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Venom (1981)

Blue Underground // R // May 31, 2016 // Region 0
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted May 15, 2016 | E-mail the Author
Venom bites.

I can't believe I'm writing that, partially because it's such a dreadful pun and partially because...well, just look at Venom. It's a claustrophobic thriller in which a hostage situation is derailed by the lethal bite of a black mamba, with Oliver Reed, Klaus Kinski, Sterling Hayden, and Straw Dogs' Susan George grudgingly sharing the bill. Misplaced expectations bear much of the blame for my disappointment, but before we get into all that, let's recap the premise.

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At least until a kidnapping plot went tits up, young Philip Hopkins (Lance Holcomb) led a charmed life. No matter how much wealth or privilege surrounds him, Philip has remained a bright-eyed, too-sweet-for-words kid who wants nothing more in this world than to pal around with his menagerie of animals and his grandfather (Sterling Hayden, in his final feature film role). Being the heir apparent to a massive hotel fortune makes this precious tyke a hell of a target to hold for ransom. The instant both of Philip's parents have stepped foot out of town, the conspirators strike. Seasoned criminal Jacmel (Klaus Kinski) might have pulled it off too if he hadn't settled for the wrong partners. The Hopkins' maid (Susan George) isn't one for improvisation, panicking when Gramps plops Philip into a taxi to pick up an African house snake. As it turns out, the harried pet shop owner has handed the boy an altogether different creature. When a friendly police officer drops by the Hopkins' home to address the error, the family's cowardly, perpetually sweaty chauffeur (Oliver Reed) practically splits the poor bastard in two with a shotgun blast. What was meant to be a kidnapping instead devolves into a hostage situation. The authorities have the Hopkins' home surrounded. The deeply asthmatic Philip is reeling. ...and what was supposed to be an African house snake? Turns out that Philip mistakenly took possession of a black mamba, among of the most aggressive and venomous snakes the world over.

Part of my disappointment with Venom is the movie it's not. I wasn't terribly familiar with the film beforehand and stormed in expecting more of a killer snake flick. Venom is decidedly not a horror movie, and although the black mamba is a persistent, looming threat, the snake only rears its head for a few minutes in all. It's just one of a great many threats bearing down on Philip, his grandfather, and their tormentors. The film I was delivered instead is a thriller largely devoid of thrills. The premise ought to be unnervingly intense: the dramatic irony of Philip cheerfully taking home a new pet that we know to be a lethal black mamba...the claustrophobia of a young child being held hostage in a home with unhinged killers...the volatility of kidnappers struggling with an army of police officers outside and a fiercely venomous snake inside. The interminable setup is a slog to wade through, the overstuffed scenario teeters on the ridiculous, key sequences are a bit too routine to have me perched on the edge of my seat, and I found myself emotionally invested in too few of these characters. The most compelling figures in the film are Sterling Hayden as Philip's devoted but take-no-shit grandfather and Nicol Williamson as the Scottish detective doing his damndest to defuse the situation, and I wish Venom would've devoted more time towards them. Too many of the other performances are bug-eyed scenery-chewing, particularly Oliver Reed (with Kung-Fu Grip!) and Klaus Kinski careening deliriously over the top in a bid for the camera's attention. Although the snake itself gets precious little screentime, Venom makes those few moments count with footage of an actual black mamba as part of the production: no stock footage and less than you'd think of puppets, animatronics, or rubber doubles.

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The story behind Venom is more intriguing than the film itself: Kinski and Reed repeatedly almost coming to blows, with the latter barking for weeks on end about his co-star being a Nazi bastard...Tobe Hooper abandoning the film after a week or so in the director's chair, with Piers Haggard (The Blood on Satan's Claw) enlisted to try to salvage something coherent from all this chaos. For what it's worth, Haggard himself acknowledges that Venom's shocks aren't especially shocking and that its thrills aren't all that thrilling. The film's more ridiculous, exaggerated elements have elevated it to some level of cult notoriety, but even those accidental delights are too sparse to warrant any vaguely enthusiastic recommendation. Rent It.

The press notes indicate that Venom has been newly remastered in 2K from the original camera negative for this Blu-ray release. As nice as this disc looks, it's not dazzling in the way that so many other recent remasters have spoiled me into expecting. Film grain tends to be somewhat indistinct, and I'm pleased but not awestruck by the levels of definition and detail on display here. Color saturation appears to be spot-on, although the production design is oriented around an understated and very limited palette. It's very much worth noting that the presentation is immaculate, free of any intrusive wear or speckling. I'm sure this is a compelling upgrade over Blue Underground's 2003 DVD release, and it deserves the strong 3.5 / 5 star rating in the sidebar over there. As good as it looks, though, I have to admit that this Blu-ray release doesn't reach the heights I was expecting.

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Venom has been lightly letterboxed on this single-layer Blu-ray disc to preserve the film's theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1.

Though there is a 24-bit DTS HD-Master Audio 2.0 track for the purists, I predominantly experienced Venom with its terrific multichannel remix. Though I'm a couple of speakers shy to enjoy the 7.1 lossless audio in full, I'm floored by the sound design with my six-channel setup. Bass response is substantial yet never overcooked, particularly some of the more intense moments in Michael Kamen's score (say, when Philip's grandfather is stalking the black mamba upstairs, armed only with an ash shovel) and the thunderous roar of shotgun blasts. Kamen's music spreads out wonderfully into every other available channel as well. Venom has a terrific ear for atmospherics, and I repeatedly found myself impressed by the distinct placement of so many sound effects. The inevitable shootout is teeming with a strong sense of directionality, of course, and even such subtle flourishes as a car passing on the right feature some convincing panning from one rear channel to the corresponding speaker up front. The levels certainly never threaten to clip. In fact, I found myself dialing up the volume a touch higher than usual. The fidelity of the elements are in keeping with what I'd expect to hear from a 35 year old thriller, but the ways in which Blue Underground has arranged them here are masterful.

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Also included are a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX track (640kbps) and subtitles in English (SDH), French, and Spanish.

  • Audio Commentary: This Blu-ray release carries over director Piers Haggard's tremendous commentary track from Blue Underground's initial DVD release. It's a well-moderated commentary despite some occasional lulls in the discussion. Haggard is frank about what a deeply troubled film Venom was when he stepped onboard, weaving numerous stories in particular about Kinski and Reed relentlessly butting heads on the set. My favorite has the two of them literally sizing up each other's dicks. I also appreciate that Haggard freely acknowledges what doesn't work about Venom, even accepting some of the blame rather than passing it all off on the producers and ousted director. (He confirms that there's not a frame of Hooper's footage to be found in the final cut.) Among the other topics of conversation are the cinematography by Star Wars' Gilbert Taylor, the critical reception to the film, and that there were indeed talks of a potential sequel that obviously never came to pass.
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  • Promotional Material (3 min.; partially HD): Venom's theatrical trailer is presented in high-def, while a teaser and three TV spots arrive at a boxier aspect ratio in standard definition.

  • Poster and Still Gallery (HD): There are some seventy images in Venom's extensive image gallery, divided among five sections: Posters, Advertising Materials, Lobby Cards, Stills, and Video & Book. I particularly love seeing the international poster and video art, including such gleefully intriguing titles as Snake in a Box. These high-res scans are gorgeous, and it's great to see the entire pressbook presented like this.

Venom is being issued as a combo pack that also features an anamorphic widescreen DVD. The cover art is reversible, and a first-rate set of liner notes by Fangoria's Michael Gingold delve into the film's deeply troubled history. This is an all-region release, by the way.

The Final Word
Klaus Kinski and Oliver Reed in a hostage/siege thriller interrupted by a black mamba in the ductwork: from a 20,000 foot view, Venom sure looks like the cult classic I've been desperately aching for. The film itself fails to live up to that thumbnail synopsis, and though it does liven up its tepid thrills to some extent with streaks of unintentional ridiculousness, too little of Venom even accidentally works for it to come recommended as a purchase sight-unseen. Rent It.
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