Monday, 23 January 2012

(Piers Haggard, 1981)

It’s difficult to know where to start with a movie like ‘Venom’. Let’s just say that if you’ve had a quick look at the poster reproduced above and you’re still reading this, rather than running straight to your preferred movie provider to locate a copy, you might be reading the wrong weblog.

I’m unfamiliar with the novel, by Alan Scholefield, from which this film was adapted, but I can only imagine it to be the absolute epitome of hilariously contrived, late ‘70s, post-Jaws airport potboilers. Did it have a black cover with the title outlined in giant, shiny silver letters and an airbrushed illustration of a rampant snake-head? Was it about 400 pages longer than it really needed to be? I have no idea, but by god, I would like to think so.

I don’t want to get bogged down in plot summarising, so let’s keep it simple and just state that this is indeed a film in which a trio of crooks played by Klaus Kinski, Oliver Reed and Susan George find themselves under siege by the police in a luxurious West London townhouse, with aged big game hunter Sterling Hayden and his chronically asthmatic, heir-to-a-colossal-fortune grandson as their hostages. By complete coincidence, the grandson has just come into possession of a new pet which, due to an innocent pet shop mix-up, turns out to be not the docile house snake he was promised, but – oh no! – a full size Black Mamba, most deadly poisonous snake in the entire world!

So yes, it’s Kinski and Reed vs the snake, vs the cops, and vs each other, with kid and grandpa (plus a late entrant in the form of Sarah Miles’ mild-mannered snake expert) stuck in the middle. Anything could happen, but it’s a fair bet it’s not gonna be pretty.

Initially entering production with Tobe Hooper as director, ‘Venom’ suffered a set-back when Hooper was either a)thrown off the project for being unmanageable and incompetent, or b)walked voluntarily after having his creativity intolerably compromised by the big-head producers and disobedient stars, depending on who you choose to believe. Either way, ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’ director Piers Haggard took the reins mid-stream and, whilst he clearly doesn’t display much of the personal vision he brought to that film, he nonetheless delivers exactly what was required of him under the circumstances, streamlining the frankly ludicrous source material into an efficient, fast-moving thriller, whilst also coping with the unenviable task of having to put Kinski and Reed in a small room together and then tell them what to do all day long.

The essential who/what/wheres thus established (never mind the ‘why’s or we’ll be here all night), I think perhaps the best way to convey the many unique qualities of ‘Venom’ is via a quick list of bullet pointed items.

There will be spoilers, in case you’re bothered about that sort of thing.

* Sterling Hayden IS Action-Grandpa! Hopping around in a moth-eaten cardigan and the most unflattering beard foisted upon a fading Hollywood star by the cruel British since Robert Mitchum in ‘The Secret Ceremony’, he’s far too “golly gee” to really convince as a retired colonial adventurer, coming across more like some twinkly-eyed old codger who’s accidentally wandered in from a live action Disney movie. But the set-piece scene where he’s forced to hunt the snake across a darkened living room armed only with table-lamp and a cushion is a lot of fun, the tension only slightly diminished by fact that continuity has clearly established that the snake has buggered off into the heating ducts by this point.

* Susan George is brilliantly duplicitous as the cockney maid who initiates the kidnapping plan, clearly planning to set her two lovers/accomplices at each other’s throats as soon as the opportunity presents itself. Unfortunately, one of the film’s major drawbacks comes from having her die far too soon, causing the vicious little Jim Thompson-esque love triangle that's been brewing to fizzle out before it’s ever really got going. I guess somebody needed to get whacked to demonstrate the gruesome effect of the snake’s venom, and she was just deemed the least essential character vis-a-vis the story’s plot dynamics. I wish they woulda killed that annoying kid instead, but then the crooks would have lost their hostage angle… or they coulda killed Grandpa, but then there’d be no sensible ‘good guy’ presence to lead the snake hunt. Stupid plot dynamics! Stupid good taste! What they should have done of course is written in some additional pointless flunky characters and killed them off. But they didn’t, so… no more Susan George. Curses!

* It’s great watching Oliver Reed’s character making a b-line for the liqueur cabinet whenever things get tough – “I… I think I need a drink… yes, a DRINK.. a drink would help us all relax!” Whether this was part of the original story or just written in for Olly, who knows. This isn’t really the place for a cheap dig at Reed's alcoholism though, partly because that would be unnecessary and cruel, but also because he’s actually on pretty top form in 'Venom', delivering a characteristically barn-storming turn as a petty thug way out of his depth, desperately trying to keep his shit together. A stock character, but in Reed’s meaty hands his gradual collapse into panic and random violence is a pleasure to behold.

* Conversely, it’s safe to say Kinski probably didn’t invest a great deal of commitment in his work here, but at least he stays awake and delivers the lines, which is more than can be said for a lot of the exploitation pictures he made through the ‘70s. Basically he contents himself with just ‘doing the villain’, but as ever, he’s pretty great at it - seeing him curl his lip in disgust as he delivers his monotone ransom demands to the “poliiizeman” brings joy to my soul.

* The poliiizeman in question by the way is Nicol Williamson, toiling away just below the bigger names on the cast list as a character who seems like a genetically engineered prototype of every dour, no nonsense working class ‘70s British police detective ever. By turns he reminds me a bit of Robert Hardy in ‘Psychomania’, Alfred Marks in ‘Scream and Scream Again’, and the entire brood of stoney-faced functionaries who propped up Carter & Regan on ‘The Sweeney’. A perfect specimen, he’s armed with a full set of Scottish tough guy mannerisms, a dirty raincoat, a really ugly school tie, and he even enjoys the attentions of a weaselly aristocratic superior who pops up at inopportune moments to make disparaging remarks and ‘keep an eye’ on him.

* There’s a great bit where Kinski throws a cigarbox from the window of the house, announcing it to be “..a geeft from doctor Shtowe”. Nicolson opens the box, hands it over to the others with a look of disgust. The other cops open it – close up of a severed finger wrapped in tissue paper, followed by reaction shots of their horror and surprise – you know the drill. Long, shocked silence as they try to form a response. Young policeman ventures; “they’ve cut her bloody finger off!” Laugh? Why, I nearly…

* A cameo from Michael Gough, playing real life London Zoo snake-handler David Ball, anyone..? Well, why not.

* This one guy!

* Above all else though, ‘Venom’s sudden/violent finale is perhaps one of the most astounding sixty seconds of cinema I’ve seen in my entire life. I mean, for the love of god, we’re talking about Klaus Kinski, locked in deadly combat with a Black Mamba, plummeting to his death through a shattering balcony window, being riddled with police sniper bullets, as he succeeds in shooting the snake’s fucking head off a mere split-second before he hits the ground, narrowingly missing a set of cast iron railings.

Damn, if only they could have gone all the way and ended with the impalement, it would have perfect. Even so, watching this alone in my living room on a Sunday afternoon, I stood up and applauded. And to think, they gave Oscars to other films in 1981.

Smothered in Michael Kamen’s absurdly bombastic score, which makes the whole movie sound like Indiana Jones exploring a lost Babylonian tomb, ‘Venom’ is as spectacular a load of beserk, high-powered nonsense as could possibly be wished for. If you’ve read all the above and you’re still not rushing out to get a copy, well.. I fear there is no hope for you.


DJ Capybara said...

I loved this film. I have a really unexplainable crush on Susan George. I agree her part was far too small but her death scene was brilliant. Writhing around, drooling and convulsing, all down the stairs then flopping around on the floor all blue and sweaty for what seemed like an eternity. Definitely one of my favorite death scenes.

Dimitris said...

Great review. Now I HAVE to see this movie! On a related note, I was rather saddened to learn yesterday that Nicol Williamson died a few weeks ago (he was battling oesophageal cancer). He was my favourite Merlin and one of the greats.

Soukesian said...

Reed and Kinski in the same room . . in the same movie! MUST see this!

Ben said...

Thanks for yr comments folks!

Nothing inexplicable about having a crush on Susan George - I think she's pretty damn compelling in everything I've seen her in... all the more-so in slightly more 'mature' roles like this one than when she was grooving 'round in a bikini in 'Die Screaming Marianne!', strangely.

And yes, I should have written a bit about her protracted death - it's pretty startling stuff! I'm guessing 'Venom' was pretty much going for a PG rating (hence no impalement on the railings), but it definitely veers toward horror territory in places.

Sad to hear about Nicol Williamson passing away too - yeah, he was great in 'Excalibur' - definitely one of those actors who should've been a bigger name - he's certainly the equal of any of the heavy-hitters in this movie, for instance.

Anonymous said...

am i the only one who thought it was kinda hot when Susan George gets bitten by the snake and starts writhing around on the floor and thrusting her hips in the air? it was almost like she was having a snake-gasm.