What is it about serpents and seduction? Is it the psychic residue of Sunday school and Adam and Eve, or is it that the ‘s’ sound is just so sexy? Not being much into organized anything leads me to believe the latter, and The Snake Woman (1961) bears this out in a short, simple way with surprisingly little in the way of exploitation; regardless, it’s a film that should leave viewers charmed (insert Gene Shalit gif here).
Released by United Artists in late April, The Snake Woman was a second biller in the U.S., riding the bottom end below Dr. Blood’s Coffin, released the same year from the same filmmaking team (producer George Fowler and director Sidney J. Furie). Costing under $20,000, it made money but not many friends, with critics deriding its barebones plot and poverty row budget; all true, but it also is something that most critics who can’t look past its limitations missed: it’s just silly fun.
Maybe not a glowing recommendation, but we can’t discount the viewer who’s stuck around for the second flick after everyone has put their speaker back on the stand and driven away; this is a little film to satiate that viewer looking for a wee bit more bang for their dollar. Besides, it has a great old witch turn from Elsie Wagstaff as the town’s doomsayer/midwife that is worth a nickel or two alone.
Some story then: It’s England 1890, and Dr. Adderson (John Cazabon – Quatermass II) has a fascination with snakes; he believes their venom to be a cure all for several diseases, including his wife’s mental instability. And even though she’s pregnant, he keeps pumping her with Cobra juice to keep her demons at bay; naturally she’s more concerned as to what all that venom will do to her unborn baby.
The answer of course, is nothing good; after she’s delivered by Dr. Murton (wonderfully overplayed by Arnold Marle) our resident Crazy Ralphietta decides the little one born without eyelids or warm blood should be destroyed, and this time I have to side with the medical professionals. But the babe Atheris is spared, and carted off to a farmer’s house for safekeeping until her dad can pick her up the next day - which wouldn’t be a problem if the townsfolk had decided to let him live.
Murton heads off for Africa thinking the child will be raised by her father; when he comes back 20 years later, he discovers that the farmer ended up raising her until she was a teen, when she chose to leave the farm for greener pastures. And for Atheris, greener pastures means luring men to their death through her beauty and transformation into the deadly snake.
This brings out Scotland Yard to investigate the rash of deaths by a reptile unknown to the region, not to mention the town’s insistence that the mysterious girl (now played by the stunning Susan Travers) is behind it all. Can the yard bring down the serpentine siren before she strikes again?
The Snake Woman is as unpretentious as they come; it’s there in the title on down to the very limited sets and settings - everything feels like a no name off brand of bigger and more ambitious features. But in its own unassuming way, it ingratiates itself with a rudimentary gothic feel and a couple of performances more in tune with the melodramatic pinnings of The Wolf Man (1941) that helps lift the film above grade Z filler.
So does the solid direction of journeyman legend Sidney J. Furie (The Ipcress File), who doesn’t add anything stylistically, but keeps things moving along even when it threatens to bog down in pseudo-science chat (which I personally love). If you’re looking for detailed conversations about snake venom and its miraculous properties besides you know, killing, you’ve come to the right place.
The film, shot in black-and-white, is supposed to evoke a feeling that’s decidedly Hammer-esque, but doesn’t quite pull off that firm’s musculature or sensationalism. The budget simply won’t allow for trickery or (then) modern day sleight of hand, having to settle for a slow dissolve near the end as Atheris turns back to her flawless self.
But horror shouldn’t be judged by its effects alone, especially in an era where off screen is where the imagination had no choice but to foster; this of course was especially true of no budget wonders that had to rely solely on ideas. The Snake Woman has a few - mostly skin deep and outdated about female seduction and its ridiculous ties to evil - but mostly concerns itself with venom, and witchcraft, and other peripheral realities. It’s only 68 minutes long; how much deeper do you expect it to go beyond kiss, bite, and kill? Like a viper to a piper, it draws you in with its tinny and slightly off key tones. You just can’t help it.
The Snake Woman is available on Amazon Prime.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: MORTUARY (1983)