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The F*cking Black Sheep: Venom (1981)

THE BLACK SHEEP is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATH. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Dig in!

VENOM (1981)

DIRECTED BY PIERS HAGGARD

Be honest now boys and girls, how pumped are you for VENOM to hit the big-screen next week? We sure as shite are, as Tom Hardy is not only a bona fide badass boss, the menacing Marvel icon has long been one of our ferocious favorites as well. But you know what else? Every time I see a new ad or promo hit for the flick, my mind invariably drifts to another movie with the same title. That’s right you guys, I’m talking about the magnificent 1981 Klaus Kinski vs. Black Mamba melee in the wildly underrated Piers Haggard movie, VENOM. And it’s not just Kinski, we have the equally febrile and unhinged Oliver Reed facing off with the reptilian ripper as well, which is made all the more delightful considering how much Reed and Kinski absolutely hated each other in real life. In fact, so attitudinal were the actors on set, so eruptive was Kinski’s hot-temper at the whim of Reed’s taunting, that Haggard famously stated that he found the Black Mamba to be the nicest person on the set. Yeah, let that sink in for a sec…

And let us contextualize. While some of you may have already seen VENOM, many may not know that the film was to be originally directed by Tobe Hooper. In fact, Hooper shot ten days worth of footage on the film, which Haggard vows nary a frame made it into the final released version. More vexing yet, apparently Kinski, who opted to make this film instead of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (the script for which he called “moronically shitty”), boasted after making the movie about how and other cast and crew members ganged up on Hooper in the first weeks of shooting in order to have him replaced. That’s some crazy sabotage shite right there, one I’m almost ashamed to admit I did not know about until recently. After all, Hooper’s THE FUNHOUSE, released the same year as VENOM, as always been one of my favorite Hooper horrors. I had no clue he left another project the same year.

Even so, VENOM is a F*cking Black Sheep of 1980s creature-feature, and we’ll tell you exactly why below!

Adapted from the Alan Scholefield novel by Robert Carrington (FEAR IS THE KEY, WAIT UNTIL DARK), the story of VENOM is a truly inspired one. Just like recent home-invasion hostage yarns like DON’T BREATHE and BAD SAMARITAN, or heists-turned-horrific joints like THE VAULT and BULLETHEAD, the horror of VENOM derives in tertiary fashion to the criminal drama. That is, the movie starts as one genre, and naturally, organically unfolds into another. I love that about any movie that can achieve this dynamic well (DON’T BREATHE, BULLET HEAD). In VENOM, a ten year old reptile loving boy named Philip (Lance Holcomb) stays with his grandfather Howard (the great Sterling Hayden) while his mother Ruth (Cornelia Sharpe) is away in Rome. Their housekeeper Louise (Susan George) nefariously smuggles into the house a terrorist name Dave (Reed), who, along with his crazy German comrade Jacmel (Kinski), plan to hold Philip hostage until his wealthy parents pay a hefty ransom.

But there’s one big problem. After a mix-up at the pet store, a harmless African house snake is swapped for a Black Mamba, the world’s fastest moving and most venomous snake. When Philip unwittingly brings the snake back to his London flat during wintertime, it inevitably escapes. When Dave unwisely shoots a police officer in front of the flat, soon the place is cordoned by police officers. With nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, the Black Mamba begins picking off the kidnappers one by one, killing them in lethally lunging attacks. Shite is Gnar-Gnar!

I urge everyone to see this movie ASAP, as it features some of the scariest real-life snake footage in any movie, horror or not. We laugh at SNAKES ON A PLANE (originally titled VENOM by the way) for how campy, silly, and outright bogus the CG snakes appear in the film, thereby sapping the horror and allowing us to let our guard down and have a laugh. Trust us, this is not the case in VENOM. These are REAL Black Mambas seen onscreen, expertly handled by London Zoologist David Ball (played by Michael Gough in the film). And the result speaks for itself. Sure, an argument can made that there isn’t quite enough Mamba attacks in the film, but it’s a double-edged sword. Showing too much will inevitably sully the potency, and showing too little will result in audience agitation. I know this much, when the actual Mamba strikes, it does so with genuine terror, raw unnerved tension, and slithery serpentine suspense!

The first time we see the Mamba, it savagely lashes out at Louise in a straight-up jaw-dropping sequence that sees the poor girl sustain a number of bites to the face, neck and arms. She hysterically writhes and wriggles around, only to grow pale as a ghost before spastically twitching on the floor until her heart eventually seizes. It’s a tremendous sequence that sets the bar of expectations to come. Unfortunately, the A-plot involving the kidnapping and ransom take primacy for quite awhile, during which the Mamba slithers into the heating ducts of the house to remain warm and out of sight. Of course, this part instantly calls to mind Klaus Kinski five years later in the terrific CRAWLSPACE – indeed, Kiniski is a coldblooded, reptilian menace who also skulks the ducts and inner-walls of his seedy hotel. No doubt, anyone hankering for a Kinksi double-horror-bill ought to look no further than racking VENOM and CRAWLSPACE back to back!

Another undeniable asset of VENOM is the way it’s lit and lensed by DP Gilbert Taylor. This guy shot REPULSION for Polanski, FRENZY for Hitchcock, THE OMEN for Donner, DRACULA for Herzog (starring Kinski), and STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE for Lucas (just a few of 70 odd credits). The look and lighting of the film inarguably augments what could have easily been another cheap 80s throwaway horror endeavor. But between the calibers of acting talent in the film, coupled with such a brilliantly accomplished cinematographer, the material is immediately elevated en route to becoming a lasting, if forgotten, minor horror classic. The canted angles, deft camerawork, off-kilter framing and interior maneuvering really add a lot to the movie, especially when Haggard (BLOOD FROM SATAN’S CLAW) opts to use the Mamba’s POV – which is not quite a fisheye angle, but a snake-eye angle – slightly stretched and distorted as it stalks its unsuspecting human prey. I always loved that touch!

Really though, for horror fans, the final 10-15 minutes of the film is where it’s most venomous. Not only do the two competing narratives come to a head in a well written and thought out manner, but the Mamba slimes its way out of the heating ducts and begins terrorizing the terrorists, as they are engaged in a shootout with police outside! One minute Dave is firing shotgun rounds out of a window at Commander William Bulloch (Nicol Williamson), the next he’s being circled on the floor by a hissing, tongue-spitting reptile with zero mercy. Not to give away the specifics, but what happens to Dave pales in comparison to the f*cked up fate of Jacmel, a destiny that is not only glorious to watch visually, but is doled out commensurately with how odious Jacmel’s character is to begin with. That is, old Klaus gets what he mother*cking deserves!

Look, if nothing else, we hope y’all come away with the simple knowledge that, A. VENOM exists, and B. It’s a damn solid horror/thriller that for whatever reason, never received the clout it rightfully should have. We implore all the avid Arrow in the Headers to keep this slithering sucker in mind, with plans to (re)visit, as Tom Hardy spits a new dose of VENOM next Friday. F*ck a Black Sheep, the VENOM of Black Mamba's too much!

STREAM VENOM HERE

GET VENOM ON DVD HERE

GET VENOM ON BLU-RAY HERE

Extra Tidbit: Have you seen VENOM before? Are you inclined to now?
Source: AITH

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