As a kid I absolutely loved martial arts films. It didn’t matter the premise, or how poorly acted so long as it had an abundance of ass kicking awesomeness. Looking back now I cringe at my lack of discernment but freely admit there still remains that childhood fascination with watching the more elaborately choreographed fight sequences. My continued enjoyment can in part be attributed to my more recent discovery of the films of Shaw Brothers studios in my early twenty’s. Here I found a reemergence of my once esteemed fondness, from the legendary south Asian film studio credited with producing some of the most highly recognizable and innovative martial arts films of all time. Among the more noted Shaw Brothers releases was The Five Deadly Venoms, released in 1978 and directed by the already established juggernaut of the South Asian martial arts film industry Chang Cheh and starring a then mostly unknown troop of martial artists who after the films releases would affectionately become known as the Venom Mob.
The ailing master of the deadly House of Venoms clan seeks to make atonement for the past sins of his Clan. Here he reaches out to his last remaining student, his 6th pupil Yan Tieh (Chiang Sheng) to search out his retired junior, who currently protects the location of the House of Venoms plunder trove of treasures taken from the clans past misdeeds. Once discovering the location of the treasure, he is to donate the treasure to charity as restitution for the clan’s horrible history. There’s just one obstacle: The Five Deadly Venoms.
Prior to taking on his 6th pupil the master had trained 5 different students, each proficient in their own deadly poisoned art. The first pupil known as the Centipede (Lu Feng), attacks at a blinding speed as he wreaths in and outward unleashing an unrelenting barrage of blows. The second pupil known as the Snake (Wai Pai), uses a two handed mouth and tail technique of which one hand emulates the head specifically maneuvering his fingers like fangs while the other mimics the movements of a serpents flailing tail. The third pupil is known as the Scorpion (Sun Chien), his legs act as the thundering stings of a scorpion’s tail while his arms take the form of thrusting pincers. The 4th pupil known as the Lizard (Kuo Chui), bounces off and clings to walls with ease, manipulating the effects of gravity attacking spontaneously from above, beside and below. The 5th pupil is known as the Toad (Lo Mang), his body nearly invulnerable, sustainable to nearly all forms of attack including a resistance to blades and spears.
Due to being trained at various times, the students are not fully aware of the identity of one another. To further complicate matters it is the policy of the venom house to change their name once training has been completed, and they enter the boxing world. Their styles are to remain secret along with their identities, to conceal their movements, abilities and intentions. What the students are aware of is the houses treasure, each seeking out the master’s junior to uncover the whereabouts of the hidden treasure. It is unclear which of the pupils might be working together or are aware one another’s current identity, nor their intentions for the treasure.
Regretfully the master never focused Yan’s studies, teaching him a little bit from everything. As a result he has never fully mastered any style, and with his master near imminent death has not the time to learn further from him or fully allow his skills to develop. As Yan is no match for any of the deadly venoms alone, his master instructs him to root out who the venoms as well as who of them are utlizing their skills for evil. He is then to team up with those working for the best interest of the clan (if any), in hopes to defeat those of the venoms who would take the treasure for their own greed and ambitions.
The Five Deadly along side King Boxer and a handful of others were among the first to bring international recognition and acclaim to the Asian Kung Fu film market. In subsequent years Five Deadly Venoms has become a cult hit, a true cultural phenomenon influencing everything from popular music and film, to television commercials, apparel and video games.
The success of the film abroad and at home made quick stars of the venom mob, who of which minus Wei Pai (The Snake) would go on to star in numerous films together. It’s because of this Wei Pai is often considered not to be among the inner sanctum of the Venom Mob, replaced by Chiang Sheng (The 6th Student) who never actually portraying one of the actual venoms is still considered by most to the true 5th venom. This may appear confusing to some at first, but when one looks into the progression of the Venoms film catalog it’s easy to see just how integral a role Chiang Sheng played.
What put The Five Deadly Venoms to the forefront of martial arts cinema was the wholly original hook and distinguishing character designs which would be emulated and exploited for many years to come. This drove the film, endearing it to countless fans across the globe. Each of the deadly venoms wore a luchador inspired mask, with their own gimmicky martial arts style modeled upon some of nature’s most venomous creatures. From the onset of the films intro, the tone of the film is set with a showcasing of each the five Venoms skills and ability. It serves as an exemplary model of how to pull a viewer in from the beginning.
It’s this strength that cements the films adeptness in moments of sluggishness and stagnation. The Five Venoms caliber of fight choreography is noticeably lacking in comparison to later more grandiose venom mob entries, but when combined with the flashy showmanship and aforementioned hook it retains its knockout punch. The venom mob troop chose to forgo some of the more realistic martial arts techniques in favor of a more flamboyantly fluid style, full of flips, acrobatics and exaggerated movements perfectly calibrated for the big screen. Each member of the troop had his own attributes and ability, which further heightened the films originality and presence.
A hindering factor of most all period Kung Fu films from Southeast Asia at the time was the messily matted convolution of plot development, which tended to tangle upon itself often making little to no logical sense. While the Five Deadly Venoms does show noted signs of this signature flaw, for the most part it steers clear with a seminal storyline remaining lucid aside from the slight tangling surrounded the venoms identities.
The acting prowess of the venom mob ranges from adequate to great (Chiang Sheng), but what really sets them apart is their memorable on screen chemistry, their camaraderie apparent, even when paired against each other. For what is clearly an in studio set production, the elborate set pieces work well and convincely. The wigs, and laughable fake beards akin to the genre and norm of the era with the warddrobe slightly more costumey than Chang Cheh's previous dramatic period pieces.
While the film noticeably drags periodically and the action is not up to the standards of the venoms we'd come to know from subsequent features, the Five Deadly Venoms remains an undeniable classic and one which should be experienced by anyone who fancies themselves a fan of martial arts films. A feature whose strong and compelling plot string serves as an excellent entry point to classic South Asian martial arts cinema.