Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Snake Woman (1961)

The moors of Northumberland, around 1900. Perhaps ever so slightly mad scientist Dr Adderson (John Cazabon) has healed his wife Martha (Dorothy Frere) with regular injections of snake venom from the madness (MADNESS!) she suffered from when they met and married. Now, though, in the very final stage of her pregnancy, Martha’s having second thoughts about her treatments. Adderson poo-poos the idea of stopping the injections now, of course, for after all, what is the health of his unborn to child compared to the knowledge they will gain? Plus, it really seems rather late to stop now, in the final hours of the pregnancy, if you ask me. Yes, this is going to be that kind of movie.

Because everyone around is crazily superstitious and looks with horror at Adderson’s keeping of snakes, the Adderson’s can’t get a proper midwife, so they have to make do with Old Aggie Harker (Elsie Wagstaff), a crazy old woman who thinks herself a witch. It’s not completely surprising when Aggie doesn’t take it too well that the Addersons’ child turns out to be so cold-blooded they at first think it is dead, has big staring eyes and a tendency to stay very still. One supposes the fact Martha doesn’t survive the birth doesn’t help there much either. After murdering the baby with a pair of scissors doesn’t work out for Aggie, she runs off to the local village tavern, where she assembles one of the more embarrassing torch wielding mobs I’ve seen in a film like this, comprising as it does about half a dozen people and not even enough torches for more than half of them. These good people beat up Adderson, murder his snakes, and torch his house while Adderson himself is in there unconscious. At least the baby is safe, though, for the local doctor (Arnold Marlé) has carried the child to a shepherd who isn’t as insane as the rest of the community, to take care of the child for a night until Adderson can safely come and get it. Alas, Adderson is dead, and the doctor will only learn of this twenty years later, for he is going to Africa, early the next morning, as he can’t help but tell everyone he meets.

When he returns twenty years later the first thing the Doctor does is visit the shepherd - for reasons only known to the film’s ridiculous script – who provides him and us with a nice little exposition dump. Turns out the shepherd took in the girl and called her Atheris. He never really seems to have warmed to her though, what with her having a character that sometimes turned snake-like (whatever the hell that’s even supposed to mean), and his animals’ fear of her. Consequently, he’s not terribly sad she has disappeared some years ago, the prick. Honestly, what is wrong with the people in this film? Murdering people because they keep snakes? Wanting to murder a baby? Not caring when one’s foster daughter disappears? If that’s the healthy country life, I’d rather stay home.

But lets continue with the plot’s convoluted ways. Turns out, ever since Atheris (who has grown up into the rather fetching Susan Travers) has disappeared into the moors or ever since the lab burned down - the film doesn’t seem to be able to make up its mind there – a surprising number of villagers walking the moors has been killed by snake bites, which, given their lab-burning, snake-killing, and baby-murdering ways, one might think serves them right and should not surprise anyone. While the Doctor is doing whatever he does, former imperial boot heel Colonel Wyborn (Geoffrey Denton) has recognized something strange about the bites on one of these dead baby killer corpses – they’re from a king cobra, not at all a species that could survive in the moors (a point the film puts extra emphasis on by usually not using a king cobra for Atheris’s were-snake form). Wyborn asks an old friend at Scotland Yard for help.

Instead of somebody competent, or a snake wrangler, his friend sends Wyborn one Charles Prentice (John McCarthy), supposedly the best scientific mind of the Yard, but in practice the wooden “romantic” lead in a cheapo horror film it takes me longer to write up than to actually watch. No wonder they never caught Jack the Ripper. Obviously, Prentice won’t believe any of the supernatural nonsense Aggie and the other villagers sprout, will develop a crush on Atheris, and will only believe in utter bullshit right at the end. Oh, and none of the villagers, or the evil old Aggie, the person actually responsible for all the bad stuff that has happened will ever be punished for their crimes, of course, because snakes are evil, and this film is even too thoughtless to realize who its bad guys are.

And anyway, seeing as Orville H. Hampton’s script doesn’t seem to know how snakes work, we can’t expect him to understand ethics. Hint from one non-herpetologist to the next: non-supernatural snakes just don’t attack out of malice, for Cthulhu’s sakes. But then, Hampton also doesn’t know how Scotland Yard works, or people, or logic, so what do I expect? Well, actually, I would expect a film to realize the dramatic chance that comes up when you have a “monster” that by all rights should be treated as a tragic figure taking vengeance on a bunch of horrible people who’d otherwise go unpunished. As the film tells the story, Aggie’s planned baby murder was just the right idea, making this one of the most reactionary horror films you could imagine, letting Hammer’s conservatism shine as humane and empathic in contrast. Just compare this with Hammer’s later The Reptile and find yourself suddenly struck by Hammer’s deep humanism.

So by all rights, I should have been really annoyed watching this. In truth, I found myself giggling like a loon for most of the film’s running time. You see, while this was made in the early 60s, everything about the film screams “Tod Slaughter vehicle from the mid-30s”, so the film never stops to bombard us with the silliest, corniest dialogue imaginable, spoken in performances that can’t be contained by mere words like “scenery-chewing”. I can’t imagine any human being not being in stitches about every single cackling bit of nonsense Aggie declaims about “EEEEVIL!” or the adventures of our good Doctor “AFRIKA!”. It’s a thing to behold.

Given how terrible the script is, it may come as a bit of a surprise how good the whole affair looks. Director Sidney J. Furie, early in his career as ultra-competent hired hand, sure makes the best of Stephen Dade’s cinematography. In fact, if the script were just a bit better, I could imagine calling this “Northumberland Gothic” or some such. As it stands, the photography just makes a bizarre contrast to the things it actually photographs.

No comments: