I can’t help it, I love a creature feature. Nature gone wild. The animals strike back kind of deal. Whether it’s the mastery of Jaws or the blood-splattered homage of Piranha. From marauding killer bees of The Swarm to the mutant bear of Prophecy, I can’t resist. I am a sucker for them. Where else are you going to get to see a child stuck so hard by a killer bear that his sleeping bag explodes?
It’s art! One animal that has featured in a few movies is the snake. Whether causing Samuel L Jackson to get potty-mouthed on a plane, or trying to squeeze the life out of Jennifer Lopez, it’s always a reliable slithery protagonist.
There is one movie out there that manages to be mostly forgotten while at the same time being potentially the Rolls Royce of snake movies – Venom.
Klaus Kinski eating scenery – check! Oliver Reed at the height of his drinking powers – check! Susan George being Susan George – check! Sterling Hayden, Michael Gough and Merlin himself, Nicol Williamson.
With a cast like that, all those rampant egos in one place, what could possibly go wrong? Well, almost everything as it happens.
Klaus Kinski chose to do this film instead of Raiders Of The Lost Ark. In his autobiography, he said the offered salary for Venom was a lot higher, and he said the script for the Spielberg movie was:
Kinski and Oliver Reed took an instant dislike to each other. Reed was, by this stage, famously alcoholic and seemed to delight in annoying the distant, aloof Kinski. One story is that the pair nearly came to blows on the set on a number of occasions.
This shows on screen as the characters they play do not like each other either, and the screen drips with barely concealed malice whenever they share a scene.
“I took over that at very short notice. Tobe Hooper had been directing it and they had stopped for whatever reason. It hadn’t been working. I did see some of his stuff and it didn’t look particularly good plus he also had some sort of nervous breakdown or something. So anyway they stopped shooting and offered it to me.
Unfortunately, I had commitments, I had some commercials to shoot. But anyway I took it over with barely ten days of preparation—which shows. It doesn’t become my picture, it’s a bit in-between… [Oliver Reed was] scary at first because he was always testing you all the time. Difficult but not as difficult as Klaus Kinski.
Because Oliver actually had a sense of humor. I was rather fond of him; he could be tricky but he was quite warm really. He just played games and was rather macho and so on. Klaus Kinski was very cold. The main problem with the film was that the two didn’t get on and they fought like cats. Kinski of course is a fabulous film actor and he’s good in the part, the part suits him very well.
They were both well cast but it was a very unhappy film. I think Klaus was the problem but then Oliver spent half the movie just trying to rub him up, pulling his leg all the way. There were shouting matches because Oliver just wouldn’t let up. None of this is about art. All the things that you’re trying to concentrate on tend to slip. So it was not a happy period.”
So how do you get the cream of European talent together to film a movie about a killer tropical snake in London? Well, that is where the insanity continues. The plot of Venom is absolutely ridiculous and quite unbelievable brilliant at the same time.
International master criminal the Jackal – Jacques Müller (Kinski) and his girlfriend Louise Andrews (Susan George) have hatched a kidnap plot. Louise is working as a maid in the house of a retired big game hunter and Africa expert. Now the very wealthy owner of a chain of luxury hotels, Howard Anderson (Sterling Hayden) has his daughter Ruth, and grandson Philip living with him in his large London house.
They plan to kidnap Philip (Lance Holcomb) for ransom. The family chauffeur Dave Averconnolly is also involved in the kidnap plot. He has been seduced by Louise.
Müller tricks Howard and Ruth into leaving home while Louise and Dave prepare to kidnap the boy. Philip idolizes his grandfather and has grown up on his tales of African wildlife. He keeps many reptiles and insects as a hobby. He obtains a pet snake from a local supplier of exotic animals.
Unfortunately for him, the kidnappers, and everyone else involved, but luckily for us viewers, there has been a mistake.
An eccentric, distracted, and harassed employee at the animal importers has switched what should be a harmless corn snake for a deadly black mamba that was meant for toxicologist Dr. Marion Stowe.
See what I mean? Lunacy! But with a set-up that insane how can you not love Venom? There is a nasty surprise as the box is opened just as the kidnapping is supposed to begin. Somebody is struck on the face multiple times as the snake escapes and disappears into the house ventilation system.
When Dr. Stowe comes urgently to the property to warn them of the mistake and to take possession of the deadly snake she was expecting, she gets caught up in the in-progress kidnapping that soon spirals out of control. This leads to a hostage situation and an armed siege. The family, their would-be kidnappers, and Dr. Stowe are trapped in the house in a standoff with armed police. Complicating the issue is the extremely dangerous snake roaming the house.
As you can expect, as tensions rise across the board, the snake starts to pick off people one-by-one.
What sets Venom apart from other snake movies? Well, for one thing, it’s about a black mamba. If you are unfamiliar with this animal, then just consider it as the Great White of snakes.
Called the black mamba due to the jet-black color inside its mouth, the mamba is a big snake. Ten to twelve feet is common, but occasionally up to fourteen or fifteen feet. It is lightning fast, easily able to outpace a running human over short distances. This is important as it’s unbelievably aggressive and will attack and give chase. Whereas most snakes only attack as a last resort and seek escape as soon as possible, the mamba seems to think an attack is the best form of defense.
And what an attack. What sets this snake apart is the ability to raise up nearly half its body off the ground, so when it puts on a threat display it can look an adult human in the eye. When it strikes it tends to do so repeatedly with enough potent venom in one bite to kill 25 adult humans in minutes.
It is feared in Africa and is thought to be responsible for more attacks on humans than any other snake on the continent. I know people who have served in the armed forces in Africa and they tell stories about trying to scare one off with live fire and it kept coming for them. I have seen one on display in the reptile house at a zoo and the feeling of sheer malevolence coming from it when it looks at you through the glass is genuinely unnerving. I am getting a shiver up my spine now as I remember it.
In short, it is the bastard of snakes!
So what did the makers of Venom do? With the tense atmosphere on set and last-minute director changes. With movies like An American Werewolf In London and The Thing coming out at the same timer a revolutionizing practical effects? Build the ultimate robot snake, right? WRONG!
They called David Ball, the curator of reptiles at the London Zoo, and asked him to bring over a real black mamba and then spend a bit of time provoking it to attack in front of their cameras.
There are a few rubber stand-ins for the times when it would have been far too dangerous to have a snake such as this close to the actors, but most of the time this is a real, angry black mamba.
You’ve got to respect that. The makers sure did, as they made the character of David Ball appear in the movie as the same expert from London Zoo, liaising with the police. He is played by Michael Gough before he became Alfred in Batman.
With all of this craziness happening you would imagine it’s awful, wouldn’t you? Well, it’s not going to win any Oscars but it’s creepy, scary, and makes you jump. The criminals get what is coming to them in a variety of entertaining ways. The siege setting is tense. The cast is top-notch.
Nicol Williamson puts in an epic turn as Bulloch, the police chief responsible for bringing the siege to a peaceful conclusion. He is rude, bad-tempered, foul-mouthed and hugely egotistical but hilariously funny at times as he switches from a private persona to his public one throughout the siege.
The aforementioned tension between Reed and Kinski works. Reed’s bug-eyed, alco-sweating machismo shines through and Kinski is appropriately chilling. Sterling Hayden remains a giant of a man and once the siege gets underway his character undergoes something of a transformation.
As a movie, it’s average. As a creature feature, it gives you everything you need, and more. Venom would be a 3-star movie under normal circumstances, but in its genre, it goes higher.