|While the Shaw Brothers catalogue contains a plethora of acclaimed martial arts films, only a select few earned a devout following upon their release in the West. Chang Cheh’s 1978 film The Five Venoms (a.k.a. The Five Deadly Venoms) was only a modest success in Hong Kong, but it became a certifiable cult classic in the United States, spawning a legion of admirers, including members of the Wu-Tang Clan, director Quentin Tarantino and even average joes like the rest of us.
Part of the film’s appeal lies in its set-up. The venerable sifu of the Poison Clan is on his last legs, and decides to send his final disciple Yan Tieh (Chiang Sheng) on a mission of great importance. Remorseful over the Poison Clan’s ill-gotten gains and fearful that his earlier disciples may be using their skills for evil, the old man orders Yan Tieh to track down a former colleague living in secret. The man is alleged to be in possession of a vast fortune amassed by the Poison Clan, and the old master wants Yan Tieh to find the treasure and use it for good.
The task seems easy enough, but there are at least three major snags in the plan. First, the sifu claims that his former pupils are also searching for the treasure, and they might not have the same charitable motives. As a result, Yan Tieh must uncover the true identities of the other disciples. If they’re good guys, he plans to join forces with them. If they’re villains, he’s under orders to send them to an early grave.
The second problem facing Yan Tieh is that each of the five “deadly venoms” was trained in a unique animal style – the snake, the toad, the gecko, the centipede, and the scorpion - while our hero possesses only a little bit of knowledge from each distinct Poison Clan style. Without the cooperation of one or two of the other disciples, he’ll be no match for the evil Venoms.
The third major obstacle, which is perhaps what most people remember about this film, is that each of the Venoms was trained while wearing modified Peking Opera-style masks. Consequently, not only does the sifu not know the identities of his ex-pupils, but they presumably don’t know each others’ either!
Disguising himself as a happy-go-lucky beggar, Yan Tieh searches for this location of the missing treasure and encounters a bevy of possible suspects. There’s a local cop (Philip Kwok) who seems to be friendly with a strongman (Lo Meng) who appears to be from out of town. Meanwhile, a rich nobleman (Wei Pai) appear to have ties with a shifty-looking bearded man (Lu Feng) skulking around the village. Could these be the Venoms? It isn’t long before the Toad, the Gecko, the Snake and the Centipede are revealed, but who on earth is the masked Scorpion, the evil mastermind pulling all the strings? Could it be the corrupted judge (Johnny Wang Lung-Wei)? Or someone less obvious?
The identity of the Scorpion Venom isn’t hard to guess, especially if you’re familiar with the Venom Mob, but it’s still fun to watch the central mystery play out regardless of whether or not you figure it out beforehand. The opening sequences, which flash back to a time when the Venoms began their training under the Poison Clan master, gives the film a real comic book feel that, coupled with the mystery plot, creates a level of intrigue from the early going.
The film delivers in its action sequences, as each is well-choreographed, culminating in a largely satisfying five-way, wire-assisted final battle. Add in some blood that looks suspiciously like red paint, an attempted murder by iron maiden (the infamous torture device, not the heavy metal band) and some crazy animal style kung fu, and you have a recipe for a fine cult film. The secret ingredient, of course, is director Chang Cheh, the prolific filmmaker behind such Shaw classics as The One-Armed Swordsman (1967), Vengeance! (1970) and Crippled Avengers (1978).
As with the aforementioned Crippled Avengers, which also starred the Venom Mob, the genuine chemistry amongst the actors, particularly Philip Kwok, Lo Meng and Chiang Sheng in this instance, elevates The Five Venoms considerably, allowing us to invest in the characters. Add to this onscreen camaraderie a mystery plot and unique characters with outlandish fighting styles, and you have a film that’s a far cry from the average “You killed my father!” chopsocky schlock coming out of Hong Kong in the 1970s. Thirty plus years later, The Five Venoms remains a cult classic that more than lives up to its hype. (Calvin McMillin, 2011)