Insomniac Cult Movie Theater: Five Deadly Venoms

GhostAndy

They continue to tell me there is no rest for the wicked, and indeed I must have bought land in the western part of Oz given how little I sleep sometimes.

However, all my insomnia has resulted in a lot of nocturnal movie watching which is sometimes for the best given the “interesting” choices in cinema I’ve got. In fact, most people now ask me whether I’ve actually watched a film that was released prior to 1970 given these constant blasts from the past I keep highlighting on these entries.

Well, don’t say I never listen to my audience as on today’s edition of the Cult Movie Theater, I highlight a film that was not only released well after 1970 (8 years to be exact), but also was selected because of a tie in to another movie that is so new that it hasn’t been even released yet.

You see on the GotS podcast since SDCC 2019 and the announcement of the MCU Phase 4 film line up, a lot of our fans have decried me for being so down on the upcoming Shang Chi, saying I should be more upbeat and positive about a movie that could do the same for the Asian audiences as Black Panther did for those of color.

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I guess they do have a point that the MCU hasn’t really been known for churning out clunkers when it comes to films, so Shang Chi should be no different. I will also say that I’ve always had a healthy appreciation for the “Kung Fu” style movie as a genre in cinema, so there’s a chance that Shang Chi could reawaken this style of film on modern main stream audiences.

However, I’m going to beat them to the high punch by covering one of my favorite Kung Fu movies on today’s blog. So without further ado, let’s all drink another cup of black coffee and stay up watching the famous Shaw Brothers classic “Five Deadly Venoms“!


Five Deadly Venoms

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Background:

Five Deadly Venoms aka Five Venoms aka One of the Best Kung Fu movies ever was again first released in 1978 and features a who’s who of Kung Fu movie royalty both in front of and behind the scenes.

First off, it came out of the Shaw Brothers studio in Hong Kong which produced close to 1,000 pictures in its history some of being the most popular and significant Chinese-language films of the period.

Second, it was directed by Chang Cheh who is often referred to as “The Godfather of Hong Kong Cinema”, with not just some of the best films every made in the martial arts genre to his credit, but he successful made those films in a variety of different martial arts sub genres such as swordplay films vs. straight kung fu movies vs. the more garish and overblown costume epics.

Finally, it featured the actor trope that would become famous worldwide as “The Venom Mob” in what many consider to be their breakout movie. This crew made up of Kuo Chui, Lu Feng, Lo Mang, Wei Pai, Chiang Sheng, and Sun Chien had appeared in previous Shaw Brothers movies prior to Deadly Venoms, but it was really this picture that established their unique mix of acrobatics, weapons training, martial arts acumen, and most importantly true acting talent, as something very special among the massive sea of other martial arts films on the market.

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Friends since childhood, the team had tremendous chemistry with each other which came out often in their expert choreography and seeming ease in acting with one another on screen. All told the Venom Mob would go on to make 19 other films with each other after Deadly Venoms, some of which are among the very best this genre has to offer such as Invincible Shaolin , Crippled Avengers, and Kid with the Golden Arm.

In terms of story, it’s hard to talk about it a lot without spoiling the reveals given it is truly more of a mystery/crime drama than a kung fu picture. However, the central plot revolves around an ancient kung fu master belonging to the Poison Clan who had previously taught 5 students each a different supernatural martial arts style: The Centipede style, the Snake style, the Scorpion style, the Lizard style, and finally the Toad style. Further more, while the students were trainings, they wore masks and never revealed their true identities to each other.

Coming to the end of his life, the master sends his final student who has received somewhat incomplete training out to track down the five former students to ensure they were not using their skills for evil. Of course inevitably some of them have turned to more wicked ways as a group of them have hatched a scheme to murder another former master from the Poison Clan who had amassed treasure and steal it.

Thus starts a kung fu civil war between the members of Poison Clan, some good, some evil using their super human forms of martial arts in a battle to claim the treasure and the right to lead the Clan into the future. The only issue is with the identities being secret, there’s no way to tell which side is which?!?

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Yep, that’s Five Deadly Venoms in a nut shell. A Kung Fu movie so good that the film was listed at number 11 on Entertainment Weeklys Top 50 Cult Films list. For the record, that list also included such movies as Scarface, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the Shawshank Redemption.

So yeah…that’s some pretty great company.


2am Thoughts and Reflections:

As I mentioned above, it’s really hard to talk about Five Deadly Venoms without talking about the fact that this isn’t just a martial arts movie. In fact, if you come into this movie just for the punches and kicks you are going to missing the point.

You see, often on our podcast, we say that the true secret sauce for the MCU movies is the fact that they take other genre movies and add superheroes to it. Like “Ant-man” for example is a Heist movie…with superheroes. “Winter Solider” is a taunt political thriller…with superheroes.

You can say the same thing about Five Deadly Venoms and that’s why it works so well. This movie is actually a Crime Noir movie…with kung fu. I mean it deals with murder, a heist, frame ups, crooked politicians and policemen on the take, torture for confessions, intimidating witnesses, courtroom drama, and honorable cops taking the law into their own hands when the system has failed.

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It’s just set in an ancient Chinese village and has a sub plot about different insanely powerful martial arts styles. But at the heart, the story has more in common with “The Usual Suspects” than it does with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.

Especially when you throw in the mysteries surrounding the Five’s identities that permeates the picture as well as the twist ending that guarantees to have you guessing until the end.

But I would say that I’d be lying if I didn’t point out that the fights in this movie are pretty damn fantastic. My personal favorite is the original battle between Lu Feng’s character and Lo Mang’s. I’d tell you which styles they represent, but I’m hoping you’ll watch the movie and see for yourself.

All I can say, is I love it, because their styles are somewhat opposing as one is fast/quick while the other is strong/deliberate. It makes for some incredibly fluid choreography which is even more impressive when you realize that they didn’t have any separate stunt or fight specialists planning this stuff out for them. They were the experts and they came up with those sequences themselves.

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Final Grade: A

Okay, I’m not going to sit here and claim to be the greatest authority on martial arts movies. Trust me. I have friends who are way more knowledgeable about the genre than I could ever be in a thousand years.

However, I can honestly say that if there’s only one classic martial arts film that you watch in your lifetime, 5 Deadly Venoms should be it. I know I’m going to take some shit from my buddy Jason Calhoun who would probably yell out Crippled Avengers in response, but I just call it as I see it.

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This was the very first of the Venom Clan movies and without this picture the movies that would come later like Crippled Avengers wouldn’t have been made. Anyone that knows me or has listened to our podcast will tell you, I’m a sucker for the “beginnings”. When anyone tells me “Wow..this was super important” or “This series is the best”, I often look right to the source of where all that sentiment came from, at the origin of all that hoopla.

I do this because it’s almost a crystallization in it’s purest form of what the original idea was, “the face that launched a thousand ships” as it were. Everything that comes after that whether it’s the hundreds of issues after “Amazing Fantasy #15” or all the albums after Weezer’s Blue Album, it’s all just trying to recreate that original magic that was so infectious that it could not be contained.

For me, the Venom Clan showed the world what real Kung Fu movies were capable of with Five Venoms. They could not only have incredibly athletic and exciting fight scenes, but they could have intricate and nuanced storytelling. And not just storytelling in terms of simple build up to battles over honor or  territory, but in this case, a complex crime drama filled with twists and betrayals.

Here’s hoping that you give this movie a try the next time you are up at 2am and watching another repeat of “Hell’s Kitchen” just sounds unbearable. You won’t regret it!

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