Rather than deconstruct genre conventions, 1982’s Venom seeks a simpler play between genres by melding a kidnapping thriller with a monster-in-the-house creature feature, apparently just to see how these usually disparate elements could inform one another when combined. The choice at least makes sense on a logistical level: Jacmel (Klaus Kinski) and Dave (Oliver Reed) are a pair of inept goons who planned to kidnap a London rich kid, Philip (Lance Holcomb), for ransom, but wind up confined to the boy’s house after Dave panics and murders a snooping police officer. Drastically complicating matters is a black mamba snake that Philip accidentally added to his pet collection and is now loose in the house.
The characters prove to be rich vehicles for actors like Kinski and Reed to flex their villainous chops, but there’s no sense that either Jacmel or Dave stand for anything beyond a vague threat to Philip’s safety. Jacmel seems to be a German nationalist of some sort, yet the film makes little effort to lend that aspect any specificity, so that Kinski’s German accent becomes the character’s sole marker of difference. There’s sexual tension (and even some foreplay) between Dave and an accomplice named Louise (Susan George), but that dimension is squashed by the film’s halfway marker after Louise takes a snakebite to the face. The convoluted plot is furthered weakened by routine sequences involving a police commander, played by Nicol Williamson, who’s more or less left hanging outside the house until he gets the not-so-bright idea to recruit a toxicologist (Sarah Miles) for help. Naturally, she ends up inside the house with the kidnappers (and the snake) after a double cross.
Venom’s premise, which is borderline nonsensical in its unfolding, is curiously played straight by director Piers Haggard as something closer to the similarly location-bound Dog Day Afternoon than the more populist horror films that cropped up during the early 1980s. The underlying concept belongs wholly to the realm of exploitation, with Robert Carrington’s screenplay trying a little cop drama here, a little gore there. The mix proves wholly depleted of greater meaning, so that the film’s tension revolves around whether or not the snake or the cops will get the characters first.
Even a shred of lunacy could have gone a long way for this drawn-out film. The closest Haggard comes is through several shots from the snake’s POV, though even here the handheld camera and choice of a distorted lens is both underwhelming and unimaginative. The snake itself merely looks like a rubber toy, so that when it strikes, it seems as though it’s just been hurled from across the room. Without a sense of the snake’s movements or whereabouts throughout the house, it becomes simply a deus ex machina device to complicate or resolve a situation on demand. Were Tobe Hooper to have retained the directorial reins (he left the project due to “creative differences” during production), one can imagine his particularly acute ability to interweave social contexts within unusual premises might have made at least some sense of the screenplay’s inherent silliness.
Blue Underground refurbishes Venom with a high-definition transfer that serviceably restores the film’s muted color palette and image clarity. The mise-en-scène’s ample yellows and blues are balanced and stable throughout, and there are minimal signs of scratches or debris within the frame. The audio track, which boasts a speaker-filling 7.1 mix, suitably mounts composer Michael Kamen’s ever-present orchestral score as the film’s audio-visual star.
The extras here are identical to those on the 2003 DVD. The only major supplement is Piers Haggard’s informative audio commentary, in which he explains how he came to direct the film in Tobe Hooper’s stead. Haggard admits that he wasn’t "able to put as much of a personal stamp on the film" as he would have liked, and says he was "struggling to keep up" during certain points of the shoot due to minimal prep time. He also has great stories about Klaus Kinski and Oliver Reed’s clashing egos, which sometimes had to do with very simple matters, like who would get to stand in a doorway during a certain shot. Rounding out the package are several trailers, TV spots, and an essay by Fangoria editor Michael Gingold.
More notable for its troubled production history and bizarro premise than for being compelling, Venom arrives in a solid Blu-ray package from Blue Underground.