'The kidnap that became a murder that became a siege that became a death trap!' screamed the trailer trying to pull in the audience to Venom back in 1981. "What's on telly?" yawned the resolutely stay-at-home audiences, making the right choice. Pity poor Piers Haggard, taking over at short notice after a warring cast most sane directors would run a mile from (Klaus Kinski, Oliver Reed, Nicol Williamson, Sarah Miles) had reputedly already driven away original director Tobe Hooper: no wonder he described the film's deadly Black Mamba as the nicest member of the cast. It's one of those oddball international co-production packages with a particularly eclectic cast - Sterling Hayden, Susan George, Edward Hardwicke, Hugh Lloyd, Maurice Colbourne and Michael Gough are in there as well - and a high-concept - a kidnapping that goes wrong when the kidnappers find themselves under siege from the police and stalked by their wealthy young victim's Black Mamba that's on the loose in the house - that isn't particularly good but sounds just silly enough to be enjoyable. Unfortunately in this case it isn't. It may be the deadliest, fastest and most aggressive snake in the world, but it has so little to do in the film that you suspect it kills its prey by boring them to death. Instead of building up suspense or throwing in plenty of moments where the filmmakers go "BOO!!!" at the audience, there's an awful lot of talk, little of it interesting, even more standing around and not much bite.
There's certainly some silliness on display, particularly in the performances: Sterling Hayden spends much of his last film playing his role like Ernest Hemingway imitating a playful gorilla while Nicol Williamson seemingly imitates his Robin and Marion co-star Sean Connery as the cop who spends almost as much of the film waiting for something to happen as the audience does. No-one behaves particularly sensibly, but then this is the kind of film where people don't turn all the lights on when looking for a deadly snake in a darkened room and where a key plot point turns around a major toxicology institute getting its deadly snakes from Rita Webb's rundown pet shop that gets its labels mixed up. Yet aside from the odd line like Kinski's immortal "Zee znayke izz looze!" or Oliver Reed finding himself with an unwanted extra trouser snake, laughs are as few and far between as scenes with the serpent. Judging from Haggard's comments about the nest of human vipers he had to deal with on his audio commentary on the US DVD, they might just have been better off making a film about the making of the film. It would have been a lot more dramatic and, from his accounts of the feud between Kinski and Reed or of the temperamental German star playing the rough stuff uncomfortably for real, a lot more violent. It's an achievement that the film actually got finished at all, just not a particularly worthwhile one.
The US DVD also includes trailers, TV spots and stills and poster gallery.