Sunday, April 17, 2016

Retro Review: VENOM (1982)

(UK - 1982)

"Half the big-name cast appears to be drunk; the other half looks as though it wishes it were" - Leonard Maltin on VENOM.

One of the most stupidly entertaining guilty pleasure horror movies of the 1980s, VENOM finds a claustrophobic London hostage situation made worse when the party is crashed by the world's deadliest and most venomous snake. Philip (Lance Holcomb) is the animal-obsessed, dangerously asthmatic ten-year-old son of a wealthy American hotel CEO based in London. When Mom (Cornelia Sharpe, wife of the film's producer Martin Bregman, and the Lorraine Gary to his Sid Sheinberg) goes on a business trip with Dad, Philip is left in the care of his grizzled, retired safari guide grandfather (the always wonderful Sterling Hayden, in his last big-screen role) and maid Louise (Susan George). Unbeknownst to Philip and Grandpa, Louise and surly chauffeur Dave ("and Oliver Reed as Dave") are conspiring with Louise's beau, international terrorist Jacmel (Klaus Kinski, who turned down the role of Toht in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK because he felt the script was "moronically shitty" and VENOM paid more) to kidnap Philip and get a fat ransom from his dad. That plan goes south when Philip's package at the neighborhood pet store--a harmless African house snake--is mixed-up with an order for a black mamba placed by an area toxicology lab overseen by Dr. Stowe (Sarah Miles). The box containing the mamba is opened and it immediately bites and kills Louise, then proceeds to hide in the vents, occasionally slithering out to launch itself at someone or just play games by scaring the shit out of them. Meanwhile, irate hostage negotiator Bulloch (Nicol Williamson) tries to contain the escalating crisis from outside the house and meet Jacmel's demands. And, of course, Philip can't breathe.

Opening in theaters in January 1982, VENOM began production in the fall of 1980 with THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE director Tobe Hooper at the helm, fresh off of his success with the 1979 CBS miniseries SALEM'S LOT and the 1981 hit THE FUNHOUSE. Shortly into filming, creative differences manifested, leading to Hooper either quitting or being dismissed, depending on who's telling the story.  While Hooper went on to direct (or "direct") POLTERGEIST, his hastily-chosen VENOM replacement was found in journeyman Piers Haggard. A respected and consistently busy director for British television, Haggard occasionally dabbled in features like 1970's THE BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW and Peter Sellers' horrendous 1980 swan song THE FIENDISH PLOT OF DR. FU MANCHU, where he was fired by the star, who finished directing the film himself, though only Haggard--the third director cycled through the doomed project--remained the credited fall guy. Haggard arrived on VENOM with very little prep time and had to not only contend with an already troubled production falling behind schedule, but also with the numerous volatile personalities in his cast. The key focus of the damage control was on anger management poster boy Kinski, whose legendarily bad behavior and near-constant screaming fits prompted even the normally difficult Reed and Williamson to tone down their acts and just stay out of the path of Hurricane Klaus. Haggard contributed a very enjoyable commentary to Blue Underground's 2003 DVD release of VENOM (a Blu-ray upgrade is due out this summer) where he detailed all of the hassles and brouhahas that developed during the shoot (Haggard recounts Miles at one point telling Reed to just punch Kinski in the face to shut him up, to which the usually short-fused Reed quietly balked and said "I'm no fool").

As problematic as everything was, he seems like a good sport about it, and the film works in spite of its silliness. It's hard not to be entertained by Kinski's climactic spaz attack as he flails around wrapping a rubber snake around himself, Williamson's obviously grouchy disinterest in the whole endeavor, and a gun-shot Reed rendered immobile and forced to watch the mamba crawl up his pants leg and bite him on the dick. Also with brief appearances by Michael Gough as the London Zoo's leading snake expert, and John Forbes-Robertson--best known as Hammer's ineffective replacement Dracula when Christopher Lee refused to appear in 1974's horror/kung-fu hybrid THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES--as a doomed cop killed by an impulsive and panicked Dave. Reed apparently had such a great time doing a horror movie about a snake that he did another one a year later with 1983's Canadian-made SPASMS(R, 92 mins)

1 comment:

  1. I was overjoyed to see this on 35mm as part of a Herzog-free Kinski retrospective at Anthology Film Archives a few years back. The audience LOVED it, and all of the tense claustrophobic thrills and the slithery jump scares still worked 30+ years later.