Tuesday, April 30, 2013

One...Two...Three...Four...Five...Deadly Venoms

(This entry is another flashback that originally appeared on my other blog in 2004. It's been modified to make me look like less of a jackass. Enjoy!)
I'd like to take this moment to suggest a change to the Chinese Zodiac...
How many of you remember when they used to have things like Saturday/Sunday morning/afternoon Kung Fu/Martial Arts theater? How many of you watched no matter how bad the dubbing or how incomprehensible the storyline? For the life of me, I can't remember many of the titles for nearly any of these movies. I remember them because of weird fight scenes. I remember them because of wacky weapons. I remember them for being the early times or heyday of an actor who showed up in some action movie more recently. I'm not sure what it is, but there's a certain charm to that.

"First a tune from our favorite Beijing Opera...then to the ass-kicking..."
It's easy to remember Chang Cheh's Five Deadly Venoms ( 五毒, 1978) because of the characters and their fighting styles: The Centipede, The Snake, The Scorpion, The Toad, and The Lizard. The story is a sort of martial arts whodunit, wherein an aging martial arts master sends his final pupil, Yan Tieh, to search out his five former venomous pupils who he fears may using their skills to diabolical ends. And, of course, some of them are. After, all this isn't the Five Friendly Venoms (though that's a wonderfully oxymoronic title).  There's one weensy-teensy catch: the master doesn't know their names or faces. So Yan heads off to the nearest town in order to uncover the Venoms one by one in a plot of treachery, greed and intrigue.  And, a whole lot of fighting in really weird ways.

The fall of my favorite Venom, the Toad (?!?)
Director Chang Cheh was one of the Shaws' most successful and prolific directors, and would go on to make a variety of films with some or all of the stars, who became popularly known as the Five Venoms or Venom Mob. Why am I prefacing this paragraph this way?  Well, like most first efforts or trendsetters, the formula obviously hadn't hit yet. Five Deadly Venoms, overall, is fun and colorful, and while everyone seems to be having a good time, it's a little slow and stilted in places compared to the Venom films that followed.  At the same time, as a first, it certainly deserves its spot on many martial arts movies favorites lists. However, if you enjoy this film, may I suggest popping in another Venoms picture, The Crippled Avengers (1978) for perhaps one of the most over-the-top, bizarre kung fu movies ever committed to celluloid (I may have to return to review that one.). But, back to my original premise with this entry...

Before dancing on ceilings was a glimmer in Lionel Richie's mind...
There's a funny loss with these movies following the restoration of the original language tracks. On the plus side, the lips match the words, and more importantly, for once you appreciate that a lot of these guys can actually act. On the other hand, those of us who grew up with these movies can't help but feel a certain nostalgia for the overdone, hammy, mismatched English dialogue track. It will always be a part of the experience, as that's how we first saw them. The same goes double for Godzilla movies, which, in pop culture consciousness, became synonymous with bad lip synch. For many of the bottom of the barrel kung fu movies, the laughs generated by the dialogue are the only things that make them worth watching. (I'd like to reiterate that Five Deadly Venoms is by no means one of these.)

My first DVD copy of the first Venoms looked as though it was from a 1986 video dub. To be fair, it was released when the movie was still public domain, but it still looked dreadful. For years after digital transfers became the norm, I often wondered - Why if they have a pristine restored digital transfer of something like Carpenter's Escape from New York do they still show the video copy that was made in '86 on TV?  Celestial pictures has re-released many the Shaw Brothers' films cleaned up and unedited on DVD (Though many an on-line forum has seen complaints about changed or missing music amongst other tiffs). The only problem is that they're region coded for Asia.  Miramax eventually made some deal with them, and began releasing many of the bigger hits on DVD under the Dragon Dynasty label for North America; however, many of the more rare titles have never become available in the States...at least, not through conventional means.

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