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Where's the bite? As a formula film, 'Venom' suffers from a lack of surprise

Here they come, dropping like bombs over an already devastated cinematic landscape, the unwanted, unloved children of the Miramax Films-Walt Disney divorce -- oft-delayed weepies like "An Unfinished Life" and "Proof" and intriguing but difficult to market oddities like "The Brothers Grimm."

Bob Weinstein's Dimension Films will reportedly remain in the brothers' hands, but will it receive the Weinstein love it once did? And if the majority of its releases are as awful as the latest Dimension cheapie, "Venom," should it?

The barely advertised "Venom" is the latest in a string of one-word titled horror flicks for those who found "Skeleton Key" a tad too cerebral -- see (or better yet, don't) "Cursed," "Darkness," "Boogeyman" and, of course, "Stealth" (not a horror film but easily more frightening than the aforementioned clunkers).

Directed by Dimension veteran Jim Gillespie, whose "I Know What You Did Last Summer" brought in a pile of loot for Miramax in happier times, "Venom" has all the required elements of an entertaining teens-in-peril romp -- a voodoo priestess, a scar-faced yokel, a nubile, acne-free cast, computer generated snakes, Bijou Phillips in Daisy Dukes -- but it is missing one important factor: a single scare.

Opening with a rather pretty "Cape Fear"-esque shot of the Bayou, the film wastes no time getting down to business, exposition and richly drawn characters be damned.

Agnes Bruckner, a young actress who earned raves for the little-seen "Blue Car," a Sundance hit in 2002, stars as Eden, one of a score of freshly scrubbed teens stuck in a dead-end Louisiana town. Eden is planning her escape to college, and away from her going-nowhere friends, including the obligatory boyfriend, played by Jonathan Jackson; the token slut, played by Phillips; as well as the dumb morgue employee; the troubled rebel (we know this because he rides a motorcycle); and the funny pal (we know this because his hair is spiky).

The small-town atmosphere of the first few minutes is rather nice, featuring such gems of dialogue as Phillips' "We're almost drunk -- can we have a little more booze, please?" Hey, this never claimed to be "The Last Picture Show."

However, a clutch of the cheesiest CGI snakes this side of "Anaconda" that happen to be inhabited by the souls of the dead -- yes, you read that correctly -- enter the picture to take a big 'ol bite out of Ray, the local creepy tow-truck driver.

Now a possessed, inhuman monster, Ray goes on the prowl for victims, taking out a nice cross-section of the community (don't get too attached to Method Man's Deputy Turner) and creating general havoc.

The young cast is actually rather appealing. Bruckner, faced with the unenviable task of attempting to give her character something of a backstory, does a fine job in the lead -- a few years from now, she and her WB-ready castmates will probably cringe at the sight of "Venom" on their resumes -- and Gillespie knows the basics of setting up a scare; all dry ice, ominous music and shock cuts. But there's no payoff, and nothing here as spine-tinglingly frightening as Paris Hilton's line readings in "House of Wax."

"Venom" finds itself in a rather difficult spot. Teens, for whom the film is likely aimed, will probably stay home and watch the umpteenth rerun of "Laguna Beach" on MTV, while hardcore horror junkies will surely be insulted by the ho-hum gore and prowl the Web for bootlegs of "The Devil's Rejects" instead.

However, its aim is so low that to quibble over the utter stupidity of the whole affair is pointless. As a "so bad, it's good" laugh, the film works just fine.


Review: 2 stars (Out of 4)

STARRING: Agnes Bruckner, Jonathan Jackson, Meagan Good, Laura Ramsey and Bijou Phillips

DIRECTOR: Jim Gillespie

RUNNING TIME: 85 minutes

RATING: R for strong horror violence/gore and language

THE LOWDOWN: A group of teenagers flee from a murderous tow-truck driver possessed by the spirit of the dead.

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