Review: Venom (1981)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #762

Number of Views: Three
Release Date: January 19, 1982
Sub-Genre: Suspense Thriller
Country of Origin: United Kingdom
Box Office: $5,200,000
Running Time: 92 minutes
Director: Piers Haggard
Producer: Martin Bregman
Screenplay: Robert Carrington
Based on a novel by Alan Scholefield
Special Effects: Richard W. Dean, Alan Whibley
Cinematography: Denys Coop, Gilbert Taylor
Score: Michael Kamen
Editing: Michael Bradsell
Studios: Morison Film Group, Venom Productions Limited
Distributors: HandMade Films, Paramount Pictures
Stars: Klaus Kinski, Oliver Reed, Susan George, Sterling Hayden, Sarah Miles, Nicol Williamson, Cornelia Sharpe, Lance Holcomb, Mike Gwilym, Paul Williamson, Michael Gough, Hugh Lloyd, Rita Webb, Edward Hardwicke, John Forbes-Robertson

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Joe Satriani “The Snake”

[2] Duran Duran “Union of The Snake”

[3] SoundgardenGet on The Snake”

[4] Marilyn Manson “Snake Eyes and Sissies”

I must begin by apologizing profusely to any reptiles in attendance for the following statement – snakes can fuck right off in my opinion. Sorry guys, I’m quite aware that you’re not nearly as slimy as it appears, but there are numerous other reasons to offer you and your kind the very widest of berths. For starters, what’s with the beady lidless eyes? Lose the peepers of purgatory and replace them with a pair of Betty Boop blinkers and perhaps then we can talk. The scaly skin I could do without also, regardless of how often you choose to strip off.

Then we have the whole retractable jaw trick and, while mightily impressive that you can cram a live rodent over twice the advised size down your gullet, I’m unwilling to endorse such strong-armed digestion tactics. Oh, and your hugs suck too. Thus I reiterate and without hint of slur – snakes can fuck right off! If you have any gripes serpents, then you can take them up with Samuel L. Jackson as that dude knows precisely what I’m motherfucking talking about.

Why the sudden hissing rant? Well, that’s easy. You see, I was once a somewhat impressionable child and one who frequently called upon cinema for suggestion. Film duly answered, by leaving half a dozen calling cards to my nearest snake-hating station.

William Grefé’s Stanley from 1972, Bernard L. Kowalski’s gloriously titled Sssssss from 1973, John McCauley’s Rattlers from 1976, William Fruet’s Spasms from 1983, and Frederico Prosperi’s Curse II: The Bite from 1989 –  five damn good reasons not to enter the serpent enclosure at my local zoo and, if I was still perched on the fence after that little lot, then Piers Haggard’s 1981 film Venom gave me just the decisive shunt I was looking for. Indeed, almost forty years later, I’m still not altogether sure how I feel about that one…. Sike! I’m positively thrilled that it bit me as movies that prey on fears play to cheers in this film buff’s auditorium.

To be fair, the fact that an end product ever made it to the screen in the first place suggests some kind of divine intervention. Adapted from Alan Scholefield’s 1977 novel of the same name, Venom took four years to slither its way into drive-ins and was originally intended to be directed by none other than Tobe Hooper. Apparently, Hooper was placed under such duress by certain cast members and their bullying tactics that he suffered a “meltdown” and had to be replaced along with original cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond. Meltdown my asshole. They were pushed!

Enter British filmmaker Haggard (The Blood on Satan’s Claw), thrown into what he likens to a “nest of vipers” with little time to prepare and a handful of disagreeable actors to somehow shepherd into frame. For the record, unknown quantity Oliver Reed was the very last of his worries, as he may have been a handful on set, but at least he acted up with the customary Anglo-Saxon warmth. One-man tantrum train Klaus Kinski on the other hand, hailed from Deutschland, and displayed something of a chillier front, that Reed couldn’t help but prod at every opportunity.

Kinski actually chose Venom over Raiders of the Lost Ark because it paid better and he later famously called the script for Spielberg’s blockbuster “moronically shitty”. Haggard was a brave man to withstand such a tumultuous shoot but also rather a wily one. You see, while Kinski was admittedly something of a scoundrel, he channeled this so beautifully through those probing peepers of his and the audience always benefited from his wild-eyed turns.

Meanwhile, and I say this nothing less than respectfully, pour Reed a swift pint and tell him Kinski “bombed our chippy” and it’s on like Donkey Kong in a thong. Amusingly, Haggard considered the deadly Black Mamba the most approachable actor on set. I’m just glad he stuck with it as Reed vs. Kinski = Snake eyes at dawn and dead by daylight. Hell, he even tossed English rose, Susan George, into the salad bowl for additional seasoning and that in itself is reason to reciprocate tossage in his honor.

I’ll never forget the very moment our eyes first met across a crowded couch for Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 exploitation classic, Straw Dogs. Regrettably, poor Amy Sumner took something of a petal pounding that day, but just as I was preparing to turn my nose up in disgust, I spotted a clue in those big lush ocean blues of hers that she was secretly loving being taken with roughness.

The word “minx” springs to mind and Haggard couldn’t have chosen a better instigator of mild peril to intensify both leads’ bubbling contempt for one another, particularly given that her character has both men’s trouser snakes cupped in those dainty little palms of hers.

International crime lord, Jacques Müller (Kinski), has called dibs on maid Louise, as she is part of his cunning ransom plan and already working on the inside. Young asthmatic boy, Phillip (Lance Holcomb), is the target and his wealthy tycoon parents are away on their respective business trips, making it the ideal time and conditions to stage a kidnap. Müller has also recruited family chauffeur Dave Averconnelly (Reed) and there appears to be a number of conflicts of interest between the two sparring associates.

You see, she’s a minx I tell you. Never mind that, it’s all about to go off in the Hopkins stronghold as, in true Kevin McAllister style, Phillip has quite the reptilian menagerie in his bedroom and one helluva game-changer in his crate. Due to an unfortunate mix-up at the local pet store, he has unwittingly adopted a Black Mamba snake and naturally it’s a tad pissed off with being moved from pillar to post without explanation.

Throw in the boy’s cranky half-cut grandfather (Sterling Hayden) and short-changed herpetological toxicologist, Dr. Marion Stowe (Sarah Miles), and you have yourself a full-blown siege, complete with one of the world’s speediest and most deadly predators with a hefty chip on its shoulder (figuratively speaking of course).

Watching events unfurl from the sidelines is the increasingly exasperated and reportedly badass Cmdr. William Bulloch (Nicol Williamson), whose thankless task it is to negotiate a peaceful conclusion. Credit where due, Williamson’s turn as the ill-tempered, potty-mouthed and megalomaniac flatfoot balances the story quite beautifully and also adds some much-needed light relief to proceedings.

However, with all due respect, what happens on street level is of little concern to the audience as there’s a Black Mamba in the ventilation system and it just so happens to be easily provoked. With tempers fraying and this hostage situation growing ever more messy, the greatest threat can strike at any given moment courtesy of “Mamba-cam” and has a tendency to do just that, gliding silently from one potential ambush spot to the next. Worse still, some smart Aleck has tipped our slippery customer off about the hidden gin stash.

Haggard takes his time carefully lining up his dominoes, before unleashing the beast for a second act that rattles along at a fair old clip. The fact that Venom is essentially a siege thriller first and foremost works in its favor as we almost forget that the trespassing reptile is in attendance, making each of its attacks all the more disquieting. However, what hits the mark with greatest accuracy is the venomous chemistry between the film’s two leads ironically.

Their hatred of one another is never less than evident and every last sneer is backed up with genuine loathing. Anyone familiar with Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw’s ongoing feud during filming for Spielberg’s Jaws will attest to how this kind of “psychological ballet” as Haggard so eloquently puts it can usher forth the very best from both performers. Here it elevates what is effectively a fairly bog-standard number to a far loftier podium than it has any right to stake claim to. One thing’s for sure – it persuaded me always to check beneath my bunk before bedtime – and for that I reluctantly offer my gratitude. Now where did I leave my trusty grab stick?

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10

Grue Factor: 2/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: Gushing grue really couldn’t be more surplus to requirements in Venom as it’s all about the initial bite (or more accurately bites) and subsequent not so slow but wholly agonizing death that ensues. We’re talking full body paralysis, violent convulsions, respiratory failure, and a far from healthy sickly grey skin tone once each dose works its way through the system, shutting down each of the major organs in turn. Susan George may be secretly partial to an unexpected length from time to time, but I’m fairly confident this reaction is 100% grimace. 


Read The Brood Appraisal
Read Titan Find Appraisal
Read Straw Dogs (2011) Appraisal
Read Reptile Dysfunction

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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