The Snake Woman/Terror of the Snake Woman (1961) -***˝
I love watching a movie I’ve never heard of, and having it turn out to be an unheralded work of overlooked brilliance. But I think even more than that, I enjoy it when the experience of watching an unknown film turns out like my first screening of The Snake Woman/Terror of the Snake Woman, in which I was blindsided by what is easily one of the most astoundingly stupid horror flicks ever to come out of Great Britain. It isn’t just the inherent wrongness of a movie in which a mad scientist accidentally turns his unborn daughter into a were-cobra by shooting his pregnant wife up with snake-venom serum, either. This is one of those rare movies— and doubly rare in the Isles— in which the quality of the writing is so ludicrously poor that virtually every line spoken by virtually every character comes out as pure comedy gold.
In a small Northumberland village in the year 1890, there lives a herpetologist with the unlikely name of Horace Adderson (John Cazabon, from the TV version of “Quatermass II”). Horace’s wife, Martha (Dorothy Frere, of It! and Vampire Circus), is a bit of a loony. In fact, when the two of them met, the woman was hopelessly insane. (Alright, alright— stop right there. Martha was insane when Horace met her? And he decided to fucking marry the bitch?! Who’s the crazy one now, huh?!?!) Fortunately, Horace’s talents extend far beyond herpetology, and he has concocted a serum from the venoms of several different snake species that has mostly restored his wife’s senses. The trouble is, Martha is pregnant, and she worries that the drugs her husband injects her with each day might be doing something bad to the fetus growing inside her. Well no sooner has Martha finally spoken up about her concerns (to no avail whatsoever, I might add) than her latest injection unexpectedly induces labor. Adderson rushes into town to summon village physician Dr. Murton (Arnold Marle, of both The Creature and its theatrical remake, The Abominable Snowman) and a midwife. But the scientist’s reputation among the locals (not only is he a scientist in a horror movie, he’s a scientist who works with snakes!) is such that the only midwife he can get is Aggie Harker (Elsie Wagstaff, from Crimes at the Dark House and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell), a self-styled white witch who is even loopier than poor Martha.
It isn’t an easy birth. The child’s body is cold to the touch when it emerges from the womb, and Martha looks unlikely to survive the night, either. But despite its temperature, silence, and strange, unblinking eyes, the Adderson baby is in not, in fact, dead. She will be soon, though, if Aggie gets her way; one look at the infant girl convinces the midwife that the child is evil, and must be destroyed. When Adderson and Murton prevent her from stabbing the baby to death with a convenient pair of scissors, Aggie runs back to town and raises an exceptionally pathetic torch-bearing mob. The mob— which even includes the local police constable!— arrives too late to kill the “serpent child;” Murton has already snuck her away to the home of a shepherd whom he knows not to be subject to the wild flights of superstitious fancy that animate his neighbors, where she is to stay until Adderson comes to claim her in the morning. So instead, the townspeople content themselves with killing Adderson’s many captive snakes, beating him up, and then burning his laboratory to the ground with him still inside it. Needless to say, that shepherd (Stevenson Lang, from The Invincible Gladiators and another Italian film with the hilarious title La Guerra dei Topless— “War of the Topless”) just inherited himself a daughter. Murton, who embarks for Africa early the next morning, is none the wiser.
As a matter of fact, he remains none the wiser for nineteen whole years, the duration of his stay on the Dark Continent. (You won’t believe how clumsily the movie establishes this rather unexpected plot point.) For some reason, his first stop upon returning to Northumberland to retire is the home of the shepherd, who breaks it to him that Adderson was killed the night before Murton left, and that he was forced to raise the little girl himself. The shepherd also lets Murton in on what became of the girl, whom he named Atheris (Susan Travers, from Peeping Tom and The Abominable Dr. Phibes). She was a weird kid from day one, and none of the animals liked her. Around the time she was seven or so, sheep began dying from the bites of venomous snakes, even though the shepherd had never had such a problem before. Eventually, even his faithful sheepdog was killed by one of the reptiles. Then, a couple of years ago, Atheris just disappeared. The shepherd looked for her, of course, but she just wasn’t anywhere to be found. The funny thing is, though, that since that day, a legend has sprung up among the townspeople of a “snake girl” who stalks the moors by night and kills any man luckless enough to meet her. There is another such death that very evening.
Murton isn’t the only new arrival in town to become fascinated with the legend of the snake girl. A retired soldier named Colonel Clyde Wynborn (Geoffrey Denton, from The Devil’s Undead and Horrors of the Black Museum), who spent most of his career in India, recognizes the bite that killed the latest victim as that of the king cobra. Wynborn understandably finds the notion of a king cobra living on the moors of Northumberland almost as difficult to believe as Aggie’s tales of a satanic snake woman, and he sends word of the strange case to an old friend of his who now works as an inspector for Scotland Yard. The inspector dispatches a subordinate named Charles Prentice (The Electronic Monster’s John McCarthy) to see what’s what. Prentice’s first stop is Aggie’s cottage, where the old lady gives him a crash course in witchcraft, and prophesies that he will be the one to slay the monster. He also learns of Adderson’s strange experiments and stranger fate, partly from Colonel Wynborn and partly from Barkis (Michael Logan), the village’s unofficial headman and one of the people who helped torch the scientist’s lab all those years ago. Inevitably, Prentice also meets up with Atheris herself one night, and makes the damn fool mistake of developing a crush on her. This goes every bit as badly as you’d expect— let’s just say Aggie knows what she’s prophesying about.
Most people, when they think of British horror movies of the 1960’s, tend to think of Hammer, and maybe Amicus or Tigon as well. Chances are, they don’t even realize that crap like The Snake Woman exists, or if they do, they imagine that it stopped being made after the 1950’s. (Fire Maidens from Outer Space was a British movie, you know...) But The Snake Woman is here to tell us all different, and with what authority it does so! For sheer schlock value, The Snake Woman rivals anything that Arkoff and Nicholson unleashed upon us in the decade before. Some viewers will be disappointed, I imagine, at the absence of a monster suit from the proceedings (man, imagine The Reptile made on a third of the budget— what a sight that would have been!), but for my money the movie makes up for that oversight with “transformation scenes” achieved by non-editing fully equal to that of The Giant Leeches. One moment, we’re looking Atheris square in the face; the next, the camera is following one of at least half a dozen different snake species (none of them the king cobra into which the girl theoretically changes) through the underbrush. I had to see it happen three or four times before I was even sure what I was supposed to be looking at! The non-editing is matched by non-acting every step of the way, and that in turn is exceeded considerably by some genuinely inspired non-writing. It reduced me practically to hysterics every time Aggie went off on one of her “the child is ee-vil!” rants, which were as funny the last time as they were the first. Horace Adderson, meanwhile, is a mad scientist of the sort we just don’t see anymore, arguing with his wife in all seriousness that an opportunity to prove the efficacy of his venom-serum insanity cure is more than worth any damage the drugs might be doing to their unborn child. Nevermind that there can’t possibly be much market for an antipsychotic whose list of side-effects reads, “may cause fetal were-snake syndrome— not to be taken by pregnant women!” And you thought the lawsuits over thalidomide were nasty...