Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Off Script: The Lair of the White Worm

Film: The Lair of the White Worm
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

You just have to love Ken Russell. Even when his films aren’t that good, they’re fun as all hell. Additionally, once you’ve seen a Ken Russell film, you can spot one a mile off. I’ve seen four or five of them, although it’s been some time since I saw Gothic and I’m not sure I saw all of Mahler. Still, there are more than a few similarities between The Devils, Altered States, and today’s film, The Lair of the White Worm to suggest that Russell has a definable style, or at least an oeuvre.

The Lair of the White Worm is loosely based on the book by Bram Stoker of “Dracula” fame. As bizarre as Dracula is in places, it’s got nothing on this one, particularly filtered through Russell’s sensibilities. An archaeology student named Angus (Peter Capaldi when he was very young and blessed with a heady of playful curls) discovers an odd, giant skull on the property of a pair of sisters running a farm. Mary (Sammi Davis) and Eve (Catherine Oxenberg) have kept the farm going despite having their parents go missing the year before. Meanwhile, the new Lord James D’Ampton (a very fresh-faced Hugh Grant) throws a party to commemorate his ancestor’s killing of a legendary dragon/wyrm/worm.

Also arriving on the scene is Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), who is beautiful, mysterious, and evidently dangerous. It doesn’t take us long to discover that Lady Sylvia is something of a were-snake, and her venom is capable of either incapacitating her victims or infecting them with her own ophidian lycanthropy. She steals the skull Angus found and finds a couple of victims for herself.

Everything comes together when the pocket watch of Mary’s and Eve’s father turns up. A little bit of investigation leads the pair as well as James and Angus to realize that a series of caverns is actually connected to Temple House, the home of Lady Sylvia. Sylvia, looking for a sacrifice for her snake god, captures Eve and prepares her for her big moment in the belly of the snake. The other three realize that something is wrong and begin to investigate, and find quite a bit more than they bargained for.

So on its surface, The Lair of the White Worm is a pretty standard B-level monster movie. However, since this was made by Ken Russell, it’s also completely insane on almost every level. Russell’s films are identifiable by a number of common ideas, themes, and scene types. They’re not only all here, they’re all here in the most over the top form that I’ve seen from the man.

First, there’s a great deal of religious iconography, a great deal of it blasphemous. Much of this, as with Russell’s other films of which I am familiar, comes in dream or hallucinatory sequences. An epic one is suffered by Eve, who sees a serpent-entwined Christ on the cross looking down on buxom, mostly-nude nuns being raped by Roman centurions. That’s another hallmark of Ken Russell—lots of weird sex and nudity. James D’Ampton has a dream at one point that is absolutely the king of these in the film. Eve and Susan, both dressed as old school stewardesses (yes, I’m using the term intentionally, because they were dressed like stocking-clad sexy versions of 1950s air hostesses) wrestle in the aisle of an airplane. Meanwhile, the tied up D’Ampton is holding a red felt tip pen over his groin which, in close-up, periodically rises more and more upright. It’s fantastically campy and obvious, and completely hysterical.

There are all sorts of bizarre sexual imagery here. Lady Sylvia, at one point, straps on a massive pointed dildo (perhaps ivory? Perhaps the fang of a giant snake?) and prepares to rape Eve just before her sacrifice. It’s hard to call this funny, but it’s impossible to take it seriously. One of the plot points is that Eve is still a virgin (that’s why she’s a good sacrifice), but evidently getting her ready for the big moment means ramming a foot of pointed ivory into her hoo-hah. I gather that this is supposed to be disturbing (it is), but it’s also very difficult to see as a logical step in virgin sacrifice.

There’s plenty of other sex here, of a more standard (at least on the surface) variety. Most of this comes in the form of Lady Sylvia. I know she predates this, but she reminded me a great deal of the Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact. There is a decidedly sexual cast to her (the thigh-high boots and g-string don’t hurt, as in the picture above), but also a palpable level of threat. In fact, that threat is part of her sex appeal. There’s also something serpent-like about her, even when she isn’t sporting the giant fangs.

That’s perhaps the biggest problem with The Lair of the White Worm and with Ken Russell in general. So much of what he does is so completely off the wall that it’s difficult to take it seriously. When James blasts snake charming music, Lady Sylvia rises up out of a corded basket and slinks sinuously down her hallway toward the sound of the music. It’s ridiculous, but it’s also ridiculously fun in a camp way.

The Lair of the White Worm isn’t the mind screw of Altered States or The Devils, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun, not the least of which reason being the presence of Peter Capaldi and Hugh Grant before anyone knew who they really were.

Why to watch The Lair of the White Worm: Ken Russell films are always a head trip.
Why not to watch: It’s hard not to laugh at times.

13 comments:

  1. Can't stop staring at Amanda Donohoe. Thanks for that. And I have to say—before I read your review, I'd have thought that "White Worm" meant "penis." But if she's the "white worm," that throws the imagery into this weird, fucked-up-Freudian, "the woman is the penis with a g-string" recursive logic-loop, thereby leaving me all sexually confused and panting. Ken Russell should make a companion movie in which a predatory male character transmogrifies into a vagina. (Or would that be more David Lynch than Ken Russell?)

    Eat my fear, Beavis. Eat my fear.

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    1. Actually, in addition to her sharpened ivory strap-on, there is a giant white snake in the film. You're welcome to go back to your Freudian analysis based on that.

      Sadly, Ken Russell is dead. However, you may want to watch Videodrome in which James Woods grows a stomach vagina. And that's Cronenberg.

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  2. A stomach-vagina from which he pulls out a gun (phallic symbol), yes? I'm getting this weird, unity-of-opposites vibe from these funky directors.

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    1. If you haven't experienced the Freudian joys of Videodrome, you should rush out and find a copy in the next week. You could analyze (or in your case, anal-yze) that for the rest of your life.

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    2. I'll get my anal eyes right on it.

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  3. "it’s also completely insane on almost every level"

    That might be the best description I've ever read for this film. It's the first one by Russell that I ever saw. A buddy and I rented it back in the late 80s and I remember him asking WTF? at a couple of points.

    It's been so long since I saw it that I don't remember a lot about it now. There was a bouncy song I liked about "the Wyrm" that featured an over the top performance with a fake wyrm winding through the crowd. And is this the one where Sammi Davis puts a pair of bloomers on over her upper body to speak to someone outside a second story window, leaving her bottom very uncovered? (Three guesses why I remember that.) Now that I think about it, maybe that was in her film Hope and Glory.

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    1. Yes, there is a fun song, which appears again in the credits. The dance happens during the celebration of D'Amtpon's ancestor. I'm guessing Sammi Davis's bloomers are in Hope and Glory, because I'd remember that.

      This is streaming right now, and it's worth your time. It's goofy as all hell, so at the very least it's entertaining.

      My first Russell film was Gothic, which was shown to me by a college professor. If I remember correctly, that one has eye nipples.

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    2. I also saw Gothic back in the 80s and I'm now thinking that this might be the film my buddy and I rented, while I saw Lair of the White Worm on Cinemax. And I can't remember which I saw first. I guess my mind is starting to go, although after 25 years maybe that's understandable.

      And since Hope and Glory is a Best Picture nominee, you've got that to look forward to. :-) Actually, I liked Hope and Glory quite a bit. It had a lot more humor in it than I was expecting for the subject matter and for a Best Picture nominee. That was the first year I made an effort to see all five nominees to be able to judge for myself which one I thought should have won. And I did agree with the Academy that The Last Emperor was the best of them. Hope and Glory was my second choice. (The other three were Broadcast News, Fatal Attraction, and Moonstruck.)

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    3. Hope and Glory is the only one from that year I haven't seen and reviewed. It's currently near the top of my NetFlix queue because it's a "very long wait" film. I tend to frontload those in the hopes of one suddenly showing up unannounced.

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    4. I own it on DVD if Netflix never sends it to you.

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    5. I'll let you know. I'm not desperate for it yet--my list is pretty long.

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  4. Thrown in is a dose of reality: "Sorry, sir we gave you measles vaccine instead of the antidote to were-snake bite, we hope you weren't inconvenienced. Blimey that was a close one, eh sir."

    Meanwhile in all 15 Star Trek movies and all 80 episodes - not ONE mistake at a Starship control panel, not even an error beep.

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    1. Y'know, that brings up something I was thinking the other day. In a film, no one every misspeaks or fumbles over a word unless it's plot-specific. And yet almost everyone I know does that all the time.

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