This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
You don’t need to do much more than whisper “I had five pupils…” to send shivers up the spines of most martial arts fans. It’s a line that kicks off one of the most dazzling opening sequences in the history of cinema, as the dying Master of the Poison Clan explains to his sixth and final pupil that there were five more before him, each trained in a unique fighting style.
The Five Deadly Venoms wear masks that hide their identity and represent their particular style. There’s the Centipede, the Snake, the Scorpion, the Lizard, and the Toad, and the ways in which they fight draw from each animal’s characteristics. As the Master explains, Centipede and Snake know one another’s identity, as do Lizard and Toad. None of the others know Scorpion. The sixth pupil (or the ‘Hybrid Venom’) is young and inexperienced but trained in every style – Jack of All Venoms but Master of None, if you like. He isn’t skilled enough in any technique to beat his seniors one-on-one, but does understand their strengths and weaknesses.
One of the Master’s old friends, Yun, is in possession of a secret fortune and the Master is scared that some of his former pupils have turned evil and will use their semi-invincible kung fu to try and steal it. As the Master dies, he sends the Hybrid Venom out into the world to track down the other five (whoever they may now be), to find out which ones can be trusted and which have gone to the dark side, and to protect the treasure.
If this feels like a lot to take in, it is. To make matters worse, it’s all explained in voiceover over the first five minutes of the film, something which flagrantly breaks a number of ‘good filmmaking’ rules. Luckily, director Chang Cheh overlays it over the top of visually spectacular displays of masked men in psychedelic training chambers performing godlike acrobatics that will blow your mind to smithereens. You’ll never have felt so riveted by clunky exposition. I think I could permanently loop the first five minutes of this movie on the back of my retinas and never get bored.
It’s also undeniably intriguing as a story setup. Who are the Venoms? And, once the evil ones are identified, how can these virtually indestructible fighters ever be defeated?
I think perhaps the best way to describe how it gets you is with a football analogy. Don’t panic. I don’t know the first thing about football. I find it incomprehensible when I overhear men on the train yammering about tactics and positions. I’ve never understood how anyone gets so excited about discussing scenarios like what would happen ‘If they’d put Smith in goal and played a 5-3-1 defence’ or whatever but then, when preparing to write this piece and trying to explain what the Venoms were to friends, it suddenly made sense.
Get a bunch of kung fu film enthusiasts talking about the Venoms and it’ll be just like football fans going over strategies; speculating over which combination of styles could bring down which and how it might go down. Not to mention, the endless debate over which style is the coolest. Even if the film itself has flaws (which we’ll come to), its central idea and its iconography are so compelling, they’ve set imaginations blazing and tongues wagging for the best part of 40 years.
Chang Cheh was one of the most notable directors of the Shaw Brothers Studio’s 1970s Golden Age. His gritty, violent style was unique among his peers; perhaps best described as ‘Hitchcock at double speed’ albeit with classical Chinese influences. Although he’d been prolifically releasing films for a decade, including fan favourites like The One-Armed Swordsman (1967) and the staggeringly brutal Boxer From Shantung (1972), Five Deadly Venoms (1978) gave him a second wind, launched a more colourful and extravagant period of his career and also cemented the reputations of its stars. They became known as The Venom Mob and collaborated with Cheh on dozens more films, most of which were huge hits within the genre.
As a group of actors, they really were first class. Diverse to the point where it feels like insanity to group them together and yet, somehow, their chemistry worked like a dream. Of the principle players, Philip Kwok was arguably the finest when it came to straight-up acting (and gets to show off a whole range of emotions in Five Deadly Venoms), but he was complemented by Chiang Sheng’s graceful flamboyance, Lo Meng’s charismatic toughness, Sun Chien’s high-kicking physicality and Lu Feng’s brooding darkness.
All that said, speaking personally, Cheh’s probably my least favourite within the pantheon of great Shaws directors (but then I never really liked Hitchcock much either so take that as you will). I find his films can sometimes feel so brutal, they’re plain cold, so intricate, they’re clinical and often too macho for their own good. I also hate the way he sidelines female characters. Despite the original script having the Snake as a female Venom, there isn’t a woman within miles of Five Deadly Venoms (excluding a couple who show up in the background of an early scene to get slaughtered) and this is to its detriment, especially considering how many other Shaws films of the time cast women in complex, groundbreaking and exciting major roles.
There are other issues too. The plot is a labyrinthine logic puzzle which – like Christopher Nolan’s films for me – works at face value while it solves itself but falls apart when you try to apply any kind of real-world emotional motives to it. The ‘Why didn’t you have Michael Caine fly your kids to France?’ effect is present when you walk away. Admittedly, there are interesting political and philosophical subtexts and it’s a notch or two smarter than your average martial arts film, but the pseudo-Shakespearian stylings can veer from gripping to baffling in the flick of a leather-gauntleted wrist. It’s perhaps best not to think too hard about it and just go along with the ride.
Five Deadly Venoms is, more than anything, an exercise in style. It looks stunning. The production design is as strong as you’d expect from the Shaws and Cheh’s camera ravishes these surroundings with ferocity. He’s also a master of shooting the male form with the same lascivious enthusiasm as Russ Meyer shot the female one. As a display of glorious – near-pornographic – physicality, Five Deadly Venoms shows Cheh and the Venom Mob engage in a dizzying dance of first-rate choreography and costuming.
Being lovers and/or veterans of the Chinese Opera (an influence would be even more apparent in one of their last films together, Attack Of The Drunken Goddess), Cheh and the Venoms channel this into their martial arts. The fighting here is by no means as authentic as what you’d see in, say, a Lau Kar-Leung film, but instead it’s acrobatic, ornate and at times, almost magical. As RZA puts it, reminiscing about seeing it in the grindhouses of ’70s New York: “You see these guys sticking to the walls and sliding on the floor? There was an escape from the reality that was around me.” When you watch the Venom Mob in action, it is indeed transcendental. A beautiful retreat from the everyday grind.
Over the years, the film has garnered a huge reputation, inspiring everything from Power Rangers villains to the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad in Kill Bill, not to mention an awesome all-female Wu Tang Clan sister band called the Deadly Venoms (an amusingly ironic vindication for the lack of women in the film). Its imagery has also been passed down in less obvious ways. There’s no mistaking, say, the shot of Snake on his throne as an image that launched a thousand hip hop album covers:
If you’ve any interest in action cinema, Five Deadly Venoms is essential. While not necessarily the greatest, it’s one of the most inventive, psychotronic and unique martial arts features done on anything like this kind of budget. Stick it on as a late night Netflix choice with some friends round and guaranteed, you’ll all be talking about it for weeks.
Oh, and my own favorite Venom style? Centipede.