The second serpent film Venom (1981), not to be confused with the 2018 superhero movie, has a great cast of British actors as well as German Klaus Kinski (1926-91 heart attack) and American semi-legend Sterling Hayden (1916-86 prostate cancer) in his last film appearance.
What is basically a siege movie, with a snake thrown in to cause added tension and thrills, it was apparently started by Tobe Hooper (1943-2017 natural causes). Hooper, of course directed the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), but was replaced by director Piers Haggard (1939-), after a reported “nervous breakdown”. What happened on set is anyone’s guess as it only happened less than a couple of weeks into shooting and apparently none of Hooper’s footage appears in the finished film. There are reports of the cast “ganging up” on Hooper, and with stars like Kinski and Oliver Reed, it would be no picnic! Hooper had been replaced on The Dark (1979) a couple of years earlier, yet returned to Britain where Venom was shot, his reputation intact, to helm the Cannon Films epic Lifeforce (1985) – a film I hated upon release but now love.
Hooper was “fired” is probably a better way to put it, but he had already left his handprint on Venom with the selection of the cast and the set design.
Actress Susan George is a nanny in a rich household where she is in cahoots with the crooked chauffer played by Ollie Reed and a German mastermind – Klaus Kinski – to kidnap a young child and hold him to ransom. Of course it won’t work out!
In terms of households, it is the exact reverse of Chainsaw in that its is set across the Atlantic in a wealthy address and in the middle of the city. Chainsaw’s evil household totally transformed!
The child in Venom accidentally brings home a black mamba snake for his reptile collection at home – a mix-up at the pet shop and customs. It immediately gets loose, biting Susan fatally – she dies well, arched back and all – triggering a siege situation with Kinski and Reed trapped in the house with the asthmatic boy’s big game hunter grandfather played by Hayden. Oh yeah, the snake, which is called a black mamba because of its blackest of mouths, is somewhere loose in the house… while the police gather outside.
Kinski was famous for having little or no sense of humour, and was verbally harangued by Ollie Reed on set, who called him a Nazi, or anything, to get Kinski to burst into a foul rage. It is probably not surprising that Kinski was labelled a psychopath after being hospitalised as a younger man. He’s a great actor though.
Actor Nicol Williamson (1936-2011 oesophagus cancer) is the policeman in charge of the siege. Williamson, who is given little here to do, should be remembered as the Nome King in the interesting Return to Oz (1985), Merlin in the epic Excalibur (1981) and as a great Sherlock Holmes in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976), which was written by Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan director Nicholas Meyer (1945-). Williamson was described as an actor “touched by genius” by playwright Samuel Beckett (1906-89 emphysema), the creator of Waiting for Godot (1953). But I go on with detail.
Sarah Miles, who made a great Lady Caroline Lamb (1972) and made herself infamous with the admission she quaffed her own warm urine for its health benefits, plays some sort of toxicologist who is brought in on the case.
It’s a “fun” movie with the cast forever on edge about the snake in the house. Ollie Reed dies painfully when the snake crawls up his trouser leg after he has been shot in one tense scene. While Kinski, in the film’s climax, gets tangled up with the snake, rolling around on the floor, before emerging on a small balcony where, to add insult to injury, he gets shot by snipers.
The film is not a classic by any means, but for a totally urban and almost single setting and the claustrophobic sets… it’s pretty darn good.
Director Haggard is the great great nephew of King Solomon’s Mines author H. Rider Haggard (1856-1925). Haggard was known for his work on television, especially for directing Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven in 1978, which won him a BAFTA award. The year before Venom, Haggard directed The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu (1980), starring Peter Sellers in his last film.
The enjoyment of that film depends on your point of view. That film was another case of where Haggard took over as director, this time Richard Quine (1920-89), an event that led to that man’s subsequent extended depression and suicide by gunshot to the head.
For those interested, it was around the time of production that Sterling Hayden was arrested for possession of hashish at Toronto International Airport. He was released on posting bail for $200.
The 30 grams of Lebanese hashish was found in his pockets. An alcoholic, who was on the wagon, he said in one interview at the time: “Grass is all I do now… I love it so much”. He got an absolute discharge on the charges because of his excellent character and that a conviction would ruin his career, as he wouldn’t be able to travel freely around the world. He wouldn’t make another film anyway.
Meanwhile, Kinski turned down the role of Nazi Major Arnold Ernst Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) for Venom, stating of Raiders: “This script is a yawn-making pile of shit”.
As for the third and final snake flick… The year he made Venom, Ollie Reed starred in another flick – albeit a bigger serpent this time – Spasms (1983).
The film suffered production problems and its release was delayed a couple of years after shooting ceased.
Directed by William Fruet (1933-), he was responsible for the not all bad and controversially violent The House by the Lake aka Death Weekend (1976), the better than many say slasher Killer Party (1986) and the disappointing and very dimly lit Blue Monkey aka Insect (1987).
The film starts somewhere in New Guinea, where a giant deadly serpent is captured during a native ritual, with plans to sent it to the United States. It is there that millionaire Jason Kinkaid – Ollie still wearing his Venom moustache – has a telepathic connection with it.
“It’s big, very big and it moves quickly, very quickly,” says the drunken adventurer on the phone from Port Moresby, having captured the creature and now threatening to kill it.
“You don’t kill things that are one of a kind,” says a sweaty Ollie, having awoken from a nightmare about the “thing”.
Peter Fonda is meanwhile into psychic research at the local university where he’s “tired of begging for money for his research”. Anyway Ollie needs him to help him out of his “predicament” in “strictest confidence”. It seems that Ollie was once bitten by an extremely venomous serpent, that has left him with “a lingering connection” which gives him nightmares and, lately, “telepathic perceptions”.
“I thought you’d find that interesting,” says Ollie over green tea and sushi.
Ollie wants Peter to use his university to import the creature so he can study it.
The appearance of actor Al Waxman (1935-2001 during heart bypass surgery) only confirms the film’s Canadian credentials. Waxman was a prolific actor known perhaps best for his role in the television show Cagney and Lacey (1981-88) but he also had parts in the classic Atlantic City (1980) and a bit in Class of 1984 (1982). Director Fruet is also Canadian.
Waxman is a shady character instrumental in the serpent’s release and eventual rampage. He has ties to a church with an unhealthy interest in the giant snake.
“You’re an unbeliever Mr Crowley, which is why perhaps you sound like such a fool,” says the honourable reverend of the satanic church.
This is a far more interesting script than Venom in terms of the dialogue. But then this is the Golden Era of Canadian horror as it is around the same time of David Cronenberg’s masterpieces The Brood (1979) and Scanners (1981). Ollie was, of course, in The Brood. And they are tip of the iceberg.
“I’ve got to rid myself of this,” says Ollie, intensely, after an embarrassing display during a public address due to his “predicament” with the “thing”.
As the serpent gets nearer, Ollie gets worse as his psychic connection disrupts his home life and causes profuse sweating and a loss for words.
Spasms apparently suffered from a lack of funds, which say much about the special effects, some of which were dropped after they were shot because they were incomplete or not even shot at all.
The serpent itself is not really shown until the end of the film, which is probably the reason for the disappointed reaction from critics. Most of the time it is shown in the first person as it attacks people – always a cheap option. When the attacks occur, the point of view of the snake is in an altered colour, something which was used in another good film Wolfen (1981) which was shot around the same time.
This serpent, which rises from hell every seven years, according to the natives of Micronesia, causes corpses to putrify very quickly upon being bitten… the Satanists aren’t pleased they can’t get their hands on it… while a nubile young woman is attacked in her shower sending Ollie almost cross-eyed in a telepathic crescendo!
“It’s so weird,” comments Peter Fonda about the whole situation.
It is probably not surprising that highly successful special make-up artist Stephan Dupuis – he worked on 2018’s Venom – worked on Scanners, as much of the special effects in Waxman’s death scene echo the effects of that movie which was made the same year.
Spasms has a bad reputation but I think it is unwarranted when you take into account its low budget origins and troubled production. As it climaxes with poor psychic Ollie dying horribly from toxic venom… Spasms wraps up this trio of venomous viper tales. There are many more worthy of at least a mention but it is these three that are cult to me!