In “Venom,” an attempted kidnapping is thwarted by a deadly black mamba snake

By on November 29, 2018

Venom — now streaming in our Blue Underground collection on Night Flight Plus — is a stylish late 1981 British-made thriller with an all-star cast about an attempted kidnapping thwarted by a deadly black mamba, a very real snake on loan from the London Zoo.

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Adapted from the Alan Scholefield novel by screenwriter Robert Carrington (Wait Until Dark), Venom‘s plot concerns an attempted kidnapping of an asthmatic ten-year old boy named “Philip” (Lance Holcomb), the son of a wealthy American couple living in London.

It’s an inside job involving the couple’s nanny “Louise” (Susan George), who will be taking care of Phil while his mother “Ruth Hopkins” (Cornelia Sharpe) is on holiday in Rome with her husband.

Philip will also spending time with his grandfather “Howard Anderson” (Sterling Hayden), who is recovering from recent stomach surgery.

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Louise smuggles in her lover, the couple’s psychotic chauffeur “Dave Averconnelly” (Oliver Reed), and his crazy German comrade “Jacques Müller” a.k.a. “Jacmel” (Klaus Kinski) into the couple’s elegant Eaton Walk townhouse.

Their nefarious plot to hold Philip hostage in exchange for a hefty ransom payment goes awry after a mix-up at a local pet store, when — instead of being given a harmless African garden snake — Philip brings home a deadly black mamba, the world’s fastest-moving and most venomous snake.

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The snake inevitably escapes into the flat’s heating ducts, only to suddenly appear to bite the kidnappers, killing them off one by one. They’re all trapped inside because the flat has been surrounded by London police after an unhinged Dave shot an officer.

Venom also features Sarah Miles as toxicology expert “Dr. Stowe.”

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The tension and openly aggressive behavior between Dave and Jacmel is quite palpable on-screen, possibly because Reed kept calling the Polish-born Kinski a “Nazi bastard,” which sent him into a violent rage which the sadistic Reed quite enjoying watching.

Kinski had turned down a role in Steven Spielberg‘s Raiders of the Lost Ark to appear in Venom, partly because — as he  wrote in his posthumously published autobiography, Kinski Uncut — he thought Lawrence Kasdan’s Raiders script was “moronically shitty.”

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Read more about Venom below.

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Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper was about a week or two into filming Venom at London’s Elstree Studios when he quite suddenly left the project due to “creative differences” he was having with some of the cast and crew.

They felt he was making bad choices as a director, and so they collectively ganged up on Hooper, who decided he’d rather not endure any more of their abuse, apparently suffering from a nervous breakdown.

Later, Kinksi is said to have boasted about getting Hooper to quit at a party held at Elaine’s Restaurant in Manhattan, celebrating Venom‘s theatrical release.

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Piers Haggard

London-born director Piers Haggard, who was mainly working on BBC television dramas at the time, was brought aboard to steer the project back on course.

Haggard’s biggest success at the time had been directing Dennis Potter’s “Pennies From Heaven” (the 1978 BBC musical drama mini-series had earned him a well-deserved BAFTA in 1979).

He’d also directed the cult classic The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and Peter Sellers’s last film, The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980).

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Unfortunately for Haggard, it wasn’t exactly a smooth transition taking over on Venom and later said he regretted taking the job.

He immediately had problems with Klaus Kinski and Oliver Reed, who threw a tantrum on Haggard’s first day on set, acting like he was going to walk off because he’d been insulted by something Haggard had said to him.

It turned out to be a little joke he was playing on the new director, possibly to test his resolve.

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The tempestuous Kinski was another matter entirely, who from the start reacted very coldly towards Haggard.

Reed and Kinski were also feuding with each other, and although it was apparent to many that Reed was doing it for drunken laughs, Kinski was acting like it was a real fight.

In this interview we found online with Piers Haggard, the director talks about the problems he had with both actors:

“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.”

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Venom features great cinematography by Gilbert Taylor — who had memorably shot Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, Stanley Kubrick‘s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Alfred Hitchcock‘s Frenzy and Richard Donner’s The Omen — and a vibrant, robust soundtrack by the great Michael Kamen.

The real star of Venom, however, is the very real and very poisonous black mamba, on loan from the London Zoo.

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Venom‘s initial theatrical release was in Japan, on November 28, 1981, with a wider distribution in the UK and U.S. following in January 1982.

Watch Venom and other great cult films we’ve collected in our Blue Underground collection on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.