SHAWSCOPE VOL. 1: THE FIVE VENOMS Cinapse Roundtable Reviews

The team & guests cover Shaw Brothers classics from Arrow Video’s Blu-ray box set!

Cinapse has always been, and will always be, about cinematic discovery and discussion. Our Shawscope Volume One: Round Table Reviews column is, therefore, a watch project allowing our team, and guests, to work our way through this phenomenal 12 film Blu-ray box set from Arrow Video. These capsule reviews from a variety of writers are designed to give quick glimpses of our thoughts on all of these films as we discover them for ourselves. Some of us are experts and some of us are new to the world of Shaw Brothers studio and kung fu cinema in general. All of us are excited for the adventure.

The Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers Studio cranked out a staggering number of feature films over its lifetime. With worldwide influence continuing to this very day, their contributions to cinema are myriad and undeniable. But with the vast output they generated, it can be hard for modern audiences to wade into their catalogue and find the diamonds in the rough. Fortunately, Arrow Video has curated their first Volume of 12 titles; a phenomenal way to wade into the deep waters of the Shaw Brothers. Beyond just capsule reviews, our team will also offer thoughts on the curation of the set and bonus features found within. Watch along with us, join us in the comments, or reach out to us on social media (linked below) if you’d like to submit your own contributions!

Ed Travis:

The Venom Mob is a corner of the Shaw Brothers filmography that I remain largely uneducated on, but I look forward to learning so much more as I continue to work my way through this Shawscope set and beyond. Our friend and fellow staffer Justin Harlan is a massive fan of the Shaw films featuring these guys. I’m still wrapping my brain around them. It turns out I had seen The Five Venoms before. I suspected as much, but I remembered very little. I think my approach to seeing kung fu films in years past was simply to watch the most famous ones, and I rarely dug in and did the research to understand the context around them. So while I’d seen this film, the actors and filmmakers didn’t hold much weight for me at the time. Now that I know this is part of the body of work of the great Chang Cheh, and that these actors together form The Venom Mob of much renown, I’ll be paying much closer attention.

That said, The Five Venoms was mostly just rock solid for me, and not necessarily some kind of all-timer. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the sort of “Agatha Christie meets kung fu” vibe, with a central mystery keeping us guessing as to who all the masked Venoms really are, and who will end up with the secret treasure, and who will find redemption, etc. That stuff felt like a nice departure or variance from so many of these Shaw films. I do think some of the preposterousness of this particular plot got under my skin just a little. It seems like these Venoms really just kind of… chose the wrong master to dedicate their lives to?! Within the lore of this film all these guys were taught these unique styles but seemingly taught no morals, they’re all totally unable to even reveal themselves to the world, and then in the end their master just kind of… changes his mind and sets them all loose to destroy each other? The set up strains credulity for me, but the fun results of the final film overpower the silliness of the plot.

I look forward to learning more and diving deeper into the films of the Venom Mob, even if I generally click more with stories focusing on fewer characters. — Ed Travis

Justin Harlan

Chang Cheh is a hero among men. I’ve been gushing whenever his films come up in this set and for good reason. He’s easily my favorite Kung Fu filmmaker, but over the past year or so, I’ve been totally willing to put him in my top 5-10 all-time directors as well, alongside a wide array of folks ranging from all time maestros like John Carpenter and Wes Craven to modern genre auteurs like Jordan Peele and James Gunn to the great Steven Spielberg. Cheh is right there with them for me.

His Venom Mob movies are the ones that really made me fall in love with him. I have an amazing poster of Venoms in my living room and an equally incredible one of next week’s film in my office. I am a huge fan of this film and it ranks right at or near the top of both this set and my favorite Kung Fu films of all time.

I’d only seen this for the first time around the start of the pandemic. It felt vaguely familiar as maybe I’d seen it on a random Saturday afternoon on NY’s WPIX or WWOR growing up, but I’d definitely not seen it in my adult life. It took nearly no time at all to fall in love with it and launched an obsessive habit where my wife and I watched as much Kung Fu as we could during that lockdown period where we barely left the house.

Since that time, I’ve shown numerous friends and family the film, gotten my poster for my birthday, purchased my wife a badass T-shirt, and thrown it on in the background over and over. It never loses its initial luster. So, when I got this set in the mail, it was the first disc I popped in and I never regretted it.

With great special features, an amazing print of this amazing film, and more, this disc is the crown jewel of this set for me! Now, it’s time for me to get buff like Lo Mang and learn the style of the Toad, so I need to go get back to my training… but not until I watch this disc another time. — Justin Harlan

Brendan Agnew:

One of my favorite things about exploring cult classic (or any classic) cinema is finding a movie that’s slightly outside the box of what you’re expecting. Yes, The Five Venoms is a dope martial arts movie with plenty of showcases for the Venom Mob to demonstrate their considerable prowess, but it’s also a kung fu procedural. Not unlike Donnie Yen’s Kung Fu Killer, Venoms follows the cat and mouse shenanigans of dueling disciples chasing ill-gotten cash while also keeping up with the investigation into the resulting murders by local authorities. It’s a lot of spinning plates to keep track of, but the film never leaves you feeling lost.

Add to that the dynamic way Chang Cheh visualizes the Venoms’ signature fighting styles and the shifting allegiances as various members of the Poison Clan are unmasked, and you have a movie that’s as refreshing as it is reliably thrilling. I hate to sound like a broken record, but I’ll stop singing praises for Cheh’s directorial work if we ever get to a dud – and this is a bona fide gem. — Brendan Agnew

Austin Vashaw:

When it comes to martial arts cinema, you just gotta love something that’s super-stylized. If you mix in some kind of rad gimmick like ridiculous weapons, outrageous comedy, disabled heroes, phantasmagorical horror, or fantastical superpowers? I eat it up. Five Deadly Venoms is a key example of that last category, dreaming up a brand of kung fu that’s not only based on animal styles (not unlike the classic standbys of Crane, Snake, Monkey, Eagle, etc), but attributing these “venoms” with amazing special abilities like invulnerability (Toad), clambering up walls (Lizard), or super-speed (Centipede), or hurling deadly projectiles – but also certain key weaknesses that can be exploited by a knowledgeable opponent.

One thing I enjoyed about this film that differentiates it from most of the others in our series so far is that the conflict is internal. All of the Venoms, whether fighting for good or evil, are from the same Poison Clan and it’s up to the most junior member, the least skilled among them, to honor their master and clean house. — Austin Vashaw

And We’re Out.

Shawscope Volume 1 is now available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video

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