Saturday, 24 February 2018

The Lair Of The White Worm

Cast:  Amanda Donohoe, Hugh Grant, Catherine Oxenberg, Peter Capaldi, and Sammi Davis

Wrtiter and director: Ken Russell

93 minutes (18) 1988
Widescreen ratio 1.85:1
LionsGate Blu-ray region B
[released 26th February]

Rating: 7/10
Review by Christopher Geary

Dracula movies having been thoroughly overdone by the late 1980s, Ken Russell turned to a far lesser known book for his decidedly British monster-movie adaptation of Bram Stoker's The Lair Of The White Worm (first published in 1911), based upon the legendary Lambton Worm. Blurring class differences in its oddball characterisations of English landowners and working tenents promotes this frightful farce all the way from its low-brow cliches, of a vaguely sci-fi comedy-horror, to magnificently surrealist flourishes, often burdened with weirdly paganistic rituals and explicit acts of disturbing sexual violence that merrily include religious blasphemy.

Everything from hose-pipes and teapot spouts fill the background scenes with suggestive phallic imagery about a blatantly evil serpent dating back to Roman times. The tastelessly macabre story flits between character viewpoints. Easily the best of these involve predatory vampire Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe, a charming dominatrix attuned to Turkish music), who picks up boy-scouts ("Are you into any sort of banging?"), swans around in kinky boots, and plays a snakes and ladders board-game.

Decades before his regenerative stint for the famous Time Lord in Doctor Who (2013-7), Peter Capaldi appears here as archaeology student Angus, digging up a giant beastly skull on the site of an ancient villa in Derbyshire. Hugh Grant is the obvious hero, an RAF chappie and lord of the manor James D'Ampton who dreams of a Concorde flight with venomous seduction that keenly anticipates the unfolding mystery. However, the movie's actual hero is the Scotsman, who benefits from an open twist-ending perhaps inspired by John Carpenter's The Thing (1982). "The mind boggles," as Russell says in his director's commentary. 

Dick Bush's kitchen-sink cinematography blends with Russell's moodily expressionist styling to archly beguiling effect. Historical exposition during a visit to some local caverns fills in the narrative landscape between myth and truth. Hypnotic visions build up suspense to a climax of bagpipes, delightfully campy and fanged villainy, a human sacrifice (with American beauty Catherine Oxenberg as a virginal victim), and heroic dragon-slaying antics.

Overall, The Lair Of The White Worm remains an immensely watchable treat for fans of low-budget British shockers, partly for the witty mix of humour and horror, but mostly for a batch of high quality pantomine (in the very best sense of that usually derided term) performances by its astonishingly impressive cast in their journey to the edge of the abyss. 

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