by Jay Seaver
It's heartening to see new 35mm prints struck and distributed for movies that are not classics. It's important to remember that name-your-favorite-decade wasn't some sort of Golden Age of Film from which the art form has devolved, but a time period that had good flicks and bad; it's just that the best ones are the ones we remember, restore, buy on video and book at rep houses. At the same time, though, if we're going to preserve some of these less-than-shining moments in American film history, they might as well be entertaining in their tackiness like "Cobra Woman".As the movie starts, it's a joyous time on Harbor Island - Ramu (Jon Hall) and Tollea (Maria Montez) are to be married the next day. At first, it's not seen as a big deal when curious youngster Kado (Sabu) encounters a blind and mute merchant (Lon Chaney), but the next morning he is gone, having taken Tollea. That's when her adopted father (Moroni Olsen) tells Ramu where he found Tollea - the infant girl had been hidden on his boat when he was mysteriously sprung from prison on Cobra Island, where the law says all outsiders must be put to death, even if they arrived accidentally. Ramu, of course, decides to sail to Cobra Island and rescue her. Kado stows away. On the island itself, the Queen (Mary Nash) tells Tollea that she is Tollea's grandmother, and Tollea must take the position as the High Priestess, for her twins sister Naja (Montez again) and the High Priest Martok (Edgar Barrier) are bleeding the people dry with their religious fanaticism.
"It's crap. But it's EXUBERANT crap."
This is basic pulp adventure stuff, and that description leaves out the volcano, into which the natives are sacrificed, and the chimpanzee sidekick. We encounter all of it in a compact seventy-five minute running time. Writers Scott Darling, Gene Lewis, and Richard Brooks throw every South Seas adventure trapping into the mix - Kado and Ramu even find their escape briefly delayed by quicksand - and they're lucky to have a director as good as Robert Siodmak and pretty Technicolor photography. The way I figure it, something doesn't become a camp classic (which Cobra Woman arguably is) by simply being so awful that folks laugh at it; it's because of badness that sticks out like a sore thumb among competence, tempered by the realization that these folks are, in fact, doing the very best they can, and are blissfully unaware that their project, by most objective measures, stinks.
Take leading lady Maria Montez. The "Caribbean Cyclone" had a fantastic body and no issues with showing it off within the limits of the Hayes Code. She was not only a bad actress, though, but she was a bad actress with a thick accent that doesn't match anyone else on the island where her character supposedly grew up and makes her dialog hilarious when it's comprehensible. And this movie's producers decided to cast her in a dual role! And to see her dance... It's awful, but since nobody seems to have any concept of her limitations, it's worth some jaw-dropping disbelief.
Frequent co-stars Jon Hall and Sabu (they did a series of Technicolor adventure movies for Universal during WWII) aren't quite so flamboyantly awful, but they (like Chaney) have pretty thoroughly physical parts - running, jumping, punching, climbing, swinging on ropes, that sort of thing. Sabu, unfortunately, gets stuck speaking broken English, sounding like a simpleton. He has a sleepwalking scene where I managed to completely miss the point; I thought Kado was supposed to be just fooling around, not really having a prophetic dream.
Uncredited is the chimpanzee who demonstrates unusual sewing ability, at least for a chimpanzee. Which is indicative of the sort of pure escapism this movie has. Oh, sure, there may be a line in there about how dangerous religious fanaticism can be, but don't read too much into that: It seems to apply more to people climbing the Thousand Steps to throw themselves into the volcano as opposed to, say, killing every outsider who comes to the island. But it does have an exploding volcano, pretty royal handmaidens in tube tops and high heels, people swinging over pits filled with sharp metal objects, and costumes that are minimal enough for both men and women to enjoy the scenery.Sure, there's also a truly lame cobra puppet and a nonsensical plot. But I was entertained. They were trying hard enough for me to forgive the flaws and enjoy what was, in fact, enjoyable.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=13789&reviewer=371
originally posted: 01/15/06 03:30:53