It was supposed to be the perfect crime: the sexy maid (Susan George of Straw Dogs), a psychotic chauffer (Oliver Reed of Revolver) and an international terrorist (the legendary Klaus Kinski) kidnap a wealthy ten-year-old boy from his elegant London townhouse. but they didn't count on a murdered cop, a desperate hostage siege and one very unexpected houseguest: a furious Black Mamba, the most lethal and aggressive snake known to nature. It can attack from ten feet away. It's bite brings excruciating death, and it is on the loose. Now, terror knows no antidote... and the ultimate in slithering mayhem is Venom.
There's something devilishly fun about a high-concept horror thriller that just goes for broke. The plot could be completely ludicrous but because of the film's zeal and the commitment of the cast, it becomes a fun piece of schlock entertainment. 1981's 'Venom' starring Klaus Kinski, Oliver Reed, and Sterling Hayden and directed by Piers Haggard is just this sort of film. It would have been one thing if the film was just a simple hostage/kidnapping thriller, but add in a deadly African snake and you have the makings for a wildly over-the-top and entertaining movie.
Phillip (Lance Holcomb) is the son of a rich family who indulges his whims for owning a menagerie of exotic animals. Rats, lizards, mice anything the boy wants, he gets. Part of why the child is so interested in these animals is because of his famous grandfather Howard (Sterling Hayden) who has many tall tales of his days as a safari guide in Africa to tell the boy. But because Phillip has bad asthma and can't leave their London flat for long, the boy has to live vicariously through his grandfather's stories, which is something his nurse Louise (Susana George) hopes to exploit.
Louise and the family driver Dave (Oliver Reed) have cooked up a plot to kidnap the kid and ransom him for a large sum of cash. To pull the job off, they need help from Jacques Müller (Klaus Kinski). The plan goes off without a hitch, except the kidnappers didn't expect a screwup at an exotic animal importer accidentally sent little Phillip a deadly Black Mamba instead of a harmless African corn snake! Once the animal gets loose and starts killing people with its vicious bite, police investigator Commander Bulloch (Nicol Williamson) is the least of their worries. The kidnappers are going to have to figure out a way of escaping with their ransom without getting shot by the police, or killed by one of the world's deadliest snakes!
'Venom' originally was going to be Director Tobe Hooper's follow-up to 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.' After about a week of filming, the project was in such disarray that the only time Klaus Kinski and Oliver Reed got along together long enough was to get Hooper fired. Veteran director Piers Haggard stepped in and got the picture back on track, reportedly having to shoot nearly everything Hooper shot. Apparently only a little footage at the beginning features any of the material shot during that first week of filming. Usually, when you hear a production horror story such as this, you expect the movie to be a complete disaster. While 'Venom' may not be the world's greatest cinematic achievement, it does manage to capitalize on a ridiculous premise and deliver a tight little piece of exploitation cinema.
Part of what makes 'Venom' work so well is how it forces the kidnappers and their hostages to stay in a closed location with a deadly snake. They would love to leave but can't because the cops are outside. Without any back exit or access to the roof, it's either stay where they are and hope they don't get bit, or go outside and risk getting shot. When you boil it down, it's actually very silly, but the film plays it so earnestly and straight that you can't help but buy it. Adding to the tension of the film is the terse relationship between Reed's brash and impulsive Dave and Kinski's cool and calculating Müller. Apparently the two hated each other on set and Kinski would frequently tease and insult Reed causing him to go into fits of anger. Whatever Kinski was doing to him, it worked. The added tension works well for the film and adds an extra layer of suspense to the show. Along for the ride is a really fun and entertaining Sterling Hayden who is basically playing a version of John Huston meets Ernest Hemingway. You can tell the veteran actor is having a great time on this show.
Then you have the Black Mamba snake slithering about the house. It sneaks under furniture, slides along air vents, just when you think the kidnappers and their hostages are safe, it reminds the audience that 'Venom' is a deadly snake movie and not a hostage thriller when the titular creature slides up someone's pant leg! While I could have used more footage of the snake itself, it's a fearsome predator, just the idea of a killer creature like that adds an amount of suspense. Especially when it makes its first kill. It's rapid fire bites and the person's slow agonizing death was impressive and creepy. The film really needed more moments like that because it can go long stretches without the deadly creature.
'Venom' may not be an amazing work, but it is darned entertaining. It's a good group movie for sure. If you have a good group of friends you have an appreciation for this sort of show, you'd be wise to consider 'Venom' for your next get together. While the story may be a tad thin, 'Venom' is never dull or boring as this impressive cast and director Piers Haggard keep the action moving so the show never stagnates for long.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Venom' arrives on Blu-ray thanks to Blue Underground in a two-disc Blu-ray with DVD set. The film is pressed onto a Region Free BD25 disc. Housed in a clear Blu-ray case with reversible artwork, the set also includes a booklet containing a fantastic essay by Michael Gingold that also includes stills from the film, production photos, and different examples of the film's poster artwork. The disc opens with an animated main menu with standard navigation options.
With a fresh 2K scan of its negative, 'Venom' looks incredible with this 1.85:1 1080p transfer. Fine film grain is intact allowing the image to maintain plenty of details. Facial features, the cluttered set design work for Phillip's room, and of course, the titular snake, all look incredible. Colors can appear on the drab side of things, most of the film takes place in the darkened house so primaries are relatively restricted with only sparring uses of red. The makeup work for when the snake strikes is also deliciously colorful with great uses of purples and blacks to make people look particularly gross. Black levels are very strong, shadows play an important part in the film since the snake could be anywhere, but thankfully the image is free of any crush issues. The negative is also in pretty great shape, there is little to no damage apparent and the image appears to be free of any compression artifacts or edge enhancement.
'Venom' arrives with three distinct audio options to choose from. First, there is a very good, very spacious and pronounced English DTS-HD MA 7.1 track. Dialogue for this track is strong and keeps front and center and is easy to hear throughout. Comparatively speaking, this track has a lot more space and atmosphere surrounding the elements. Even the tight quarters of the London flat feel spacious and open. At the same time, some of the sound effects feel a little too distant, a little less powerful than you would expect. Also, there isn't much call for a lot of surround activity so any directionality the track has to offer is incidental rather than constant. The score by Michael Kamen works to round out the track very nicely.
Next, there is the DTS-HD MA 2.0 track. This is the track that I prefer of the three available if only because it sounds the most authentic. Dialogue has a little more power and presence, sound effects feel a little more urgent, and the Kamen score fits into each scene without overpowering any particular moment. The lack of space around the elements also makes the track sound more claustrophobic and urgent. While the 7.1 is very good and a nice upgrade, I still prefer this 2.0 mix.
After that, we come to what I would call a rather weak Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix. I don't recommend viewers use this one at all as the dialogue is notably softer, sound effects have a tinny artificial quality, Kamen's score seems to fade in and out. All around not a good track. If you can't run the 7.1 mix effectively select the 2.0 DTS track and skip the 5.1 altogether.
Audio Commentary: Director Piers Haggard flies solo for this very good commentary track. He covers a lot of detail about the production and what it was like to shoot a real live Black Mamba snake.
Theatrical Trailer: (HD 1:35)
Teaser Trailer: (HD 1:23)
TV Spot: (HD 00:29)
TV Spot: (HD 00:32)
TV Spot: (HD 00:32)
TV Spot: (HD 00:31)
Poster & Still Gallery: (HD 1:17)
'Venom' probably isn't the greatest movie ever, but it is still a heck of a lot of fun. While not a huge hit during it's theatrical run, it managed to build a cult following on home video and it's given new life with this release from Blue Underground. The A/V presentation is absolutely top notch. Extras are a bit slim but the audio commentary from Piers Haggard is worth the listen. If you have a love for schlocky snake flicks like 'Sssssss,' 'Venom' is sure to please and make your skin crawl at the same time. Recommended.