From the very first Minute of Chang Cheh’s Five Deadly Venoms, you can tell you’re watching something special. Venoms begins with the dying master of the Poison clan immersing himself in a cauldron of boiling water and calmly having a heart to heart chat with his last disciple. The Master, it seems, is quite upset that many of his clan’s students have turned evil. As his last request, he asks his acolyte to hunt down the rogue brothers of the Five Venoms School and restore the honor of the Poison Clan.
At this point, an astute viewer might wonder exactly what kind of pupils the master expected to attract with an organization called “The Poison Clan”. Devotees of Bret Michaels and C.C DeVille notwithstanding, “Poison Clan” seems like a name predisposed to appeal solely to the evil demographic. Perhaps “Rainbow Clan” might have been a better name, or maybe “Cupcake Clan”? At any rate, if this sort of conundrum bothers you too much, you should probably stop the DVD, and go rent Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants instead, because Venoms is an often bizarre, sometimes surreal, always outsized classic slice of Old school Shaw Brothers action, a Kung-Fu comic book of bizarre fighting styles and obtuse conflicts, all served up in a flurry of fists and vibrant, bloody color.
The straightforward task of restoring honor to the clan, is, of course, fraught with many complications. The first is the anonymity of the school’s former students. Upon Graduating from Venom Tech, the master explains, Venoms alumni “must keep their backgrounds as secret as possible.” Hence, no one knows where any of them are. This obviously makes it quite hard to track them down for standard-issue Kung-Fu revenge. It also makes it very difficult for The Five Venoms foundation to hit up the alumni for donations to the scholarship fund.
Then there is the issue of the former students’ ultra-deadly, zoologically based kung-fu skills. In order to restore the honor of the school, our hero will have to contend with The Centipede, who strikes so fast, it is as if he has a thousand hands, The Snake, who moves with the swiftness and agility of his namesake, The Scorpion, who uses a super grip combined with deadly kicks, The Toad, who is strong and invulnerable to most weapons, and The Lizard, A biologist who uses an experimental formula to regenerate his missing arm….no, wait, wrong Lizard. This Lizard sticks to walls.
The Five Deadly Venoms launched careers, set trends, blew minds, and is still a cultural force today. Whether you appreciate it sincerely for its athletic artistry or relish its ridiculousness, Five Deadly Venoms is a must see for Kung-Fu fans. It’s also a prime example of the thematic ties that connect martial arts films to the classic superhero archetype.
If you’re a comic fan, the intro alone should immediately get your spidey senses tingling. Just ponder those names for a moment; The Scorpion, The Toad, the Lizard…if the Posion Clan had a “Rhino style” Stan Lee might have had a tidy little lawsuit on his hands. Then there are the double-identities to consider, and the fact that sometimes the Venoms do their deadly business disguised by totemistic Chinese opera masks, or garbed in shiny Chinese disco outfits.
The intro montage, with each brother being shown flexing the superpowered skills of their respective style, is also, to quote Jim “The Dragon” Kelly, “right out of a comic book.” That intro, probably the most famous intro in all of martial arts cinema, is also prime example of the martial arts movie staple of Kung-fu prowess and discipline translating into superhuman ability. In the world of Chinese Folk Science and martial arts lore, there is no need for radioactive spiders or gamma bombs to explain feats like wall-crawling or armored skin. The concept of Qi or Chi control, i.e. “inner power”, something familiar to fans of Marvels’ Iron Fist, has been used to justify everything from leaping buildings in a single bound, to killing someone with a tap of the fingers. Martial arts movies, of course, take the idea of breath control and physical focus a little far sometimes, but, on the other hand, you can still find people in the east who believe that masters of the past were capable of all sorts of things that westerners would deem ludicrous.
From a cross cultural context, it’s an interesting quirk. When Spider-Man climbs the side of the Chrysler building with spider-powers, it’s a given that the science behind it is implicitly ridiculous. When The Lizard does the same sort of thing in Venoms, it comes, at least partially, from a perceived history and tradition. The finer points of folklore notwithstanding it all ultimately adds up to the same thing: guys with crazy powers wailing on each other.
When things get rolling and The Venoms start mixing it up in the film, it really becomes evident that Five Deadly Venoms would be just as comfortable on the comic page as on the big screen. Watching The Toad bend steel plates with a single blow, or bounce sword blades off his chest seals the deal, and when a Venom faces off against a Venom, as in the final wall-climbing, snake-slithering, scorpion-stinging showdown, the bridge to comic book grandiosity is indisputably crossed.
Director Chang Cheh’s seminal combination of off-the-wall chi powers with grittier, more authentic fighting techniques was a departure from both the slapstick acrobatics of performers like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung, and the flightier, more fantastic aesthetic of traditional Swordplay movies like Touch of Zen. Cheh took the wu-xia superpowers and gave them impact and a real-world martial arts point of reference, and scores of directors and Fight choreographers who came after him would follow his lead.
Another of Cheh’s artistic quirks is his fixation on physical suffering as the ultimate expression of heroic virtue. Venoms sometimes verges on the sadistic in its depictions of gruesome acts of torture and violence. Cheh’s spiritual philosophy can be described as “no Pain, no gain”, and the more ridiculous, arcane, and excruciating the pain, the more virtue bestowed. Even though the brutality in Venoms is a means to a thematic end and the gushing blood is often ridiculously phony, tableaus like a man slowly suffocated with wet rice paper, or clapped into an iron maiden border on the gratuitous and perverse.
Still, Five Deadly venoms is legendary, although in the watching it does fall a little short of its revered stature. Cheh’s stage bound visuals and circuitous plotting may even make sections of the movie a chore to watch. Regardless of its shortcomings, Five Deadly Venoms is one of the most important Martial Arts films ever made, and a whole lot of over-the-top superheroic fun. It’s also an ideal entry point into the world of old-school Kung Fu and the films of Shaw brothers Studios. In short, if you have not seen The Five Deadly Venoms, then your Kung Fu is probably no good.