When one thinks of filmmaker Ken Russell, one thinks “excessive”, “lurid”, and “over the top”. But there’s an honest to God beauty in the profane as seen through his eyes. Simply put, you can choose to experience a Russell film or ignore it, but they will always live on as messy, indulgent, yet heartfelt works. Personally, these are a few of my favorite things; and when Russell directed his flights of ripened fancy towards a piece of horror, the results could be spectacular like The Lair of the White Worm (1988), a hilarious and ribald tribute to Hammer, AIP, and Amicus.
Released just in time for Halloween in the U.S. by Vestron Pictures, Lair brought in less than its $2.5 million budget at the box office and the reviews were mixed. This was really nothing new for Russell, who by this point in the game was either revered or reviled for his unsubtle approach to whichever topic he chose. But applied to horror, where the outré is often celebrated, Russell is able to unfurl his freak flag in a community that embraces it. Well, mostly; Lair is still tuned to a very particular wavelength that doesn’t resonate with all horror fans, but it certainly deserves a place as one of the late ‘80s finest (and weirdest).
Meet Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi – Doctor Who), an archeology student who discovers an ancient oblong skull buried in the backyard of the Trent sisters, Mary (Sammi Davis – Mona Lisa) and Eve (Catherine Oxenberg – Dynasty), as well as a mosaic of a giant serpent coiled around a cross. Off the three go to the local, where a band is playing a song dedicated to the slaughter of “The D’Ampton Worm”, and who happens to be there but a descendent of the song’s hero, Lord James D’Ampton (Hugh Grant – Notting Hill), who finds the epic legend of his ancestor slaying the giant snake amusing and nothing more.
That is, until Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe – Liar Liar) returns to her summer home, and discovers that the head of her serpent god Diodin has been unearthed, offering her the opportunity to resurrect the beast through a human sacrificial offering, virgin division. Her target? Eve, of course, but D’Ampton will have none of that, thank you very much; and he, Angus, and Mary must take on Lady Sylvia and her disciples in a race to thwart the resurrection of the slinking slumberer. But will they be too late?
The Lair of the White Worm was the second in a four picture deal that Russell made with Vestron; after the home video success of Gothic (’86), they asked Russell to do another horror film, and then they would let him do his prequel to Women in Love (1969), The Rainbow, the following year. Hats off to Vestron then, because what he turned in is just as odd as any other film he’s made, except this time filtered through a nostalgic prism of ‘60s horror yet plastered with phallic imagery and religious blasphemy that never would have made it past censors back then on either side of the pond. Ken’s gonna Ken, folks.
The broad strokes fit easily within the parameters set forth by Freddie Francis, Terence Fisher, et al: evil is unearthed, a damsel is chosen, and then said damsel is to be rescued in a heroic way. But this is Russelltown, where the streetlights shine that much brighter and the stop signs are ten feet tall; I haven’t read Bram Stoker’s book this is apparently very loosely based on (by all accounts it’s not very good), but I think it’s safe to assume it doesn’t have a blue snake woman wearing a massive unicorn horn as a strap on.
That’s just the tip, as it were; Lady Sylvia’s venom causes hallucinations, and this one has some doozies: there’s a scene where the big JC is nailed to the cross while Diodin coils around him, as Roman soldiers rape nuns and Lady Sylvia hisses in delight. Then there’s the scene where Lady Sylvia licks blood off the spear of a dead Roman, or Sylvia and Eve dressed as flight attendants fighting over D’Ampton in one of his dreams (okay, this one is actually pleasant). The point being that Russell, even while trying to concoct a crowd pleasing film, does so on his own terms; Lair is laden with phallic imagery and puns, all delivered with forked tongue in gilded cheek by a very willing cast.
Capaldi and Grant bring a dry wit to the proceedings, while Davis and Oxenberg make suitable heroines. However, it is Donohoe’s party and we’re just guests; she is by turns seductive and sinister, coy yet foreboding, all done with a twinkle in her eye that says she knows exactly what she’s in: a comedy.
The Lair of the White Worm shows Russell having fun upending the stuffier ‘50s and ‘60s mores while still paying homage to their style; it’s there in the blue screened car rides and the aristocratic heroism (although that gets taken down a few notches with Grant’s ineffectual do-goodery), not to mention gratuitous lab analysis that plays a big part in the finale. And then there’s the giant mechanical serpent head coming out of a dormant volcano in a cave while Oxenberg hangs above it in her underwear; if you’re not sold on Russell’s particular sense of fun by then, perhaps you should slither back into your basket until something more appropriate comes along. It probably won’t be from Ken Russell though, bless his twisted heart.
The Lair of the White Worm is available on Blu-ray from Vestron Video.Next: Class of 88: MONKEY SHINES: The Strange Case of Two Jekylls and a Killer Monkey