Poison Clan rocks the world!
The 1978 kung fu classic Five Deadly Venoms (Wu du; also Five Venoms) was a big hit and became a staple of late night or weekend afternoon "Black Belt Theatre"-type shows on local television channels. It was everything a little kid imagined a kung fu movie was supposed to be and remains something of a cult classic from the days before Hong Kong action films became more sophisticated.
From the onset, the viewer sees this is a Shaw Brothers production, meaning quality kung fu. Filmed in glorious Shawscope (of course), almost entirely in the studio, with colorful sets and period costumes (this is the majority of their films, but not always the case, especially the later ones). And, of course, the laughable dubbing with the vaguely English accents and the gratuitous use of the zoom lens.
It begins with a dying sifu (teacher) and student discussing the Venoms. The sifu explains that he is part of the Poison Clan (for the benefit of the audience) and that there are those who wish harm to it. The clan is not a danger to the public, but in the past it had been and people have long memories. The Venoms, former students, threaten to bring reprisals against the clan if they have become bad. It will be the student's task to find them and "if they're bad, you must kill them."
They are "Venoms," of course, because of each one's respective kung fu style (a martial art with almost an infinite variety of "styles," most of which look the same except for a couple special moves). The viewer is then introduced to them and their skills in flashback, each wearing a quasi-kabuki mask with his totem-style animal on it.
First is #1: the Centipede. His style is characterized by speed (like a centipede, I guess). To demonstrate, one sees him do some slow motion dish-breaking fu.
#2: "Snake spirit" (always referred to as "the Snake"). He has "incredible agility" and "speed." He strikes with hands held like hooded cobras and is seen rapidly moving across the ground on his back, wriggling like a snake. He also does some jar-smashing wooden dowel breaking fu to amaze the viewer.
#3: the Scorpion. His hands are like a scorpion's pincers and he uses his leg as the striking tailall shown us when he does a little ceramic bowl-breaking fu. He later uses silver "darts" to attack others. Where this comes in is unclear (that skill is not shown as part of the flashback).
#4 & #5 were students at the same time and knew each other.
#4: the Lizard. He is "agile and nimble" and able to climb walls. Then the audience is treated to some wall climbing candle-snuffin' fu.
#5: the Toad. The Toad is extraordinarily strong (you knowunlike all the other kung fu heroes and villains) and can even bend steel. He also has almost invincible skin. How any of that relates to a toad is never explained but he does bed o' nails fu to dazzle the viewer.
The student (the last pupil) has been taught some of each style but must team up with one to defeat the others. Of course finding them will be a problem as they always wore masks and took on new identities when they left the school. They would also never exhibit their powers in public (though later one sees the Snake has snake armbands). To find them the student is sent to find a retired Poison Clan teacher with is wealthy but living "quietly." The pupil is to make him donate the money to charity and maybe get information on where the others are. Of course, he has to be found and pupil is only told it is a "small town."
Apparently, it is the first one the lad visits. And the Venoms are all there too. Excellent.
It seems they are there for the money, too. Lizard and Toad mean only to ask for it and are working together, Lizard incognito as a police officer. They are the "good" Venoms. Centipede and Snake are also working together, Snake being a man of some means with connections to political and law enforcement figures. Scorpion is working alone (no one knows who he is).
Centipede and Snake search the house of the retired teacher but do not find the money. Everyone diesbut not before Centipede is seen exiting the residence. Later, Scorpion arrives (still masked) and finds the secret map to the money. The man who saw #1 is brought to the attention of the police who know exactly who it is based on the detailed description of the witness: "a bearded man."
The police capture the Centipede (with the help of Toad) and cannot get him to confess even after torture. Meanwhile Scorpion (without revealing his possession of the map) meets with Snake and they decide Toad must die. With his connections, Snake manages to bribe others to beat the witness until he changes his accusation.
Toad is arrested (Lizard is sent away during the proceedings) and brought before the court. During a fight with Snake (who is in attendance) and being drugged in his cell, his kung fu is finally broken (by Scorpion, able tounseenmanages to attack him on opposite sides from across the room: talent). Followed by torture and finally murder.
When Lizard learns of his friend's fate, he does what all kung fu heroes do in that positionhe starts drinking wine out of those huge jugs (spilling most of it, as is customary) one always sees in period kung fu flicks. Here the final pupil shows up (remember him? he's been around the periphery of the movie throughout) and they team up (in a dubbing screw-up, he introduces himself as #4). Meanwhile Scorpion decides that it may be time for he and Snake to eliminate Centipede.
On the way for to the battle with numbers 1 and 2, they meet Lizard's police comrade who has quit the force and offers to join them (wonder why...). The confrontation (where another dubbing flub has Lizard identify Centipede as #5) is a nice piece of work fought almost entirely within an interior room (albeit a big and high ceilinged one), with rather good wire work for 1978. During the fight, it is revealed that the "comrade" is Scorpion, whose plan is to eliminate all the Venoms.
When it's all over, three Venoms lie dead, and the two heroesthe pupil and Lizard (this should not be a surprise)find the map on the body of Scorpion and leave to spend it well, atoning for the past sins of the Poison Clan.
Besides the nicely realized premise and "gimmick," the film succeeds by avoiding the comic relief so often found in those movies at the time (a smart decision by director Cheng Cheh and supported by the producers). There is a very small bit that is "humorous" (sorta) and the acting is typically broad, as the genre goes, but it is played serious.
As for the fighting, it's not bad and not gratuitous (like some films where everyone knows kung fu and exercises that knowledge constantly). The fight scenes are well done and long enough to entertain but not so long as to make one look at the clock. It's also shot so that you can see the martial arts work, as opposed to the American style of filming where there are so many close-ups and quick edits that the flow of the fight cannot really be watched. This tends to look slow and dated now that everyone is so accustomed to Hollywood/MTV style filming, though.
In addition to the fighting, Five Deadly Venoms has quite a bit of murder- and torture fu of nearly Grand Guignol proportions. People are hit so hard that their corpses bear hand-shaped bruises. A long needle is inserted to the hilt into someone's brain through a nostril. A hook is shoved down someone's throat. Then there's death by wet paperseriously. The victim is held down, while sheets of wet paper are molded over his face until he suffocates.
Then there's this rope and wood thing that when the ropes on both sides are pulled, scissors together, smashing the victim's ankles. The "iron coat," which is like the back part of a suit of armor with a long pole on the back. It's heated red hot and pressed to the flesh of the victim's back. And finally, there is the nastiest iron maiden you've seen. All gaudy, made of gilt metal, and filled with a thousand razor sharp nail-like projectionsnot spikes: nails.
There's actually a lot of blood for a kung fu movie at that time (nothing like the horror films coming out of Europe or the samurai and yakuza films of Japan at the time, though) and probably helped its popularity. It looks a bit tame, today, though the victim's back after the iron coat is still pretty grotesque.
Bottom line: this ain't Citizen Kane and anyone going in with those sorts of expectations isn't watching the movie for the right reasons in the first place.
(Source: DVD; A note on the DVD edition. While letterboxed, the quality is rather spottyin fact, it appears to simply be a digital version of the VHS version put out by the same company, though the video tape is missing some of the glitches the DVD has)