|Submitted by Iain McLachlan |
(Nov 09, 2004)
Alternate Titles: THE LEGEND OF SPIDER FOREST; SPIDER'S VENOM.
RT: 91 mins;
Pro Co: Cupid Productions/Action Plus Productions
Dir: Peter Sykes;
Pros: Michael Pearson, Kenneth F. Rowles;
Wrs: Donald and Derek Ford; addit dial: Christopher Wicking; orig st: Stephen Collins.
Phot: Peter Jessop;
Film Ed: Stephen Collins;
Mus: John Simco Harrison;
Art Dir: Hayden Pearce.
SFX: Roy Whybrow.
Stunts: David Brandon.
Cast: Simon Brent, Neda Arneric, Sheila Allen, Derek Newark, Terence Soall, Gerard Heinz, Gertan Klauber, Bette Vivian, Sean Gerrard, Ray Barron, Nosher Powell.
The beginning of the 1970s proved to be something of a turbulent time for the British film industry in general, and genre filmmakers in particular.
With most major Hollywood studios, like Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Universal, either drastically reducing their UK production roster or abandoning the country entirely, all sectors of the industry, from production to distribution and exhibition, began to feel the pressure. This situation was compounded by the very high profile failure in the important North American market of a number of ambitious and expensive British-made productions, along with a generally weak national economy.
Since 1968, the market for the type of product made by British producers active in the horror genre had changed dramatically, with the public appetite for gothic pieces, first popularised by Hammer in the late 1950s with titles like Terence Fisher’s The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958), and subsequently copied by other companies, not just in their native country but in Hollywood as well, typified by the likes of Roger Corman’s The House of Usher (1960) along with several follow-ups and spin-offs, had all but disappeared, apart from some notable exceptions including Peter Sasdy’s Countess Dracula and Roy Ward Baker’s The Vampire Lovers (both 1970). Instead, contemporary horror projects like George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (both 1968), resolutely based in the modern world, hit a nerve with audiences the world over, which British producers were unable, or unwilling to compete with. Particularly in the US, it became increasingly difficult, and latterly impossible, to obtain widespread, if any, distribution for the traditional gothic fare from UK studios, as Hammer especially would find to their cost.
In addition, filmmakers in some of the gothic horror movie’s most lucrative overseas markets, notably the Spanish-language and Far Eastern territories, began to make their own movies in this style, coming dangerously close to the original models not just in terms of sex and gore but, more importantly, in terms of quality. A case in point being the material coming from Spanish horror icon Paul Naschy (=Jacinto Molina), with some of the pictures that he became involved, such as Carlo Aured’s El Retorno de Walpurgis (1973), showing a distinct Hammer influence.
Although British horror cinema is seen as having gone into something of a terminal decline during this period, there were in fact a number of interesting contemporary works coming from independent sources with the intention of taking advantage of recent trends in the genre. One such example is the film under review here, Peter Sykes’ Venom.
In a remote part of Bavaria, a young couple are frolicking in a river. Obviously physically attracted to each other, the woman leads the man into some woods, where they start to make love. The man notices a spider tattoo on the her arm and immediately screams out in pain before falling dead with a look of terror on his face. Some weeks have passed and an English tourist arrives in the area and books into a hotel. He then decides to travel into the countryside to paint and take some photographs. While painting he notices a girl hanging around his car and takes her photograph. She appears deeply upset by this and runs off, followed by the tourist. Losing track of her, he returns to his car to find that someone has removed the film from his camera. Returning to his hotel, the Englishman, he is disconcerted to discover that he is the centre of some attention from the locals, in particular a woman and a rather tough looking man. Another man befriends him, telling the visitor that he is the major employer in the area, the owner of a big sawmill, and that the rather aggressive woman, now sitting nearby, is his daughter. Trying to find out why he is the subject of so much attention and why anyone would want to steal his film, he notes that his questions are avoided. He bids the man goodnight and retires to his bedroom. Shortly after, while taking a bath, the daughter of the man who befriended him enters the room and begins searching his belongings. Confronting her, she returns the photographs taken from his car earlier in the day. However, some stills are missing, those featuring the mysterious girl. Fending off his questions, the woman manages to entice him into bed. While they are having sex, an unseen figure spies on them. That night, another visitor arrives in hotel and asks for direction to the sawmill. The Englishman, meanwhile is still trying to get more information about the girl from his new lover. The mention of a spider tattoo that he noticed earlier on her attracts a particularly negative response with the woman strongly advising him to leave the area as soon as possible. Some time after the woman has left, the tourist is awoken by a noise and investigates. Out of the bedroom window he sees the girl standing in a nearby wood. He decides to investigate further...
Australian-born Peter Sykes was one of a handful of young British-based directors working in the horror genre at the start of the 1970s, among them Peter Sasdy, Stephen Weeks (I, Monster 70) and Robert Fuest (The Abominable Dr Phibes 71), who began to attract serious and positive attention from mainstream film critics. Although Sykes had a successful career as a documentary filmmaker, and had helmed the reportedly very bizarre, and rarely seen, Pink Floyd pop-artefact The Committee (68) beforehand, he really established himself working on the Linda Thorson season of cult teleseries The Avengers. That show also provided useful experience for filmmakers like Brian Clemens (Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter 1972), John Hough (The Legend of Hell House 1973) and Ray Austin (Virgin Witch 1972), as well as Robert Fuest. The programme’s eclectic mixture of content and style arguably has a bearing on how Venom turned out.
Ostensibly presented as a contemporary thriller with horror overtones, and with some merit as such, what is most interesting about the film is the way in which the screenplay by British exploitation veterans Donald and Derek Ford (Corruption 1967), reworks material and themes from the British gothic literary movement of the 19th (and early 20th) century and introduces them into what initially appears to be such a modern setting.
Amongst the authors who seem to have had the biggest bearing on Venom's screenplay are Wilkie Collins, M.R. James and J. Sheridan Le Fanu. The influence from James comes in the importance attached to the screenwriters' use of German folktales and legends and their continued potency amongst the rural population of Bavaria in the latter half of the 20th century. The further influence of both Wilkie and Le Fanu may be seen by the way these legends and superstitions tie in with the appearance of a mysterious, possibly spectral, young woman seen roaming the countryside, with a number of strange deaths attributed to her. The literary link is further underlined by the hero's obsession with discovering her identity and true nature. This quest by the Englishman (Simon Brent) becomes the film's narrative and dramatic dynamo rather than its thriller or other genre elements.
The Fords also introduce a distinctly sadeian flavour to the mix, particularly with the character of the mysterious girl (exotic Serbian actress Neda Arneric, who made a few English-language features in the 1970s, including John Guillermin’s Shaft in Africa 73), initially presented as a naive child of nature. However, cracks soon appear in this façade, with her shown gloating while a spider devours a cockroach and becoming visibly aroused by the beating the hero takes at the hands of the local thug, as well as his later whipping.
Brent, meanwhile, shows some evidence of masochistic tendencies, at one time being sexually assaulted by Sheila Allen (Children of the Damned 1963) while bound and staked to the ground. The movie's other sex scenes all have an aggressive edge to them as typified by an earlier, enthusiastic bout of lovemaking between Allen and Brent in his hotel room. Interestingly Venom is one of the few mainstream commercial films of that (or indeed any other) period to show both male and female full-frontal nudity, albeit in long-shot.
While the look of the film has the glossy look of a contemporary thriller, director Sykes still relies on some traditional horror elements to add some spice to his picture. The most notable examples of these are the use of the Bavarian countryside at night, the exploration of a large, mysterious house and the very Hammeresque climactic conflagration. The haunting music score by John Simco Harrison is also an important feature in this respect.
Otherwise, Sykes and film editor Stephen Collins (Frozen Alive 67), who devised the original story treatment, rely heavily on shock cutting to startle the audience. Amongst the more successful instances of this are when a recently beaten Brent regains consciousness to find a spider crawling up his chest toward his face, Arneric being startled by screams and laughter while walking through a wood, and the discovery of a bloody, headless corpse in a sawmill. Also notable are an attack by deadly spiders and a final twist lifted straight out of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (60).
Although gore was becoming more common in British horror movies by the early 1970s, with Michael Reeves' Witchfinder General (1968) and Roy Ward Baker's Scars of Dracula (70) for Hammer being part of this trend, Venom remains resolutely low-key in this respect, apart from the corpse seen in the sawmill along with the wounds received by the hero from his beatings. Physical violence itself, however, when it does appear, is brutally staged by Peter Sykes and stunt arranger David Brandon, notably a scene where Sheila Allen has her head repeatedly hit off the floor by her henchman/boyfriend, and Derek Newark (Fragment of Fear 1970) having to remove a spider from his neck, using a Bunsen burner.
As a thriller Sykes' work is an efficient affair. Using the more positive elements from his late 1960s TV experience, the director injects a fair amount of energy into the narrative, easily holding the viewers' attention during the production's convoluted plotting which features a variety of tenuously related sub-plots involving Nazis, missing arts treasures and secret nerve gas experiments, along with in a series of double-crosses by assorted characters. A screenplay this elaborate suggests that the “additional dialogue by” credit given to Christopher Wicking (Scream and Scream Again 69), a screenwriter with something of a reputation regarding labyrinthine plotting, may in fact under-represent the level of contribution made by him to the finished screenplay.
Although possibly relying rather heavily on the zoom lens, Sykes makes inventive use of the widescreen image and handles the action sequences, including some graphic fights and a car chase culminating in an exploding vehicle, with flair. It is ultimately the director's enthusiasm for the material that makes Venom stand out from many of its contemporaries.
As expected for a low-budget, independently produced item, the film's production values, including the art direction by Hayden Pearce (The Haunted House of Horror 1969), are all very basic. However, it does benefit from extensive location filming in photogenic European locations (alongside some UK locations reportedly standing in for their Continental equivalents). The appearance of the film is considerably enhanced by the work of one of the unsung heroes of British horror and exploitation filmmaking, cinematographer Peter Jessop (The Flesh and Blood Show 1972), whose images add a genuine aura to the locales used in the film, while also giving the impression that the film was more generously budgeted than was the case.
The cast for Venom is made up largely of faces, very familiar from British television and they all acquit themselves well, although none really stand out. The exception is Neda Arneric, who conveys the childlike innocence of her character along with the implied darker nature of her soul. It is unfortunate that more use was not made of this fascinating actress in her few English language productions. Americ has an impressively lengthy career in her native land (running to some 80 movies) where she now divides her time between moviemaking and being a member of the Serbian parliament.
As stated earlier, the film industry at this time was in a state of flux. Particularly affected were the areas of distribution and exhibition which low-budget independent movies, even with help from the quota system, found difficult to break into. As a result, Venom found it difficult to find an audience, its release being delayed by over eighteen months, and then only appearing very sporadically. It quickly joined similar works in disappearing into obscurity, with even its appearance on home video, especially in its complete version, being rare and hard to find. It does, however, have a growing band of vocal fans who promote it on the internet and in small press publications. It has also had successful screenings at small, specialised film festivals. It must surely be due for reassessment by way of a DVD release.
On the strength of advanced screenings of this film, director Peter Sykes secured the job of helming another badly treated production, the psychological horror movie Demons of the Mind (1971), for Hammer. Like Venom, it failed to secure proper distribution and soon disappeared from view but has recently resurfaced on DVD. Sadly, Sykes subsequent motion picture output, notably the horror comedy and Frankie Howerd vehicle The House in Nightmare Park (1973) and the final Hammer horror effort To the Devil…A Daughter (1976) have proven to be major disappointments. For the last quarter century he has worked almost exclusively in television, for broadcasters across the world.
Venom was originally designed as a project for another graduate of television drama, John McKenzie (Unman, Wittering and Zigo 1971), who quit the production shortly before shooting commenced.
(C)Iain McLachlan 2003-4
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