I don’t know how many Pajibans follow Canadian politics, but my government turned into a massive gassy fireball this week and made itself some international headlines. As entertaining as it is, sometimes you have to look away, briefly, to get your bearings. In times like these I turn to my B-movie collection for solace. I also turn to it when I’ve promised Dustin a retrospective but find myself a little swamped, work-wise, and need to pull something out of my ass in a few short hours. Today is a B-movie day in many respects, so nudge down on your chairs, grab your oversize coffee tubs, and bear with my questionable taste and quick-draw overviews. I want to shout out not one but two liminal little monster flicks — one recent and one over a quarter-century old. The first movie, Rogue (2007), came and went like a shade. It wasn’t reviewed on Pajiba, had a very limited release in the US, and has depended on rentals and word of mouth for life beyond its native Australia. The second movie, Venom (1981), is a dignified British thriller that still looks incredible 27 years on. Both movies celebrate their monsters — a colossal crocodile and a bitchy black mamba snake — but surround them with superior script, acting and cinematography, which help them transcend their genres and generate degrees of tension we rarely find in movies with so much silliness at their core.
Despite its poor box-office performance at home, word of mouth about Rogue was so effusive that I had to manage dangerously high expectations when I fed it into my player. The fact that it was made in Australia — a nation that knows how to build great thrillers — only stoked those expectations, but the movie met them with trumpets and fireworks. Radha Mitchell, who was introduced to North Americans in the Aussie SF hit, Pitch Black, shows up here as Kate, a tour-boat operator in Kakadu National Park. Kate is sweaty and laconic and cocksure with her passel of tourists, putt-putting them around a lake and pointing out the local scenery, which consists of canyons the color of cinnamon and winding waterways as lazy as the heat flies. Aboard Kate’s vessel is an American travel writer named Pete (Michael Vartan), who’s all sinew and doubt as he endures the hot ride through the gorges, unsure about the boat, its captain and his fellow passengers, and uncertain he’ll find much of a story in the vacuum he sees around him. Also onboard is an obnoxious wannabe shutterbug, a dying woman traveling the country with her husband and teenage daughter, and a small assortment of backpacking granolas of various generation and income bracket. They’re in it for the scenery, for the sense of achievement they’ll take home after “roughing it” in the Outback (which the film rightfully mocks), and for the promised sight of crocodiles. “You’ll be all right as long as you don’t go in the water,” Kate taunts them, and with that we’re launched on a course audiences know like the backs of their hand.
Neither the plot summary nor the trailers do Rogue justice. The film was directed by Greg McLean, who made a splash with Wolf Creek in 2005 and who knows how to take your basic Jaws premise to heights it hasn’t seen in years. Structurally, we know where the movie’s heading, but McLean uses long silences, natural ambient sounds, near-poignant characterization and fabulous camera-work to cut us with his razors; we know what’s coming, but that knowledge manifests as anticipation, here, rather than dismay. It lies on the characters’ skins like bush-sweat and resounds in the unsettling echoes between canyons. It’s enriched by the performances, which are by and large rigorous and natural — only Vartan struggles with his lines and his crippling Hollywood-lot blandness, but he makes it work nevertheless, because he’s supposed to come off spoiled and artificial, anyway, and demonstrate little emotion until the movie’s climax. He’s supposed to be a lump of rice in contrast to the two local yahoos who harass Kate and her passengers with their speed-boat and end up glomming onto the party when things get rough. Things do get rough when someone onboard sees a distress flare over an uncharted canyon where Kate isn’t supposed to steer her boat. But good-Samaritanism prevails and the boat slips into a byway that turns out to be a giant rogue crocodile’s feeding ground.
To say much more will give too much away; yes, we suspect the boat will be compromised and the passengers stranded, and we know individuals will be picked off. The thing is, they’re picked off delightfully, and when they find themselves on a small mound gradually sinking under a rising tide, our asses can’t help coming to a rest on the edges of our seats. Being eaten alive by a croc adds zing to the zest already laid out before us, after all. McLean toys with all the classic scenarios: the need for cooperation, the danger of mass panic, and the poison of conflicting personalities. Grief over loved ones devoured before the eyes of family isn’t an afterthought, here, and the will to survive is also a major player. People get innovative and very very brave, and believability is served by the film’s strong production values and by the croc itself, which finds something close to life in its animatronic husk (touched up by CGI effects). Rogue takes itself more seriously than Tremors, say, or Anaconda, but the project works, and it’s a lot more ferocious than Pajiba’s other favorite giant-croc movie, Lake Placid. What sets Rogue apart from so many other monster flicks is its genuine tension, and that isn’t thanks to the story or internal events so much as it is to McLean’s unsung direction. The picture has a tautness that’s almost impossible, now, to capture with mere formula, but McLean sets his thrills in an amber that promises to make the movie a classic.
Piers Haggard’s Venom (not to be confused with any of the other dozen movies by the same title) also deserves to be a classic, but it’s rarely seen or discussed these days, and that’s a loss for horror fans everywhere. I only discovered it through my Klaus Kinski endeavors, which involve watching every movie the man ever made in order to find the odd fleck of gold among the silt that is his larger body of work. Venom is one of the best films Kinski made outside of his Herzog collaborations, despite the fact that it was directed by a steady but unexciting BBC regular and co-stars a black mamba in both real and rubber forms. Kinski plays Jacques Müller, a cold platter of a man who manages a group of Euro-terrorists with a firm hand and slightly corroded brain-pan. He’s joined by a notable cast that includes Oliver Reed, Susan George, Sarah Miles, and Sterling Hayden, and he’s wrapped in strong composition and sound film stock, which help the movie hold up so well despite a few strains of circa-1980 film scoring. Müller is behind a plot to kidnap the son of a wealthy London couple named Hopkins; he installs Reed as the couple’s chauffeur and George as the couple’s housekeeper, then waits for the day when the parents leave their son, Philip (Lance Holcomb), home alone with the help. His plan, unfortunately, is interrupted by the accidental arrival of a black mamba that sets off a string of events resulting in a showdown between kidnappers, cops, hostages and snake in the Hopkins’ posh brownstone.
Production values are one thing (which this B-movie has in spades), but acting is another thing entirely, and the cast brings it home. Kinski is Kinski, oily and brittle at once, and shining off the screen like Fitzcarraldo’s Machiavellian twin dinner-jacket. Reed is typically bloated and abusive and disturbing in his nastiness, and slightly putrid overall. Miles, as the soft-hearted snake expert who winds up in the thick of the hostage situation, is the most solid performer onscreen, and Sterling Hayden provides the movie’s sweet-spot as Philip’s grandfather, an aging adventurer who collects reptiles and rodents with his grandson, and who finds himself in the role of the child’s defender when the kidnappers invade their home. The harmless snake he ordered for their domestic zoo was accidentally substituted with a black mamba (lethally quick and venomous), which escapes its box and coils through the barricaded house with a seriously bad temper. The mamba, of course, is the movie’s real star, but Kinski and company are game to share the screen and give the movie’s premise the legitimacy it needs to succeed as a thriller.
Tobe Hooper was originally slated to direct Venom, but Haggard’s genteel touch works with the movie’s elements. London is beautifully — almost clinically — shot, and interior scenes are given some wonderfully weird angles that reproduce the vertigo of a toxin coursing through bloodstreams. He works well with the mainly European cast, and he’s adept at layering two separate thrill-pieces on top of one another: the nature-gone-bad monster piece and the panicky hostage piece. Sickness is as much a threat as bullets, here, coming in the form of both snake venom and Philip’s sporadic asthma. The walls really do feel like they’re closing in, and while Venom is, at bottom, a B-movie with glitter, like Rogue it’s also damned entertaining and fairly convincing once it gets going. I once wrote about Kinski that he’s possibly the only actor precise enough and maniacal enough to wrestle with a rubber snake believably, and Venom’s the film that proves it. Watch this one for the snake and the lovely composition, but watch it also for Kinski and the rest of the cast, and for the blazing final scene where madman, snake and gun intersect in wild and wonderful ways. – Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on December 4, 2008.)