Kidnappers terrify…black mambas kill!…an international cast chews scenery!
Phillip Hopkins is the spoiled little soiler of way wealthy America parents who've brought the brat to England to teach him about ethnic diversity. Phil loves his extensive animal menagerie. It helps him forget how completely friendless he really is. And thanks to his gangly grandpa, he's about to add another specimen to his personal pet shop. But when he picks up his harmless little African dirt snake, it somehow magically transforms into a deadly black mamba, ready to spread some fanged fury around Lester Square. But the snake's scheme to scare the stiff upper lip off the Anglo-Saxons will have to wait. Seems precocious Phil is due at a kidnapping. A German terrorist, who has a fling thing for Phillip's naughty nanny, is plotting to secure the urchin and demand mega-moolah from the Hopkin's healthy 401(k). But thanks to an irritatingly polite poison doctor who traces her mis-shipped recoiled cargo to the tiny tot, a cop shows up during the child snatching, Peter the chauffer unloads a couple barrels of buckshot into his British-ness, and an adolescent abduction turns into a deadly hostage situation…umm, wait. As a stoic, near static police chief does his imitation of Christo, wrapping the crime scene in polypropylene, Phil goes into an asthmatic spasm, another character meets the business end of the mamba's mandibles, and grown men cower and weep at the thought of running into a 10 foot section of slithering garden hose. Perhaps it's the fear of unexpected attack that causes the crying jags. Maybe it's the "one bite—goodnight!" notion of meeting up with the vindictive viper. Whatever it is, our criminal collection spends far too much time standing off with the police and not enough effort avoiding a fatal face to face with a character filled with piss, vinegar, and Venom.
On paper, Venom is the kind of film that just should not work. It features a storyline filled with hyper-coincidences and convoluted premise twists. Basically, in order for the plot of this movie to function, the planets must be aligned just right, there needs to be peace in the Middle East, and all the characters must be simultaneously thinking of Watney's Red Barrel. Its beast is a borderline baddie that doesn't necessarily strike fear into the hearts with those not afflicted with ophidiophobia. Some may actually find the gray-brown mouse eater as cute as a button. There is a precocious blond haired and blue-eyed movie troll who seems constantly at a loss for breath, but not for wide-eyed amateurish acting. This of course is in direct conflict with three of the greatest scenery chewers ever to disgrace a film script. Klaus Kinski, looking more like Simon Bar Sinister than a human should have a right to, barks out his lines like Adolph trying to interest Eva in a judgment at Nuremberg. Sterling Hayden, no longer able to claim true purity of essence and expelling as many of his precious bodily fluids as he tries to preserve, seems stuck doing an Alzheimer's version of the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. And then there's the ale and stout gin blossomed bellow of Oliver Reed. Poor man: so addicted to sweet lady liquor that he literally killed his liver and career at the same time, this once virile British bulldog resembles a sea frog bloated and baking in the noon day sun. Add Niccol Williamson's super cop as statue routine and Sarah Miles as a toxicologist who fell from grace with the asp, and there is just no way this movie can work. Even if Susan George gives one of the best convulsive performances this side of Terry Jones as Mr. Creosote, there are just too many dangling participles and pluperfect problem areas to diagram a successful cinematic sentence.
Yet Venom does indeed function as a wonderful little thriller, intense without too many surprises and exciting in its typically underwhelming British way. It truly is a bizarre thing. Thanks to all the knotty nuances and conspiring conundrums that should actually cause the movie to spin like a pixie-sticked prepubescent until it collapses into a nauseated heap, we get 90 minutes of hair-raising herpetology mixed with acting bombast of the highest order. Tons of tribute must be foisted upon director Piers Haggard. He somehow manages an amazing bit of film production prestidigitation that has us forgetting that we are seeing some rather stupid stuff scuttle across the screen. Employing every technique in the book, from a fish-eyed (?) snake cam perspective to fancy cross cutting techniques, he finds ways to consistently ratchet up the suspense and increase the excitement when what's happening in frame really doesn't deserve it. After all, how scary is a skin-shedding sidewinder slithering through the ductwork, especially when you've got a double-barreled shotgun (and a true killer's instinct) posited on your knee? Your average international terrorist would be thinking of a way to utilize the venom spewing serpent as part of his evil kidnapping plot, not shirking from its gaze like a glorified girlie-man. Yet from the moment Ms. George makes Regan MacNeil maneuvers in the foyer, we buy into the premise of the pissed off poisonous non-Monty python and the unease starts to set in. It's not long before Klaus' clown act and Reed's face redness actually complement the course of action and we are rooting for the good guys, cursing the criminals, and hoping that the viper shows up to bite that little loser Lance Holcomb. All that compressed lung wheezing of his just gets damned annoying. Venom sounds goofy, looks goofy, and even plays goofy, yet this is one of the few times where a cinematic slice of duck actually converts into a succulent sliver of rare roast beef covered in hollandaise.
Thanks to those preservation geniuses over at the Big Blue U (Blue Underground, for the uninitiated), Venom looks absolutely brand new. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is flawless and pristine. The colors are bright and vibrant and the print is devoid of mastering or age defects. This is, perhaps, the best Blue Underground transfer ever. Even the distorted snake-eye camera techniques appear grainy, but perfect. On the sound side, we get a wonderfully eerie and ethereal Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix (DTS was unavailable to this critic) that really adds to the atmosphere of dread in the film. Noises off to the side and back channels really amp the anxiety levels.
As they have done with the vast majority of their releases, BBU once again goes out of their way to offer a nice array of bonus materials to soothe the cinematic savage. There is a nice set of trailers and television spots and extensive talent bios and poster/stills section. But the best extra is the full-length audio commentary by director Piers Haggard. Moderated by Jonothon Sothcott (who basically just asks a couple of questions) and filled with juicy backstage gossip (like how Klaus hated Reed and visa versa) and production notes (Haggard replaced the fired Tobe "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" Hooper), it's a wonderful narrative accompaniment to the film. It does occasionally avoid scenes and situations that beg for explanation and Piers spends a good deal of the time playing apologist for not having the time to properly prepare and flesh out the film, but it's still very good.
If someone told you that a movie that combined elements of Dog Day Afternoon, Sssssss, and an episode of The Crocodile Hunter was actually an effective slice of serpentine horror, you'd report them to poison control as a victim of taste toxicology post haste. But make no mistake about it, this is one case of coral corniness that actually cures what ails you…if what you want is filled with gloriously hammy overacting and draped in the antics of an antsy anaconda. Venom is filled to the fangs with viper righteousness.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
• Audio Commentary with Director Piers Haggard
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