A soft blue rectangle beyond a door in High Priestess Naja's orange chambers indicates the sky outside. The door leads to a balcony, and perhaps is only a window when seen from the opposite side. The balcony overhangs a courtyard in the palace. The courtyard is sometimes open to the public throngs, but impossible to access once inside the building. Outside, sometimes it is night, sometimes day, but in the orange room the sky remains perpetually powder blue. The menacing environs of the jungle island outside and the dangerous royal intrigues within are separated and/or united by the irrational, impossible space between, leaving nowhere in the geography of Cobra Woman as safe ground.
Set in a thick forest of matte paintings, projected ocean waves and secondary-color keyed slabs of curlicue set dressing, loomed over by a tiny-huge volcano that exists in eternal midday, the terrain of Cobra Woman is seared by dream-fever, coast to coast. Native Indian sidekick Kado (Sabu) feigns sleepwalking to eavesdrop on his pal Ramu (John Hall)'s plans to visit Cobra Island, but a day later indicates he was really in thrall of a visionary dream. Has he ever truly awoken? Has the spectator?
A small rocky hill is, in the eyes of Kado, a great black wall enclosing a lost world — the same he encountered in his dream — but it grows between shots to a pointed yellow mountain. As Kado and Ramu scale the peak, the rock bends like rubber to leave Kado dangling precariously, though strong Ramu is able to suspend his companion's weight while bent at the waist and without tumbling down the precipice. Where these yellow-black wall-mountains are located cannot be surmised. Though they render the island inaccessible in the unreliable dialogue, travellers during the film and in its unseen backstory go to and fro with little difficulty. Fire Mountain, omnipresent punishing god/volcano, is visible at the same angle from every window of the palace. Ramu is advised not to voyage to Cobra Island by his future father-in-law MacDonald (Moroni Olsen) but in the same conversation MacDonald shows him exactly where the lost world is located on a map, in close up.
The twisted DNA-bound saga of separated twins Tollea and Naja (Maria Montez, Maria Montez) locked in power struggle over the title of High Priestess of Cobra Island has infected the land, the sea, the air, the people and animals, the celluloid itself; the sparks between the sisters fly off, creating new aberrant twins wherever the fire lights. This is the logic of the double-traced map of Cobra Woman: everything has its twin, identical but reversed, sharing space with itself. Every character, prop, setting, line of dialogue, event, operates while cooled in the shadow of its opposite; often these twins are created by throwing all gears in reverse, negating their own existence. Hava (Lon Chaney, Jr.), mute flunky of the Cobra Island queen, feigns blindness as he travels to Tollea's village though his plan does not require it, and the blind-Hava that should not exist on seeing-Hava's mission tips off Kado that something is amiss. Hava's task is to abduct Tollea, but is in more properly to re-abduct her to her forgotten birthplace, Cobra Island; in effect to remove her from her home that he may bring her home. By the climax, Fire Mountain erupts, only to be declared permanently dormant seconds later.
If Tollea/Naja embody splits between unwitting savior and gleeful murderer, between skeptic and religious zealot, between, simply, nice and mean, they are also divided by strength and weakness, for nothing Tollea specifically does, short of show up on Cobra Island against her will, actually contributes to Naja's downfall. Theirs is not simple a dichotomy of good and evil, but of will and circumstance, too. The high priestess even causes her own death as she backs over the unlikely balcony wielding a spear in Tollea's direction, a blurred defensive/offensive posture. To complete the proper opposition of forces, Naja's bloody dictatorship does not give way to benevolent rule by her twin, but dissolves into off-screen anarchy: in the coda, Tollea flees the throne to return to her man, leaving Cobra Island with no leadership.
Like the omnipresent Fire Mountain, the pliable rock walls, and the mutable courtyard space, which all bend to the necessity of situation, the populace of Cobra Woman's world find themselves shuttled from location to location by means none can explain. Kado arrives with much effort and swinging from ledges at precisely the correct dungeon window where Ramu is being imprisoned, though there is no way to identify the chamber from outside the palace. The entire plot hinges on the backstory conceit that infant Tollea was smuggled off Cobra Island aboard MacDonald's boat, when he chanced to visit the island at the same time the baby was supposed to be put to death. But the tale goes that MacDonald was knocked unconscious and woke up on his vessel with the Cobranian stowaway. Who placed her there, when, and why are subjects never broached. Ramu steals the robes of High Priest Martok (Edgar Barrier), and walks undetected past palace guards, but how he locates Naja's quarters in the vast building cannot be known. Friendly chimp Koko materializes inexplicably on Cobra Island, but the tale of her journey from India by separate means from the Hava/Tollea and Ramu/Kado boats is never to be told. Duty calls, and so: there they are, just as one may look up anywhere on Cobra Island, and see Fire Mountain, smoldering against the blue sky. There it is.
Here then is Cobra Woman as the genre theorist's perfect text, in which characters' movements, the shape of the universe, and order of events to not stem from internal motivation of free-willed characters, but are at the mercy of the unyielding dictates of external story, diamond hard, immobile in place, before the players took the stage. Why do they keep coming? How can so many continue to arrive on the rocky shores of this forbidden, secret home to a lost civilization? Cobra Island draws all fish into its golden net. There is no resisting its irrational pull.