Director: Fred Olen Ray | 96 minutes | thriller | Actors: Treat Williams, Mary Page Keller, Hannes Jaenicke, Geoff Pierson, Catherine Dent, Tony Denison, Geoff Pierson, Brian Poth, Nicole Nieth, Christal Chacon, Jim Storm, Rick Hurst, Melissa J. Hayden, Marc McClure, Andrew Stevens, Chas. Allan
Snake soap “Venom” takes place in a small American village where the population is still friendly with each other, the local roadhouse is still a social meeting place and where the sheriff is still respected. In short: a cozy and safe place to grow up your children and, as it should be in idyllic movie villages like this, soon the place where hundreds of poisonous snakes roam the neighborhood. The film opens with a terrorist attack on a laboratory. What this has to do with poisonous snakes is indeed a good question. At first glance, the scene seems mainly a misguided piece of patriotism that gets on the nerves of the non-American viewer. Later in the film, this scene turns out to be the impetus for a subtle bit of criticism of the US government’s terror policy – and civil rights violations in particular.
It is this theme that elevates “Venom” above the many bland straight-to-video productions, despite the film’s theme being quite black and white. Sadly, the praise ends here, as screenwriters Dan Golden and Sean McGinly decided to emphasize the drama elements in the script and thus “Venom” has more to do with a hospital soap than a movie about deadly snakes. Instead of a shooting frenzy that animal rights organizations would flee from, in “Venom” we get a neat drama about two doctors (ex-lovers, of course) who must find an antidote to the disease spread by the snakes. That means a film about microscopes, hypodermic needles and X-rays, while you were hoping for a snake shooting competition.
What stands in the way of the success of this “Outbreak”-style script is the fact that the casting director has chosen a cast of dressed-up Hollywood models and bread actors. The tension that should come from the emphasis on the many conflicts between the characters is lost due to the static acting and the actors’ unbelievability. It is certainly not bad and if the emphasis had been on blowing up snakes, instead of fighting the clock, it wouldn’t even have been disturbing. However, because it is now about characters and a theme is being worked out, the acting performances simply fall short. Of course, big names aren’t available for low-budget productions like “Venom,” but there must be a casting director somewhere who can save us from the many botox faces that keep popping up in the recent B-movie.
The drama element in “Venom” sets the film apart from the big competition on the video store shelves. However, the question remains whether “Venom” is better off as a drama production. Director Fred Olen Ray – who directed the film under the pseudonym Ed Raymond – shows in the few action scenes that the film has, namely a hidden talent for suspense. The scene where Dr. David Henning has to catch a snake in a snake-strewn tunnel is not only a welcome change from all the squinting in microscopes, it’s also a genuinely thrilling scene that makes you wonder how the movie had turned out at the time the screenwriters had taken their story a little less seriously and there had been more room for explosions, guns and snake bites. Whether “Venom” would still have been a standout title among the many reptile-on-steroid movies is doubtful, but it certainly added some momentum to the movie.
If there are viewers who have a soft spot for runaway snakes and want to see every film in this subgenre, then “Venom” can be surprising. Furthermore, it is mainly a film that does not know how to fascinate. The acting does not know how to convey the intended emotions and watching a search for an antidote for an hour and a half is not what you rented the film for. As a script for “ER” it would have been a lot more interesting.