Matty spotlights a serviceable mid-’00s slasher by a filmmaker seemingly working through something.
Despite never rising above the mediocre as a full package, there’s a sense when watching VENOM (2005) that, directorially, it’s the work of someone with an axe to grind. Again, it’s not a great film — but this agreeable bit of bubblegum horror is anchored by a compelling mean streak which presumably stems from latent creative aggression on the part of Jim Gillespie.
The Scottish helmer had been through hell on his last film, the Sylvester Stallone-starring serial killer thriller D-Tox (2002). Given D-Tox’s reins following the success of his breakout hit I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Gillespie’s sophomore feature was a difficult production and dumped by its studio, Universal, when they lost confidence in the project in the wake of reshoots and dismally scored test screenings. The film finally surfaced in U.S. theatres via DEJ Productions who picked it up in a fire sale in September 2002, nearly three-and-a-half years after Gillespie wrapped its first round of shooting in May ‘99. Odd, then, that Gillespie would direct Venom for Dimension Films: a company infamous for such similarly meddlesome practices. Ask Kevin Yagher, Albert Pyun, Guillermo Del Toro, and Gillespie’s IKWYDLS scribe and Venom producer, Kevin Williamson, who was having his werewolf romp, Cursed (2005), messed with by the shingle while Venom was being developed. Thankfully, aside from a reshaped and tacked-on ending, Venom shows few signs of behind-the-scenes tampering and comes across as a relatively harmonious teaming/reunion. In fact it was Williamson, happy with their partnership on I Know What You Did Last Summer, who recommended Gillespie to Dimension for Venom in the first place.
As Williamson explained in the puff piece included on the film’s long out of print DVD, Venom began life when Dimension’s boss, Bob Weinstein, asked if he’d be interested in turning a video game Weinstein had optioned the rights for called ‘Backwater’ into a movie. The catch was that the game — conceived and penned by veteran video game writers Flint Dille and John Zuur Platten — was still in development. Intrigued, Williamson jumped aboard. He liked ‘Backwater’’s Louisiana backdrop and its voodoo-driven story, and when Gillespie was recruited to shepherd the film adaptation, both he and Williamson were keen on the idea of being able to turn the game’s villain, a creepy zombie-slasher boogeyman nicknamed ‘Jangles’, into the Krueger-esque centre of what they hoped would be a new cross-media genre franchise.
As usual when chickens are counted before they’re hatched, neither the game nor the expanded universe happened. Venom tanked at the U.S. box office and was sent straight-to-video in the U.K. where it fared as poorly. Indeed, so meagre were Venom’s DVD returns that Dimension didn’t even bother to sequelise it — a genuine shock in retrospect considering they cobbled together DTV instalments to everything else in their horror library (see: Dracula 2001 (2000), J-horror remake Pulse (2006), and their voluminous Hellraiser and Children of the Corn chapters). Upon Venom’s U.S. theatrical release, pundits speculated that its flopping was likely due to bad timing. With many a contemporaneous notice conceding that the film was well made and ticked the requisite popcorn-terror boxes, the belief was that Venom’s nosedive was another casualty of Hurricane Katrina, which hit two weeks ahead of its big screen bow. While such a thing doesn’t excuse the film’s half-baked script (by Dille, Platten and Brandon Boyce) and indistinguishable characters, it’s certainly food for thought. Evidently American audiences didn’t want to watch an undead maniac wreaking havoc in Louisiana when the area and its people had suffered so much real-life misery already.
In a particularly cruel twist of fate, the knock-on effect saw Gillespie labelled a bust again, to the point where he wouldn’t direct a film for over another decade (he returned to the chair for 2016’s sturdy adolescent action caper Take Down). And that’s a shame because Venom is a briskly delivered lark tackled with tremendous verve; a picture of force and ceremony that clearly demonstrates a talented yet hungry artist throwing himself headlong into a surreptitiously personal narrative that bubbles with raw emotion — maybe not in terms of drama, but aesthetically, tonally and conceptually.
The clue is in the film’s name:
Venom — which was lensed as ‘The Reaper’ — is venomous.
Just as its killer (here christened Ray Sawyer, essayed by Rick Cramer, and given a quasi-bittersweet backstory) is reborn and powered by the fury of the voodoo-milked murderers whose evil spirits are inadvertently pumped into him by a bed of demonic snakes (!), a rejuvenated Gillespie seems to channel his post D-Tox frustrations into an arresting, rage-fuelled abstraction. Beneath its cookie-cutter ‘teens in trouble’ façade and Wrong Turn (2003) and Jeepers Creepers (2001)-inspired overtures (the backwoods setting, the prominent use of a highly stylised truck), Venom is a perversely gleeful wallow in anger, regret and resilience — the latter embodied by the film’s most three-dimensional inhabitant, the surprisingly resourceful Eden (Agnes Bruckner). A Mary Sue? Perhaps. After all, you could draw a parallel between Eden’s urge to leave her small-town confines with Gillespie’s own apparent desire to prove his worth, but it’s never to the detriment of Venom‘s meat n’ potatoes.
Ghoulishly pretty and merrily macabre, Venom is a sumptuously lensed offering. Every masterfully composed and delicately blocked 2.35:1 shot — friezes of empty space and atmos — throbs with an eerie and engulfing sparsity, as if we’re being swallowed and suffocated by the film’s very fabric. It’s a sensation that becomes frighteningly literal when Venom twists from a conventional body counter to a tense, swamp-side siege flick, and it’s visually manifested in the film’s mutating colour palette. In Venom’s neatest touch, the blue hues of Steve Mason’s photography grow greyer, darker and more impressionistic in tandem with Sawyer’s rotting, which is rendered by a wealth of icky, vaguely Fly (1986)-esque make-up FX by Patrick Tatopoulos. Alas, it’s in the splatter department where Gillespie falters. Horror fans are an easy lay when it comes to slasher movies: give us a splash of gore and we’re in the palm of your hand. Yet for its endearing incandescence, Gillespie — unlike, say, Adam Green and his bayou-bound carve-’em-up Hatchet (2006) — pulls his punches with the crimson. It’s a weirdly counterintuitive approach that leaves Venom looking anaemic and antiquated compared to the ultra-grisly torture porn epics that were popping up around it (Saw (2004), Hostel (2005) et al), and it robs Gillespie of the exclamative finish to an impassioned artistic exorcism clad in rudimentary slice n’ dice skin.