Five Deadly Venoms, The (1978) Review

"The Five Deadly Venoms" Chinese Theatrical Poster

"The Five Deadly Venoms" Chinese Theatrical Poster

AKA: 5 Venoms of Death
Director: Chang Cheh
Writer: Chang Cheh, Ni Kuang
Producer: Runme Shaw
Cast: Chiang Sheng, Sun Chien, Philip Kwok Chung Fung, Lo Meng, Lu Feng, Wai Pak, Dick Wei, Johnny Wang Lung Wei, Suen Shu Pau, Ku Feng, Chan Hung, Chow Kin Ping, Chui Tai Ping, Fong Yue, Ha Kwok Wing, Lai Yau Hing
Running Time: 96 min.

By Joe909

I was lucky when I first saw Five Venoms: I’d never seen a Venoms movie, and so I was actually held in suspense throughout. I was also young, which helped. Moreso a mystery than a kung-fu epic, one of the main draws of Five Venoms is you don’t know who is who. Part of the fun is trying to determine who the Scorpion is, and if the evil judge is secretly a member of the Poison Clan. This is surely the effect this movie had on first-time viewers back in the day, but now it’s such a part of the kung-fu mainstream that the actors are referred to by the parts they play. This sucks for the first-time viewer, because the movie doesn’t yield all of its secrets until the very end.

A caveat reviewers often provide is that this movie isn’t very action-packed. It isn’t, at least compared to other Venoms movies, but that’s not to say it’s slow, or boring. In fact, it’s more like an earlier Chang Cheh piece, as it puts just as much importance on story as it does on action. Later Chang movies usually recycled the same story over and over (I’m not complaining, mind you), with all of the flash zooms and occasionally-lazy directing that might imply. But in Five Venoms Chang was still in touch with the energetic camera control he possessed in earlier times.

I wonder if the success of director Chor Yuen’s swordplay/mysteries had any bearing on Chang’s direction for this. Chor made all manner of movies (Killer Clans, Death Duel, Clans of Intrigue) which toyed with viewers, holding them in suspense throughout. Much different than Chan Cheh’s straight-up tales of vengeance. Anyway, whatever his inspiration, Chang invested the movie with his full talent; probably he was just driven by I Kuang’s tight script, which itself was a takeoff on ideas he’d first presented in the Chor Yuen-directed 1976 film Web of Death.

Probably everyone knows the plot, but it goes like this: Chiang Sheng, a young disciple who’s been taught bits and pieces of each Venoms style, is sent by his dying master to seek out five former students, each a master of one of the five styles. Chiang doesn’t know who any of them are, as they each wore masks when being trained, and now go under different names. Luckily, it seems that all of them are now in one city in particular, where they scheme to steal the treasure of another of the master’s former students. Instead of making this into an all-out action extravaganza, Chang Cheh and I Kuang have bigger plans, and turn the above plot into a tightly-knit web of intrigue and conspiracy. The story takes precedence over the action and skill of the Venoms; those looking for examples of their acrobatic talents are directed to later films in the Venoms catalog.

My favorite part of this movie has always been the opening credits sequence. The murky lair in which the Venoms are taught their styles is cool enough, but the Venoms in their crazy masks are one of the coolest images in film ever. I wish they’d worn them more in the movie, but only the Scorpion hangs onto his for the duration of the film. The Toad’s mask is just plain goofy, though. The Lizard gets the coolest mask, and the Snake’s is cool, too, sort of a Peking Opera-style version of Gene Simmon’s KISS makeup.

The choreography is good, but not up to the insane level of later Venoms movies. There are also no bizarre weapons, as most of the characters fight empty-handed. The violence level as well is minimal when compared to later Venoms movies, though one of the characters gets pretty bloody when placed into an iron maiden. The film also features several murders more in line with a horror movie. Costuming is great across the board, and I’ve always liked Wei Pai’s flashy garb. The sets all seem claustrophobic, ramming home the Gothic element of the script.

It was a treat to see the remastered Celestial DVD. As usual, their restoration is amazing, and the film looks brand new. This is one of those movies where I know the English dub like the back of my hand, but I already prefer the original Mandarin track. It clears up several things that were confusing in the English dub, like when Kuo Choi tells some guy to leave and stay at the same time. I know it sounds stupid, but seeing these movies in their original language almost makes them seem more like “real” films. Not that I ever looked down on them (far from it!), but even though I always have and always will love the English dubbing in old school movies, seeing them this way gives me a whole new appreciation for them. That being said, the English dub does have its charm: compare the English dub’s “Poison Clan rocks the world!” with the subtitled version’s “The Five Venoms are out and the world is settled.”

So how would I rank Five Venoms? Well, I love all of the Venoms movies, pure and simple. I’d rate this one high for many reasons, but I’m not sure if it’s the best Venoms movie, because it doesn’t show off their individual skills. The story predominates, and Chiang Sheng especially is brushed to the side, unable to provide much of an idea of his phenomenal talents. That being said, the story for this movie pulls me in more than any of the other Venoms movies.

When it comes down to it, though, there is no perfect Venoms movie. Each has its own positives. Five Venoms was the first and has the tightest story, Crippled Avengers has the acrobatics and the coolest villain (Lu Feng with his metal hands), Kid with the Golden Arm has the bizarre characters, Invincible Shaolin has the drama, Killer Army has the tightest choreography, Masked Avengers has the Satanic bad guys, and House of Traps has the, well, house of traps. And that’s only a few that I’ve mentioned. Regardless, Five Venoms is regarded as a classic for a reason, and I’ve rated it as such.

Joe909’s Rating: 10/10

By Alvin George

I borrowed a VHS copy of “Five Deadly Venoms” from one of my friends. For a guy who hated “Five Fingers of Death,” I was surprised at how effective “Five Deadly Venoms” was. It actually has depth. My favorite villain was the snake dude, whatever his name was. His moves seemed reminiscent of Jackie Chan during his Lo Wei phase. I’m not the biggest fan of old-school martial-arts cinema by any stretch of the imagination, but for those looking for a different-looking old-school flick, “Five Deadly Venoms” is something of a standout.

Alvin George’s Rating: 7.5/10

By Numskull

Director Chang Cheh hit upon an extremely successful formula for this landmark kung fu film featuring a very talented cast and a genuinely involving story that goes far beyond the threadbare “I must avenge Teacher” and “kill the Japs” stuff that gives the old school martial arts genre a bad name. In fact, the plot overshadows the action to a certain extent; fight scenes in this movie are not particularly long, intense, or numerous. As it is, it’s very good fun, and its impact on the genre is tremendous. But, with some beefing up, it could have been that much greater as a film in and of itself and as a springboard for its prolific stars.

A Poison Clan sifu feels death fast approaching, and begins to worry that five of his former pupils may be using their lethal skills for all the wrong reasons, so he sends Yang Tieh, a green but very loyal student, to investigate their activities. The problem is, the names and faces of these pupils remain secret. The teacher knew them only by the fighting styles in which he schooled them, each related to a poisonous (or at least “icky”) animal of some kind, and during their training, they wore Chinese opera-style masks. The five students are as follows:

CENTIPEDE (Lu Feng): adept at overwhelming the enemy with raw, blinding speed

SNAKE (Wei Pai): a flexible fighter who lashes out at vital areas with his fingertips with plenty of power and precision

SCORPION (Sun Chien): mimics the strength and crushing power of the animal’s pincers

LIZARD (Kuo Choi/Philip Kwok): highly agile, with the unique ability to cling to sheer surfaces and thus attack from advantageous positions

TOAD (Lo Meng): packed with brute force and immune to many attacks thanks to rock-hard skin

In the hands of a lesser director, this premise probably would have led to little more than a series of battles in which Yang Tieh finds some clever way to eliminate the other Poison Clan students one by one, then walks off into the sunset with some bimbo on his arm. Happily, that’s not even close to how it works out. Although it is established in the early going which one(s) has/have turned bad and which one(s) has/have not, Yang Tieh’s quest to unveil the identities of his master’s former disciples before a cache of treasure can be claimed by the villainous one(s) makes for a very enjoyable film despite the slightly restrained action content. The last fight is well done, but don’t expect a whole lot aside from that.

No women in this movie. Stag kung fu, I guess. The role of Snake was supposedly intended for a woman, but for one reason or another it went to Wei Pai instead.

Subsequent “Venoms” movies used the same stars in different stories and roles with varying degrees of success, and the bunch of them eventually moved on to other things. Probably the most well known is Philip Kwok, who, besides appearing on camera in a number of films, directed “Ninja in the Deadly Trap” and choreographed stunts and fight scenes for films as diverse as Hard Boiled, Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky, Tomorrow Never Dies, and Brotherhood of the Wolf (God bless that man). Director/co-writer Chang Cheh, as you probably know, passed away in June of 2002, leaving a large and impressive kung fu filmography behind him.

“Poison Clan rocks the world!”

Numskull’s Rating: 7/10

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