Back in the early Seventies, Roger Corman and his New World film company cranked out a slew of exploitation movies filmed in the Philippines. Most of these were Women-in-Prison films, but there was the occasional oddball item like Night of the Cobra Woman. A prologue set during the Second World War finds two nurses intruding into a spooky cave festooned with strange snakelike symbols. While one woman is raped outside by a Japanese soldier, Lena (Marlene Clark) is bitten by a snake and turns into the Cobra Woman. She despatches the soldier then uses her unique venom to heal her injured friend. Thirty years later, plucky American scientist Joanna (Joy Bang) is at work researching the curative properties of snake venom when her dorky boyfriend Duff (Roger Garrett) arrives in town. Soon afterwards, Joanna steals a vial of venom to help the ailing old Francisca (Rosemarie Gil, in old age makeup) and incurs the wrath of Lena, who promptly seduces Duff into being her minion.
Even Roger Corman had few kind words for this cheerfully tacky, frequently incoherent Filipino production. Somewhat in the tradition of all those Blood Island movies made by Eddie Romero with star John Ashley, this was the sole writer-producer credit for Kerry Magness, who was a gaffer by trade, while co-writer and director Andrew Meyer’s other notable gig was supervising Corman’s Americanized version of the Japanese disaster epic, The Submersion of Japan a.k.a. Tidal Wave (1973/75). Night of the Cobra Woman has severe pacing problems and is riddled with inconsistencies, including the casting of Rosemarie Gil and Vic Diaz in dual roles with only the vaguest explanation why. Diaz, a regular in Filipino exploitation usually cast as a sleazy rapist, plays both the Japanese soldier and a tree-dwelling hunchback named Lope, whom Francisca claims was once a handsome man until he made love to Lena.
The film tries its hardest to evoke sympathy for the snake woman even as she is seducing and killing every male in sight (she admits being “confused and frightened by humans” and only wants to return to her serpent form), a facet underlined by Roger Garrett’s obnoxiously self-centred hero whose sole concern seems to be maintaining his newfound mortality. He even lures other men to their deaths at Lena’s hands. Much of the movie centres on Duff and Lena’s would-be tragic romance, hampered by her inability to stop screwing every stud in town to prolong her existence. In one hilarious, would-be saucy scene, Lena is turned on by the sight of a helpful stranger’s (Bert Rivera) exposed butt crack. After spending the night together, she sheds her snake skin leaving him drained of his youth. Then there are the bizarre supporting characters, from the enigmatic Francisca to the unfathomable Lope, and the surly American G.I. (Slash Marks - most likely a pseudonym) whom Lena attempts to seduce then drain of his essence, but who winds up trying to mutilate her!
With the exception of Vic Silayan as a fatherly scientist, the whole cast deliver stilted performances, including the game but miscast Marlene Clark and Joy Bang. Clark was a horror film regular, from the arty blaxploitation vampire film Ganja & Hess (1970) to the trashy but fun blaxploitation werewolf whodunit The Beast Must Die (1974), but is neither especially magnetic nor intimidating here. Joy Bang (bearer of one of the all-time great exploitation star names) was the epitome of the free-spirited, uninhibited hippie chick in early Seventies cinema, with small but notable roles in Play It Again, Sam (1971), Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971) and Cisco Pike (1972), as well as the ambitious but flawed horror movie, Messiah of Evil (1973). In a rare leading role, Bang’s whiny scientist comes across like a teenager playing dress-up in her mom’s clothes, but frankly she is Meryl Streep compared to Roger Garrett’s amateurish emoting. The limp finale is a touchy-feely hippie idea of a horror movie climax and brings the whole sorry mess full circle while Joanna consoles herself with a nice mango. It looks far tastier than the movie.