Dir: Piers Haggard, 1981. Starring: Sterling Hayden, Oliver Reed, Klaus Kinski, Nicol Williamson, Sarah Miles. Horror.
In terms of B-Movie all-star casts this crazy British flickVenom can’t be beat. All working at their highest ham level, you have the insane German method madman Klaus Kinski (Aguirre: The Wrath of God), and then there’s the American Sterling Hayden who in the fifties was a total stiff playing a lot of tough guys but then reinvented himself in the seventies as an solid character actor (The Godfather). Also on board is the great British actor Oliver Reed (The Devils) who was equally famous for his up and down career as he was for his drunken on-set behavior. Adding some more class to the cast is another terrific British actor Nicol Williamson who, other then his great performance as Merlin in Excalibur, never quite had the career he should’ve had. Rounding out the cast in the female roles, there’s swinging sixties British starlet Sarah Miles (Blow-Up), fashion-model-turned-actress Cornelia Sharpe (Serpico) and the always sexy Susan George (Straw Dogs). For a low budget flick Irwin Allen couldn’t have assembled a cooler line-up.

Director Piers Haggard was fresh off directing Peter Sellers’s final film, a horrible wreck called The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu. He replaced the American director Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) who was fired for creative reasons days into filming Venom. What’s ironic is that a few years later Hooper would make one of the craziest British genre mash-ups of all time, the zombie/alien/vampire flick Life Force. In the meantime Venom still stands as another solid genre mash-up; it’s both a kidnapping thriller and a snake-on-the-loose flick, and it does both very well.

The story concerns an American family living in England including mom Ruth Hopkins (Sharpe) who leaves her annoying son Phillip (terrible kid actor Lance Holcomb) in the care of her household staff and the kid’s dithering old grandfather (Hayden), an ex-safari big game hunter. It turns out that the pretty nanny (George) and the creepy chauffeur (Reed) are in cahoots in a plot to kidnap the brat with an international terrorist (Kinski, sporting a badass “Rutger-Hauer in Blade-Runner” look). An accidental shootout with a cop (Reed’s driver has a temper) leads to an intense hostage situation in the swanky London townhouse.

Now if that’s not enough plot, there’s even more going on. The kid and Grandpa collect little pet animals. Right before the kidnapping plot started, the kid went to pick up his new harmless garden snake. But he was accidentally given a killer black mamba by mistake. When the snake escapes his box he knocks off the nanny right away and then starts attacking all the occupants one by one. A reptile scientist (Miles) tries to help the nanny but she becomes another hostage. This leads police negotiator Bulloch (Williamson) to have to work fast in order to save the three hostages from both the snake and the two cold-blooded kidnappers.

With basically the one location and an overreaching score,Venom could play like lukewarm Agatha Christie or a lame TV movie, but instead it’s much more exciting than it deserves to be. The cast are all having a very entertaining scenery chew-off (a game no one can beat Reed at, especially when the snake slithers up the inside of his pants leg). Venom is actually a small movie; for most of the cast it may actually be just a footnote, but as videos, DVDs, and late night cable give B-movies a second life, Venom has managed to live on. Hopefully one day it will get the double disc DVD or Blu-ray treatment it deserves. A special features retrospective documentary telling the stories of what this film set was like might end up being more interesting than the feature film itself, and that would be an accomplishment.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Sep 16, 2011 4:50pm
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