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Retro Review: BLACK COBRA (1976)


(Italy - 1976/US release 1980)

Written and directed by Joe D'Amato (Aristide Massaccesi). Cast: Jack Palance, Laura Gemser, Gabriele Tinti, Michele Starke, Sigrid Zanger, G. Mariotti. (R, 97 mins)

Though it stars Laura Gemser and is directed by "Joe D'Amato," the best-known pseudonym of Italian cinematographer-turned-journeyman genre legend Aristide Massaccesi (BURIED ALIVE, THE GRIM REAPER), BLACK COBRA isn't one of the duo's many "Black Emanuelle" movies, but it might as well be. Shot under the title EVA NERA, BLACK COBRA was filmed in Rome and Hong Kong on the same trip to the Far East that yielded the same year's earlier EMANUELLE IN BANGKOK, the first teaming of Gemser and D'Amato. Born in Indonesia in 1950, Gemser made an impression as a masseuse in 1975's EMMANUELLE: THE JOYS OF A WOMAN, the second in the official Sylvia Kristel series. As a result, Gemser was rewarded with the starring role in the same year's knockoff BLACK EMANUELLE (note the elimination of one of the "m"'s), directed by Bitto Albertini. Albertini replaced Gemser with the one-and-done Shulamith Lasri (aka "Sharon Lesley") for 1976's BLACK EMANUELLE 2, prompting Gemser to team with D'Amato for several EMANUELLE movies that are different from the initial BLACK EMANUELLEs but are generally lumped in with them anyway thanks to the her presence. In addition to the actual EMANUELLE movies, Gemser made several other quickie softcore porn outings that were often rechristened as unofficial EMANUELLE or EMMANUELLE movies by their distributors (like 1976's dreadful EMMANUELLE ON TABOO ISLAND, probably the low point of five-time Oscar-nominee Arthur Kennedy's career). BLACK COBRA has gone under a variety of titles over the decades, but was just released on Blu-ray by Code Red as EMMANUELLE AND THE DEADLY BLACK COBRA. Other than Gemser's character being named "Eva," the EMMANUELLE retitling is fitting, given its focus on all of D'Amato's favorite things: Gemser's body, unkempt mid '70s bushes, and extensive location shooting in exotic ports of call.

"I'm in a Laura Gemser softcore porn. Believe it....or not!"
There was always a "travelogue" element to D'Amato's EMANUELLE movies, but never more than in BLACK COBRA. About 1/3 of the movie seems to be dedicated to Gemser and various co-stars sightseeing around Hong Kong, driving, walking into restaurants, watching street vendors skin, chop, and fry a live snake in a wok and then eating it, all in real time, or a long scene of Gemser feeding live rats to snakes as lounge music with the wordless vocals of Edda dell'Orso or someone who sounds just like her goes on and on. The EMANUELLE movies remain entertaining time capsules of their era (except for Pedro the Horse in the notorious EMANUELLE IN AMERICA), but Gemser and D'Amato are having a really off day here. Perhaps it's due to it being very early in their partnership and they hadn't yet found their groove and perfected their formula (this could really use an English-as-second-language tune as catchy as EMANUELLE IN AMERICA's "Celebrate Myself" or EMANUELLE AND THE WHITE SLAVE TRADE's "Run Cheetah Run"), but BLACK COBRA is loaded with sex, nudity, and sleaze and still manages to be boring, and that's even with the unlikely participation of Jack Palance, somehow cajoled into taking top billing in a Joe D'Amato softcore porno (he was most likely brought on by uncredited ghost producer Harry Alan Towers). The busy Palance was doing a lot of work in Italy over 1975-76 (Nello Rossatti's THE SENSUOUS NURSE, Bruno Corbucci's THE COP IN BLUE JEANS, Fernando Di Leo's RULERS OF THE CITY, Alfonso Brescia's BLOOD AND BULLETS), and also had his starring gig on CBS' one-season, Carroll O'Connor-produced cop show BRONK going on at the same time. Palance is in a lot of BLACK COBRA, but there's a few long stretches where he's not, and his appearances are spaced out enough--he's in none of the Hong Kong exteriors, only the interiors which were shot at Elios Studios back in Rome--that it's likely D'Amato managed to get all of his scenes in the can in matter of a few days, and maybe even got away with not telling the legendary Hollywood actor what was going on in the rest of the movie.

Eva (Gemser), a nightclub dancer whose act involves snakes writhing around her naked body, makes the acquaintance of smarmy businessman Jules Carmichael (Gabriele Tinti, Gemser's future husband and frequent co-star) on a flight from Holland to Hong Kong. Later that evening, Jules convinces his older brother Judas (Palance) to check out Eva's act. Judas, a wealthy eccentric obsessed with his large collection of venomous snakes, is immediately taken with Eva. He brings her home to show her his collection, but she's afraid of both the snakes and Judas, especially after he blows it up by creepily hissing "I like the scent of you" in a way that only Palance can. Eva eventually warms up to Judas, who becomes her platonic sugar daddy while duplicitous Jules has his own designs on her. Eva's not interested in either of the Carmichael boys, and though she gives her body to a sleazy Hong Kong nightclub owner, her serious carnal attentions go to Gerri (Michele Starck) and Candy (Sigrid Zanger), much to Jules' jealous disapproval.

There isn't much of a plot to BLACK COBRA, at least not in the sense that there's developed story or character arcs. Nobody's watching Gemser/D'Amato movies for the story, but the EMANUELLEs at least had the "crusading photojournalist" angle and some semblance of drama. Not much happens in BLACK COBRA in the periods between the Gemser/Starck nude rubdowns, soapy showers, and sex scenes. Tinti's Jules is the clear villain, but there's not really any urgency or forward momentum but the one legitimate surprise comes in the handling of Palance's Judas. D'Amato does flip the script to a certain extent by gradually revealing that Judas is a harmless guy and the film's most intriguing character, one who seems to have been brought in from another movie. Perhaps it was a concession made to dignify Palance's presence in this kind of project, but Judas turns out to be an introverted, sensitive homebody, a loner who has never felt comfortable around people and prefers the company of his snakes, tending to them and observing them. Early on, you expect Judas' behavior to lead to a horror movie, and it belatedly turns horrific to a degree in its final ten minutes, but it's through no fault of  Judas. Palance being in BLACK COBRA is surprising enough, but to see him actually giving a shit is almost flabbergasting (there are a few fleeting instances where Palance's voice changes and he's dubbed for a line or two by Michael Forest, and the effect is strange, to say the least, especially since Forest's Palance impression sounds more like Clint Eastwood), especially to anyone who saw him slumming and visibly shitfaced in Jess Franco's 1969 film JUSTINE. Some of the scenes in his residence play like D'Amato talked him into believing he was in some kind of Visconti knockoff. Palance remains clothed and isn't directly involved in any of the more salacious material (he observes some fondling between Gemser and another woman in a restaurant, but it's cut between the women and Palance reaction shots, making it almost certain he wasn't actually watching them and wasn't there at the same time), he isn't there for any of Jules' snake-abetted murders, and he certainly isn't present for the scene where Jules gets his comeuppance when Eva has a cobra slither up his ass.

Video Gems' VHS cover art
Against-type casting for Jack Palance shouldn't be the most interesting thing about a skin-filled Gemser/D'Amato joint, and it would take four years and several Gemser EMANUELLE films for BLACK COBRA to find a US distributor. The short-lived Aurora Film Corporation gave it a spotty release on the grindhouse and drive-in circuit in 1980 (with the immortal tag line "How much snake can one woman take..."), which seems to be the only year the company existed, possibly due to acquiring product like BLACK COBRA. Aurora's other releases included the Stuart Whitman/Robert Vaughn B actioner CUBA CROSSING, one of the few feature films directed by Chuck Workman, best known for his filmed pieces for a couple decades' worth of Oscar telecasts, and the kiddie kung-fu comedy THE LITTLE DRAGONS, which was in heavy rotation on Showtime in the early '80s and an early credit for future L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and 8 MILE director Curtis Hanson. BLACK COBRA was released on VHS and has been on a number of dubious budget labels in crummy presentations, but Code Red's Blu-ray, distributed by Kino Lorber, looks great. It's too bad it's accompanied by an almost completely useless commentary by film historian Mirek Lipinski.

Code Red's 2018 Blu-ray cover art
Lipinski is a figure of some repute in cult movie circles (well, at least he was before this commentary), running the Latarnia Forums and doing a lot to document and preserve the legacy of beloved Spanish horror icon Paul Naschy. But commentaries--this is his first one--don't seem to be his thing (and in the interest of full disclosure, I was Facebook friends with Lipinski but was unfriended by him at some point several years ago). Lipinski gets sidetracked very early on, going into such ludicrous detail about Chinese restaurants and its many accoutrements (did we need an extensive lesson on the uses of the Lazy Susan serving dish?), and awkward analysis of why lesbian sex scenes are "a turn-on to the male of the species," that for a while, it almost seems like it's some kind of Andy Kaufman-style stunt. Lipinski does helpfully mention that Palance's scenes were shot in Rome and that he never went to Hong Kong, but then keeps repeating the point ad nauseum. His other observations are obvious and already known to any genre fan (like Massaccesi using the name 'Joe D'Amato' to seem more American), and ultimately, there's really no reason to listen this meandering, almost stream-of-consciousness track that makes Bill Olsen's usual antics of mispronouncing actors' names and complaining about the movie he's watching seem academic and Criterion-esque by comparison. The situation gets more dire as it goes on, starting with Lipinski proclaiming his disdain for women shaving their pubic hair, the likelihood of getting a "happy ending" at a Hong Kong massage parlor, and still more on Chinese restaurants. But as the movie winds down, he completely shits the bed, turning into the world's creepiest tour guide, babbling incessantly about the seedy underbelly of Hong Kong and the intricacies and loopholes of its prostitution laws and other details that have jack shit to do with the movie and maybe tell us a little TMI about Lipinski. In fairness, this probably wasn't the best film to tackle for a first time commentator. There's really no one from the production who could've taken part: Gemser is long-retired and has given maybe three interviews in the last 20 years; Starck's last IMDb credit is an appearance in the 1984 Tom Hanks hit BACHELOR PARTY; and D'Amato, Palance, Tinti, and editor Bruno Mattei are all dead. Judging from what's here, Lipinski just didn't have much to say about the movie, in which case, it was probably better to say nothing at all. Bottom line: it's a contender for the worst commentary I've ever heard, and the only one I can recall where I've felt the need to shower afterward.

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