Venom was an unprecedented move for video-game adaptations when Dimension Films acquired rights to an unproduced game in 2003. Developers Flint Dille and John Zuur Platten said their concept for Backwater was “ready-made to become a horror film as well as a game,” and players were positioned to be “the prey of a modern-day boogieman” named Mr. Jangles. It was not a lot to go on, but producer Kevin Williamson and director Jim Gillespie were confident this was the beginning of a new horror franchise. Fast forward to 2005, and there was still no sign of Backwater on the game market. In any case, Miramax Films went ahead with a theatrical release even if the tie-in plans fell through.
Only a few weeks before Venom — formerly The Reaper after shooting under Backwater — was released in the U.S. in 2005, the Gulf Coast was hit by Hurricane Katrina. And with Southeast Louisiana being largely affected by one of the worst natural disasters in the country’s history, a slasher set in the Bayou State might have lost its appeal. The flopping film was subsequently pulled after about a month; whether or not current events had a bearing on that decision is unclear. Venom earning less than $900,000 against a $15-million budget was good enough reason to abandon ship. This was certainly not the note Dimension wanted to go out on after being sold off to The Weinstein Company the following October.
Venom was dismissed as paint-by-numbers teen horror with only a change in scenery; now in place of an urban sprawl was a bayou backdrop. The screenplay is indeed fitted for a survival-horror game, but it would be a mistake to hold that against the film. This could have easily been another wanton killer in a mask. Venom, on the other hand, moves past convention by creating its own universe and mythos, and it embraces the supernatural. Slashers tend to avoid an outright fantastical element to maintain a sense of realism — notwithstanding the fact that the exceptions include the most iconic examples of this subgenre — yet the story here impressively unifies its two different worlds.
As slashers made their way back into the ‘90s, the villains started cropping up closer to home. They were no longer restricted to out-of-the-way locales like summer camps and forests. The next crop of slashers, those particularly from the 2000s, were not only more splattery, their stories took off for more distant destinations. Meanwhile, 2005’s Venom is a return to the classic remote setting of many golden-age slashers but with one important adjustment. The murderer’s would-be victims are neither indulging a small-town stopover, nor are they accidentally removing themselves from the safety of their city dwellings. No, they live smack dab in the middle of nowhere, in the very same place others would avoid to begin with. In spite of their residency, though, the characters are completely caught off guard by an underlying evil.
Parts of Louisiana can come across as a foreign country even to Americans. Venom immediately plays into that feeling when the story opens in an old Creole burial ground, and local mambo Miss Emmie (Deborah Duke) recovers a mysterious box. The development of a mall there threatens to unearth something she sealed away sometime ago. Magic exists in this neck of the woods, although it is treated with derision by nonbelievers. To be more specific, the white folks who describe the town as a place of “archaic beliefs and backward mentality.” The magic around these parts, principally practiced by the Black residents, has been stifled by the more dominant culture and religion. So when Miss Emmie digs up that box, she ends up freeing a shunned past.
It does not take long for the story’s tragic villain to be revealed. The resident outcast, a scarred and misunderstood trucker named Ray Sawyer (Rick Cramer), meets the business ends of evil-imbued snakes after he attempts to save Miss Emmie from a car accident. His last good deed is repaid in wickedness; the dead trucker is resurrected as an unstoppable killing machine with a thirst for souls. A standard slasher usually refrains from telling the killer’s origin story so soon or, in many cases, at all. Venom was intended to be the start of an expanded universe, though. Williamson, who heavily “tinkered” with Dille, Platten and Brandon Boyce’s script, expressed to Fangoria a desire for sequels. After all, they refrained from calling Ray “Jangles” here because they assumed the name would come up in a continuation.
The teen soap opera that is Eden Sinclair’s (Agnes Bruckner) podunk life is limited to the first act, and it is pretty much over once the contents of Miss Emmie’s box get out. Before then, she and ex-boyfriend Eric (Jonathan Jackson) harp on Eden’s desire to leave Louisiana and stay gone. Oddly enough, her difficult decision is made “easier” when Ray slays those standing in her way. So, Eden’s will to survive goes beyond the physical as she fights tooth and nail to escape a life she does not want. This all amounts to an incredibly arduous escape from small-town life.
Venom is not without its missteps. The story quickly disposes of Black characters who, besides Miss Emmie’s granddaughter Cece (Meagan Good), are given little to do before checking out. The racial divide is also only expressed when the white teens are forced to acknowledge Cece’s upbringing. “I don’t like it… All this voodoo shit weirds me out,” says Eden’s best friend, Rachel (Laura Ramsey). Of course magic is the only way to stop Ray. Those among the cast who still feel opposed to Cece’s ways are eventually dealt with in cruel fashion, whereas the ostensible final girl is afforded a higher chance of survival once she accepts the magic. Venom is surely another example of how Hollywood misrepresents Louisiana Voodoo, but there is a concealed message within about acceptance of other cultures.
Since Venom in 2005, Gillespie has stepped away from a genre he is so at home in. He eagerly directs his final outing, infusing the inevitably self-contained slasher with tenacity and aggression. The suspense fades quickly and lies on the surface more than in past efforts, but the external entertainment is pulled off well enough to overlook that flaw. Reinforcing the exterior strengths is director of photography Steve Mason, who brought out an increasingly eldritch quality in the characters’ Southern Gothic surroundings.
Venom has gone on to find a small audience over the years, but its legacy is unduly harsh. If anyone remembers it all, they remember the bad timing and the significant thrashing from critics, many of whom were more fixated on the proximity to Katrina than the actual film. The objective critiques were not unwarranted; the script has shortcomings, and the characters are underdeveloped. The silver lining, however, is Venom is a well-directed stab of teen horror punctuated with pushy violence and the highest urgency. The worldbuilding is also to be admired, and had this become a full-on series of films, that aspect would have undoubtedly grown with Jangles’ body count.
Putting some distance between 2005 and now, people are finally watching this Deep South slasher with fresh eyes, less biases, and a better appreciation for aughts horror. The odds were not in the film’s favor all those years ago, but despite its reputation, Venom is hardly the poison it was made out to be.
Horror contemplates in great detail how young people handle inordinate situations and all of life’s unexpected challenges. While the genre forces characters of every age to face their fears, it is especially interested in how youths might fare in life-or-death scenarios.
The column Young Blood is dedicated to horror stories for and about teenagers, as well as other young folks on the brink of terror.