Synopsis: Terrorists in the process of kidnapping a child get trapped in a house with an extremely deadly snake.
Stars: Klaus Kinski, Oliver Reed, Nicol Williamson, Sarah Miles, Sterling Hayden, Lance Holcomb, Susan George, Cornelia Sharpe, Michael Gough
Director: Piers Haggard
Running Length: 92 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: I could imagine a viewer in 1981 standing in front of the poster for Venom seen above and scratching their head in confusion. Referring to The Birds, Psycho, The Omen, and Jaws call to mind four classic but drastically different horror experiences. Even if you lifted the elements from all four films the poster indicated, it couldn’t quite describe the odd appeal of Venom or its continued life on the periphery of the genre. I have had this one on my ‘to-do’ list for some time but kept delaying, thinking it was one of those half-hearted productions that lured stars in need of cash. Surprisingly, a good deal of money seems to have been invested in it, though it’s debatable how well it was all spent.
Not expressly a creature feature but not without its share of jump-out-of-your-seat moments thanks to a reptile on the loose, Venom had a troubled production that resulted in an uneven film. Original director Tobe Hooper (Poltergeist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) was replaced after the first week, and new director Piers Haggard arrived to find a cast and crew at odds with one another. Haggard went on record later saying the snake was the nicest member of the cast to work with if that indicates the atmosphere on the set. With strong personalities like the infamously eccentric Klaus Kinski and combative Oliver Reed, not to mention stalwart Sterling Hayden, you can understand how the film starts to cater more toward its human stars than its central antagonist. That’s especially disappointing because the first 40 minutes of the film are gripping.
A wealthy American family living in London is targeted by a kidnapping plot meticulously plotted from within their household. Mother Ruth Hopkins (Cornelia Sharpe) is hesitant to leave her asthmatic son Philip (Lance Holcomb) for a few days in the care of her father Howard (Hayden), who is recovering in their home after an illness. Still, the family’s British maid Louise (Susan George, Fright) and chauffeur Dave (Reed, The Brood) know Philip’s routine, and it’s a school holiday, so there’s little to be worried over. That is until Louise’s secret lover Jacques Müller (Kinski, Nosferatu) arrives to help the house staff carry out plans to kidnap Philip and hold him for ransom.
Never underestimate the plans of a naughty boy and his irascible grandpa, though. While Ruth thinks her son and father are going to lay low (the script is so freewheeling with exposition that Sharpe has the line, ‘You need to be careful of your asthma since we’re in London, but at least you’re with your grandfather while I’m away for the weekend. Well, at least there’s no school for a few days. Just don’t go out.”) they’ve planned for the boy to travel alone to an exotic animal store and pick up a new harmless house snake to add to his home zoo. A mix-up at the store has sent his purchase to Dr. Marion Stowe (Sarah Miles) at the Institute of Toxicology though; he unknowingly goes home with a deadly black mamba.
It doesn’t take long for the snake to pop out and cause massive problems for the kidnappers and potential victims, adding an extra layer of danger for all. To put even more pressure on the situation, the police are tipped off about the kidnapping and surround the tiny flat, forcing Jacques to take more desperate measures to escape capture. With a slithering predator moving silently around the house, a nest of criminal vipers crafting their next move, and London’s finest rallying outside, the race is on to see who will strike first.
If you have any fear of snakes, Venom will surely crank up that blood pressure at the outset. Waiting for the snake to appear makes for more than a few deliriously fun sequences, and even watching the camera (standing in for the snake) slowly gliding through the air ducts is enough to make your hairs stand on end. I don’t have the greatest affinity for these reptiles and admit that when the mamba makes its first appearance, it comes as a significant shock. If only the rest of the elements in the film lived up to that initial thrill.
The further the movie gets away from being about the snake and more about the trio of criminals (and the police outside), the less interesting it becomes. These are all fine actors, but we bought a ticket to Venom, not Kidnapper Talks to Police. When the film should be surging into its final act, it’s still fooling around with Kinski and Reed’s shameless mugging for the camera. Hayden sometimes gets a bit into the action but largely rises above those shenanigans. I liked Miles as the knowing doctor, and George was fun as a femme fatale that should be more careful about what dark places she peers into. George has one of the trickiest acting exercises in the film, one that Kinski must recreate later, but the younger actress comes off far better than Kinski’s comically overbaked take.
It can’t hold a candle to the movies it name drops on its poster, but, like its marketing, Venom manages to get the job done and serve its purpose at the time. I’m surprised no one has attempted to remake it over the years because the story, while containing far-fetched elements, is a more believable set-up than you’d think. Movies like Crawl can make us believe someone can be stuck in a house with a crocodile; why not re-do Venom with a more restrained cast and tighter directing?