15th Mar2018

Vestron Video: ‘The Lair of the White Worm’ Blu-ray Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Peter Capaldi, Hugh Grant, Amanda Donohoe, Catherine Oxenberg, Sammi Davis, Stratford Johns, Paul Brooke, Imogen Claire, Chris Pitt, Gina McKee | Written and Directed by Ken Russell

THE-LAIR-OF-THE-WHITE-WORM-BLU-RAY-2D---LIONSGATE-UK

This very British monster movie from 1988 is based on the final, unfinished novel by Bram Stoker. The book was apparently written in a state of sweaty delirium, so it’s easy to see why enfant terrible Ken Russell was drawn to it.

Starring Hugh Grant and Peter Capaldi (both remarkably fresh-faced) and some dodgy regional accents, the setting is rural Derbyshire, and the enemy is a mythical giant worm that lives in a cave. Scottish archaeology student Angus (Capaldi) comes to stay in a guest house owned by the Trent sisters, Mary (Sammi Davis) and Eve (Catherine Oxenberg). After digging up the skull of an oversized reptile, he discovers that the Trents’ parents went mysteriously missing a year ago. Could these events be related?

James d’Ampton (Grant) is the ancestor of Lord d’Ampton, who according to legend slew the “d’Ampton Worm”. James’s fiancé Eve is in the sights of Lady Sylvia (Amanda Donohoe), a scheming succubus who serves the ancient god Dinion. Sylvia needs two virgins for a ritual that will summon the worm from the depths for the first time in generations. Sylvia is a powerful creature whose poisonous bite causes a form of vampirism: the victim grows giant snake-fangs and a lust for veins. The chaps and the ladies need to join forces and defeat Sylvia before it’s too late.

Donohoe revels in her slithery, sultry role. Her character, who spends half the runtime unclothed, is ridiculous. Bitten by a snake as an infant, in adulthood she has developed a fascination with the reptiles. When she dumps her Snakes and Ladders board game on the fire she mutters, “Rosebud”.

Grant leans hard into his hood-eyed posh boy persona, and d’Ampton and his butler, Peters (Z Cars’ Stratford Johns), make for an amusingly droll pairing. Capaldi is the straight guy; with his eccentric, wild-haired heroics he shows why he would eventually be an ideal choice for Dr Who. Davis and Oxenberg fare less well, condemned to ropey post-dubbing and destined to be tied up in their underwear.

Part of a four-film deal with Vestron Pictures, there’s never a sense of Russell taking the horror genre seriously – which, given the budget restraints, is probably a good idea. There’s some brilliant small town humour: at one point, the police car is occupied, and the cops can’t take a taxi because the village’s sole taxi driver has just been arrested for drunk driving.

Later, there’s a hilarious moment where d’Ampton lures Sylvia from hiding – she sleeps in a snake basket, of course – by piping Turkish snake charm music through giant speakers on his roof. (Angus tries the same thing, except using bagpipes, naturally.) But for all Russell’s mockery, there’s real warmth between the protagonists. It’s not cynical, just silly.

Certain Russell hallmarks may be a struggle for modern audiences. If the distinctly theatrical style – all  medium shots, tableau setups and stark flat lighting – isn’t a turn-off, I doubt the decadent kinkiness will be a turn-on. There are more delicately-engraved pointed dildos here than you can shake a snake at. Russell was always a cinematic outlier, but in his troubling depiction – let’s call it objectification – of women, he’s as out-of-sync with the progressives as ever.

Also typical is Russell’s stinging criticism of religion. Sylvia gets an extended monologue about the crusading nature of Christianity, which literally crushes pagan sects – her mansion, Temple House, is the location of an old Dinion place of worship.

Despite some decent melodic synth work (the less said about the raucous folk theme tune the better), in terms of ‘80s kitsch it’s slim pickings. Long before The Love Witch, The Lair of the White Worm is an unashamed throwback to late ‘60s psychedelia, with the action frequently punctuated by abrasive, music video-style hallucinatory sequences. There’s also a surreal and saucy dream sequence on a plane; a kind of Carry On David Lynch interlude.

The homage to horror of yesteryear extends to the final showdown, a proper soundstage ritual with chanting and body paint. Ken’s climax is well-staged and fairly tense, and includes a wonderful, BBC TV-level monster. And finally, the story has an amusingly vicious sting (or possibly a rattle) in its tail.

Lair of the White Worm is not scary and it’s very silly. It’s cheap and pervy and occasionally nasty. On those terms, it’s enjoyable enough; and, historically, it’s worth considering that it’s one of the last examples of the British folk horror movement that began in the aftermath of the Hammer heyday. For that honour alone, it’s worth checking out.

Extras include two commentaries, one with Russell himself, and the second with Lisa Russell and film historian Matthew Melia. Interview pieces are “Worm Food” (SFX team); “Cutting for Ken” (editor Peter Davis); “Mary, Mary” (Sammi Davis); and “Trailers from Hell” (Vestron producer Dan Ireland). There’s also a theatrical trailer and a stills gallery.

The Lair of the White Worm is out on Vestron Video Blu-ray now.

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