Sunday, 4 September 2011
I don't normally stick me film reviews on here. But this is an epic. What a film. I give you DEATH LINE.
There is a consensus on the Big Three of British Horror films. They are, in reverse order, "Blood on Satan's Claw" "The Wicker Man" and "Witch-finder General". While they are all excellent films, each sharing a sense of rustic dread, an arable 'istory if you will, (though the binding cheerfulness of the Summerisle community is a million miles away from the cruel, blasted heaths and sheep-like peasantry of "Witch-finder") I have problems with each of them.
"Blood on Satan's Claw", the least well known of the three, has an extraordinary plot, incredible music and a fabulous cast. It suffers from having a very confused second act and a protracted, lip-smacking rape scene. "Witch-finder General" is certainly an excellent film in a lot of ways, not least for Vincent Price's "you'll wish I was camp again" performance. But unlike a Dali painting I find it a hard watch, it's too cruel, too bleak, too nihilistic. I like a bit of fun in my 70's horror romps and this, like the similar but weaker "Cry of the Banshee", is unrelenting in its depiction of man's inhumanity to woman. The Wicker Man is brilliant; the soundtrack beautiful, the plot hilarious and Chris Lee is hot buttered charm all the way through. It's my problem really; I've just seen it too many times. There was a point in my life where I was watching it on a weekly basis. Nothing holds up to that level of scrutiny, not even the very worthy remake starring Nicholas Cage.*
The major problem that I have with these films is that I don't believe that they are the best of 70's British Horror. I wouldn't ordinarily pitch perfectly worthwhile and clearly unrelated films into spurious competition with each other, and if I do so now it is because my favourite 70's horror is so over-looked. Even Gatiss and Rigby ignored it on their otherwise laudable exploration of horror cinema on BBC4. That film, as you may have guessed if you've read the above title, is DEATH-LINE. And it is a pip!
Death-line starts like no other horror film. We are introduced to what sounds like a stripper's anthem played on a mini-moog and a spare drum-kit. The music accompanies a colourful blur with what appears to be a smudged keyhole in the centre of it. As the camera gradually focuses we see it is the bowler hatted silhouette of a man staring into the window of a Soho peep-show. We're a long way from Summerisle. The camera blurs in and out as we follow the moustachioed perv around the porn warren, neon signs in red and blue deliquescing like lava lamps, the unnatural Formica yellows and greens lending the streets an indelible verisimilitude. This is Soho in the seventies. It could be nowhere else.
Having completed his circuit, to no obvious end, our saucy salary-man makes his way to Russell Square (bit of a walk) where he propositions a young woman and gets a knee in the knackers for his pains. Wheezing, as well as dealing with the crushing sense of ennui that comes with a blow to the under-carriage, he suddenly realises that things can get a lot worse than a kick in the balls.
On the last train home come Alex (David Ladd) and Patricia (Sharon Gurney - last seen in the Corpse where she play's Michael Gough's daughter. In real life she is his daughter-in-law). He's a deeply unpleasant American student and she's a woefully soppy English one. As they step over the body of the businessman these credentials are quickly established: "Patricia, in New York you walk over these guys!". Patricia insist that he goes to tell the guard and he does so, grudgingly, telling her to stay with the body. She doesn't want to be left with it a follows him awkwardly up the stairs like a beaten dog. They find the guard and then a policeman. But when they return to view the body it has disappeared! So they look like dicks!
Cut to the offices of Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasance); a ranting, unshaven lunatic in a misshapen hat and soiled raincoat: he's our hero! It is the next morning and Calhoun is going about his day; blaming tea-bags on "Indians", fishing said tea-bag out of his cup with a biro or a dart, bollocking a female officer and confiding to his assistant "I fancy 'er". While all the "business" is going on he has been listening carefully to Detective Inspector Roger's retelling of the incident on the platform of Russell Square. It seems the bowler-hatted perve was not without influence. He is James Manfred O.B.E. a big shot (Calhoun pronounces it "shit") at the Ministry of Defence. This rings a bell with Calhoun as he remembers another person going missing at Russell Square. He brings in the hapless Alex for questioning and accuses him of being a thief. As a parting shot Calhoun barks "Get yer 'air cut!" at the sullen hippy and gives him a look of such malicious joy that it's impossible not to like him.
Next comes one of the truly remarkable scenes in British horror and for my money in all cinema. After a brief expositional detour with Clive Swift, where he explains that in the 18th century an Tube tunnel collapsed on the workers who were digging it (men and women) and the bankrupt, morally and otherwise, Rail Company left them there to die, the camera works its way through the glistening bowels of the abandoned tunnel. In what seems like one glorious tracking shot we move past dripping masonry to the empty eyes of the half-dead Manfred, propped up beneath the hanging corpses of other half eaten victims, Manfred's certain fate. The camera continues its unblinking journey through more rotting viscera and piles of rubble until we come across "The Man", a shuffling Neanderthal figure and his dying and apparently pregnant sister-wife. Hugh Armstrong, the actor who plays "The Man" didn't work as an actor for another ten years after "Death Line" and after that assayed roles such as "Jun Priest" in "Beastmaster" or "Station Officer" in "Minder". This is baffling. His performance as "The Man" is a towering achievement, turning a shuffling madman role into something sympathetic and sensitive, quite a performance considering he has to communicate his entire emotive spectrum through straggling hair, a thick beard and a single line of dialogue! How the Oscars missed this astonishing turn I will never know. It's like they had something against murderous, incestuous, subterranean sub-humans in low budget British horror films! After this sentimental introduction to the Man and the Woman, the camera continues its journey, through piles of corpses, fallen family members arranged in neat stacks, each commemorated with stolen jewellery arranged on their chests. The distracted sobs of the grieving Man abate and what we get now is a dumb-show of the tunnel collapse story, from the pounding of pick-axes on rock, to the tunnel's collapse, to the screams of the condemned. It is told beautifully in sound, effectively negating Clive's thumb-nail sketch, the cold eye of the camera drifting onto salient details, the sign for the abandoned "Museum" station, the illuminated hoops of tunnel walls, the forbidding pile of rubble that sealed the fate of those trapped behind it and then the camera lifts up, like a departing spirit, and out into the still familiar Russell Square tube. People tell me I like bad films but that scene, with its economy, technical accomplishment and nagging suggestion, can compete with anything in cinema.
Calhoun and Rogers nip round to Manfred's flat, Calhoun helping himself to booze and breaking into his locked drawers ("suspicious bastard") until Chris Lee turns up as a patrician M.I.5 enforcer and warns them off. Calhoun isn't having it!
Alex and Patricia break up, but bless her, she can't last five minutes on her own and pitches up back at the flat with a bottle of chianti and her mascara running down her cheeks. She still continues to use the tube, late at night, alone, as if nothing odd has happened.
The Man attacks and kills three London Underground workers, one of whom might reasonably be called the most Cockney man who ever lived. This is his day in his own words. "Yesterday? Let me see, ah. Got up 11. Had a nice day in. Got up 11 o'clock. Ham, eggs for breakfast. In the afternoon went to the pictures. In the evening I saw that bird. What a sort, what a performer I tell ya! Lovely...hey!". He stops there to get his head kicked in by The Man.
Calhoun and Rogers go to the pub and get pissed for no reason at all. The scariest thing in the film is Calhoun pissed. As Rogers plays pinball in his over-coat, Calhoun mercilessly harangues the bar-man, his mood swinging like Benny Goodman in a gibbet, alternating pissed joshing "Are you aware that it is an offence to sell alcoholic beverages outside of proper drinking hours?" with surly digs "What's the matter with you?" "Where'd you get that coat? Are you aware that that is stealing by finding?" to apoplectic ranting "The Queen? Indeed god bless her. AND DON'T YOU SMILE WHEN YOU SAY THAT TOO! Are you aware that her gracious majesty is over there, over-seas, working the far flung empire, helping to keep the world safe for the likes of...flogging her pretty little guts out, so you can live in a democracy? Look at this place, a knocking shop!". This scene doesn't move the action on or have any bearing on the film at all really but it's my favourite scene and by far the most frightening. Calhoun is the sort of raging repressed lunatic you feel could do anything!
Late at night, on the platform, Alex and Patricia become separated. The Man drags her off to his lair immediately. The police find blood on her handbag. The abductor is suffering from acute anaemia and plague! Calhoun knows he's onto something very unusual indeed and the film spirals into a desperate man-hunt before The Man can kill Patricia. Or eat her. Or worse.
Actually the film gets bit lost here, there are no real surprises and, while the suspense is ratcheted up, Alex gets most of the screen time so inevitably some of the tension is lost. David Ladd's performance as Alex is both wooden and sullen, like a teenage wardrobe on holiday with its parents. But it's not his film, it's Donald Pleasance's film, in a role I would have liked to see him play again and again. An alarmingly hairy police officer hands him a file and says "Anything else sir?". Without looking up he replies with gravitas, "Beards".
It's the way he tells 'em.
*kidding! Alright? KIDDING!