Review: Snake Woman - 1961

Snake Woman

Snake Woman begins with a pregnant woman undergoing a rather unorthodox system of therapy for mental illness: regular shots of snake venom. When the "crazy" mother objects to her husband (who is a herpetologist) that the venom shots aren't worth the risk because it could endanger the baby she is carrying, he responds:

"Besides being my wife, you're the living, breathing proof of the soundness of my theories. Those things are more important than a child!"

The resulting baby is born cold and assumed to be dead, but then it begins moving and exhibits snakelike behaviors, meanwhile the mother dies, possibly from shock when looking upon the infant which has no eyelids "like a baby snake which only develops eyelids later." Or is it the snake bites discovered later on her arm?

Local village pseudo-witch Aggie Harker (played by Elsie Wagstaff) is the mid-wife and claims she "can see things" and pronounces "It is evil! it has the eye! It is the devil's offspring!" And promptly grabs a pair of scissors to slay the baby, but is instead kicked out of the house by the delivery doctor and the father. Aggie runs to the local pub and stirs up the customers (it doesn't take much!) to grab their torches and go to the house to deal with the "devil-baby," but when they arrive the delivery doctor has taken off with the child to save her. However, the villagers are undeterred, they need to attack something, so they declare that they'll destroy the Herpetologist's "slimy" collection of snakes, and then they set fire to house.

The delivery doctor leaves the infant with a local farmer to keep it safe from the crazy mob from the village, he then leaves because he has a "pressing appointment elsewhere." Years later when he returns, the farmer tells of how the child grew up and the local animals didn't like her (especially the farmer's dog "Robbie") and she eventually ran off into the moors.

More time passes, Scotland Yard sends an investigator to the village to find out why there's been a number of deaths from snakebite... you can see where this is going. The "snake woman" is played by Susan Travers and she's dressed in a sort of ragged Dogpatch-looking dress which prompts the question: how she can survive on "the moors" during winter, especially if she's part King Cobra?

The investigator (John McCarthy) and a retired Colonel (Geoffrey Denton) move this movie into a better dramatic quality with their scenes which are rich in dialogue about science and what is (and isn't) knowable, and their performances effectively undergird a sinister plotline that just never gels once these guys are off the screen. The investigator does learn how to play the Colonel's snake-charmer flute (playing a rather wobbly version of the overture to Carmen*) that is a souvenir from India, and of course it has a tremendous effect on the poor part-snake woman, but on the other hand it just annoys the local barmaid (Frances Bennett) when he tries it out on her, something which cues the investigator's mind with the idea that perhaps the woman in the ragged dress living on the moors isn't an everyday harmless beautiful young woman in a ragged dress living on the moors.

The script by Orville Hampton does contain a few interesting elements which are unfortunately rather overblown in execution, such as the "I'm not a witch" character of mid-wife Aggie Harker, who, along with the mob she can generate from her madwoman accusations, demonstrates that the real evil in the small village is the sheer cruelty that seems to be percolating right below the surface, along with a cartoon-like ignorance that is matched by the mad-doctor dialogue of the Snake Woman's dad, the herpetologist who is obsessed with snakes and will gladly sacrifice the child in order to prove a theory about how snake venom can cure insanity: but in The Snake Woman, it obviously can't.


*Georges Bizet wrote the music to Carmen and the opera was first performed at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on March 3, 1875.

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Original Page June 2023