Even if you have only a peripheral interest in Kung-Fu films, you’ve almost certainly heard of the FIVE DEADLY VENOMS. Somehow despite only making a minor mark in China upon its original release, the film – as well as the various “venom mob” films which came before and after – has left an indelible mark on American pop culture. There’s just something impossibly cool and superheroish about a rebellious group of Kung-Fu masters that each specialize in a different style, especially when steeped in the manliness and bloodletting that director Chang Cheh regularly brought to his work with the Shaw Brothers. It certainly made an impact in the hip-hop community, where Kung-Fu Theater style television viewings created a love for the physicality and mythology of these characters, as well as their existence on the fringes of society. There are allusions throughout rap and hip-hop music – most notably in the albums of Wu-Tang Clan, who often sampled dialogue from these films and made direct reference to them in their lyrics. Even the name of the group comes from the Gordon Liu directed film SHAOLIN AND WU TANG.
But many of these films have only been made widely available in the last few years, and since many of them have multiple titles and may not even contain all of the Venom Mob (another widely used name for the Five Venoms and 2nd Tier Venoms), it can be a little difficult to work out just which ones are the most worthwhile. We’ll likely be covering a number of Venom Mob films within Enter The Fist over the coming months, but today we’re going to do the smart thing. We’re going to start at the beginning.
Actually, while FIVE DEADLY VENOMS is the movie most people connect with the venom mob, and is obviously where they got their name, there are previous films – SHAOLIN TEMPLE (also directed by Chang Cheh), and CHINATOWN KID (ditto, and also featuring the late Alexander Fu Sheng) – that are often lumped in as Venom Mob films since they also feature a number of the regular players. Got all that?
Let’s jump right in. Chiang Sheng plays Yang Tieh, the final student of the often villainous Poison Clan, who is taking care of his ill master through various ineffective methods. It seems that the young Yang is actually the sixth student who has studied these Poison Clan Kung-Fu techniques, and the others who completed their training all got cool masks and secret powers. No fair! Oh, and also Yang Tieh’s training was sort of half-assed, so he could never beat any of them one to one. Thanks, master!
This all gets revealed when Yang is brought to the secret training dungeon, which is where things get really good. We’re introduced to the Five Venoms via flashback as the master describes their skills, and they look seriously bad-ass in their fancy peking opera inspired masks. Of course, at this point we don’t really know what actor plays each part, but let’s see if you can remember all five of the Venoms and their styles. C’mon, it’ll be fun. I’ll just wait here until you figure it out.
This next bit is actually – as you’ll see – a bit of a spoiler. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Ok… here they are!
- Centipede (Lu Feng)
- Snake (Wei Pai)
- Scorpion (Sun Chien)
- Lizard (Kuo Chui)
- Toad (Lo Mang)
Now, while there are obviously actual Kung-Fu styles based on various animals – Jackie Chan would break out in 1978 using a snake style in SNAKE IN THE EAGLE’S SHADOW – these poison clan styles were developed specifically for the movie. Which isn’t to say that you could learn a Lizard style that will allow you to climb up walls and blow out candles with your mighty hand speed, but I’m not making any promises. These brief scenes are the sort of thing that lodge in the mind of a Kung-Fu obsessed kid, and when most people think of the Five Venoms, it’s these scenes with the weird Mexican wrestling masks and people kicking dishes that usually comes to mind.
Yang is tasked with tracking down these five students, any of whom may be using their skills for Kung-Fu treachery. If he finds some not using their skills and living a life of good, he’s supposed to team up with them. Why? Because he’s also told to kill any of those using the poison clan kung fu for evil. Let’s not forget that he’s already been told that he can’t take them in a one-on-one confrontation. Ouch.
Unfortunately, the five never actually trained together, so even if he tracks one down, they might not know how to find the others. Who knows who? Centipede and Snake trained together. Then Scorpion trained by himself. Then, after Scorpion left, Lizard and Toad trained together. Oh, and they never reveal their skills unless it’s absolutely necessary, so he can’t just start randomly punching people in the face until one pulls out some snake style. He does have one ace in the hole, however. A former teacher of the poison clan lives in a nearby town, and this dude has made a fortune off of the poison clan somehow. The dying master believes that at least some of the Five Venoms have learned about this teacher’s current identity, and will be coming to the town to try and steal all the money. Not bad! Now we have a premise. The search is on!
Yang dresses as a beggar and vanishes into the local color, keeping his eyes peeled for any possible venom activity. He witnesses the uptight but fair Chief Constable Ma (Sun Chien) and the playful Constable He Yu (Kuo Chui) as they make their rounds, and also spies a mysterious stranger who passes a message to He Yu as he walks through the town. This stranger turns out to be Li Hao/The Toad (Lo Mang), who has discovered that the Snake and Centipede are both in the city and looking for their old teacher, but he hasn’t yet discovered who the two actually are. No worries there, as we quickly discover that foppish Hong Wentong (Wei Pei) is the Snake, and is working with the Centipede/Tan Shanhu (Lu Feng) to track down the whereabouts of the gold. They do so by visiting the home of Mr. Yuen, an elderly scribe (and their former teacher) and murdering EVERYONE IN THE HOUSE. And I mean everyone -even a benchful of ladies (including Sammo Hung’s mom!) are killed. In their zealousness, they kill Mr. Yuen as well, though he dies before they can find out where the money is hidden. Those goofs. Also, a local beggar named Won Fa saw Tan exit the building during the time of the murders, which just seems sloppy all around. Later a masked Scorpion enters the crime scene and discovers a map hidden in a candle which he quickly pockets.
Ok! After some convincing, Won Fa (figuratively) fingers Centipede, and He Yu (who is the Lizard) gets his friend Li Hao to help the police apprehend the ruffian, which leads to the first real fight scene of the movie. And it’s a doozy. At least until the Centipede trips over a nearby Yang and is quickly arrested. But guess what? Hong Wentong is friends with the Chief Justice (Wang Lung-wei) and – after threatening Won Fa into changing his story – has Li Hao arrested instead. Constable He Yu is SUPER PISSED about this, but he’s sent on an errand by the Justice and Chief Constable Ma promises to make sure Li Hao is treated fairly. And he is, until he’s poisoned and put into an IRON MAIDEN to reveal his hidden weak spot. Even after all of that he nearly escapes, until the yet-to-be-revealed Scorpion flings darts at his ears – taking away much of his invulnerable Toady powers. To add insult to injury a weakened Li Hao is strapped down and suffocated by putting wet tissue over his face – it really seems awful – and then they stage his death as a suicide. The fiends!
He Yu is (rightfully) super-pissed to find out about all this, and in the best Kung-Fu movie tradition he heads for a local restaurant, clears the place out, and starts drinking a shit-load of wine. Until he’s interrupted by some fellow officers who admit that the whole trial had been a sham, and that Li Hao was murdered. We also learn that the Snake and Centipede have murdered both the witness Won Fa, as well as the officer who did all their dirty work using devices like a “barb which slit(s) throat” and a “brain pin”. Sounds like an unpleasant way to go.
This is the point where Yang Tieh finally gets to stop pretending to be a beggar and reveal himself as the final student of the poison clan. Yang explains everything he’s learned up to this point to He Yu – including that Li Hao was broken by a still-not-revealed Scorpion, though there’s really only one character he could be at this point, right? The two decide to do an old fashioned superhero team up, and they head to a nearby secret training location to work on some techniques for defeating the remaining THREE deadly venoms. On their way to confront the (now conflicted) Snake and Centipede, they run into the perfectly innocent Ma, now having retired from the force for completely reasonable reasons, and not because he’s secretly the devious Scorpion and has the map to the hidden gold. Ma decides to tag along for the final battle, and it’s awesome. Yang and He Yu work like a well oiled poison clan machine, doling out punishment to both Snake and Centipede, before Ma reveals himself as.. THE SCORPION. They all dish out plenty of bloody punishment, giving us the Venom on Venom action we all so desperately crave. I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that it was pretty silly for The Scorpion to bring along the map with him so that if, say, he was eventually beaten, that someone could just take it for themselves. THE END.
Oddly for a film so entrenched in martial arts history, FIVE DEADLY VENOMS actually doesn’t feature a ton of fighting. In fact, while it’s still a fine starting point for those interested in the Venom Mob legacy, the focus on intrigue and mystery might try the patience of those looking for inter-venom ass-kicking. What is here is very impressive – especially for those interested in these varied styles – but the action is kicked up several notches in films like INVINCIBLE SHAOLIN or CRIPPLED AVENGERS (also known as RETURN OF THE FIVE DEADLY VENOMS, and featuring four members of the Venom Mob) which better show off the skills of the individual members.
However, the roles that the Venoms would repeatedly play in these other films would be defined right here. Lu Feng as the traitor. Sun Chien’s impressive kicking. Kuo Chui as the hero, often working undercover. Lo Meng as the muscular bad-ass. And Chiang Sheng as the comic relief with acrobatic skills. Wei Pai (who appears here as Snake) only made a few films with these other five, and eventually defected to Golden Harvest, so many “official” Venom Mob films don’t include him. There’s also a whole slew of 2nd Tier Venoms who make repeated appearances throughout their films together, and whom also have roles that they usually play. In all, there are over 25 Venom films to explore, and the more you see the more impressed you will undoubtedly become with the skills of the players – none of whom broke out as huge individual stars, but all of whom has a certain charisma and charm that made them infinitely watchable, especially when paired together.
While not the best of the Venom films, this is still an absolutely essential piece of Kung-Fu film history, especially when it comes to understanding the US fascination with Kung-Fu films and Chinese culture, and the impact these films had in urban areas. It’s also a great introduction to some of the undervalued Shaw Brothers players of the late 70s and early 80s when the studio was beginning its decline. We’ll be checking in with some of the other interesting Venom films of this time period in the near future (as well as the films of legendary director Chang Cheh), but until then it’s time to PICK YOUR POISON.
NEXT WEEK: THE CLONES OF BRUCE LEE (1981)
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