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It was supposed to be the perfect crime: the sexy maid (Susan George), a psychotic chauffeur (Oliver Reed), and an international terrorist (Klaus Kinski) kidnap a wealthy ten-year-old boy from his elegant London townhouse. But they didn’t count on a murdered cop, a desperate hostage siege, and one very unexpected houseguest: a furious Black Mamba, the most lethal and aggressive snake known to nature. It can attack from ten feet away. Its bite brings excruciating death. And it is on the loose. (From Blue Underground’s official synopsis)

 Venom (1981)
Piers Haggard’s Venom is a movie of many distinctions. Unfortunately, most of these distinctions are not the kind that filmmakers set out to accomplish. Its troubles begin with a torrid behind-the-scenes process, which is, frankly speaking, more interesting than the final film. Originally, Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) director Tobe Hooper was scheduled to direct a movie based on Alan Scholefield’s 1977 novel, Venom. Hooper had developed a pretty bad reputation in the industry at the time. He started work on Venom after being temporarily fired from his first post- Chainsaw film, [url=http://www.dvdactive.com/reviews/dvd/eaten-aliv...]Eaten Alive (1977)[url], and permanently fired from The Dark (completed by John 'Bud' Cardos, 1979), only to be fired again early into production, stating ‘creative differences.’ Haggard, director of The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1981) and the 1979 Quatermass TV miniseries, was brought onto the volatile situation Hooper had left behind, including a vicious feud that was brewing between two of the most notoriously difficult movie stars of the all time, Oliver Reed and Klaus Kinski (who had just turned down an offer to appear in Raiders of the Lost Ark). An understanding of the production strife actually helps explain away many of the final film’s shortcomings and, in a weird way, knowing that it was such a chore to achieve makes it a more entertaining film.

Venom is advertised as a ‘killer snake’ movie with most of its original posters prominently displaying either a scaly black mamba illustration or a simple fanged logo over black text. Other posters included taglines that compared it to other ‘animal run amuk’ horrors, like The Birds (1963) and Jaws (1977). Almost none of the advertising featured images of Reed, Kinski, or female lead Susan George – all of whom were still bankable stars in 1981/82. Curiously, the killer snake is a relatively incidental player in this suspense-based thriller – more of a plot device than a monster or villain – which likely left drive-in audiences longing for something more along the lines of Arthur A. Names’ Snakes (1974) or William Fruet’s Spasms (technically released a year after Venom in 1983, but also starring Oliver Reed). It’s too bad, because, despite the apparent behind-the-scenes squabbles, Reed, Kinski, George, Sterling Hayden, and Michael Gough (in a tiny role) all deliver good and very typified performances that their fans would surely enjoy. The scenery is dripping with the kind of ham one would expect from such titans of melodrama, even when the dialogue isn’t quite up to snuff.

 Venom (1981)
Haggard’s direction is solid, if not a bit uneventful, considering the subtle majesty of something like The Blood on Satan’s Claw. He and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor keep the frame busy and hold back on overstated camera movement, except in specific instances to elevate the drama – stuff like the ‘snake-vision’ shots and the shocking shotgun murder of a cop at the top of the second act. While the adult-based drama and suspense works nicely enough, Haggard’s work shines during the scenes that are told more from the low-angle perspective of the snake and the young kidnapping victim, played by Lance Holcomb. In fact, much of the film is portrayed from a close to the ground perspective that gives it a slightly larger than life appeal. The issues working against the film are Robert Carrington’s by-the-numbers screenplay and the film’s insistence on such a serious tone. Scholefield’s story is a somewhat unique twist on a typical hostage crisis story, but the central conceit is silly enough that it would definitely work better as a heightened and knowingly campy B-movie. It’s not surprising that the over-the-top creature POV shots and ostentatious performances are the best parts of a movie about a snake, a child, and his grandfather foiling a proper British kidnapping plot.

 Venom (1981)

Video


Blue Underground brought Venom back to cult film fandom when it released it on DVD in 2003. That same restored, anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer was used for a PAL version via Anchor Bay UK and later anamorphic transfers appeared in Australia (via Force Video), Germany (via Anolis), and Holland (via Indies). For its Blu-ray debut, Blue Underground has returned to the negative for a 2K rescan. Based on various screen shots I was able to find around the internet (I don’t own the original release), this 1.85:1, 1080p transfer is a substantial upgrade in terms of clarity, colour consistency, and, of course, sharpness. There are some small signs of digital interference, such as DNR and machine noise (grain structure could stand for some improvement), but these are minor qualms, because the edges are tight and elements are neatly separated throughout. Haggard and Taylor designed the film to appear a bit rough by utilizing a lot of naturalistic light or very little light at all. This moody photography ensures that the colours are relatively neutral and that the contrast pretty dynamic. There is some black crush and slight edge haloes around the darkest edges, but valuable visual information is rarely lost. This transfer also skews a bit yellow, but then, so were both the US and UK DVDs, so perhaps it was designed that way. The Blu-ray definitely corrects the slight green tint I’m seeing on some of the DVD’s darker hues. Compression artefacts are not a problem and gradations are about as smooth as can be expected from an older 35mm source.

Audio


This new Blu-ray includes the original stereo soundtrack as well as a 7.1 remix (likely sourced from Blue Underground’s earlier 6.1 DVD remix), both in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. As per usual, I’m not really a fan of changing the original audio, but at least they were working from a Dolby-ready stereo mix, rather than a single-channel mono source. The discrete center channel produces more neatly separated dialogue and incidental effects, but the broader use of speakers thins out the aural content and makes it sound a bit compressed. The more simplified stereo mix features decent ‘ghost’ center and surround channels and is noticeably louder than its 7.1 counterpart, despite both tracks being presented in DTS-HD MA. Michael Kamen’s classy, sting-happy score gets a bass boost thanks to the 7.1 track’s discrete LFE channel, but, again, is a smidge louder on the 2.0 track.

 Venom (1981)

Extras


  • Commentary with director Piers Haggard – This director’s commentary, moderated by The Cult Films of Christopher Lee author Jonathan Cothcott, first appeared on Blue Underground’s DVD version of Venom and is a very informative breakdown of the troubled production. Haggard’s memory is occasionally jogged by Cothcott, ensuring that he rarely runs out of things to talk about, even after the majority of the juicy behind-the-scenes anecdotes have been revealed. There are a few silent spots, mostly pushed to the final 30 minutes of the movie.
  • Teaser, trailer, and TV spots
  • Poster and still gallery


 Venom (1981)

Overall


I’m afraid I’m not a very big fan of Venom. It’s a bit too stuffy and slow-moving for a Klaus Kinski/Oliver Reed killer snake movie. Perhaps my expectations just got the better of me and readers who know what to expect will find its more studied approach satisfying. Blue Underground has done an admirable job remastering the footage for this Blu-ray release. The new 1080p transfer is a substantial upgrade in detail and clarity, image artefacts are minimal, the original stereo and 7.1 remix soundtracks are well-preserved, and director Piers Haggard’s commentary track is a valuable chronicle of the film’s rough behind-the-scenes process.

 Venom (1981)

 Venom (1981)
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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