The Film: The Five Deadly Venoms (1978)

The Principals: Director: Chang Cheh,Sheng Chiang, Philip Kwok, Feng Lu, Pai Wei, Chien Sun, Meng Lo, Lung Wei Wang, Feng Ku, Shu Pei Sun, Huang-hsi Liu, Lao Shen, Hui Huang Lin, Ching Ho Wang, Han Chen Wang

The Premise: The dying master of the Poison Clan sends his last student, Yan Tieh, to track down his former five pupils, who have each been taught kung fu based on the style of a poisonous animal (Centipede, Snake, Scorpion, Lizard, Toad) and deal with them should they be using their skills for evil.  The master tells him that he’s been taught elements of all five styles, but he’s no match for any one of them, and that he’ll have to ally with at least one of them to take out the others.  A couple of the pupils, Snake and Centipede, are on a murder spree, looking for the wealth of an old man, while Lizard is a police officer on their trail (without knowing his classmates are the murderers) and is allied with Toad.  Scorpion’s identity remains a mystery.

Is It Good: It’s kitschy Shaw Bros. goodness.  I’ve been enjoying a Renaissance of sorts lately with ’70s kung fu films via Fuel TV and this is one of the few that I remembered distinctly from when I was a kid.  I really can’t believe that it’s been some 20 years that I’ve watched these in earnest; but perhaps it’s for the best as I’ve really been enjoying catching up with these again.  The saying “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore” is apt here.  These really go back to a different time, with the sound effects of the moves, the American dubbing and such.  But what I really like about these films more than anything is that they were directed to showcase the ridiculous athleticism of their actors with wide master shots and not relying on the bullshit, music video, blipvert editing so prevalent in action films today.

And there’s plenty of that here, especially with five or six distinct styles represented by the Poison Clan, aka The Venom Mob in real life.  The fights are simply great, and there’s a pretty decent story to be had, with the five conspiring against each other and Yan Tieh coming in as the incognito outsider.  For me, these childhood films are in a different batch than other Hong Kong films that I’ve caught later on.  I watched them with the bad American dubbing as a lad and that’s how I prefer them, right or wrong.

The story here is pretty straightforward to follow, unlike Ten Tigers of Kwangtung, which completely friggin’ lost me repeatedly a couple of weeks ago when I caught it.  Basically Yan Tieh slips into town looking for the five,and it’s not long before we discover that Snake and Centipede are the heavies.  They wipe out the family of the old man who has the hidden treasure when he won’t tell them where it is.  Lizard is a local police officer, and is allied with Toad, who, from what I can tell, is a well-built drifter with a penchant for drinking and enjoying his invulnerability to harm.  He’s sort of evil Kal-El in Superman III with better manners…and hygiene.

It’s not too hard to deduce the identity of Scorpion, considering the face time the character gets.  But to keep up appearances, he runs around in his mask, concealing his identity.  He conspires with Snake to eliminate Toad and Lizard, whomever he may be, after they capture Centipede and charge him with the murder of the family.  And Snake is worse than his namesake, because he does Toad something dirty in trying to frame him for the murders he and Centipede committed and using an iron maiden to discover his weak spot, which will negate his invulnerability.  Thanks to Scorpion’s anonymous interference, he does, and Toad just gets all kinds of FUBAR-red before being eliminated.

The ending fight is good, with either some interesting camera placement or good wire work for Yan Tieh and Lizard (or both), as they’re able to fight Spidey style by sticking to walls.  This one was as good as I remembered it.

Random Anecdotes: The Venom Mob knew each other since childhood when they attended the Peking Opera School.

Cinematic Soulmates: Shaw Brothers catalogue.