Kidnappers terrify... black mambas kill!
Running Time: 89 minutes
US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 12
Country: United Kingdom
The story goes that the night before Oliver Reed and Alan Bates were due to wrestle naked on set in Ken Russell's 'Women in Love' (1969) in what would be the first full-frontal male nudity ever seen in a commercial English-language film, both actors, terrified of being exposed as the lesser man, agreed to size up in a pub toilet until each was fully satisfied that his own dimensions would not be embarrassingly overshadowed by the other's. The point is that Oliver Reed was an alpha male with a highly competitive attitude to his own virility, and if you put him on the same set as an actor like the egomaniacal, misogynistic Klaus Kinski, it would not be long before, inevitably, each would be trying to prove that he had the longer snake. Sure enough, when the two men appeared together in Piers Haggard's 'Venom', their testosterone-fuelled antagonism offscreen translated into an effectively menacing aggression onscreen, while amidst all this machismo a very real snake keeps rearing its head.
A maid (Susan George) and a chauffeur (Oliver Reed) have plotted to kidnap the ten-year old asthmatic son (Lance Holcomb) of their wealthy employer, assisted by a criminal mastermind (Klaus Kinski) – but a freak confluence of accidents sees them trapped in the house under a tense police siege, with the boy, his grandfather (Sterling Hayden), and a plucky toxicologist (Sarah Miles) as their hostages, and a deadly black mamba, the world's most aggressive snake, on the loose in their midst, broodily tipping the odds even further against them.
If 'Venom' were remade today, it would no doubt feature a computer generated, fully animated serpent like the one in the triumphantly daft 'Anaconda' (whose sequel comes out later this year). In 'Venom', however, what we mostly get is the real thing, thanks to some patient snake-wrangling by London zoo's chief herpetologist David Ball (who even appears briefly as a named character in the film, played by Michael Gough), and the result is a creature much slower and more realistic than is now expected from monster horror. In any case, 'Venom' is less a horror film than a breathless thriller, switching seamlessly from crime-gone-wrong to beleaguered criminal bickering to gritty police procedural to crafty negotiations – with the presence of a lethal snake just adding another springed coil to the film's tension, in an atmosphere where there is easily enough beastly behaviour and killer instinct even amongst the human characters.
'Venom' may now look a bit dated, but it is full of excellent performances and taut Hitchcockean direction – especially in the early scenes where a meticulously planned abduction is seen to unravel as a series of apparently inconsequential and essentially unrelated circumstances all converge into one critical moment with impressive fluidity. And of course you get to see Kinski and Reed, the film's true monsters, squaring off against one another in the film's most mesmerising scenes, the former a slight man with a small pistol and a whole lot of animal cunning, the latter a bellowing beast with a much larger rifle which he tends to pull out and shoot a little too often. Size, you see, isn't everything, and this film has just the right sort of, er, scale.
It's Got: Oliver Reed blustering with menace and drinking too much (as he did in real life); Klaus Kinski acting like a snake in human make-up; Sarah Miles managing to make her expositional material on black mambas sound giddy and charming; and a snake with a queasy point of view on heating ducts and a real twist in its tail.
It Needs: Antivenin.
DVD Extras Widescreen image; scene selection; choice of stereo 2.0/Dolby digital 5.1/dts; optional subtitles for the hard of hearing; original theatrical trailer + teaser + 3 TV spots; bios of Klaus Kinski and Oliver Reed; excellent stills gallery (including posters, French lobby cards, publicity syills and press book excerpts). Best of all is the full audio commentary by director Piers Quatermass Haggard, who took over the production when the original director, Tobe The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Hooper, had some kind of breakdown. There are plenty of anecdotes about the "genuine hostility" between Oliver Reed and Klaus Kinski, whose "strange psychological ballet" would lead Reed to play "naughty boy" pranks on the humourless Kinski, like the time Reed physically shook Kinskis trailer (with Kinski in it) while shouting "you Nazi bastard!" - and further anecdotes about how Kinski was "completely unprofessional in terms of hurting people", especially his female co-stars like Sarah Miles who ended up bruised and hating the man - as well as Haggards general dissatisfaction with aspects of a film that he inherited long after the pre-production was over. DVD Extras Rating: 8/10
Underrated thriller with two alpha males trying to outsnake a brooding black mamba.