A look at the underrated 1981 snake vs. criminals thriller

There are many pleasures to be had watching British director Piers (BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW) Haggard’s 1981 snakes vs. crooks thriller VENOM, but none as palpable as seeing diminutive madman Klaus Kinski browbeat and dominate the barrel chested man-ape Oliver Reed. The fact that both of these storied, iconic and notoriously volatile thesps appear in the same film is enough to send lovers of cult cinema into a state of rapture, but to witness them cast as a pair of hot-headed thugs, in a sort of Lenny and George, OF MICE AND MEN dynamic, is the sweetest and strangest of icing on a scaly cake.

This surreal bit of casting propels VENOM into a higher tax-bracket of awesome but the movie surrounding their on-screen scrapping (reportedly, they hated each other even more off-screen) is pretty good too, though perhaps a bit more pedestrian than it should have been. Shame that. Because the maniacal novel on which the film is based on (by Alan Scholerfield) begs for a less-restrained approach, which is exactly what it would have received had VENOM’s original director, Tobe Hooper, stayed on board. Hooper bailed 10 days into the shoot, forcing producer Martin Bregman (DOG DAY AFTERNOON) to drag Haggard (who was working almost exclusively on small screen fare at the time) into the fold. Haggard’s more somber, tasteful approach de-fangs some of the eccentricities of the source and the original character concepts (Kinski’s look was originally a sort of Nazi-fetishist in black leather and jack boots) but also makes the movie both comfortably watchable and, surprisingly, endlessly re-watchable.

VENOM stars veteran actor Sterling Hayden (THE GODFATHER) as a legendary Hollywood animal wrangler living in London with his wealthy daughter and young grandson. The family’s chauffeur is played by Reed and their maid is the lovely, crooked-teethed Susan George (STRAW DOGS, DIE SCREAMING MARIANNE), two domestics who have conspired with an international terrorist (Kinski) to take over the home and kidnap the kid for a lofty ransom request. Problems arise when the boy, an avid animal enthusiast himself, orders his surly chauffeur to accompany him to the local pet store where he intends to pick up a harmless snake to add to his menagerie. But the dotty storekeeper accidentally mixes up the benevolent reptile with the far deadlier cargo of a Black Mamba, intended to be sent to a lab but taken home by the unlucky lad in error. When the kidnapping drama thrusts into overdrive, that deadly nope-rope escapes, kills George and high-tails it into the guts of the house. As Kinski’s plot begins to unravel, both the criminals and family run afoul of the Mamba, who pops up occasionally to sink his poisonous fangs into whatever warm body is nearby. Meanwhile EXCALIBUR’s Nicol Willamson tries to negotiate with the terrorists and figure out a point of entry into the home before it’s too late.

VENOM didn’t make much of an impact upon release and critics were not particularly kind to it, but its cult following was inevitable. First there’s that once-in-a-lifetime assemblage of performers, all of them cast against type and chewing more scenery than the snake could ever hope to. Then there’s the house itself, an opulent estate with a myriad sneaky little places for that horrible hisser to hide. The music is composed by the late, great Michael Kamen and it’s an urgent, complexly orchestrated work that elevates the production values (which were already fairly handsome for such a relatively modest picture). But those expecting a more tawdry exploitation film like the also-Reed starring snaker SPASMS or the berserk THE JAWS OF SATAN might be disappointed by how classy and restrained it is. And yet, no matter if VENOM pounds your pulse or just passes the the time, there’s something so charming about it; a quality that has made me revisit it over and over. In fact, I kind of want watch it right now….

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