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Consider me Bitten – The Five Venoms (1978)

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When you behold the vast and mighty volume of work that is the Criticult Extended Universe (or “CEU”, as we call it around here), you will quickly see several patterns emerge. Aside from the obvious tradition of “hard hitting insight with a human edge” (T-shirts available soon), you will also see a pattern of Tyler writing goddamn near almost everything. Well, there’s an explanation for that.

The one we’ve given the press is that Tyler has been holding things down while I have been sequestered in an undisclosed location, performing (or having performed on me; I am not at liberty to specify), undisclosed activities for proprietary reasons. In reality, you’ll find the truth to be…well, pretty much what I just said, only ten times more badass than whatever you’re thinking.

So yes, I was assigned to ferret a mole (that’s me, winner of the New York Times Double-Animal Metaphor award three years running) from within the NSA. And yes, it did culminate in my personally murdering the head of ISIS from atop a ginormous, Mecha Bald Eagle that fires bullets made of smaller, less ginormous Mecha Bald Eagles.

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Artist’s conception.

I don’t like to use the word “hero” when speaking of myself, so please feel free to just link back to this paragraph in your personal email signature.

The point is, that work is done, and now it’s time for me to get back to the real work. The work that truly fulfills me, and makes a difference in the lives of…(checking Facebook)…162 magnificently awesome people who are the only living examples of human greatness in existence, every single day.  This brings me back to Tyler, whose articles you will notice tend to land within a Venn diagram including “distinguished book review”, “cultured music critique” and “junior screenwriter class”.

That’s a high bar to clear, so I choose not even to try. Instead, I would like to describe for you what it’s like to experience the genre film equivalent of getting a blow job from an angel. I wish to consecrate this article by dedicating it to the everlasting greatness that is:

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Sorry, I’ve always wanted a pre-credits sequence in one of my columns.

One of the first things you may have noticed (aside from the fact that all logos look better when they’re on fire) is that so far, I’ve called this film by two different titles. For those not in the know, it’s very common for films released internationally to go by a number of names. For a variety of reasons, the title by which different people know a certain film could depend on what the print was called the first time they saw it. What I’m trying to say is that for the duration of this article, I’m going to stick with The Five Venoms, Five Venoms or Venoms for short, and perhaps D5VNMZ for my license plate.

That said…

Five Venoms, like many martial arts films, is underpinned to some degree by a few basic cultural themes, punctuated by sternum shattering chest punches. There are also an abundance of kickass, slow-motion fighting techniques with cool names like “five-star magic spinning dragon” [Editor’s note – This is an exaggeration] that the fighters occasionally (and awesomely) call out during combat. Also, like many martial arts films, this one is part of a series – in this case one that’s tied together by a broader idea, rather than a literal narrative.

A product of the legendary Shaw Brothers Studio, Venoms is technically the first in a series of films starring a group of actors known informally as The Venom Mob. They were kind of an Ocean’s Eleven of kung fu badasses whose styles were half acrobatic, half brutal, half just Plain Fucking Awesome [Editor’s note – the Criticult Analytics Team disputes that math] . Don’t worry – I’m only here to talk about the movie, not give a history lesson. You can find the full details here, if you want. Point is, D5VNMZ is part of a series, but is considered an excellent film on it’s own and is widely considered a turning point for the genre. But it’s really all that and more.

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Much more.

The film’s namesake is the once feared Venom Clan, which has fallen on hard times. The school’s master (Dick Wei) is dying, and has grown concerned that his former pupils have turned to evil. He dispatches his last student, Yang (Chiang Sheng), to investigate and if necessary, to intervene. Each of the students fought anonymously, and under code names that matched their respective styles: Centipede (Lu Feng), Snake (Wei Pei), Scorpion (Sun Chien), Lizard (Kuo Chi) and Toad (Lo Mang – and save your emails; snakes are not lizards).

That’s right, even the Master doesn’t know the true identities of these men (throughout their training they all wore the masks depicted in the graphic above). No, that makes no sense. But as I said earlier, the overall theme of films like this is usually something related to honor, duty, brotherhood or justice. Obviously Yang is going to track them all down, but what makes Venoms so fascinating is that it in no way unfolds the way you’d expect it to. It defies the genre, and it does so most gloriously.

Very early in the story, it’s clear this movie aims to be much more than an escalating series of increasingly tedious Boss battles.

Each of the Venoms is indeed after something, but they’re not necessarily all working together and do not necessarily share the same interests. Not only that, one or two of them might even be completely on the fence about some things. Yang is warned that he will have to win over a couple of the Venoms in order to beat the rest, because Yang himself wasn’t able to refine his ability before the Master fell ill. The problem is, this means determining who is motivated by greed, and who is motivated by honor.

And possibly, still greed.

There are the requisite scenes of astonishing high level combat, and while genre rules allow us some leeway with the laws of physics, there’s nothing campy about this. In fact, more than one on-screen death will make your skin crawl, and at least one sequence of significant cruelty sticks out. That’s not to say that Venoms is a brutal film so much as it is a clinically uncompromising one. For the most part, this is a straight up moral drama with little time for sentiment. But it does have some surprisingly powerful moments, as Director Chang Cheh and producer Runme Shaw knew their cast well, and what they were capable of.

This long relationship produced many of the most uniquely memorable martial arts films in history, perhaps most notably this one, at least in the United States.

Kuo Chui’s Lizard alone should have gotten his own damn movie; he’s utterly brilliant here and it’s a shame none of the Venom Mob ever became true stars in their own right. Don’t let that deter you though, from enjoying not just D5VNMZ, but also other gems of the Series, including (but not limited to) Shaolin Temple, Crippled Avengers, and Incincible Shaolin. Granted, you’ll need to be the kind of person who can sit through a kung fu film to begin with, but I assume that if you’re still reading this, you’re that guy.

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Or girl! Or girl!!! Sorry!!!!

On their own, each is like a plain looking dessert that turns out to be hiding a galaxy of flavors once you get into it, and I don’t remember that ever being a bad thing in life. But the legend started with The Five Venoms. If you’ve never had the pleasure, and are at all a fan of the genre, do it NOW and rest assured – you will be glad you did.

I await your thanks.

Jack Burton View All

When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Jack?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."

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