1981’s Venom from director Piers Haggard was based on a novel by Alan Scholefield, a writer influenced by his life in South Africa whose early works didn’t capture much reader interest until his Macrae and Silver crime drama novels in the 1990s. But the novel Venom became a surprise hit, quickly picked up for a movie adaptation; something about the combination of a black mamba snake trapped in an apartment with three kidnappers and their victims screamed “cinematic hit,” and Haggard set to work assembling a great cast for his snake-in-the-ductwork thriller.
The premise is simple, and it combines the two prime interests of Scholefield’s writing. Young Philip Hopkins (Lance Holcomb) buys a common snake from the pet store, but a woman taking over for the store owner accidentally replaces the safe snake with a horribly deadly black mamba, whose poison kills 100% of the time without an antivenom and only 50% of the time with the antidote. To make matters worse, Jacmel (Klaus Kinski) has colluded with the boy’s maid Louise (Susan George) and butler Dave (Oliver Reed) to stage a kidnapping when Philip’s mother is out of town. Things just aren’t looking good for anyone in this situation except for maybe Phil’s grandfather Howard (Sterling Hayden), since he’s a rugged South African explorer.
Keeping the plot simple is what helps Venom achieve its two goals: a tense creature feature, and a tense criminal standoff. There’s little room for characterization, and ultimately the real intention behind Jacmel and Louise’s kidnapping remains a mystery besides the age-old blackmail for money scheme. But Haggard and his screenwriter Robert Carrington manage to at least give Jacmel a storied past thanks to the detective work that Commander William Bulloch (Nicol Williamson) and his crew get up to when they’re called to the scene after Dave foolishly shotguns a policeman down in the street.
Kinski plays up Jacmel in fine, generic fashion, enacting the same affect and demeanor many of his other evil characters elicit in prior horror films. But the standout star of the film is Williamson, taking no shit within the film whatsoever and portraying the Commander as the type of guy no one ever wants to cross. His miserable growls, annoyed stares, and drily sarcastic deliveries tell the story of a man who gives no fucks besides getting the victims out of the apartment safely, and it’s a joy to watch him every moment he’s on screen – from remarking how helpful it will be to have Philip’s distraught mother on the scene to bursting through a basement wall in full motorcycle cop regalia.
Interestingly enough, the black mamba scenes are the least interesting parts of Venom, mostly because Haggard doesn’t spend much time on them. Our dangerous snake is mostly shown winding its way through ductwork or hissing pissily at the camera, and the characters’ encounters with him are too few to generate any suspense that should come from knowing that a snake is running amok somewhere in a narrow apartment. It’s unfortunate that the snake feels like an afterthought, because Dr. Marion Stowe (Sarah Miles) is an effective addition to the ensemble otherwise, with Miles giving a performance that ranges from feelings of horror to curious entertainment in the blink of an eye. Her slight grins when speaking of how dangerous the black mamba is tell a lot about the character, someone who is somewhat excited to get the chance to be put in this unique situation.
Venom is a surprisingly different film than other movies about killer snakes (see: Sssssss, Curse II: The Bite recently reviewed here) and that ensures that most people will have their expectations dashed upon viewing. That said, the horror of this film relies on the viewer’s terror of the snake, and unfortunately the black mamba just isn’t featured enough to give this more suspense. But the crime aspect of Venom is rather engaging, and for those that enjoy procedurals, Haggard’s film will most likely impress.
Click next for the Blu-Ray review.