Saturday, 12 July 2014

The Lair of the White Worm (1988)

Whatever Bram Stoker had in mind when he wrote his 1911 novel, The Lair of the White Worm, it surely could not have been the image of Amanda Donohoe in black lingerie and thigh-length PVC boots sinking her teeth into the genitals of a boy scout. In fact, it's hard to imagine that audiences arriving at the premier of Ken Russell's 1988 film adaptation were expecting that either. What Russell himself had in mind was more of a mix of Oscar Wilde (having previously directed Salome's Last Dance, released the same year), and the legend of the Lambton Worm, the connection made explicit by the inclusion of C. M. Leumane's folk song describing the tale, with the character names reworked to fit those depicted in the film. At the time of release, the film was billed as a "horror comedy." A more accurate description would be, "a mess," but at least it's an interesting mess.

No one was expecting this. Least of all him.

Pitched somewhere between those two great British traditions, the Hammer Horror and the Tarts and Vicars Party, the film opens on Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi), and archaeology student digging up what, at first, appears to be a dinosaur skull whilst excavating the ruins of a convent in the grounds of Mercy Farm bed and breakfast. The bed and breakfast is run by Mary and Eve Trent (Sammi Davis and Catherine Oxenberg, respectively), who were apparently orphaned when their parents disappeared without a trace, the previous year. The trio attend a party held by Eve's boyfriend, the new Lord d'Ampton (Hugh Grant), and Angus learns the legend of the d'Ampton Worm, a dragon reputed to have terrorised the local countryside. Coinciding with all this is the onset of spring, and the return to the county of Lady Silvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), who jokes that she spends her winters hibernating. Upon learning of the discovery of the skull, Lady Silvia steals it from Mercy Farm and retreats back to her own residence, Temple House, where she, a vampire/snake woman/pagan priestess, plans to find virginal human sacrifices for the offspring of her self-reproducing hermaphrodite master-mistress, Dionin, a Pagan snake-god, who d'Ampton's ancestor slew centuries before.

Yep. It's one of those of movies.

The Lair of the White Worm came about because Vestron Pictures, who had financed Russell's Gothic (1986) had agreed to finance The Rainbow (1989) only if Russell delivered another horror movie first. Producer Dan Ireland claims that Russell wrote the screenplay in less than a week and originally wanted Tilda Swinton to play Lady Sylvia, but after she read the script, the actress wouldn't return his phone calls. This actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise, since Donohoe is the best thing about the film; relishing the opportunity to camp it up at every turn; she's clearly having enormous fun here, and is so uninhibited that she actually manages to carry an air of authority, even when parading around in the nude. By contrast, Oxenberg is by far and away the weakest link in the cast, having played Amanda Carrington on the TV series Dallas, she was cast purely on name value and her voice had to be (very badly) dubbed by someone who could actually pull off a Northern accent. Hugh Grant is Hugh Grant, and Davis plays her role with a high-pitch "Oop North" intonation that makes her sound like a children's television presenter, while Capaldi's goody-two-shoes Angus is, weirdly, the real hero of the film, despite much set-up for d'Ampton to fulfil his destiny by following in his ancestor's footsteps and slaying the monster. It is only Angus who actually manages to take any effective action, while d'Ampton himself confines himself to lots of detective work and only scores a couple of minor victories, the most spectacular of which is the slaying of the Trent sister's now-vampiric mother, Dorothy (Imogen Clair), who d'Ampton literally slashes in two with his family sword.

It's not really sword, more of a
Chekhov's Gun.

The plot in general not only makes very little sense--not that it needs to--but because the four heroes' character arcs become muddled with one and other's, the overall pay-off is ultimately unsatisfying. It's pretty clear that the script was written in haste, and it really could have done with a couple of redrafts before production began. It's not just d'Ampton and Angus who suffer from confused character development, but the Trent sisters as well, with Eve being chosen as the virgin sacrifice, despite having spent the night with d'Ampton (although, we never see what they were doing, they do behave as though they were more than just "dancing," and d'Ampton says), and in spite of Mary coming across as the more innocent of the two. It's something of a mystery as to why Russell even included four main heroic roles in the first place, other than to emulate Stoker's formula of having a group of people band together to defeat a supernatural foe, except that Stoker used this device to emphasise the villain's power, and usually included an academic figure who was expert in these matters (such as Van Helsing, or Sir Nathaniel de Salis, in the case of this film's source material). Russell gives us no such analogue, and the characters he does retain from the novel bare little resemblance to their literary counterparts, not even sharing their names. Given that Ireland mistakenly stated in an interview that Stoker died before finishing the novel (he actually died a year after completing it), one can only assume that the production was working from the 1925 abridged version, which does come across as extremely fragmentary. Ultimately, the intention was to make something purely commercial because Gothic did well on home video. Russell doesn't seem to care about his material, but sees no reason not to have fun with it. The film's greatest flaw, however, is that Russell descends into self-parody, something he would do more and more as his career went on. The Devils (1971) may have been highly absurdist, even downright surreal at times, but it had teeth, and, given that it was based on real events, extremely sharp ones at that. The Lair of the White Worm only has plastic joke shop fangs.

...Like these.

Even though the movie does have its fun moments, such as Lady Sylvia emerging from a tanning bed like a vampire arising from a coffin, or the ridiculous climax in which Oxenberg raises the White Worm from its pit whilst wearing nothing other than blue body make-up and an enormous fang-shaped strap-on dildo, it too often feels as if Russell was phoning it in, ticking off the boxes of what makes a Russell film; touching a crucifix splashed with Lady Sylvia's venom causes Eve to suffer an hallucinogenic trip filled with writhing, masturbating nuns who are assaulted by Roman solders at the foot of Jesus' cross, while the titular phallic serpent wraps itself around the messiah himself. 

Cocks, Christ and Naughty Nuns:
Ken Russell by numbers.

This, along with other iconoclastic nightmare sequences not only call to mind The Devils, but Russell's own Altered States (1980) as well. The cheesy Quantel video effects used to achieve these visions make the sequences look like one of his Sarah Brightman music videos, and one can't help but wonder if Russell was only including naughty nuns in order to repeat the controversy of his earlier work. Grant spends most of his screen-time wearing an RAF uniform for no other reason than to resemble Robert Powell in Tommy (1975), and his Freudian dream, in which he is led aboard concord, where he is surrounded by phallic imagery, would look like one of that film's musical numbers if it weren't for the fact that Donohoe and Oxenberg end up wrestling each other in skimpy air hostess outfits that are less British Airways and more Ann Summers.

"Uncle! Uncle!"

If the film had been a straight horror film, it may have worked, but it's all too ridiculous to be scary, and far too camp to be genuinely funny. While parody is fine, self-parody is fatal, since it makes the audience question whether the film-maker was ever serious to begin with. The Devils was witty without ever loosing its power to shock; Women in Love (1969) was camp enough to get away with its histrionics, but never slipped into the realms of unintentional comedy. The whole attitude behind The Lair of the White Worm seems to be, "let's have a fun day's filming, then off to the pub afterwards." This is not a message that should be woven into the fabric of any film, let alone one made by a man once consider the enfant terrible of British cinema.