Bite Size: Night Of The Cobra Woman (1972)

Night Of The Cobra Woman has all of the right elements to be a delightful bit of down and dirty, shot in the Philippines drive in fare. The location shoot allows for a built in exotic setting. It stars multiple comely actresses that did some solid genre work and weren’t opposed to showing a bit of skin, and the downmarket Peter Lorre stylings of Vic Diaz. Plus, there’s enough snakes to mandate the resurrection of St. Patrick. Yet, for all of its positive aspects, the overall effect of watching the film is akin to that of a bad online date. The basic details all match the profile, but it has all of the personality of a sack of wet laundry.

Sometime during World War II, Lena Aruza (Marlene Clark, Ganja & Hess) and a young woman named Francisca (Rosemarie Gil) are Allied nurses out gathering medicinal herbs. Lena has heard rumor of a local plant that provides additional vigor and long life, and stops to investigate inside of a remote cave, where she is bitten by an exotic cobra. Meanwhile, poor Francisca is shot and (completely unnecessarily) raped by a Japanese soldier. As it turns out, the cobra venom has all of the properties the herbs were reputed to, and Lena uses it to save the life of her friend.

Cutting to the present, A UNICEF researcher named Joanna (Joy Bang, Messiah Of Evil) has just arrived in Manila to research anti venom for snake bites. She becomes fascinated with the local legends of immortality granting cobras, and a woman in a remote village who supposedly has access to one of the rare snakes. Lonely with all of the long hours in the lab, she invites her boyfriend Duff (Roger Garrett) to join her.

Of course, the local legend is a still youthful Lena. The long ago bite does grant her near immortality, as long as she has a steady supply of venom from familiar/snake deity Movini and a steady stream of young sexual conquests to steal vitality from. When Duff becomes another of the notches on Lena’s deadly bedpost, Joanna must rush to find an antidote.

Even the basic plot outline is overstuffed, and Night Of The Cobra Woman has no qualms complicating its mostly invented on the fly storyline with even more subplots. Nothing exceeds like excess, and nothing is more sure to flatline than a magic and mysticism based narrative that has absolutely no clue how its basic mythology is supposed to work. Most of Lena’s conquests die immediately, but her manservant Lope (a nonsensically gibbering Vic Diaz) is merely a deformed jungle riff on Quasimodo. Meanwhile Duff can be restored entirely by regular does of fresh venom. Plus, the mighty snake god Movini apparently has a specific weakness against eagles, which happens to be the exact animal Duff stole from outside the airport upon arrival.

Joy Bang is woefully miscast as Joanna, and she stumbles through the film in a haze of well styled hair and an expensive set of veneers. Richard Garrett as Duff is even worse, and it’s inexplicable what either of these women would see in this tall glass of skim milk that was worth venom stealing and backstabbing each other over. Marlene Clark’s imperious, high cheekboned beauty lends itself well to a dangerous cobra queen, but the material robs her of any real chance at delicate tragedy or camp villainy. If anyone’s vitality is truly stolen by this film, it is hers, as she valiantly struggles to add a distinct characterization to the whole mixed up affair.

For all of its potential, nothing much happens. The snakes are pretty tame, and mostly confined to inset shots. A lot of runtime is wasted on people wandering around searching for each other, Joy Bang looking like she’d rather be at Woodstock while they test the venom on a monkey, and a Francisca and Lope hired help revenge angle that just slithers off into the bushes.

The general inertness of the plot could have been forgivable if Night Of The Cobra Woman was stylishly shot, a sort of hallucinatory fever dream of glorious incoherence in the Messiah Of Evil mode. Unfortunately, Andrew Meyer’s direction isn’t any stronger than his screenwriting skills. The effects are pretty cheap, and he lacks any sense of framing or pacing to build any consistent mood. The film’s few kills are primarily cutaway, and what should be a horrific sequence of Lena shedding her skin is shot with the overheated eye of an aging patron watching a burlesque dancer slowly remove her stockings.

Roger Corman was a producer on the film, and was reputedly very displeased with the final result. He never hired Meyer to helm a feature film again. The fact that Night Of The Cobra Woman was beneath the visual and storyline standards of the king of fast, cheap B movie making tells you pretty much all you need to know.