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Venom
(1982)

Director: Piers Haggard   
Cast:
Susan George, Oliver Reed, Klaus Kinski


In a review that I wrote many months ago, I stated that I loved animals. I mentioned that even the lowliest animal has a grace and majesty that I find fascinating, and makes me wish that I could communicate with the animal in a tongue that they would clearly understand. Though I feel that I should also mention that not only do I love animals, I have learned to have a healthy respect for them - especially animals that could possibly do me harm. There are many times, when watching nature shows on television, that I am glad that I live in North America and not some place like the plains of Africa. I am glad that I don't have to face lions in my backyard - lions have killed a number of humans. But on second though, maybe I don't have so much to fear. On nature shows, I see that lions seem to spend 90% of the day lying in the sun, and I have learned facts that dampen the image of them being the king of the animals (they are cowed by elephants, for one thing, and sometimes lions will eat their own cubs.) I also know that I have a lot more to fear from the hostile hippopotamus instead. They may be cute and tame in the zoo, but in the wild they are vicious, and kill more people per year than lions do. Then there is the case of the majestic tiger. I have heard reports that they are more deadly killers than their cousin the lion, since they are more determined to fell a source of food than the lion. People in tiger country actually wear masks on the back of their head to fool the tiger, since he likes to attack from behind. But maybe I don't have so much to fear. The tiger is heading towards extinction, for one thing, and there is the obvious fact that the tiger is from Asia, not Africa.

As I said, I'm glad that I live in North America instead of the wilds of Africa or Asia. I can remember growing up in a community at the edge of the wilds, and I felt pretty safe. Or did I? Let me think about it for a moment. There were coyotes who would sometimes descend from the mountains into my suburban area, but I knew that coyotes were harmless to humans. What about their cousin, the wolf? Well, it was wolf country where I lived, but when I was young I read a book that you probably had nothing to fear from the wolf, and that there was only one recorded account of a fatal wolf attack on a human, way back in the 1700s. But now that I continue to think about it, there was that risk of wild animal attack close at hand as I grew up. There have always been a number of cougars in British Columbia, and there have been attacks on humans, more so in recent years. Even when someone brought a "tame" cougar to school one day and let us pet it, I knew this was an animal not to be messed with. And there was a risk with bears as well. I can't believe I forgot about it up to this point, but there was one day when I was riding my bike next to a wooded area, and I saw a bear pop out of the brush. I immediately turned around and rode the hell out of there, glad that this bear didn't seem to know that it could run fast enough to possibly catch up with me. I don't know why I subsequently never told anyone about this - maybe I thought no one would believe me. And then there were the threat of snakes. You might not think that there are any dangerous snakes in my province, but in certain parts - including where I lived - there were poisonous snakes.

The poisonous snake that lived in my area was the rattlesnake. I heard plenty of stories growing up that basically warned me to be wary of them. One supposedly true story I heard was that the best friend of one Venomindividual was bitten and killed by a rattlesnake, and the grieved individual launched a one-man campaign against the snakes, doing stuff like stuffing and igniting dynamite in their lairs. But as I grew up, my fear of them lessened by every year. I only ever saw one rattlesnake in my area - it was a baby rattlesnake trying to cross a busy road (don't worry - it made it across safely.) I learned that rattlesnakes would rather not attack a threat - their rattle is a warning. And I learned that rattlesnakes get rid of pests like bugs and mice. So I'm no longer afraid of rattlesnakes... though I am still wary of other kind of snakes, like cobras. Another snake I was wary of for a long time was the black mamba. I remember reading several times during my childhood various facts about the black mamba, including the fact that it's the one snake that will pursue and attack a human even when not provoked or threatened. And yes, it is poisonous, one of the most poisonous snakes in the world. It's the snake featured in the movie Venom, and all the main characters in the movie end up facing it. The movie actually starts off seeming it will be snake free. In London, the maid (George, Straw Dogs) and chauffeur (Reed, The Hunting Party) of a wealthy family plot to kidnap, with the help of a notorious European criminal (Kinski), the family's young son Philip. However, just before the intended kidnap, the young boy brings home from the pet shop a new pet to add to his collection. He had ordered a harmless snake, but due to a mix-up at the pet store, he unknowingly is given a black mamba. When the three would-be kidnappers not long afterwards try to execute their plan to kidnap the boy, everything suddenly goes to hell, and the three conspirators suddenly find themselves stuck in the family home with Philip and Philip's grandfather (Sterling Haden), with none of the five unable to escape from the building for various reasons. To add to their problems, the black mamba in short notice manages to escape from its box, and is now slithering around the home looking for victims...

When I was doing research on this movie just before writing this review, I decided to research the black mamba as well. During that research, I discovered from a reputable source that much of what I had heard during my childhood about the black mamba was wrong. Although the snake is definitely poisonous and deadly to humans, the black mamba does not chase or seek out humans, and will not attempt to bite them unless cornered and feeling threatened. So the portrayal of the black mamba in Venom as cold-blooded (in the murderous sense) is not accurate. I was able to forgive the filmmakers for this inaccuracy. For one thing, I am sure most viewers will not know the truth about the black mamba. Another reason is that aside from the portrayal of the black mamba, for most of the movie the filmmakers seem to have felt that their audience would not be stupid. Take the first part of the movie for instance, that informs the audience that the hired help is planning a kidnapping. The characters never do anything blatant like use the word "kidnap" or talk in detail about what they are planning. Instead, scene after scene goes by that gives us one clue after another that they are planning something - they rent a cottage in the countryside, they have in that cottage a machine to treat asthma like the boy has in his home, etc. By the time Kinski's character arrives outside the home and George tells the boy to get into Kinski's car, all the pieces come together and we realize what's going on.

I'm not saying that everything in the Venom screenplay is as smartly written as the above kidnapping plot. There are a few stumbles that could have been easily corrected. There's the scene where the young boy takes a taxi to and back home from the pet store, yet the movie has made clear earlier that the family has both a car and a chauffeur. Later, when Kinski suddenly appears in the family home, the boy's grandfather, upon seeing him, does not question who he is and what he is doing there. And while I could believe the snake could travel from the top floor of the family home to the basement through the building heating system, I could not believe that the snake could travel back up through the heating system, knowing how long and vertical heating shafts often are. But aside from several quirks like this, the movie is smarter and more thoughtful than you'd think. That includes the characters of the movie. Yes, some of the characters make one or two dumb decisions during the course of the movie, such as when Reed's character is confronted by a policeman knocking at the door. But these mistakes are understandable by the situations the characters find themselves in (Reed's character is in a panic in that previously described situation, for instance.) Most of the time, both the protagonists and antagonists find they have time to think about the situation they are in and afterwards execute various (and clever) plans to try and get the upper hand of the situation. Nicol Williamson's police commander character, for example, is very smart, doing several things at once when facing the situation with the hope that one of his plans may help defuse the conflict.

It also helps the movie a lot that the performances by the actors assist in making us believe these characters and their actions. As the boy's grandfather, Haden doesn't make his character the expected feeble personality, but gives him a lot of spunk and energy despite being in his senior years, and he's a lot of fun to watch. Child actor Lance Holcomb manages to not let his character get obnoxious early on or when the danger starts. The real standout performances, as you have probably guessed, belong to Reed and Kinski. Reports I've read state that they didn't get along during filming (to put it mildly), but this tension actually benefited the movie. Reed, for one thing, looks very uncomfortable in close quarters with Kinski, and this gives his character a believable uneasiness that seems right for a character who doesn't feel in control. But I can't stop my praise of Venom without mentioning Piers Haggard's direction. Despite what you may believe from the description, he doesn't direct the movie as a horror movie (as this movie has sometimes been falsely branded as), but as a tense drama. As it turns out, the snake is almost an afterthought of the movie; Haggard spends much of the time showing the characters feeling trapped and in danger, and we feel it. And there are only a few deaths during the 92 minute running time. But each death makes a great impact, not making the audience get a thrill, but instead making us feel the pain and suffering of the dying victim. Scenes like those, as well as various other jolts and shocks throughout will make you wonder if anyone (not just the protagonists) will get away alive. This is one movie with real fangs, and will show you scary does not mean you have to be stupid.

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Check for availability of the Alan Scholefield source novel

See also: Crawlspace, The Hunting Party, King Cobra

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