I was shooting a play once. It was a double-header. A matinee and an evening performance. One-woman show. Not to be judgmental, but the actress should have been resting her voice instead of chatting with me. She even said so, but we kept talking. We got on the subject of movies and I essentially pitched her a film.
“There’s this movie company down in Peru. They’re making a big action flick and the natives are watching, fascinated. After the company leaves, the Peruvians decide to make their own movie, with cameras and microphones made of bamboo. Only problem is, they don’t know that movies aren’t real, so whatever happens ‘on camera,’ is really going to happen, even murder.”
I threw this out there to her, to which she replied, “That’s a fucking great idea for a movie!” I agreed, then informed her that it was the plot of the infamous, career-destroying The Last Movie (1971), the impenetrable Dennis Hopper-directed disaster made in the wake of Easy Rider’s earth-shattering success. As the legendary cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs put it, “I thought we made a good movie, but Dennis ruined it in the editing.” Boy, did he, apparently cutting for nearly a year and allowing his druggie friends to make half-baked suggestions, causing the film to be a jagged mess of incomprehensible scenes. And yet, the idea is there. That is, to borrow the quote, a “great fucking idea for a movie.”
And so is the conceit behind Venom, a 1981 Piers Haggard film that, if you type it into the search bar on Wikipedia, pops up as a ‘1981 film by Tobe Hooper.’ Yeesh.
It goes like this. The son of a wealthy businessman is to be kidnapped by the trio of the family’s maid (Susan George), chauffeur (Oliver Reed), and an international terrorist (Klaus Kinski). Simple enough. However, they encounter a couple of snags. Number one, the kid is an animal enthusiast. Seriously, this kid has a ton of pets. While his mother is away, his grandfather (Sterling Hayden) allows him to take a taxi ride on his own to the local pet store where he is to pick up a harmless garden snake to add to his menagerie. Unfortunately, the pet store owner is sick, so his oddball wife gives the boy the wrong package. This might not be a biggie if it weren’t for the fact that the package contains a black mamba, a nasty little customer and one of the most dangerous snakes in the world. Problem number two...Oliver Reed is a moron. That’s all there is to it. He. Is. Dumb. So, when the police arrive to merely inquire whether the boy has accidentally taken the wrong snake, Reed panics and blows this poor officer to smithereens with a shotgun. Thus, Venom truly begins and what a ride it turns out to be.
There are a lot of stories about this production. A good deal of them come from “Hellraisers,” Robert Sellers’ outrageously entertaining book that’s great fun but has questionable validity, mainly due to whether these are exaggerations or simply tall tales. Still, the stories are great. I was checking it out for this piece and literally read three pages past the Venom section just because of how utterly fabulous the stories are, but, I digress.
The Tobe Hooper thing. There doesn’t seem to be any specific event that triggered Hooper’s exit (along with his DP Anthony B. Richmond), but according to Kinski, he and other members of the cast and crew ganged up on Hooper in order to force him to quit the film. From documentaries I’ve seen about Hooper, it seems he was a relatively laid-back guy, who communicated very little, leading to those persistent stories we’ve all heard about who directed Poltergeist (1982).
Speaking of Spielberg, Klaus Kinski famously turned down Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) for this film. Incredible to think about now, it’s somewhat understandable then because Kinski’s character Jacques Muller is a wonderfully evil dude, and the lead to boot. No matter what, I think we can all agree that Kinski wasn’t being offered the Indiana Jones role, so he definitely would’ve played second fiddle no matter what. Kinski, like Zero Mostel, has often been suspected of being actually, literally crazy. Like, chemical imbalance crazy. It didn’t impede either of them from working, but it did make working with them understandably difficult. In Werner Herzog’s beautiful My Best Fiend (1999), it’s made very clear how difficult Kinski could be, although he also seems to have directed most of his rage towards men, behaving relatively kinder to his female co-stars. Still, in Venom he brings a calm, collected, and ruthless intensity to his character. He doesn’t care about the safety of others. He just wants the money. His first appearance is wonderfully shot. Oliver Reed searches the airport, already on edge and suspicious of this infamous criminal, then Kinski, practically out of thin air, appears behind him. Very little preamble. Right to the point. Klaus is a real, for lack of a better word, asshole in this movie. There are times when the police try to talk to him, making suggestions that are really quite reasonable, only for Kinski to refuse them, even though they’d likely help him out in the long run. What a dick. Now, back to Reed V. Kinski!
Ah, Oliver Reed. The indestructible and always inappropriate wild man who refused to live by those pesky rules laid out by civilized society. His hard-drinking, hard-living ways are the stuff of legend and looking at him, I believe it. Stunt men were terrified of sparring with him on The Three Musketeers (1973) for fear of actually being killed. He partied with Keith Moon and terrified children on the set of Oliver! (1968). I can’t compliment his performance enough in this film. Playing a man who is dumb but doesn’t think he’s dumb is a tricky proposition, but considering how many people, particularly ones in a position of power, are dumb but think they’re smart, is surprisingly accurate. It’s a credit to his legend status that his is the first name that pops up when you type ‘Oliver’ into IMDB. Reed liked to screw with people for his own amusement. He threatened to quit the film just to get a rise out of newly-instated director Piers Haggard. He saved his special torments for his co-star Kinski, whom he hated upon first sight. The feeling was mutual.
The story of the surprisingly strong Reed shaking Kinski’s trailer and calling him a “fucking Nazi” are well-documented. Another favorite of mine is when the financiers of the film, affluent members of the Guinness family, showed up on set, only to be quickly hustled off after hearing the back and forth between Reed and Kinski at the top of the set, which included such gems as: “You fucking Nazi bastard” and “You fucking English cunt!” I’ve often wondered how actors can maintain their composure while shooting a scene when they absolutely despise each other, but it seems to be a simple matter of getting the job done. On a much, much, MUCH more minor scale, I was once performing in a one-act play and my co-star did not like me. I still to this day don’t know why, but she was not a fan of mine. We had to be romantic and lovey-dovey, but as soon as the scene would end, we’d be back to that animosity. All I can say is that we just did it. We got through it and the audience didn’t have a clue.
Kinski and Reed are certainly the most famous nutcases in Venom, but let’s not leave the other wackadoo’s behind. Though less famous, Nicol Williamson was also on hand, fortunately separated most of the time from Reed and Kinski due to his role as the police commander trying to negotiate with them. He was regarded as a brilliant actor but also sometimes a bit of a pill. There’s the story of his rivalry with Helen Mirren on the set of Excalibur (1981) and his infamous walk-off while playing Hamlet. Still, he was well-respected and is fantastic as the smart and fearless Bulloch. He suffers no fools and knows exactly what he’s doing, providing the film with a heroic figure amongst mostly loathsome individuals.
Sarah Miles, the Oscar-nominated (Ryan’s Daughter, 1970) eccentric whose unique screen persona helped her land roles in such classics as The Servant (1964) and Blow-Up (1968), another film that sounds amazing on paper but thanks to director Michelangelo Antonioni’s odd dissection of swinging Sixties life, feels squandered and a product of its time. The bizarre urine-drinking story aside, she was once suspected of murdering writer David Whiting, a former lover. Suffice to say, she brings an adorable kookiness to her role as toxicologist Dr. Marien Stowe. She’s very good in this film, playing a woman who seems more comfortable around snakes than humans and who shows a genuine regard for the safety of all-involved, including the kidnappers. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the one stumble. Her reaction to Klaus Kinski’s ruse, in which he tricks her into approaching the house, under the assumption that she is going to examine a snake-bite victim, only to be ambushed. Her reaction, rearing back, mouth agape, practically gasp-hissing, is laughably over-the-top.
Rounding out the cast of villains is Susan George, a performer for whom I have great respect, playing the seemingly sweet maid of the household. She is the first victim of the mamba’s wrath and she impressively shows the devastating effects of the snake’s venom. I’m not certain if it’s scientifically accurate, but it’s definitely disturbing. George’s commitment to that scene has been par for the course in her career, which has included several brave performances, including her most famous work in Sam Peckinpah’s wildly controversial Straw Dogs (1971) and the (if possible) even more controversial Mandingo (1975), a Richard Fleischer turkey featuring James Mason with a ridiculous accent that leaves George relatively unscathed as a southern belle exacting revenge on her spineless husband.
Finally, there’s Sterling Hayden, the renowned expert on “our precious bodily fluids” as the crusty grandfather of little Philip Hopkins (Lance Holcomb). Holcomb, incidentally, only appeared in three films, but what a trio! John Irvin’s Ghost Story (1981), this, and most importantly Christmas Evil (1980), a fascinating killer Santa movie that predates Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984). Hayden, the iconic, baritone-voiced tough guy from The Godfather (I thought I got all you Guinea hoods locked up!), Kubrick’s The Killing and Dr. Strangelove, his tiny appearance in 9 to 5, and especially, for me, Terror in a Texas Town, a highly underrated Joseph H. Lewis western from the fifties. This would be his last feature film. He’s got a wonderful relationship with Holcomb. You feel like he watched out for him on set and their rapport is easy going, the perfect fun grandpa/enthralled grandson relationship.
Of course, we have to mention the snake. This ain’t no phony rubber snake out of the dollar section of the toy aisle. This snake is real and really pissed off. A special thanks at the end of the credits mentions David Ball, who handled the snake during the production. The snake footage is downright terrifying. Yes, I’m sure they were literally poking the poor bastard to inspire such a spirited response, but the close-ups and the rapid motion head snaps are really effective. Unfortunately, there’s a pretty lame snake-cam effect late in the film for Oliver Reed’s denouement. It’s understandable since 35mm cameras are notoriously bulky and they were trying to portray a smooth, slithery movement that would be much more easily achieved now with smaller cameras. It’s a valiant attempt, but distracting, although Oliver Reed getting bit on the dick (which had an eagle tattoo on it in real life, by the way) is very memorable. Ditto Kinski’s death, where he struggles mightily with the mamba (who apparently can sense evil) in a ridiculous scene that ends with Kinski getting bit several times and then shot, but not before blowing the snake’s head off at point blank range in a satisfyingly graphic close-up. By the way, if you have a fear of snakes, this movie will straight-up traumatize you.
In 1978, Haggard had directed arguably his greatest work, an adaptation of Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven. He would unfortunately have the distinction of directing Peter Sellers in his final film The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980). If only Sellers had died right after Being There, but c’est la vie. Being put in a very difficult situation with barely ten days to do any pre-production, the direction in the film is quite good, particularly his use of jump scares and the tense search for the snake’s whereabouts. The best and most unexpected scene takes place when Dr. Stowe has been taken hostage as well and Reed offers her a drink. The scene chugs along at a calm pace with no indication that all Hell is about to break loose, and then WHAMMO! The snake is in the liquor cabinet and I have to change my shorts.
The attention to detail is a particularly rich element in the film. Well before any indication of the snake’s involvement, there’s the set-up for the kidnapping. I always love when a movie or television episode shows the inner-workings of a criminal enterprise or the way a plan comes together. It’s probably why I love several Mike Ehrmantraut scenes from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul since they often don’t even involve dialogue, just Mike working things out. We learn of Reed and George’s intentions and see the house in which they’ll hold the boy for ransom. There are toys and a TV, which will of course never be used. It’s a nice touch, fooling the viewer into thinking any of this will be important. Another great bit of police work is shown when giant sheets are put up at either side of the street during the hostage situation, effectively cutting off any contact from the outside world. I’d never seen anything like this but it made perfect sense.
The film does lose a bit a bit of steam around the three-quarter mark. The villains and Williamson are infinitely more interesting, but we have to show the way the police are going to infiltrate the house. Although it’s brief, the sequence where they figure out that there is a sealed-off servant's entrance and break through it is not that exciting, but it at least helps eliminate Reed’s character.
Dip in action aside, this is a forgotten gem of a film. A great twist on the tired kidnapping plot that features genuine animosity between the leads fueling the sense of realism and upping the ante on the dramatic tension. It deserves to be rediscovered and treasured for its unique spin on worn-out tropes.