DIRECTED BY: Joe D’Amato
FEATURING: Laura Gemser, Jack Palance, Gabriele Tinti
PLOT: An exotic dancer moves in with the wealthy, snake-obsessed Judas Carmichael; a series of murders-by-snakebite follow—but is Judas responsible?
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: In spite of its herpetological conceit, Black Cobra Woman quickly turns into a run-of-the-mill revenge story—aside from one particularly memorable scene.
COMMENTS: The sexploitation film lives and dies on its perversity. The best of them, notably the works of Russ Meyer and Jess Franco, create a sense of danger simply watching them. They disgust and arouse at the same time, lambasting any illusions the viewer may have about their own dignity or propriety. When the sexploitation film fails to offend and settles for titillation, it founders.
Black Cobra Woman climaxes in one of the cruelest, most gruesome acts of the sexploitation genre. This makes it all the more disappointing that the prior 80 minutes feel so lifeless. The sex is dull and tired, a series of sad-looking women stripping and touching each other’s thighs. There’s no thrill to any but the final two scenes, and the rest of the film is padded so heavily with travelogue footage of Hong Kong that the journey isn’t worth it.
The central conceit is promising. Amateur herpetologist Judas Carmichael, played by a weary Jack Palance, falls in love with Eva (Laura Gemser), a lesbian dancer who performs with a live cobra. Eva moves in with the wealthy Carmichael, who shows no interest in sleeping with her. Judas keeps Eva only as an object of fascination, like one of his many pet snakes.
Black Cobra Woman sets up Judas as Eva’s keeper, but it never pursues the implications of that relationship. Judas displays hardly any possessiveness or abusiveness towards Eva, and happily ignores the succession of women she brings back to his house from Hong Kong lesbian clubs. Black Cobra Woman’s villain turns out not to be Judas, but rather his brother Jules, who becomes obsessed with Eva. Using his brother’s snakes, Jules seduces and murders each of Eva’s girlfriends.
Gabriele Tinti plays Jules with appropriate sadism, but the character ultimately falls flat. His lust for Eva feels contrived, especially when Jack Palance’s character has such clearer motivation for jealousy. His murders are far too tame, as well. Sexploitation films eroticize murder, but despite the obvious phallic implications, all but one of the snake scenes come across as pedestrian. When Jules throws a venomous snake onto a naked woman, he comes off as a schoolboy teasing a girl with spiders, not a psychopath.
When Eva discovers that Jules is responsible for the killings, she arranges for his murder. Two hired thugs ambush Jules on the beach, beating him and tying him down on all fours. They sodomize him with a cobra while Eva taunts him. The scene is shocking and revolting, but surprisingly non-graphic. There’s no gore, only Jules’ anguished screams. This restraint might be admirable in a more exciting film, but Black Cobra Woman is so dull up to this point that the lack of any gore hurts.
Black Cobra Woman feels like a victim of bad casting. Laura Gemser spends nearly the entire film looking at the ground like a depressed prisoner. In theory this should make her eventual rebellion all the more satisfying, but that never happens. She murders Jules, not her captor Judas, and her suicide in the last scene feels less like an escape from her cage and more like an easy way to end the film.
Jack Palance disappoints even more. At the nadir of his career in the late 70s, Palance could still turn in sinister, hate-worthy performances even in pablum like Angels’ Revenge. Here he comes across as a doddering old man. The red cardigan he wears doesn’t help, making him look like a washed-up Mister Rogers.
Black Cobra Woman sets up an intriguing relationship between a snake-woman and her owner, but quickly turns into a routine murder and revenge story. The villain’s comeuppance is grotesque, the lead-up doesn’t earn it. One scene, no matter how shocking, can’t salvage a boring film.
Black Cobra Woman can be found on a newly-released Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber under the title Emmanuelle and the Deadly Black Cobra.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“This bizarre curio from veteran European exploitation filmmaker Joe D’Amato is unexpectedly high on style and depressingly low on substance.”–Donald Guarisco, All Movie Guide