Ken Russell's dalliances with the horror genre were always perverse. Whether the artsy take on nunsploitation in The Devils or the evolutionary visions of Altered States or the Romantic freakout of Gothic, Russell always approached the genre obliquely, using its imagery but eschewing its narrative tropes. A rare exception to this is The Lair of the White Worm (1988), which has a conventional horror movie plot--taken from Bram Stoker's worst novel--upon which Russell hangs his usual altered states of consciousness and psychosexual derangement. It's as looney a horror movie as the 1980s ever produced--which is saying something--though it's perhaps less strange than some of Russell's other films. It's a matter of degrees informed by the history of the director rather than by the genre's standards themselves. Russell, whatever his faults, was one of a kind.
The story finds archaeologist Angus Flint digging up an old Roman convent behind a Derbyshire bed and breakfast. Part of his find is a mysterious skull that he thinks might be some kind of dinosaur, but for the strata at which its found. It's mere thousands, rather than millions, of years old. The two sisters who own the B&B are still mourning the disappearance of their parents a year previous, though they've reason to hope as local constable Ernie brings them their father's watch found in Stonerich cavern. The sisters take Angus to a local dance celebrating the slaying of the D'ampton worm, a dragon reputedly killed by the ancestor of the local nobility at that very cavern. The local nobility is Lord James D'ampton, an amiable rogue who's just returned to his family estate after coming into his inheritance. His return coincides with the return of another local aristocrat, Lady Sylvia Marsh, who lives at Temple House. Lady Sylvia is a mystery to most of the locals; she rarely winters in the vicinity. When she comes across Ernie lurking around her property, she helps him with a snakebite by sucking the poison out of his leg. She's got a sinister agenda, though. She visits the B&B while the sisters are out searching for more clues and finds Angus's dragon skull. She absconds with it, but not before spewing venom at a crucifix. When Eve, one of the sisters, returns to the house with James, she touches the venom and is rewarded with terrifying visions of the destruction of a convent by Roman soldiers, and of snakes wound around the Cross. Lady Sylvia, it seems, is the mortal servitor of the snake god, Dionin, and she's looking for a sacrifice--a human sacrifice--and Eve is just to order. Meanwhile, Angus, James, and Mary uncover evidence that something survived in Stonerich cavern, which appears to have a connection to Temple House. Their suspicions are confirmed when they learn that Eve has been abducted and it's up to them to save her...
I say that this is more conventionally a horror film than Russells other "horror" films, but that's not quite true. Oh, it follows a conventional Gothic horror plot, but in most of its particulars, it plays like an elaborate put-on. This is in part because it's monster--played with a kind of libidinous glee by Amanda Donohoe--is particularly liberated. One wonders if Russell is undermining the sexual unease and repression that so concerned Bram Stoker or if he was, instead, tweaking the nose of his financial backers. This film was part of a four picture deal with Vestron, who had had great success on home video with Russell's Gothic and asked him to make another horror films for them. Russell's own preference was to make The Rainbow, a follow-on film from his 1969 version of Women in Love based on another of D. H. Lawrence's novels, and this film was the price he paid to get it made. Did the director resent this price? It's hard to tell from the text of the film, really, but one thing is for sure: The Lair of the White Worm leaves a more indelible impression than The Rainbow.
I used to have a huge crush on Amanda Donohoe based on this film and on her role as C. J. Lamb on L. A. Law two years later. If you'll pardon a short digression: Donohoe's character on that show was one of the first queer characters who was allowed to express her sexuality on-camera and I know that I'm not the only queer woman who remembers "the kiss." In any event, Donohoe's character in Lair isn't specifically queer, but I can't help but view her as some kind of pansexual force of nature, which is close enough. More: she delights in her sexuality, even if that sexuality includes human sacrifice and startling ceremonial phallic sculptures worn as a strap-on. She's all of Stoker's unease about the castrating monstrous feminine made flesh--and she's shameless about it. The film flatters her, too, and she pretty much blows her fellow actresses off the screen, both because Russell dresses her in fetishy outfits and because of the actresses's willingness follow Russell's phantasmagoria off the cliff. Her smile as she licks blood from the end of one of the phalluses during one of the film's hallucination scenes is totally genuine. She seems into it.
In the manner of a classic Universal horror film, this divides the duties of "hero" among separate characters. Both Peter Capaldi's Angus and Hugh Grant's Lord James are stalwart hero types, but the film does something unusual with the way they're coded. Given that Angus is a bookish scientist type, you would expect him to be the Savant--the Peter Cushing character with a deep knowledge of the enemy. That's not how this film codes him, though. That role is actually assigned to James, who you would expect to be the man of action. It's Angus who gets that role. It works surprisingly well. I should mention that it's been a while since I last saw The Lair of the White Worm, and in the intervening years, Capaldi has acquired his own indelible screen persona as he's aged. His younger self reminds me a bit of Harold Ramis in Ghostbusters, but the voice is the same and I kept imagining him as a young Malcolm Tucker, slaying the Worm with a stream of verbal bile and profanity. This has nothing to do with the movie itself so much as it's a quirk of my own. Take that however you like.
Current Challenge tally:
Total Viewings: 16
First Time Viewings: 10
Around the Web:
Kevin at For It Is Man's Number handles Fragile with care.
Scott at Blasphemous Tomes finds that notorious video nasty Anthropophagus is is indigestible.
Tim at The Other Side stays up late for Night Watch.
Dr. AC looks at Dust Devil and Prison in his latest round-up at Horror 101.
Lady Terminator Erika makes a banana slushie out of Blood Glacier.
Anna at Bemused and Nonplussed marathons the Saw movies. They have more intestinal fortitude than I do...
Finally, Stacia at She Blogged by Night brings us A Very Short History of A Very Famous Halloween Mask.
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