra Island. The boy makes his presence known by saving his friend from a black panther that was preparing to pounce on him from above while he cooked his dinner. The following morning, the two adventurers scale the cliffs that keep all but the most determined interlopers out of the island’s interior, and sneak into the outskirts of the islanders’ city. Ramu, who has by this time ordered Kado to keep out of sight well behind him, is amazed to discover Tollea swimming in a lake under the watchful eyes of about two dozen servant girls. He jumps into the lake and swims to her, but his bride-to-be acts a bit strange when he embraces and kisses her— almost as if she doesn’t recognize him. After returning to land, Tollea tells Ramu to leave her until after nightfall, and then, when the man is out of earshot, tells her servants that “Nothing unusual happened here today, you understand? Nothing!”
Ramu almost misses his date, though, because he is swiftly found and captured by a band of Cobra Island warriors, and locked up in the palace dungeon by Martok (Edgar Barrier, from The Giant Claw and the 1943 version of The Phantom of the Opera), the number-two man on the island. Kado escapes discovery, however, and his efforts to maintain that state of affairs lead him into contact with two characters whom we’ve met before. The first of these is Koko the chimp, Tollea’s pet from back home (what possible reason the Cobra People would have for kidnapping the girl’s pet along with her is anybody’s guess). The second is Hava, the “blind peddler” who absconded with Tollea in the first place! Hava is just about to strangle Kado when a native girl named Veeda (Lois Collier, of Jungle Woman and Flying Disc Man from Mars) commands him to unhand the boy. Veeda turns out to be the handmaiden of the figurehead queen of Cobra Island (The Lady and the Monster’s Mary Nash), and when she hears that Kado has come looking for Tollea, she offers to take him to her. Oddly enough, Tollea is dressed in something far more modest than the kitsch finery in which Ramu saw her earlier, and there is no sign of her entourage of servants. Oh, wait— I get it. We’re doing that whole “good twin-bad twin” thing here, aren’t we? Yup. The girl Ramu met at the lake was, in reality, the high priestess Naja, who wields the real power on Cobra Island. The queen is Naja’s grandmother, and as she explains to Kado, Tollea’s grandmother as well. Tollea was the first of the twins to be born, but because it was Naja who possessed the immunity to cobra venom that is taken as a sign of divine favor in these parts (hey— now that you mention it, those scars on Tollea’s wrist do look kind of like a snake bite!), the younger sister ascended to the office of high priestess, while Tollea was left to die of the poison, but somehow (don’t ask the screenwriters) made it onto MacDonald’s boat. Tollea was kidnapped on the queen’s orders. Her people need her, or so the old lady says, to rescue them from her sister’s tyranny.
Okay, so the backstory is as clear now as it’s ever going to get, but Ramu still knows nothing of it, as he is imprisoned on Cobra Island’s death row. Kado scampers off to rescue him, but by the time he arrives at the window of his friend’s cell, Ramu has already escaped by his own devices, and left his jailer, Martok, in his place. Thus, while Ramu goes to keep his appointment with Naja, Kado secures his own term of imprisonment by rescuing Martok by mistake! Ramu figures out that Naja isn’t really Tollea after a few more minutes in her company, and he figures out just as quickly that she’s a thoroughly evil bitch. And from here on out, it’s pretty much one rescue after another— Kado, Tollea, Ramu, Ramu and Kado; from torture, from prison, from soldiers, from ritual sacrifice to the inevitable volcano— until Tollea and Naja finally square off in the palace, and the victorious Tollea goes up against Martok in the temple of King Cobra.
Ah, but it’s the little details that really make the movie. The film is filled with obvious matte paintings of a sort that Universal never would have stood for in the 30’s, with grandiose sets built on a budget far too stingy to render them at all convincing, with wildly excessive costumes that are equally beyond the reach of the money allotted to them. The overall effect of this “epic filmmaking on five dollars a day” approach is very similar (in kind if not in degree) to that of the poverty-stricken period pieces Andy Milligan used to make in Staten Island; there may not be any visible telephone poles in the periphery of the shot, or any noise from the highway twenty feet past the edge of the frame on the soundtrack, but neither is it ever possible to believe that Cobra Island is anything but a series of tacky stage sets.
Then there’s the giddy illogic of the script. I’ve pointed out most of the high (or low) points already, but it’s something that simply cannot be overstressed. Considering, for example, that the entire story hinges upon MacDonald’s long-ago excursion to Cobra Island and its fallout in the form of Tollea’s adoption, you’d think that somebody might have gone to the bother of figuring out just how it all happened. Could the queen somehow tell that Naja was going to grow up evil? Did she therefore arrange to sneak MacDonald out of the dungeon and turn him loose with Tollea so that there would be another potential high priestess to fall back on when Naja started to show her true colors? Could be. But for all we know, MacDonald and the infant Tollea could just as well have been taken from the island by super-powerful aliens who regard it as their mission in life to make sure all unwanted children have the chance to be adopted by deserving Cartoon Scotsmen!
But the real showstopper here is Maria Montez’s dual performance. There’s a very good reason why she’d only been given small supporting roles prior to Cobra Woman: her acting reeks. Even if you can look past the suspension-of-disbelief-shattering notion of a woman from an island off the coast of India speaking with a molasses-thick Mexican accent, there’s still the fact that she delivers all of her lines as if she were reading them off cue cards. We’re seriously talking about public access cable-level delivery here. Somehow, though, she manages to overact while doing it! I think the secret is in her body language. There’s one scene in particular, in which Naja selects “200” human sacrifices to the volcano from the crowd in the temple (a crowd that can’t possibly number more than half that many people, total) while doing some sort of deranged interpretive dance, that had me flashing back to Divine’s nightclub act in Female Trouble. Montez’s physical acting really is that far out of control! Put her together with all the tacky sets, the nonsensical screenplay, a comic-relief chimp, and an out-of-shape Lon Chaney Jr. in a costume that shows every inch of his flabby, sagging torso, and the result is such an amazing spectacle of bad taste that it doesn’t even need the absent were-cobra the title seems to promise.