Tuesday, February 5, 2008
One Snake, No Plane
Piers Haggard’s VENOM is mostly forgotten today, an odd duck of a movie that stylistically lies somewhere between the 70s and 80s and additionally between the styles of American and British filmmaking. In the audio commentary on the HOT FUZZ DVD Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino muse aloud about the end of genre movies that ‘just happened’ to take place in England and it’s a fairly safe bet that the release of VENOM was right about at the end. The poster art for the Paramount release – “The Mystery of ‘The Birds’…The Danger of ‘Psycho’…The evil of ‘The Omen’…The Terror of ‘Jaws’…Now, the ultimate in suspense,” is laid out in the most enigmatic way possible, as if to disguise what VENOM in fact really is. The bizarrely overqualified cast causes it to play as if it were a movie being made in a movie but as a thriller on it’s own it actually plays pretty well. In its own early 80s way, it seems like the sort of movie that you see with a close friend in a large, empty theater on a Sunday afternoon and you both wind up remembering that viewing forever. There’s an odd charm to the thing and I kind of wish more people would see it.
When the mother of ten year-old Phillip Hopkins (Lance Holcomb) travels from London to Rome for a few days, she leaves her son in the care of his grandfather, legendary game hunter Howard Anderson (Sterling Hayden). Unbeknownst to them, the family maid (Susan George) and chauffer (Oliver Reed, given the billing ‘And Oliver Reed as Dave’) are in cahoots with a mysterious third individual (Klaus Kinski) to kidnap Phillip and hold him for ransom. Unfortunately, their plans are immediately derailed when Phillip, who collects snakes and such for his own little menagerie, returns home with a new addition but unbeknownst to everyone he was accidentally given what turns out to be a Black Mamba, the deadliest snake of all. As the police converge on the house, a hostage standoff begins with the killer reptile at loose in the house and no one knows where it will turn up next.
The first point of interest is that VENOM offers the unique thrill of watching a film and genuinely believing in the possibility that the actors will suddenly break character and begin to fight. By all accounts Oliver Reed and Klaus Kinski didn’t get along at all. Well, gee, is there anyone who is actually surprised to hear that? And if the two of them went at it, it’s easy to imagine Sterling Hayden acting as referee, at least until he started throwing a few punches as well. Whatever went on between these actors on the set is the movie that would be really fascinating to see, but even so all three of these actors are very good, lending the film more tension than you could ever imagine it would have otherwise. The sweaty Reed and icy Kinski seem like genuine outgrowths of the men’s own personalities, while Hayden, in full beard just like in THE LONG GOODBYE, provides an interestingly avuncular presence before the mechanics of the plot kick in enough that he seems to fade into the background. In the pressbook notes recreated on the Blue Underground DVD, Hayden is the only actor who seems to be interviewed. “I guess I’m happier now than I have ever been before,” he says. “I have my books, my booze, my boat, my wife Kitty—and believe it or not, they keep offering me great roles in movies like VENOM.” Several years later, there were reports that Hayden was actually showing up on set drunk during the shoot and fought with the director. Either way, VENOM was his last theatrical feature.
The second point of interest is how much VENOM resembles David Fincher’s PANIC ROOM. From its contained brownstone setting involving people held captive to a child hostage in need of an asthma inhaler, the similarities are impossible to ignore. PANIC ROOM is the better film, no doubt, but it would be an interesting question to pose to Fincher or screenwriter David Koepp if there’s ever a chance to ask it. One of the main problems with VENOM is that there is always a serious flaw in any movie where the entire basis of the plot depends on a simple mistake, in this case being the mix-up at the pet store between the two snakes. If the mistake in question is somehow thematically appropriate, that’s one thing. Here, it simply seems like half-assed plotting. In addition, the mamba in question isn’t quite as crucial to the plot as the ad campaign makes it seem. Ultimately it’s not a horror film about people being attacked by a killer snake as it is a hostage thriller in which a killer snake plays a key role. So it’s no surprise that gore is kept to the minimum but even with the relatively minor body count, the deaths are strongly emphasized as if to really drive home how much the ones dying (via snake bite or otherwise) are in AGONIZING and EXCRUTIATING pain. The cast adds greatly to this as well, each somehow making their characters, as thinly drawn as they are, believably human in their own likable and unlikable ways. In addition to the main three of Hayden, Kinski and Reed, there’s also Nicol Williamson as the police commander in charge of the situation who plays his role with such intense seriousness it’s as if no one told him that he was appearing in a movie featuring a killer snake called VENOM. Maybe the movie isn’t all that great, but there’s a weird pleasure in such a deadly serious genre picture--one with no annoying twentysomethings, no unwelcome attempts at humor and a cast of professionals doing their best in spite of what the material is. So help me, I like it. Bring out some pizza and beer, I want to see it again.
The score by Michael Kamen anticipates what he would compose for David Cronenberg’s THE DEAD ZONE a few years later. Sarah Miles from BLOW UP and HOPE AND GLORY is the extremely friendly toxicology expert who was expecting delivery of the snake and shows up to aid the police. John Forbes-Robertson (Dracula in THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES) is a cop who gets killed off early on. Susan George, ten years after STRAW DOGS and looking good, strips down to her bra and panties for no particular reason. Michael Gough plays a snake expert from the London Zoo, but he never really affects the plot in any way. In closing, I love movies.