Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The perverse underbelly of horror: A review of The Lair of the White Worm

Note: I have a weakness for horror films of all types--good and bad, classic and B-grade, you name it--that the approach of Halloween always brings out. The following is the first review of a couple of lesser-known horror films that also happen to be among my favorites.

Funny, gruesome, sexy, campy, hallucinogenic, uneven, and twisted are just a few of the adjectives I'd use to describe The Lair of the White Worm. Directed by Ken Russell, this 1988 horror film is supposedly based on a Bram Stoker novel of the same name, and I say supposedly because, although I've never read Stoker's novel, the plot summaries I've reviewed bear almost no resemblance to the movie.

The basic plot summary is as follows: A visiting student archeologist (Angus Flint) uncovers the skull of an enormous snake while excavating the buried remains of an ancient Roman temple in the quiet, pastoral village of Derbyshire. His find lends weight to the old Derbyshire folklore that a knight named John D'Ampton slew a great man-eating-worm/wyrm (i.e., dragon) that terrorized the countryside centuries before.

Angus is staying in the home of two comely lasses named Mary and Eve, whose parents disappeared a year earlier while walking along a wooded path near the home of the mysterious Lady Sylvia. Sylvia is soon revealed to be a vampiric snake-woman and worshipper of the ancient snake god Dionan. Sylvia later captures Eve as a living sacrifice for Dionan, and it's up to Angus, Mary, and James D'Ampton--the many-times great-grandson of the legendary hero John D'Ampton--to stop Sylvia and destroy the ancient evil dwelling in the dark caverns overlooking Derbyshire.

I strongly urge highly religious people (and, in particular, devout Catholics) to steer clear of The Lair of the White Worm since it contains some sadistic, fever-dream flashbacks of cruelty, murder, and worse inflicted on nuns and other religious symbols/personages. But if you can overlook these elements, and a couple of other bizarre and mostly nonsensical cut-scenes/dream sequences (which include an erotically-charged lesbian wrestling match in the interior of a Concorde jet), The Lair of the White Worm has a lot to offer.

For all its faults, I find The Lair of the White Worm compulsively watchable and enjoyable. Here are some of the reasons why:

The Lovecraftian vibe. The Lair of the White Worm has a strong "Thing that should not be," mythic, elder-evil feel to it, starting with the opening credits, red letters superimposed over a menacing cave mouth that portends something evil lurking within. Russell smartly and humorously inserts snake-like imagery and serpentine allusions into the film, building up to the "big reveal" at the end. He also succeeds in infusing the action with the dark history of Derbyshire, a small town that nearly two millennia ago was the site of a Roman-era cult dedicated to the worship of the snake-god Dionin. You could run a great (albeit half-slapstick) Call of Cthulhu game following this script.

Amanda Donohoe. To say that Donohoe (Lady Sylvia) chews scenery in this film is an understatement. She is absolutely stunning and sexy--and plays a wonderfully wicked vampiric snake woman to boot. Donohoe also manages to display a lot of flesh, which is definitely part of the film's appeal.

Hugh Grant. I liked Grant in this, even more so because the actor who went on to star in safe, family comedies like Nine Months doubtless would like to forget ever being in this film.

The camp. For all its gore and scary scenes, you're not supposed to take The Lair of the White Worm seriously. Russell lays on the campiness pretty thick--and it works. One of my favorite scenes has D'Ampton telling Angus about the legend of the D'Ampton worm as the latter shoves forkfuls of pickled earthworms into his mouth while attempting to talk with his mouth absolutely overflowing.

The biblical allusions. These are at times a bit ham-fisted but they do add another dimension to the film. We have Eve, the pure and virginal maiden, kidnapped by Sylvia, the serpent, who seduces her from a tree a-la the Garden of Eden. James D'Ampton is in the middle of the conflict, drawn to the sluttish Sylvia by his lust and to the chaste Eve by his heart. This tension is drawn out in a truly bizarre dream sequence/lesbian wrestling match I alluded to previously.

The bad effects. Most of the "special effects" in this film aren't so special, but I like them all the better for it. One of my favorites is a scene in which James D'Ampton cuts a snake-woman in half with a sword, leaving her legs and upper body writhing a pool of blood. Only it's painfully obvious that the two halves were created with two actors sticking up their legs and upper body through the floor of the set. It's a scene that's sure to bring to a smile to fans of schlock horror.

To read more about this fine (?) film, I recommend this Web site:


Sham aka Dave said...

I still have a major crush on Amanda Donahoe thanks to The Lair of the White Worm. I've watched it twice, once as a rental and once on the tube. I need to see if I can buy the DVD in a bargain bin or something.

Brian Murphy said...

Hey Sham, thanks for stopping by. I actually have an old VHS copy that I bought for a buck or two in a bargain bin of an old video store that was going out of business. I have heard that the film has since been released on DVD with a few extras.

Donohoe was pretty amazing in this film in many ways.

Anonymous said...

One of my favourite bizarre movies. :D