Monday, 28 October 2019

The Lair Of The White Worm

The Great British Snake Off

The Lair Of The White Worm
UK 1988 Directed by Ken Russell
Vestron Video  Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Spoilers... because the silliness
is too good leave without commenting on it.

Well this is absolutely bonkers.

I somehow never got around to seeing much loved director Ken Russell’s The Lair Of The White Worm on its original cinema release but I’ve kept it in mind to catch up to over the years and I thought October, the month culminating in Halloween, might be a good excuse to watch the newish Vestron Blu Ray release of the film. So there I was expecting a spine tingling horror romp.

Well I certainly got a romp.

It’s gone on record that Ken Russell regards this and certain other films he’s made as comedies... well that’s something which the audience could be forgiven for misinterpreting here I suspect. Sure, there are loads of laughs to be had in this fun packed film but I was certainly not aware, as I was chewing over this entertaining morsel, that the laughs here were anything but unintentional.

The film concerns the antics of a Scottish, student archaeologist called Angus, played by a young Peter Capaldi... and his brand new about to be’ girlfriend called Mary, who runs the lodgings he’s staying at, played by Sammi Davis. After digging up a huge and puzzling skull in Mary’a garden as part of a Roman excavation, he goes with her when the local police constable, played by prolific British character actor Paul Brooke, brings a pocket watch to Mary which belonged to her father. Her father and mother disappeared a number of years ago and so Angus and Mary join in the search for the missing couple near the caves in which said pocket watch was found.

We also have Mary’s sister Eve, played by a real life daughter of a princess, Catherine Oxenberg and her boyfriend, Lord James D'Ampton played by a young Hugh Grant.

Meanwhile, Amanda Donohoe, playing the decidedly dodgy and saucily aristocratic Lady Sylvia Marsh, returns to the other bit of land near D’Ampton’s manor and, after getting wind of Angus’ find, steals said skull while they are absent and, when she sees a crucifixion cross on the wall, spits venom at it from her suddenly, hugely fanged mouth. That’s because she is a cross between some kind of vampiric snake demon and a vampire who keeps a big worm beast in a pit in her cellar and who wants to sacrifice Eve to the skull of the Snake God to... I dunno, I kinda missed the part where they explained why she is doing this. Either the explanation was left a bit vague or I was so distracted by the content of the movie that I kind of lost the plot a bit.

What I can tell you is that absolutely bizarre shenanigans ensue as the four young protagonists do battle with Lady Marsh.

The film itself is an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel of the same name but, having read a summary of that novel and with the main action of the film taking place in Derbyshire, I’d have to say it’s more inspired by the novel rather than sticking to anything verbatim. Surely it’s equally inspired by the English mythical beast The Lampton Worm (as was Stoker’s novel) as anything else. Here though, the titular beast is actually the D’Ampton Worm, named after the trouble it caused in days gone by on the grounds of Lord D’Ampton’s domain.

The film starts off really well, it has to be said, with a long slow zoom of a piece of mountainous scenery and the cave which is made much of in the main story. Wind blows on the soundtrack as the credits roll over this image. Then, any pretence that this is going to be a proper ‘horror movie’ in anything but the presence of genre elements, flies out the window as we meet Angus and Mary and the ears are assaulted by a cacophony of fast talking characters dealing in dodgy accents and delivering a not so great script in a truly enthusiastic, if not particularly well acted, manner. To be fair, the acting may, after reading something Donohoe said of the film, have been a specific direction from the director so his approach to the material is possibly more to blame if you feel the film is tonally at fault in terms of the performances.

When we first meet Lady Marsh she is wearing, more or less, a white highwayman’s outfit but this is just a number of outrageous and over the top costumes she bravely wears (and strips out of) throughout the movie. She has some truly silly scenes in this such as when she picks up an 18 year old (at least, I hope he was 18) boy scout and takes him to her home as it’s raining. After slipping him out of his wet clothes and playing Snakes And Ladders with him, he whips out a mouth organ and starts playing Rimsy-Korsakov’s Scheherezade, which of course causes her to dance like a snake. She then starts washing him down in her bath and goes to give him some oral sex. However, she instead brings her fangs into play and, uses them to inject snake venom into his cock, which paralyses him and, when she is interrupted by Hugh Grant’s character knocking on her door, she just pushes him under the water to drown. She reminded me, just a a little, of Jacqueline Pearce's turn in Hammer's The Reptile here.

And if you think that’s smiler-rific, then the next two hander with Hugh Grant, where they trade quips, is even sillier. At one point in this, after pretending a fear of snakes, she throws the Snakes And Ladders board into the fire. Watching it burn she utters ‘Rosebud’, bringing us the complete non-sequitur of a Citizen Kane reference into all this madness. I was reminded a little of Michael Moorcock’s Miss Brunner character from the Jerry Cornelius novels in the way Donohoe plays the role. Scenes where she is strangling an air hostess in a scissor hold between her suspender adorned legs or rising snake-like out of an urn really give the film a kind of ludicrous, fun element which wouldn’t be out of place in one of those Cornelius chronicles.

As in other Ken Russel movies, he shows an interest in dream sequences such as the aforementioned ‘flight’ scene or a sequence where sexy nuns are pillaged by Romans as Christ is crushed on the cross by a big snake monster at ‘snake-Donohoe’s’ instruction. This also includes a blink and you’ll miss it, possibly less than two seconds, cameo by British glamour actress and author Linzi Drew as one of the nuns (I reviewed one of her latest novels here).

More shenanigans follow as Hugh Grant fights a vampiric underling of Lady Marsh, who he has lured to his mansion by playing a 78rpm recording of a snake charmer. Actually, this scene has what was, for me, the only genuine jump scare in the movie where, a little while after Hugh has cut his foe in two with his big sword (almost as big as the pointy, antique dildo Lady Marsh threatens Eve with later), the top half of the lady in question’s divided body makes a grab for Hugh’s ankle.

Later on, Angus gets his ‘kilt on’ and his bag pipes out in an attempt to lure the lady out of the house in which she has imprisoned Mary and Eve. Alas, he mostly just gets the attention of the police officer from earlier, who has been vampired up by Lady Marsh. Luckily, Angus is able to direct his bag pipes into an aggressive cacophony and forces Paul Brooke backwards as he trips and impales his head on a sundial... his left eyeball popping out the front in a none too convincing but deliriously funny moment of gore. That leaves Angus free to try and tackle the main snake lady and her ravenous pet himself, as he tries to rescue the fair maidens while Lord D’Ampton is trying to flush said snake monster out of the pit by piping gas through there. And... it all ends in a terrible set of loose ends involving mixed up antidotes which kind of don’t add up and with the character of Angus secretly a vampire, awaiting his turn to gobble down on his next victim.

And it’s brilliant. Terrible, clichéd, with silly acting, some nice cinematography and just a sense, aesthetically, of being written and performed while everyone was stoned out of their head. I loved it, just in case you were wondering and I’m sure that won’t be my last viewing. Would I recommend The Lair Of The White Worm to others? Yeah, I’d be happy to inflict this madness on various friends if I could find anyone but me who’s not actually seen this masterpiece of lunacy before. Very happy I’m finally catching up to this and I think I need to check out a couple of others of Russell’s oeuvre that I’ve not seen before. Really pleased I’ve finally discovered this one.

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