These days, it's quite unusual to see something truly original in a movie. In lieu of that, what we see is someone taking an old idea and combining it with another old idea, to create something that seems like a new idea. That's the case with Venom, a film which makes an unsuccessful attempt to mate two very different genres.
Ruth Hopkins (Cornelia Sharpe) is the wife of a wealthy hotel magnate, and is flying from London to Rome to be with her husband. She is leaving her young son Philip (Lance Holcomb) in the care of her father, Howard Anderson (Sterling Hayden), and the housekeeper, Louise (Susan George). Once Mrs. Hopkins leaves, two plans are put into motion. Howard has promised Philip, who collects exotic animals, that he can buy a new snake, and sends him off to the pet shop. Meanwhile, Louise, in conjunction with the family driver, Dave (Oliver Reed) and an international criminal Jacmel (Klaus Kinski), have plans to kidnap Philip and hold him for ransom. Philip's trip to the pet store puts a damper on their plans, but things get even worse when Philip brings home a deadly black mamba, instead of a harmless house snake. Now, the kidnappers are hold-up in the house with the boy, his grandfather, and a deadly reptile, while the police wait outside. The authorities may meet the ransom demands, but will they do so before the snake kills everyone in the house.
By 1982, the hostage genre had been done to death (actually it should have been laid to rest after Dog Day Afternoon), but adding another menace to the equation seems like a stroke of genius. However, the filmmakers don't use this plot device to its full effect. In this 92-minute film, the snake is on-screen for less than 5 minutes. To paraphrase Jeff Goldblum's character from Jurassic Park, "Is there going to be any snakes in your snake movie?" And besides, there's no way that the snake is going to be the scariest creature in any film that features Klaus Kinski.
So, since the snake is a no-show, what we basically have with Venom is a very standard crime-thriller in which a hostage standoff occurs. In that sense, the film is semi-successful. Kinski makes a great villain, and seeing him go toe-to-toe with the the ever-weird Oliver Reed is entertaining. (There's a scene where Reed yells "cheeky bastard" over and over which I refuse to believe was in the script.) But, as with most films in this genre, the film drags, as we wait to see how the stand-off is going to end. To make matters worse, the movie is choppily edited as it cuts back-and-forth between the action inside the house, the police outside the house (who are led by the great Nicol Williamson), and the POV shots of the snake crawling through the air-vents (presumably searching for his agent and a larger role in the film). The story doesn't contain any interesting twists and the ending is quite predictable. If Venom had more snake, it might be praise-worthy, but as it is, the movie left me cold.
For this DVD release, Venom has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is very clear for the most part, much clearer than the other Blue Underground titles which I've seen. The picture does show some mild grain at times, but overall, the grain is very fine. The colors look very good and the image has a real sense of depth. There are a few shots that are somewhat shimmery, and close-up of Philip that looks like streaming video from the internet. There is some occasional evidence of artifacting, but nothing that is too distracting. There are no overt defects from the source print.
The Venom DVD contains three different audio tracks, but unfortunately none of them are very impressive. Both the DTS-ES track, as well as the Dolby Digital Surround EX one, sound fine, but they are both quite lifeless. Each provides clear dialogue and sound effects, but there is very little in the way of surround sound -- mostly musical cues and crowd noise. And the surround sound is very discreet and may be hard for many to notice. The Dolby Surround 2.0 is actually the liveliest of the three, as it provides very noticeable stereo effects. All three tracks have a much lower recording level than the average DVD, as I was forced to turn up the volume on my receiver much high than normal.
The DVD contains a smattering of extra features. We start with an audio commentary featuring director Piers Haggard and a moderator named Johnathan Sothcott. Haggard opens by discussing how he came to be the director on Venom, by recounting how Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) had been taken off of the project, and Haggard was called in as a replacement. He goes on to discuss the discord between the cast members, and how his sudden involvement left him with little time to plan. He speaks at length about the cast, although there are some long pauses. His comments and anecdotes help to explain why this promising film fails to make its mark. The DVD also contains the original trailer for Venom, which has been letterboxed at 1.85:1, as well as 4 TV spots (which really try to make this look like a horror film). There is a poster & still gallery which contains 55 images -- the foreign posters are particularly interesting. And finally, we have in-depth text biographies for Klaus Kinski and Oliver Reed.
Venom advertises itself as a movie about a snake, but the black mamba (which is real in some scenes) has little more than a cameo. The rest of the film is tired and predictable, despite the insane performances by Kinski and Reed. But, if you're like me, you'll be chanting, "Make with the snake!"