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Dustin Putman

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Venom (2005)
2 Stars

Directed by Jim Gillespie
Cast: Agnes Bruckner, Jonathan Jackson, Meagan Good, Laura Ramsey, D.J. Cotrona, Bijou Phillips, Rick Cramer, Method Man, JaPawel Szajda, Davetta Sherwood, Stacey Travis, Marcus Brown, Deborah Duke, James Pickens Jr.
2005 – 87 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for strong violence/gore and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 17, 2005.

Had "Venom" not been saddled with Dimension Films as its distributor—a company who knows a thing or two about nothing when it comes to marketing their releases—and dumped onto less than 500 screens with virtually no advertising campaign, it could have done gangbusters at the box-office with its horror audience. A grisly, grimy throwback to the days of mindless '80s slasher theatrics, "Venom" comes as a refreshing "mindless" entertainment where the only purpose is to line up a group of characters on a chopping block and see them get slaughtered one at a time by a maniac on the loose. A clever cross between 2001's "Jeepers Creepers" and a "Friday the 13th" sequel, the film embraces convention, but matches it with taut style, no-frills plotting, and some above-average performances from actors one wouldn't expect to see in this type of picture.

Set in the sleepy bayou town of Backwater, Louisiana, teenage ex-couple Eden (Agnes Bruckner) and Eric (Jonathan Jackson) lay witness to a tragic car accident that claims the lives of well-meaning voodoo priestess Miss Emmie (Deborah Duke) and local tow truck driver Ray (Rick Cramer). Ray, who is attacked by an open suitcase of poisonous snakes while the car he is in sinks into the river (talk about bad luck!), no sooner reaches the morgue before he is resurrected as an unstoppable killing machine. When zombified madman Ray comes calling on Eden, Eric, and the rest of their friends, Miss Emmie's granddaughter, Cece (Meagan Good), conveniently knows exactly what is going on. It seems the snakes that are now pulsing through Ray's decaying undead corpse were used by Miss Emmie to suck the evil out of society's most unsavory citizens, and their dark souls are now in possession of his body.

"Venom" follows the basic stalk-and-slash formula, but gleefully skews expectations and knows how to bring tension to clichéd scenes of people walking alone into dimly lit rooms. Directed with ample panache by Jim Gillespie, who knows his way around the genre (he made 1997's "I Know What You Did Last Summer"), the film manages to surprise on at least a couple of occasions (one of the main leads, horror of horrors, actual dies) and boasts appreciable showmanship during an extended chase climax through the Louisiana swamps and into a dank mausoleum.

The premise, of course, is plainly silly, and only a few of the actual kills are memorable (most are of the stabbing and throat-slitting variety, though there is some cute business with a sandblaster), but where "Venom" excels is in its scripting economics and setup of suspense scenes. Practically springing from one murder set-piece to the next after a brief set-up, director Jim Gillespie makes sure to move fast in order to keep his audience distracted from the preposterousness of the tale he is weaving. Incorporating some slick camera movements into his action scenes and knowing exactly how to build tension with silence before the ultimate pounce of the killer, Gillespie makes the most out of a film recycled hundreds of times in the past. It's also nice to see a serial slasher whose identity is known right from the start; by never becoming a whodunit, the viewer can concentrate their attention on the visceral impact it achieves.

The characters are stock pile creations—there's the brainy protagonist planning to escape the South and go to college in New York; the sensitive ex; the gay friend; the female sidekick of the heroine; the slut; the brooding drunk; the gal whose only purpose is to provide the required exposition, etc.—but the performances from some really good young actors breathe more life into them than they probably deserve. Agnes Bruckner (2002's "Murder by Numbers") and Jonathan Jackson (2002's "Insomnia") are resilient and emotionally honest as Eden and Eric, while Bijou Phillips (2004's "The Door in the Floor"), Laura Ramsey (2005's "Lords of Dogtown"), and Meagan Good (2004's "The Cookout") briefly enliven their victim-to-be roles until they fall prey to Ray's bevy of weapons.

"Venom" doesn't offer many novel ideas within the tried-and-true slasher genre, but it is gorgeously photographed by Steve Mason (2003's "Basic"), generates a palpable small town/swampy feel, and, if never outright scary, certainly delivers a sense of spooky dread and apprehension. The dialogue sometimes falls toward clunkiness (exposition girl Cece's speech about what is going on feels forced), but people don't go to see movies like this to hear insightful conversations; they see them to watch a teenage girl get impaled on a tree branch. As such, "Venom" is a bloody, well-made fun time.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman