One of the reasons that I personally have not covered many Martial Arts (especially the Kung Fu subset) films on this site stems from the exact same reason that I tend to not cover a lot of (Spaghetti) Western films. I discovered that both of these two genres had their own exclusive divisions in any store’s DVD section and since the seventies was an era of film production, these two genres have been ever flooded; leading me to believe that the people who are into these two genres are already super knowledgeable about the subject, thus leaving me with no new ground to cover. Thankfully, I am willing to make an exception when these two genres are combined with another. That requirement can be seen in 1978’s Five Deadly Venoms that mixes Kung Fu action with Mystery intrigue.
Five Deadly Venoms was directed by Cheng Cheh, known for The One-Armed Swordsman series and for his involvement in the Hammer Studios and Shaw Brothers Studios collaboration The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, released as The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula in the U.S. and as one would expect, has Hammer Studios regular Peter Cushing on board. (is this a run on sentence?) Speaking of Shaw Brothers, this Chinese based production company started over eighty year ago has a catalog which is a must have for those wanting to start getting into China’s (we live in the modern world, so I must specify) Martial Arts film.
The master of the infamous House of Five Venoms school of martial arts seems to be on his last leg of life. His school/dungeon is practically empty as he tries tempering his illness while inside a boiling pot shaped bath. He is accompanied only by his final student Yang Tieh, who sits at the ready adding fire to the bath and listing to his master’s final request. Since he is running out of time, the master of the House of Five Venoms tasks Yang with finding his old friend Yuan and asking him to donate his large fortune to charity. He also warns of his five previous students, each masters of one of the houses’ specific styles, whose motives might be either good or bad towards Yuan’s fortune. Thus is the nature of the House of Five Venoms.
In a completely convenient stroke of luck, all five House graduates are located in the same city as Yuan himself (well think of that?), living regular lives. A student without a school to support him, Yang vagabonds around the city looking for assistance from the good Venom masters. Yang is told that the first student the Centipede and second graduate the Snake were trained at the same time, so was the case with the fourth student the Gecko and the fifth student the Toad. The third student the Scorpion was trained during a different time, so his identity is actually where the mystery element comes in. Putting it simply, Yang will have to deal with these three parties and their infighting for Yuan’s money.
Five Deadly Venoms is known for naming the Venom Mob, a set of six choreographers/martial artists/actors including Kuo Chui, Lu Feng, Sun Chien, Lo Mang, Wei Pai, and Chiang Sheng who have immense popularity during the late seventies and early eighties. These six portrayed the six known Venom House students found in the film. While reading up on the Venom Mob, I learned that each one of them had a specific role to play when it came time to be a protagonist or an antagonist. Some like Lu Feng who plays Centipede was always a villain, where Chiang Sheng who played Yang was always a hero. It is something interesting to consider when it comes to film portrayals.
The big mystery element of Five Deadly Venoms comes from a mixture of “who is the culprit” and “who is really pulling the strings?” mystery. All students were trained while wearing creature specific masks, but from what the master said, both Centipede and Snake know each other, as do Gecko and Toad. That leaves Scorpion in this great middle ground to play the fence, adding drama stemming from how he is the only one left parading his training mask. It allows for all six students to play this interesting guessing game, and as a mark of good craftsmanship, you can still enjoy Five Deadly Venoms multiple times even when you know Scorpion’s identity.
Pros: Choreography is top-notch and exciting, busted by the Venom Mob’s skill. Some of the costume work and mask designs are to die for; examples like Toad, Snake, and Centipede who have glorious outfits consisting of tan, silver, or red respectively. This might sound weird, but it is heavily apparent that the entire production was recorded in-house; this required making an entire artificial city inside of a sound stage, but for me this created an excellent if closed atmosphere.
Cons: The are almost no women in the entire film; from what I could find, many Shaw Brothers films during this time would have men play those roles all Greek theatre style, instead of casting women,. This relates to a huge plot problem where two of the Venoms kill a cast of non-speaking older women who were witnesses off camera so as not to reveal that one of them was the well-known Snake. Uses bribery and governmental corruption as a plot point way too often.
Five Deadly Venoms is released under The Weinstein Company’s imprint Dragon Dynasty, which has been a godsend for anyone into this kind of cinema. I love martial arts film, but I know that it is popular enough now that covering too much of some of its subsets is preaching to the choir (reason why I might never cover Raging Phoenix on this site). I try to diversify in a way that Five Deadly Venoms allows, and I believe that this one stands tall and proud.