Written and Directed by: Ken Russell
Starring: Hugh Grant, Amanda Donohoe, Catherine Oxenberg, Peter Capaldi, and Sammi Davis
Reviewed by: Wes R.
Though the 1980s was decided the decade of the slasher film, a select few films toward the end of the decade sought to present audiences with more fantastical, supernatural horrors than the masked stalkers they had become accustomed to through much of the decade. Films like Hellraiser, Witchboard, and Night of the Demons all go far beyond the typical slasher movie formula. They actually present evil, powerful horror adversaries for their protagonists to face off against. One film that gained a lot of attention just before its release, but quickly fell off film and horror fan radars is the 1988 effort by acclaimed director Ken Russell, The Lair of the White Worm.
On an archaeological dig in a remote area of Europe, Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi) discovers what appears to be the ancient skull of a serpent head, along with a mosaic of a white snake with its body wrapped around the Christian cross. Later that night, he goes to a dance party with his girlfriend, and hears a story of the local legend of a white dragon that was slain by the ancestor of wealthy Lord James DíAmpton (Hugh Grant). A local punk/folk band is even on hand to sing a song dedicated to ďThe DíAmpton WormĒ. The next day, the lovely, but mysterious Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), steals the skull from Flintís bedroom. As it turns out, Lady Sylvia is actually the reincarnation of a worshipper of an ancient snake god, Dionin, and wishes to bring about Dioninís return through the sacrifice of the virginal Eve (Catherine Oxenberg). Will the fanged femme fatale succeed in her quest to bring about the return of the pagan Dionin?
Lair of the White Worm is an oddity for sure. Iíve heard it called ďweirdĒ and that certainly sums up many of its scenes. While it presents itself as straight horror, some scenes come off fairly campy. The whole notion of snake people isnít too far off from the types of films they were making in the 40s and 50s. The fact that they act much like vampires also mirrors the Lugosi and Karloff era as well. Much of the filmís bizarre dreams and hallucinations of the bitten play out like a crazed mixture of David Lynch and Dario Argento. The ever-controversial Ken Russell (The Devils and Altered States) gives us yet more offensive and blasphemous imagery in this film, but it actually works to the filmís advantage. Through shots of nude nuns being raped, a Christ-like figure rapt and bitten by the white worm on a cross, and other highly controversial Christian imagery thoroughly shows how evil the filmís pagan snake god Dionin and his followers really are. Thus, it provides a great villain for our heroes to overcome. You really want Dionin and Lady Sylvia to perish, and you wonder how the heroes will defeat themÖif at all.
The film was loosely based on the last known work by Bram Stoker before he died. By most accounts, the original novel isnít very good. While not nearly as well known or read as Dracula, the story does have its slight share of fans. From the plot synopsis of the novel, I get the impression that Ken Russell heard about the Stoker work and liked the title so much that he decided to just add his own story to fit it. The film isnít too bloody for most of its running time, but the carnage definitely picks up toward the finale. The practical FX and make-up work are pretty good. I would imagine today, the white worm would have been realized completely CGI, and thankfully, this film was made long before computer effects were financially feasible in the world of horror and fantasy. I also liked the locations of the film. The lair itself is fairly spooky and claustrophobic. Much of the architectural design work in the film also shows off snake imagery. Everything from twisty stairway railings to windows with a grid pattern resembling snake scales, you get the uneasy presence that the white worm is with us constantly.
Hugh Grant turns in a fairly decent performance, although his hair and wardrobe people shouldíve told him to trim his uni-brow. It seriously becomes a bit distracting during some of the scenes. At no point in the 80s was I ever aware the uni-brows were ďinĒ, so I really donít know what Grant was thinking here. He was young and stupid and thought it looked cool or manly or whatever, I suppose. He was wrong on all counts. Speaking of unwanted body hair, Lady Sylvia is later discovered to have armpit hair, so be warned. Despite her extra body hair, the true star of the film is Amanda Donohoe. Her portrayal of Lady Sylvia Marsh gives us one of Hollywoodís few truly intimidating female horror characters, and I believe itís a seductive performance that unjustly goes forgotten with most fans. She and those she infects with her venomous bite, are treated somewhat like vampires. Those who are bitten turn into snake people. As a pseudo-vampire flick, it surprisingly works. Of course, the fact that it tries to be much more than your average vampire movie, ends up hurting the film in the long run, because there really isnít much more to the plot. Lady Sylviaís huge scheme isnít quite clear, but suddenly everything comes together very quickly with about thirty minutes left in the film. In a way, this is when the film really ďstartsĒ, though itís far too late for most to really get involved. Thatís not to say that the first hour isnít entertaining, because it is. The film is just badly paced and is confused about how to get where it wants to go.
Overall, Ken Russellís Lair of the White Worm is strictly middle of the road. If youíre a fan of 80s horror and you like films that are a little different, I recommend it. Itís not the worst film out there, but itís far from a classic. If you like discovering long lost oddities from the 80s, this one is definitely a treasure of a sort. If you can get past the slightly muddled motivations and the occasional camp, I think most who are willing will find themselves charmed by Russellís film. Ancient pagan gods and the like are more the territory of H.P. Lovecraft than Bram Stoker, and with a more serious tone, this one could have been a scary, horror classic. As it stands, thereís nothing really wrong with the film that isnít wrong with at least dozens of other mid-late 80s flicks. Itís ambitious, but it doesnít quite reach its goal. Maybe others will like it more than I did. I will definitely revisit it in the future. For the curious who are interested in a unique cinematic journey, I suggest you Rent it!
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