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VENOM (1981)

Could you tell me just how dangerous ‘very dangerous’ is?"
The most dangerous snake in the whole world, that dangerous!”





  Director:
 
Piers Haggard

  Starring: 
Nicol Williamson, Klaus Kinski, Oliver Reed, Sarah Miles, Susan George, Sterling Hayden, Lance Holcomb, Cornelia Sharpe, Michael Gwilym, Michael Gough, John Forbes-Robertson

  Screenplay: 
Robert Carrington, based upon the novel by Alan Scholefield

Synopsis:  In London, Ruth Hopkins (Cornelia Sharpe) frets over the prospect of leaving her chronically asthmatic young son, Philip (Lance Holcomb), behind when she flies to Rome to meet her wealthy businessman husband. However, Ruth’s father, Howard Anderson (Sterling Hayden), a former safari leader and photographer, insists that everything will be fine. Meanwhile, as Philip tends his bedroom menagerie, the family maid, Louise Andrews (Susan George), assures the chauffeur, Dave Connelly (Oliver Reed), that “nothing will go wrong”…. That evening, Dave drives Ruth to the airport. As his employer departs, the chauffeur goes to check on the arrival of a flight from Madrid – and is met by the sinister Jacmel (Klaus Kinski). Dave drives Jacmel to an isolated house, where bars have been put on the windows, and a newly obtained car waits. After Dave has left, Louise arrives and greets Jacmel, her lover, warmly. Jacmel tells her that he is worried about working with the nervous, unreliable Dave. Louise promises to keep him in line. The next day, Howard and Philip conspire together to arrange a minor adventure for the boy: a taxi-ride to an animal importer’s to collect an African house snake ordered for Philip’s menagerie. When she catches Philip leaving the house, Louise becomes almost hysterical, but Howard manages to send the boy on his way. Howard then gets a phone-call from a prospective employer, Mr Kepler, offering him the chance to work on a film in Africa. Although reluctant to leave the house until Philip returns, Howard cannot resist such an opportunity, and agrees to an immediate meeting. Louise tries to phone Jacmel to let him know that Philip has gone out, but Jacmel is already making another call. Philip arrives at the importer’s shop to find that its owner has been hospitalised, and his eccentric wife left in charge. Philip collects his snake and returns to the cab. Meanwhile, at the London Institute of Toxicology, Dr Marion Stowe (Sarah Miles) discovers that instead of the black mamba she ordered, she has been sent a harmless house snake. Puzzled but unsuspicious, Marion prepares to have lunch with her daughter – until the full implications of the mistake strike her. Stood up by the mysterious “Mr Kepler”, Howard heads for home. Police Sergeant Nash (John Forbes-Robertson) receives a frantic call from Marion, who tells him that she has been in touch with the import shop, and learned that Philip has indeed been given the mamba. When Philip arrives home he is grabbed by Louise, who tells him that his grandfather is waiting for him at a friend’s house – and has sent a car for him. Philip, however, insists on housing his new pet immediately. He breaks free of the maid and rushes into the house. Louise follows and, after another futile effort to get the boy to leave, tries to hurry him up by offering to help with his new acquisition. Assuming that the wooden box contains yet another of Philip’s “little furry animals”, Louise lifts the lid….

Comments:  What, another dumb killer snake film? Yes, indeed. Partly because I like dumb killer snake films – generally – and partly to demonstrate that in spite of the impression I know I frequently give, from time to time I can in fact just kick back and enjoy a piece of mindless entertainment. Venom, as it happens, is one of my most cherished guilty pleasures. It is one of those peculiar productions where the stories surrounding it, and the various facets that make it up, are as important, and almost as enjoyable, as the film itself.

You see, here’s the thing about Venom: it has a real black mamba in it.

The black mamba is in many ways the great white shark of the snake world, if you understand what I mean. While other snakes attack people much more frequently, and are responsible for far more human deaths (the puff adder is, I believe, the leading cause of snake-related fatality in Africa, mostly because it spends much of its time lying motionless, and consequently gets stepped on quite a lot), it is the black mamba that captures the imagination – and not without good cause.

The mamba is a big snake, slender but long; ten to twelve feet is common, but specimens of fourteen feet have been recorded. It is one of the fastest snakes around. While tales of it outrunning horses are myths, it can outpace a human being on foot, at least over short distances. Like its cousin, the cobra, although far less spectacularly, a mamba will flare the skin around its neck when making a threat display. It also has the remarkable ability to lift the first third of its body off the ground, and to travel like that; it does so when it is hunting – and when it feels threatened. A full-sized mamba, therefore, can if it so chooses stand almost eye to eye with an adult human being, and tower over a child. When it strikes, it tends to do so repeatedly. No snake will attack a human being without provocation, but the mamba is easier to provoke than most. The majority of snakes, when threatened, will look around for a way out – any way out. A mamba, on the other hand, is likely to decide it wants one particular way out – and if that is blocked, it may well attack. Without treatment, mamba bite can result in paralysis and death within twenty minutes.

 

The novel upon which this film was based spends about a quarter, perhaps even a third, of its length filling in the political histories of its terrorist-kidnappers. The producers of Venom, rightly recognising that their audience was unlikely to give a toss about such things, jettisoned all of their source’s background information, and instead focussed their energies upon realising the most exploitable aspect of the story: the black mamba that is inadvertently released inside the house in which the botched kidnapping is taking place.

Here I must pause and doff my cap in stunned admiration of the decision-makers behind this film. When Venom was made in the early eighties, the cinematic world was in the midst of a special effects revolution: within the space of two years, The Howling, An American Werewolf In London and The Thing were unleashed upon a disbelieving public. It would have been easy (not to mention sensible) for the producers of Venom to resort to the trickery of stock footage and animatronics to create their mamba, or to use some other kind of sophisticated model - but they didn’t. (Which is not to say there aren’t a few rubbery stand-ins in the film – but on the whole, they’re pretty well disguised.) Instead, they rang up David Ball, curator of reptiles at the London Zoo, and invited him to spend some time provoking a black mamba for the benefit of their cameras.

And then, presumably because having a real mamba on their set wasn’t suicidally dangerous enough, they hired Klaus Kinski and Oliver Reed.

 

Venom is not, by any cinematic standard, a great film, but it is better – and a lot more fun – than its reputation would lead you to believe. It’s better, for that matter, than my affectionate but slightly contemptuous memories of it had led me to believe. The problem is, and always has been, mis-marketing. Right from the beginning, this film has been sold to the wrong audience.

(Pardon an interjection: I have nothing but admiration for the work done by Blue Underground, but whoever designed the artwork for the DVD release of Venom deserves to be slapped, hard and repeatedly. Aren't there enough real cheap knock-offs of Anaconda in existence without selling as another one a film that is nothing of the kind?)

Venom is not really a killer snake film; the mamba is just one complication amongst many. Nor is it a horror movie, which (given that it was produced at the height of the early eighties slasher boom) probably led to a lot of disappointed cinema-goers at the time. Its a suspense film, a thriller, which, if for nothing else, deserves to be seen for its fabulous cast, each member of which puts in a strong performance (probably better than the film deserves) - and for the sight of this group of hard-core professionals keeping their faces completely straight as the plot in which they are enmeshed grows ever more improbable.

Still, while it is true that Venom is contrived and unbelievable, that’s hardly a criticism. The fact is, very few thrillers pass muster at the story level. Is Die Hard credible? Is North By Northwest? Hardly. The true art of the thriller is not to tell a convincing story, after all, but to tell an exciting and entertaining one well enough to lure the viewer into suspending disbelief – at least until the credits roll.

 

Where Venom gains what credibility it does have is that the audience never doubts for a moment the extent of the threat posed by the criminal conspirators; not when they’re played by Klaus, Ollie and Suze! The thought of a child at the mercy of that trio is genuinely disturbing. Indeed, from the film’s opening moments, with Ollie/Dave casting ominous glances at the young Philip in the rear-view mirror of the Rolls Royce he is chauffeuring, the viewer is on edge.

(You have to love the Hopkinses, though, don’t you? He’s wealthy enough for his son to become the target of kidnappers, she’s neurotically fretful – yet they let Oliver Reed and Susan George into their house! Yeesh! Almost makes Eric Stoltz and Jennifer Lopez’s decision to go up the Amazon with Vincent Castellanos look sensible.)

With the arrival of Klaus/Jacmel, the feeling of unease is complete. Intriguingly, however, it soon becomes clear that it is Dave who is the real menace, not Jacmel. Jacmel, after all, is a professional, and not given to violence without profit. Dave, on the other hand, has been lured into the criminal enterprise partly by the thought of the payoff, partly as a way of revenging himself upon his employers for the perceived wrongs of his subservient position, and partly because Louise has been frying his brain with hot sex and plenty of it. Dave is a first-class coward, and it comes as little surprise when we learn that he is a first-class bully, also. He takes the first chance that offers of beating the elderly Howard, and would certainly hurt the child too, if his mingled fear and hatred of Jacmel would permit him to do it.

The third point of the criminal triangle, Louise, loses her life when the mamba announces its presence in the house. Horrified and panicked, and understandably, by his lover’s gruesome demise, Dave needs only the slightest opportunity to precipitate catastrophe. He gets it when the unfortunate Sergeant Nash, following up on Marion Stowe’s report, presents himself at the house. One shotgun blast and one dead policeman later, the attempted kidnapping has escalated into a full-scale siege.

 

And it is at this point in the story that Venom really works up a head of steam, with the arrival on the scene of Commander William Bulloch. It had been a long time since I last saw this film, and strangely enough, in between viewings the thing about it that stayed with me most fondly was not the snake – and nor was it Klaus and/or Ollie. It was Nicol Williamson’s performance as Bulloch, which balances and sells the story. Indeed, the fact that Williamson manages to hold his own against two such notorious scenery-chewers as Kinski and Reed speaks for itself. His Bulloch is a shaded, detailed, often funny creation; rude, bad-tempered, foul-mouthed and hugely egotistical, the police officer proves to have unexpected depths, as in his respectful dealings with Marion Stowe and his reaction to the circumstances that see her taken hostage, and his handling of Ruth Hopkins. Upon hearing that Philip’s mother has flown back from Rome and is rushing to the scene, Bulloch snarls disgustedly, “Oh, terrific! That’ll be a great help!” – yet when he speaks to the distraught woman, he is as gentle and reassuring as possible. There’s also a moment of near shocking restraint from Bulloch when one Lord Dunning, presumably the Home Secretary, drops in upon the siege, seemingly for no reason other than to put a bit more pressure upon the people actually having to deal with the crisis. “We wouldn’t want anything to go wrong, would we?” he says with a singular lack of helpfulness. Bulloch simply looks at him, his expression suggesting that he could ask nothing more of life than for the politician himself to open a box with a black mamba in it.

Bulloch is a man whose reputation precedes him, and whose professional credentials are sketched with admirable, and amusing, economy. The mere mention of Bulloch’s name is sufficient to reduce Dave to a quivering heap of jelly; his men are, clearly, devoted to him, and terrified of him, in about equal measure; while his handling of a previous siege, which lasted a full five days, is spoken of only in the most hushed of voices. The central joke of Venom is that in his way, Bulloch is almost as much of a cold-blooded bastard as Jacmel himself; and a large portion of the film’s entertainment value lies in the battle of wits between these two well-matched adversaries. And it is a fair fight, refreshingly; the screenplay does Bulloch no undeserved favours. At one point, indeed, the police officer is out-manoeuvred by Jacmel with embarrassing thoroughness, while late in the story, after Jacmel resorts to a particularly grisly ploy in order to pressure the police into allowing his escape, Bulloch actually begins to contemplate the unthinkable: letting the kidnappers win. But that’s before the mamba decides to intervene….

 

If things are interesting out in the street, there are even more fun and games going on inside the house. Venom features an unexpectedly controlled performance from Klaus Kinski; his Jacmel his cold, deliberate and deadly – in a way that, inevitably, invites comparison with the mamba itself; a point made explicit in the staging of the film’s climax. Oliver Reed’s Dave, on the other hand, is a sweaty, snivelling, sauced-up disaster waiting to happen. The scenes between these two legendary cinematic psychos are simply unforgettable. Kinski and Reed loathed each other on sight, and all of that comes out onscreen. The relationship between Jacmel and Dave is beautifully delineated in their first meeting, when Dave opens the door of the front seat of the Rolls for Jacmel, inviting him in as a partner, and Jacmel responds by climbing into the back seat, establishing himself as Dave’s superior. Their working relationship finally climaxes when – oh, how Klaus must have enjoyed this! – Jacmel loses patience and slaps the panic-ridden chauffeur stupid.

(And if the real-life Kinski/Reed brawling wasn’t bad enough, Sterling Hayden spent most of his time on set drunk, dividing his time between refereeing his co-stars fights, and deliberately egging them on. Between these three and the mamba, its a wonder anyone survived the shoot. [Although Piers Haggard at least survived it well enough to contribute a commentary to the DVD; the Blue Underground release is worth picking up just for his reminiscences.])

Indelible as are the three central performances in Venom, the rest of the cast lends solid support; although the contribution of Sterling Hayden as Howard Anderson is (not surprisingly) a bit uneven. In the early sections of the film, Hayden rather overdoes the “bluff old buffer” routine; he is better once the siege is underway. As with most of the characters in this film, there is some interesting ambiguity about Howard. We’re never quite sure whether his stories about his past adventures are true, albeit spiced up with a little colourful exaggeration, or whether he’s a delusional old blow-hard, as the alacrity with which he swallows “Mr Kepler’s” ego-stroking job offer would suggest. In any case, if he has been guilty of self-aggrandisement, Howard is thoroughly punished for it when Jacmel takes him at his own word, and insists that he, the self-declared “expert”, search the house for the mamba.

 

As is so often true of British films, there are numerous subsidiary pleasures to be found amongst the supporting cast of Venom. As mentioned above, herpetologist David Ball acted as mamba wrangler for this production, and the film-makers paid tribute to his courage (and foolhardiness) by having Marion Stowe suggest to Bulloch that he, “Contact David Ball – he’s better equipped at dealing with this sort of situation than I am!” Ball did not play himself in the film, however, but instead is portrayed by Michael Gough, who makes the most of his few brief scenes with Nicol Williamson as the story begins to move towards its conclusion. Long-time genre fans are treated to a brief appearance by John Forbes-Robertson, who plays the poor doomed sod of a cop who takes Marion Stowe’s phone-call about the snake mix-up and shows up at the Hopkins house at precisely the wrong moment. Forbes-Robertson appeared over the years in such films as The Vampire Lovers and Vault Of Horror, and won himself a slice of immortality (of a sort) by playing Count Dracula in Hammer’s bizarre horror-kung fu crossover, The Legend Of The 7 Golden Vampires. In addition, Michael Gwilym is very effective as Bulloch’s loyal right-hand man, Dan Spencer, whose talents extend well beyond the purely legal. (“I don’t know why they bother,” he comments scornfully of a shop’s security system, while committing a Bulloch-sanctioned break and enter.) I’m also fond of Gerard Ryder’s brief turn as Smith, a forensics boffin who provides Bulloch with an invaluable piece of information at a critical juncture, and whose appearance in this film is a salutary reminder that for some people, the seventies never ended.

One of my favourite aspects of Venom, however, is Sarah Miles’ performance as Marion Stowe, and the way that the character of Dr Stowe is handled in-story: as a herpetological toxicologist who also happens to be a thoroughly nice, thoroughly normal person. It is Marion’s determination to do the right thing that puts her into a position to be taken hostage by Jacmel; once inside the house, she manages to keep her head in the face of a situation spiralling dangerously out of control, and for which she is by no means equipped. The other pleasure here is that everyone takes Marion seriously. That may sound silly, but just think of all the films out there where an expert is called in, only to have their opinions ignored and/or be treated like a crank. Here, when Marion speaks, everyone listens, from the policeman who first takes her call about a potential snake mix-up, to Bulloch, and even to Jacmel - mostly. Almost the first thing that Marion does upon being taken hostage is to tell Jacmel that he should switch off the house’s central heating, in order to make the mamba go into a torpid state. However, the suggestion is lost in the rapidly escalating danger of the situation, leaving the snake free to go about its business - although as things turn out, that was probably a fortunate thing.

 

But enough about actors! What about the non-human star of Venom? The deployment of the mamba is one of the most skilfully-executed aspects of the film, since the snake in truth gets very limited screen time. However, there is never a moment after its initial escape that we don’t feel its presence. The mamba makes a spectacular entrance when it attacks Louise Andrews, biting her time and again on the face before disappearing into the recesses of the house. Louise’s ensuing death is, I am compelled to point out, more than a little inaccurate. After staggering around the house for about ten minutes (rather like Leslie Daniels in The Brain That Wouldn’t Die), Louise finally goes into a horrific series of body-wrenching convulsions, succumbing to the venom in her system with blood upon her lips and her skin a sickly grey. However, considering the dose of venom that Louise received, and where she received it, it is highly unlikely that she would have done any of these things; almost immediate respiratory failure and paralysis are a far more likely outcome. Of course, if Louise didn’t convulse, we’d have missed out on the sight of Susan George’s blouse popping open, and her skirt getting hiked up around her knickers as she thrashes around. And we wouldn’t want that, would we?

Be that as it may, Louise’s death certainly serves its purpose, which is to freak out both the other characters and the audience. Shortly after this scene, Marion Stowe gets to explain to Bulloch just how dangerous “very dangerous” is, her speech being intercut with footage of the mamba, including one absolutely indelible moment when the snake lifts its body, opens wide its pitch-black mouth, and lunges towards the camera. The magnitude of the threat posed by the animal having been thus established, it spends much of the rest of the film as an unseen menace, shots of it gliding silently through the house’s heating ducts being supplemented with suggestive shadows and movements, and the use of “mamba-cam”. The effect is singularly unnerving – enough to make even a snake nut like me sit with her feet tucked up for the duration of the film – and to keep well away from the curtains. The icing on the cake comes when, after having spent a good half hour establishing Commander Bulloch’s badass credentials, the film then dares to have him fleeing in terror from an unexpected encounter with the mamba. Bulloch may be scary, but the snake is scarier.

The showdown between Bulloch and the mamba is only one of a handful of such incidents. One of the most enjoyable things about Venom is trying to guess just when and where the snake will show itself. In this respect, Piers Haggard’s directorial sleight-of-hand is wonderfully clever. Time and again, he manages to mislead the viewer into thinking that the point of a particular scene is something else, and then produces the snake from an entirely expected location. And in fact, it is the way the snake is used that gives Venom the edge over a lot of structurally similar movies, as what are set up as fairly standard thriller scenes end up going in unpredictable directions purely because of the mamba’s presence. As is usually the case with animals in movies, the mamba demonstrates a remarkable talent for delineating the good guys and the bad guys; and despite Bulloch’s best efforts outside (and even inside, briefly), it is ultimately the reptilian deus ex machina – or perhaps satanas ex machina would be a more accurate way of putting it – that brings the hostage crisis to an end. Expected though this may be in one sense, the actual mechanics of the demises of the remaining criminal pair are likely to catch the viewer off-guard – particularly with respect to Dave’s exit, which is a masterpiece of poetic justice.

Ah, dear…. This is one of those moments that makes reviewing difficult. On one hand, I’m simply desperate to tell you what happens in that scene; on the other, I wouldn’t for quids spoil the fun of anyone who hasn’t seen the film. So I’ll just say this: if you were to compile a list of Ways I Would Really, Really Prefer Not To Die, Ollie’s fate in Venom would probably end up somewhere near the top of it….

And foolhardiness. Let's not forget foolhardiness.

 

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----re-formatted 11/11/2009