January 2, 2017

The Snake Woman (1961)

“And an evil curse descends upon the hitherto unsuspecting villagers”…..such dialogue is never actually used in this film per se, but it might easily as well have been. You see, some self-professed experts have postulated that this quota quickie is actually an underrated classic, and that it could have pointed the way forward for horror had Hammer not already been so popular. Which is a bit like saying that if Henry Ford hadn’t popularised the motor car then someone else might have done it instead. In other words, a completely hypothetical supposition.

The truth is, even for a fan of this stuff like me, “The Snake Woman” is neither underrated nor a classic. What it is is a competent enough B-movie programmer, entertaining in its own way and enjoyable enough to fit into the ‘cosy horror’ subgenre which seems to have formulated with the gift of hindsight in today’s nostalgia-obsessed culture. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If there was, I wouldn’t be writing this book.

Film stillThe fact is, many of us over a certain age find modern cinema leaves us wanting, and yearn instead for the joys of strange, fantastic and mystical things we glimpsed, or maybe even just read about, in our youth- often things we can’t even remember the name of. But with such memories also comes the tendency to extol the virtues of things that weren’t (if we’re honest) all that virtuous in the first place, and it has to be said, if it’s fantastic and mystical you’re after, I doubt very much whether “The Snake Woman”, which looks like it cost roughly 10 bob and 30 shillings to make (probably about 20 squid in new money), will satisfy your cravings.

Despite its shoestring budget and shoddy quality (even the restored DVD jumps huge chunks of dialogue due to the limitations of the source material) it’s actually closer in feel to a Hammer movie (that is, if you think ‘Cat Girl’ or ‘The Snorkel’ as opposed to the more typical output) than the protestations of various posters on IMDB would have you believe, although in no way could it ever be mistaken for one by anyone except the extremely foolish.

For a start, it features a torch-bearing lynchmob (in what should have really been a pre-credit sequence, a case of lazy construction I’m afraid) descending on the house of local ‘misfit’ Dr Adderson (workmanlike but personable character actor John Cazabon) and his wife as she’s about to drop their sprog. The doctor, you see, must be a bad ‘un, especially according to local crone/ gossip/ psychic/ shitstirrer Aggie, as he spends his time ‘consorting with wicked reptiles’, which is not natural and perceived in this part of Northumberland (bollocks!! I’ll bet you any money it’s Fulmer!!) as tantamount to a pact with The Devil himself.

 Needless to say, they smash his laboratory to pieces, club him to death and set the place on fire (now, I wonder if that would work with the local neds? Bugger, they haven’t got a laboratory) but not before Mrs Adderson has given birth to a cold child with the staring eyes of a demon– well, a child with slightly foreign-looking eyes, but who’s splitting hairs? The good doctor had the foresight to hand her over to the other doctor performing the delivery (Arnold Marle, another link with Hammer and probably the best thing about the entire film) who leaves her in the care of the local shepherd and then buggers off to Africa to study fossils.

Film stillSome 20 years later he returns (looking exactly the same age he did when he left- ancient) and discovers the girl, whom the shepherd had to bring up himself on account of her dad being clubbed by the locals (ouch) has now grown into a beautiful 20-year old woman. That is, a beautiful 20-year-old woman with a penchant for disappearing off onto the moors and allegedly ‘bewitching’ people. And as if her parentage and upbringing wasn’t enough to stigmatise her within the local community, she’s been christened Atheris- a name that has ‘evil snake goddess’ written all over it, even to stupid people (ie everyone in the village) Oh, and did I mention- it turns out her kindly Dad injected her mother with snake venom whilst expecting (like you do) and the beautiful girl, played by the truly beautiful Susan Travers, is a cold-blooded half-human who sheds her own skin and transforms into a snake. And once a year, there’s been a murder involving people dying of poisonous neckbites. Mmm, methinks, could there be a connection here?

It’s at this point that certain questions are answered and other, larger mysteries left unsolved. Why, if her father was a trained doctor, couldn’t he deliver his own daughter?  Maybe he couldn’t handle it himself as his wife wasn’t a reptile. I admit we don’t exactly know what he’s a doctor of, but it all seems a little suspect- if he just specialised in reptiles, why has it taken the villagers this long to get annoyed about it? Why does being born with reptilian traits guarantee that one will become a homicidal maniac? And if deaths have been occurring for several years, and everyone knows who’s responsible, why haven’t they descended on her the way they did on her comparatively innocent Dad? And why does Marle, so keen to save the child’s life in the early stages, and who was obviously her father’s best mate, suddenly do a complete volte-face and decide his purpose is now to bump her off, thus resulting in his own demise?

Answer: “because it says so in the script”. In other words, plot expediency. Yes, there’s a bit too much of that going on in this film for comfort. Most of the time, as a British horror fan, I would find it humorously welcome, but here it starts to outweigh the parts that make sense. Of course, no British film in 1961, horror or otherwise, would be complete without a clean-cut, besuited, brylcreemed hero, and that’s exactly what we get in the form of Charles (John McCarthy) who is sent by ‘Scotland Yard’, or at least a superimposed pictorial idea of it, to solve the mystery. Why, don’t they have their own police out in Pretend Northumberland? It would seem not.

 Film stillAnd before you can say ” I could have told you that was going to happen” he finds himself somewhat romantically bewitched by our forked-tongued femme-fatale, largely because (get this) as a snake, she’s the only woman who’s been charmed by his inept flute-playing. Seriously, where do they come up with these things? How long has he been trying this on with various different women, and hasn’t anyone told him that a compliment and a nice glass of port and lemon might do the trick better? I ask you. Anyway, the whole shebang comes to an end, as one may have guessed, on the moors, with the copper and the Colonel who sent for him suddenly realizing that old Aggie was right all along -not that they would ever admit to believing in the supernatural, of course, their hair is too short and their breast pockets too wide for that- but they do concede that the late doctor must have been up to some kind of experimental jiggery-pokery and that his daughter must have been the result of it in some way or other. An earlier scene, in which McCarthy finds a giant, womansize, recently-shed skin lying atop the misty peaks, should have been enough of a clue, but apparently it took this long. I guess it’s not easy to pad plots this thin out to 68 minutes.

The next thing you know it’s all over, and the deceased body of the beautiful Travers, later of course to go on to mild infamy as the nurse in ‘The Abominable Dr Phibes’ and as Barry Foster’s missus in ‘Van Der Valk’, is lying amidst the dusky stems. The handsome young policeman can go back to London, probably much to the chagrin of the local barmaid who obviously fancied him (but hated his flute playing, something he saw as a vital clue!!) and the villagers that haven’t been bitten to death already can return to their life of carefree rural bigotry. And in a moment that surely pre-empted every episode of ‘Kolchak’ by some thirteen years, the eminently sensible man from the military decides to throw McCarthy’s report on the fire- ‘just in case anyone believes it’. Poof (that’s the sound of the documents going up in flames, not my opinion of the Colonel)

It’s difficult to be either positive or negative about ‘The Snake Woman’, seeing as in all honesty it’s such an unremarkable film. It definitely constitutes an amusing enough way to fill up an hour on a Sunday afternoon (yes, it is THAT mild horror-wise), but as far as quota quickies go it isn’t even up to the standard of the likes of ‘The Man In The Back Seat’ or ‘The House In Marsh Road’, both of which pack a lot more punch into their brief running times. I can’t honestly see how it could have pointed an alternative direction to Hammer, seeing as how the frankly seminal ‘Village Of The Damned’ and ‘Peeping Tom’ were released the same year and Milton Subotsky would shortly arrive in the UK. But some people will get these strange ideas. Construction-wise, the dialogue is largely uninspired (although at moments amusing and on one occasion even charming), the acting, with the exception of Arnold Marle and Geoffrey Denton’s performances, borders on the leaden, and the actual snakes themselves appear so fleetingly (not to mention somewhat out of focus and hidden ‘neath foliage) that they might as well not be there at all.

As a rule I generally don’t like to diss British Horror films from the golden era- but I think this is probably the closest I’ll get. Watch by all means, but only out of curiosity or completism. That seeking the fulfillment one derives even from the cheesiest and duffest of films would really do well to look elsewhere, and believe me there are plenty of better places to look. Susan Travers, though, is another matter- I could look at her for hours.  Shame, then, that she appears so infrequently in the film in which she plays the title role.

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About Drewe Shimon

Drewe Shimon has written 61 post in this blog.