Frequently silly but entertaining hostage crisis nail-biter…which needed a whole lot more mamba.
By Paul Mavis
Hey fellow Scrooges out there: sick of der Bingle et al and reindeer and those smiley dolts who keep asking, “Have you got the Christmas spirit yet?” like they’re day players on Walton’s Mountain? Yes? Well…how about some tacky killer snake mayhem as an antidote? A few months ago, Blue Underground released a dual format Blu-ray/DVD 2-disc combo pack of Venom, the 1982 U.K. snake-in-a-siege thriller (released here in the States by Paramount Pictures) scripted by Robert Carrington from the book by Alan Scholefield, directed by Piers Haggard, and starring Sterling Hayden, Klaus Kinski, Sarah Miles, Nicol Williamson, Cornellia Sharpe, Susan George, Lance Holcomb, and Oliver Reed.
A financial and critical failure upon release, Venom was an early cable and VHS hit when those two lucrative exhibition forms ruled, spawning a small but vocal fan base for this snake suspenser. Despite plot holes big enough to have a black mamba spring through, and notwithstanding the director’s deadly mistake of downplaying the snake’s on-screen presence, the basic requirements of this genre mash-up are met…while that insane cast of blowhard hams pros is utterly irresistible. All the extras from BU’s 2003 special edition DVD are ported over here, including the director’s commentary track, original trailers and TV spots, and a stills and poster gallery, as well as some new thoughts on the movie included in a 20-page booklet. As well, a substantial 2K upgrade to the 1080p HD widescreen 1.85:1 transfer, along with three audio track options, make this Blu a tempting double-dip for fans, and the best way to go for newcomers.
Severely asthmatic 10-year-old Philip Hopkins (Lance Holcomb, Ghost Story) is anxiously awaiting the departure of his loving-but-suffocating mother, Ruth (Cornelia Sharpe, Serpico), who is leaving their swank London townhouse for Rome, where Philip’s millionaire father is working. As soon as his overprotective mother leaves, unbeknownst to her, Philip will get a brand new addition to his bedroom menagerie: a common, harmless African house snake, courtesy of his grandfather, former world-famous safari guide and white hunter, Howard Anderson (Sterling Hayden, Dr. Strangelove).
What Philip can’t know, though, is that friendly house maid Louise Andrews (Susan George, Straw Dogs) and surly, menacing chauffeur Dave Averconnelly (Oliver Reed, Burnt Offerings)—both relatively new additions to the Hopkins household—are in league with international criminal Jacques Muller (Klaus Kinski, Nosferatu The Vampyre). Muller arrives that night from Europe and the plan is set in motion: kidnap the boy and hold him in a safe house for ransom.
What the kidnappers don’t know, though, is that there’s been a catastrophic mix-up at the pet shop: Philip’s common house snake is actually a Dendroaspis polylepis—the deadly black mamba, the most aggressive, deadliest snake in the world, capable of land speeds of seven miles per hour, spring-launch capabilities of 15 feet through the air, and inflicting multiple bites with a powerful venom that can kill a man in less than an hour. That snake is loose in the house, and when Dave blows his cool and kills a copper, initiating a siege at the townhouse, Commander William Bulloch (Nicol Williamson, Spawn) of the London Metropolitan Police doesn’t know if he’ll lose the hostages to the murderous kidnappers…or the mamba.
I remember seeing in-theater trailers for Venom’s upcoming 1982 theatrical run (they were grabbers), but I don’t think I saw the movie until its repeated cable runs in the mid-1980s. There, it seemed to benefit somehow from the commercial interruptions (curious how that happens with some movies), its narrative gaps lessened and obscured by the incessant soap and insurance pitches, and its claustrophobic setting fitting well on the small screen. Seen uncut in this sparkling new Blu transfer, Venom’s flaws are more easily noticed, to be sure, but it’s still quite fun despite (or perhaps because of?) its goofs and its overripe performances.
According to multiple sources, including the director’s own commentary track included on this disc, Venom was a compromised, unhappy experience for most involved. Originally intended as a project for Sean Connery (who, despite some other opinions online, wouldn’t necessarily have been a guarantee of box office returns for the movie in 1982), Venom eventually was independently financed by, among others, members of the Guinness alcohol concern and George Harrison’s HandMade Films (which released it in the U.K.). American director Tobe Hooper, of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre notoriety, was hired right after completing the as-yet-unreleased The Funhouse by producer Martin Bregman. Rumors are rife about what followed, but within two weeks of the start of principle photography, Hooper was fired (Hooper never commented on this…but he sure seemed to have a lot of troubled productions on his resume).
After a rather frantic search, U.K. helmer Piers Haggard, who had recently received raves for his TV production of Pennies from Heaven, as well as having directed well-received horror/sci-fi flicks such as The Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Quatermass Conclusion, was implored to join the shut-down Venom production. Constantly playing catch-up, and denied the ability to change the script (he couldn’t even re-paint the sets), Haggard dug in and got on with it, scrapping Hooper’s footage and redesigning Kinski’s wardrobe for a sleeker, more modern Euro-terrorist look.
Haggard also got a new A-list cinematographer: Gilbert Taylor, of The Omen and Star Wars fame. What Haggard didn’t get were two cooperative lead actors. Kinski and Reed were already well-known hellraisers and troublemakers; making a movie together was like oil and water for the forceful duo, and soon production slowed up due to Haggard having to referee the two (apparently Reed’s favorite term of endearment for Kinski was “Nazi bastard,” while Kinski reportedly threatened to kill Reed on several occasions). The budget expanded (reports place the final tally at around $9 million—far too much considering the box office pull of these particular actors in 1982), and when Venom was released here in the States in the winter of ’82, it failed to turn a profit, nor garner much unified critical praise.
Whether brevity was already a part of the script, or whether subplots and exposition were jettisoned when production was shut down prior to Haggard having to play catch up, Venom admirably gets right to it. We don’t know why the kid has asthma; we don’t know why the father is in Rome; we don’t get details on the mother’s trip there; we don’t get background on how the kidnappers came together—none of that. When the movie starts, we’re in the house, and we’re ready for the kidnapping.
However admirable this concise focus is in terms of set-up, certain crucial plot points in Venom needed a bit more attention. Why is so much time taken up with showing little Philip suffering from asthma…when nothing really is done with that angle in the story? We know with the house kept at 75 degrees (for his condition) that the snake will then take to the air ducts (a clever plot device), but why not use his medical problems for a dramatic crisis at some point? It’s a lot of effort for no payoff. Why in the world does Oliver Reed shoot that copper…other than to initiate the siege? Putting it down to his nerves is shaky, lazy scripting at best, particularly when the scene is orchestrated by Haggard in such a blasé, matter-of-fact manner. How could anyone believe that a copper of Nicol Williamson’s supposed fierce intelligence, would allow Sara Miles’ toxicology doctor to go up to the barricaded house, only to be easily snatched away inside (Williamson grabbing his head in grief looks more like Williamson the actor grabbing his head in embarrassment from this silly plot point)?
Smallest, nit-pickiest point of all of these, but perhaps most crucial is: how could those snakes possibly get mixed up? The entire movie turns on this fun plot twist, but clearly scripter Robert Carrington (Wait Until Dark, Kaleidoscope) either couldn’t work the problem out, or more explanation was left on the cutting room floor. Those two wooden boxes would look exactly the same? They wouldn’t be labeled “Common house snake” and “DANGER! DEADLY BLACK MAMBA!” with a skull and crossbones? And why would the posh London Institute of Toxicology get their specimens from a decrepit pet shop in the last bombed-out section of London’s East End? It’s just utterly ridiculous, and while it’s by no means a deal breaker, it gets the audience laughing at Venom, instead of shivering from the possible reality of the situation.
These fudges and abbreviations are vexing, but not fatal. However, what keeps Venom from “classic exploitation trash” status is definitely due to director Haggard’s inexplicable unforced error of limiting the on-screen time of the deadly mamba to just over three minutes (an absolutely seamless combination of real mambas shot on a closed set, and models, were utilized). In his commentary track, Haggard states it’s vital the audience never sees “the monster” in a horror movie…which certainly can be true at the beginning of a story. It’s an obvious but tried-and-true cinematic suspense builder, allowing us to let our imaginations run wild.
But it only works for an entire movie in the rarest of occasions (genuine classics like Night of the Demon—until they blew the ending—or Burn, Witch, Burn, for example). For a meat-and-potatoes genre outing like Venom, however, pretensions to the finer sensibilities of suspense should have been jettisoned for money shot after money shot of those terrifying mambas in action (I’ve watched a lot of horror movies, but those snakes are the scariest goddamned things I’ve ever seen. Bar none). I’ve seen every cliche of the “besieged house” subgenre, and absolutely nothing new from it is offered in Venom. However, a “snake on the loose” movie isn’t nearly as familiar, so give me more of that. After all, the movie is called Venom, not Siege. I want to see the snake more than I want to see Nicol Williamson furrow his brow while shouting up at a dark window, for god’s sake.
The movie’s best scene—the snake attack on Susan George—is a brilliant little bit of horror, with the snake’s distorted anamorphic P.O.V. mixing with truly frightening shots of the snake biting her face (George’s lingering, horrific death is a wow piece of committed acting—she’s terrific). Why wasn’t the whole movie at that level? Why weren’t there more “near-misses,” like the snake in the liquor cabinet (jesus that snake is petrifying)? Unfortunately, the two other main snake attacks are mistimed, with Ollie’s iconic genital strike cut off way too soon (you’ve got Ollie Reed being bitten on his todger—why in the hell would you not include him rolling around, screaming and writhing in agony for a few more seconds?), while Kinski’s assassination by snake and gunfire is hilariously drawn out.
That all reads quite negative when I look back on it…but in the end, you wind up laughing at this kind of silliness in Venom (which was not the moviemakers’ aim), and in that limited vein (sorry), you can find basic if uninspired entertainment. Of course Venom’s main draw outside of the snake is that dream cast of hambone originals. Now, calling Reed, Kinski, Williamson, Hayden, and Miles “hams” is not meant to denigrate in any way their abilities as serious actors; it’s only to point out that when they appear in material that’s frankly beneath them, just the expectation alone of their “acting up” gets the audience going.
George (no ham) as usual acquits herself well…although it’s a crime to tease us with that promising lingerie shot, and not follow up with the actual goods (was there a more purely erotic girl in movies back then?). She walks away with the acting honors here for the most reasoned, balanced performance (and that death scene is a tour de force). The rest? Well…Miles is always incongruously smiling for some unknown reason, as if her character is having a bit of a lark…or she’s hit her head on something sharp (why is she flirting with Ollie at one point?). Hayden trots out his usual hash-induced phony hand gestures and grotesque facial twistings (a great actor who simply could not face an ordinary scene with ordinary, face-value sincerity). Williamson is criminally subdued here (we want to see him rant and flip out and lose it—why didn’t they liqueor him up?), although that wretched Scots accent—from Scottish Williamson—almost makes up for the rest (why didn’t they let him stay in the house after he broke in? Another layer of suspense as he makes his way to the kidnappers, while avoiding the snake, seems like a natural).
One would hope that Kinski, top-billed here, would lose it on-screen at least one time, but he’s remarkably focused and razor-sharp as the kidnapping mastermind, bringing a grim, tense-smiling authority to the role that’s way out of proportion to the movie’s meager demands. As for Ollie Reed, it’s a shame his role calls for him to be a sweaty, violent dolt (which he does effortlessly); it would have been far more interesting to have him be the equal of Kinski (no wonder Reed hated his guts, what with the by-comparison stupid role he’s given). But such as it is, it’s a typically forceful turn from this underrated actor, during an increasingly downward time in his career. Venom certainly did him no favors in that department (I doubt any of these actors highlighted it in their resumes), but they’re all at least game…if not as gamey as we’d like. And the movie can’t help but deliver a modicum of suspense and horror with that set-up (despite the chilly British reserve). It’s just too bad Venom’s most elusive star didn’t get the chance to change that.
BU’s new 2K transfers of Venom looks the best I’ve ever seen it. The 1080p HD anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen image is crystal-clear, with surprising density and impressive fine image detail. Colors don’t look muted and muddy as they did in previous incarnations, but rather cold and brutal now, as intended. Three English audio tracks are available. The 7.1 DTS-HD and the 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround EX tracks are certainly the ones most viewers are going to gravitate towards first, but to be honest…I preferred the original 2.0 DTS-HD (a purist about these things). There’s not much on the original soundtrack to swish around, apparently, so if you’re into hearing cars honk off to the side of Nicol Williamson, or some faint slithering from right to left, I suppose these manufactured stereo outings will impress (no question the snake attacks do pop, impressively so, on these tracks). Everything’s clean, with absolutely no hiss (sorry). English, Spanish, and French subtitles are available.
Extras include the 2003 director’s commentary track with Piers Haggard (moderated by Jonathan Sothcott). Haggard makes it clear this was a contract job taken at the last moment, one to get through rather make his own since it was such an unpleasant shoot (you don’t get a more plain or final summation on Venom than his, “It could have been better.”). He’s very free—and quite funny—with his memories of Reed’s and Kinski’s battles…although I was hoping against hope that he was going to shed some light on Hooper’s firing. And he’s refreshingly honest about where the movie goes wrong, being neither fish nor fowl: not enough siege, not enough snake. An original trailer (1:20) is included, along with an original teaser (:27), and three TV spots, all :30. A poster and stills gallery is included, too.
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.