Snake-bit

CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”

Sidney J. Furie’s “The Snake Woman” has a less-than stellar reputation, and I’m not sure why that is. To be sure it’s an understated affair, set in the early 20th Century, filmed in black-and-white and running just a bit over an hour. It’s the antithesis of Furie’s other horror film, the flamboyant, filmed-in-color “Doctor Blood’s Coffin.” While “Doctor Blood” was an all-out attempt to shock audiences, “The Snake Woman” is more like a Val Lewton film, or Arthur O’ Shaughnessy’s “The Cat Woman” in that it invites audience to question whether Susan Travers’ Atheris is a mentally-ill woman or a supernatural being. Ultimately Furie satisfies us that Atheris can indeed transform herself into a cobra at will, but even then she’s either woman or snake, never the ghastly fanged cross-breed of Hammer’s “The Reptile,” although she does slough off her human skin. But even the discovery of this “discard” was used less as a shock element than to serve as the final straw pushing the heretofore logic-loving hero over to the superstitious villagers’ side. It looks as if scriptwriter Orville H. Hampton had at least a nodding acquaintance with Oliver Wendell Holmes’ classic novel of Elsie Venner, another sinister lady with snake-like propensities.
One oddity in this film concerns Elsie Wagstaff’s character Aggie Harker, the village crone, a hate-filled character who sets the tale in motion by attempting to murder the “demon-child” at birth, then egging on the villagers to destroy the laboratory of Atheris’ herpetologist father, thus causing his death. Ordinarily we would expect Aggie to eventually fall victim to the monster that she helped to create–but she actually survives the film and even gets John McCarthy’s putative hero, a Scotland Yard inspector called in to investigate a rash of snake-bite deaths, to settle her feud with Atheris courtesy of three well-placed bullets. Adding to the oddity of Aggie’s survival is the fact that Arnold Marle’s kindly doctor, who saved the infant Atheris from death at Aggie’s hands, later falls victim to her deadly bite.
“The Snake Woman” is another of those films which, without being a masterpiece is nevertheless a respectable piece of work. It deserves a more sympathetic look as another example of what non-Hammer British horror looked like in the 1960s.

Now a word about Furie’s other horror outing “Doctor Blood’s Coffin.” This is undoubtedly the better known of the two horror films made by Furie before “The Ipcress File” elevated his stature, albeit briefly. It was filmed in color and starred British Scream Queen Hazel Court as a comely widowed nurse living in a small Cornish village where she assists Dr. Blood, Sr., a kindly country GP. Both worship his son, the brilliant Dr. Peter Blood who is studying in Vienna. Neither knows what the audience knows, as a pre-credits teaser has shown Blood being expelled from the school for his unorthodox research into reviving the dead. Yes, the brilliant Peter is little bit cracked and he was played by Kieron Moore a ruggedly handsome actor who eschewed conventional hero roles to concentrate on playing folks who are a wee-bit strange, like the shell-shocked and suicidal RAF pilot in “Mine Own Executioner.” Here he plays a more conventional bad guy as a scientist whose belief in his work pushes him over the edge to madness and murder. We know when Court rejects him that Moore will “punish” her by using his techniques to resurrect the rotting corpse of her dearly-loved husband. But the moldering revenant is handled discreetly without too many stomach-churning close-ups. In fact, still photos from the film are a lot stronger than what you actually see onscreen. Also the revived corpse is held back until the final minutes of the film, when he demonstrates to Blood that Love is stronger than Death when he attacks Blood rather than his terrified and revulsed wife.

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