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VENOM (1981) blu ray/dvd Blue Underground

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VENOM (Blue Underground) Blu-Ray & DVD combo, May 10,2016 release date, $29.98)92 min Color.

http://www.amazon.com/Venom-Blu-ray-Combo-Sterling-Hayden/dp/B01BPQG3IA/

VENOM is a film that has been unfairly neglected. When it first came out the critics were mixed in their reviews of the film (“If Venom doesn’t turn out to be the silliest film of 1982, it’s a good bet that it will land within a hoot and a holler of that distinction.”-Vincent Canby, NY Times, Feb 5,1982 while Variety Dec 31,1981 said “Venom is an engrossing traditional suspense thriller [from a novel by Alan Scholefield] about a kidnapping, hypoed by the genuinely frightening plot gimmick of a deadly black mamba snake on the loose.) and the film was a box office disappointment (according to box office mojo, it made $5,229,643 in a 900 theatre wide release by Paramount ). At the time, releasing a movie in January (January 29,1982 to be precise) meant a studio had little faith in a film). The film had suffered I feel due to being wrongly advertised as a horror film when it is in fact a thriller along the lines of I, THE JURY (1982, Fox).

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Paramount didn’t even release it to VHS, letting Vestron video release the title two years later. Even then, the film suffered, because in 1984, a Canadian horror film called SPASMS (aka DEATH BITE) was released to video stores in the U.S. by Thorn EMI. That film (with effects by the great Dick Smith) also starred Oliver Reed so video store customers quite understandably thought they were the same film with different titles.

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Cable channels like H.B.O. used to show it, but then it vanished pretty much from sight. In 2003, BLUE UNDERGROUND released the film onto DVD to a new audience. Now, thirteen years later, BLUE UNDERGROUND has gone to the expense of making a brand new 2K High Definition transfer from the original negative for its Blu Ray /DVD combo release.

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Based upon a 1977 novel by Alan Scholefield (London: Heinemann, 1977, U.S.: Morrow :1978) the story is more a siege thriller than a horror story. In the book, A Black Mamba snake hitches a ride to London inside a crate from Africa and wreaks havoc when it gets dropped off at a local pet shop. A young boy receives what he thinks is a non-venomous snake but instead the Mamba ends up in his house. Two kidnappers break in to the plush Eaton Square house. Detective Chief Superintendent William Bulloch and the police surround the house. Now all inside are trapped, trying to avoid the deadly serpent.

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Producer Martin Bregman (SERPICO,1973 Paramount) with funding provided by members of the Guinness (as in beer) family, bought the rights and went through various writers to make a workable script. They announced that they had picked director Tobe Hooper, acclaimed as an expert in thrills due to his indie hit THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974, Bryanston) and the successful T.V. miniseries adaptation for CBS Television of Stephen King’s SALEM’S LOT (1979, Warner Brothers).

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This is when things started to unravel for the production. Hooper had problems with his cast (Klaus Kinski later bragged that he had driven Hooper off the film after only ten days), and the producers had to find a director -fast! Enter director Piers Haggard (former theatre and T.V. director who had made his theatrical debut with the superlative BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW (1971, Tigon). Haggard had very little time to change much on the film (save for making Kinski’s outfit look less Nazi like) but soldiered on.

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 Klaus Kinski had turned down a role in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (Paramount 1981) to appear in this film, a decision I am sure the volatile actor later regretted. His biggest problem on the film was his co-star, Oliver Reed. Since Reed was his fellow kidnapper, he had little chance to avoid the actor, who delighted in badgering the German performer. Haggard was used to working with difficult actors (having directed the infamous and supremely difficult Nicol Williamson on stage), the battling stars made his life probably more difficult than dealing with the actual snakes. That the film holds up so well is a tribute to the director.

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(“I wish this gun was real” is what Klaus Kinski is probably thinking here with Oliver Reed )

International criminal Jacques Müller (Klaus Kinski) plan to kidnap and hold for ransom the rich asthmatic ten-year-old Phillip Hopkins (Lance Holcomb). To this end, he enlists the aid of the boy’s nanny Louise. (Susan George) and chauffeur Dave (Oliver Reed). They learn that parents will be leaving the boy in the care of his grandfather Howard (Sterling Hayden in his last film role). They feel this is the perfect time to initiate their plans. Unfortunately, Philip has just brought home a snake from a local store, unaware that a mix up has resulted in him getting a deadly black mamba delivered instead. The first victim of the deadly creature is Louise, who gets several strikes to the face.

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We learn Black Mambas are an aggressive species which can deliver a strong neurotoxin in their venom which can result in a painful death if not treated. The snake escapes into the house ventilation/heating system, meaning you are never aware of where the creature will strike.

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The importer meanwhile realizes his mistake and the police are dispatched to the Hopkins home. Dave panics and shoots the constable (played by John Forbes-Robertson, who had played Dracula in Hammer’s 1974 THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES). The police, led by Cmdr. William Bulloch (the aforementioned Nicol Williamson) respond and surround the home.

VENOM, Lance Holcomb, Sterling Hayden, 1981, (c)Paramount

VENOM, Lance Holcomb, Sterling Hayden, 1981, (c)Paramount

Now there is a standoff- will the snake pick off the people trapped within the house? Or will it be the deadly kidnappers?

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The film holds up very well as a thriller, with some really nice surprises. The cast also features some very well-known British performers of the era. Besides the actors mentioned, also appearing are Oscar nominated (for RYAN’S DAUGHTER, MGM 1970) Sarah Miles as a Doctor called in to help, Edward Hardwicke (one of the best Dr. Watsons ever) as a Lord, and Michael Gough (HORROR OF DRACULA,1958, Hammer) as a snake specialist.

VENOM, Klaus Kinski, Sarah Miles, 1981, (c)Paramount

VENOM, Klaus Kinski, Sarah Miles, 1981, (c)Paramount

I had not seen the previous DVD release from BLUE UNDERGROUND, but I am sure that current 1080p High Definition restoration has sharpened the images to resemble what they must have first looked like upon their theatrical release (lensed by Gilbert Taylor, director of photography on Roman Polanski’s MACBETH (1971, Columbia). The All Region discs have sound options of either the original 2.0 DTS-HD, 7.1DTS-HD or 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround. Also there are optional subtitles in English, French and Spanish.

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     (Death by Trouser Snake for Oliver Reed)

Ported over from the 2003 DVD is the Jonathan Sothcott commentary with director Piers Haggard. Haggard does not belittle Hooper (whose ten days of footage were not used in the finished film) but is quite honest on the problems that he had with Reed and Kinski. He does talk of the project though with grace and fondness, even though he was basically brought in as a director for hire.

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There are also a collection of trailers and tv spots for the film as well as a poster and still gallery.

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New to the Blu Ray release is an informative booklet written by former Fangoria editor Michael Gingold as well as a reversible cover art sleeve.

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I recall watching this film a long time ago and enjoying it very much. It is nice to revisit it again and find it still a very enjoyable thriller. BLUE UNDERGROUND once again saves another fun movie from undeserved neglect.

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Recommended.
Kevin G Shinnick

 

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            (Blue Underground had also previously released VENOM as a two DVD disc set with                                           RATS  NIGHT OF TERROR(1984) )

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