The Lair of the White Worm

The Lair of the White Worm
Director: Ken Russell
Screenplay: Ken Russell (based on the novel by Bram Stoker)
Stars: Amanda Donohoe (Lady Sylvia Marsh), Hugh Grant (Lord James D'Ampton), Catherine Oxenberg (Eve Trent), Peter Capaldi (Angus Flint), Sammi Davis (Mary Trent), Stratford Johns (Peters)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1988
Country: UK
"The Lair of the White Worm" is D-grade horror trash, and the only thing that makes it watchable is the fact that the material melds so well with the film's director, Ken Russell. There isn't anything here that wasn't beaten to death in the schlock horror shows of the 50's, but Russell loves every second of it, and that affection shows through on the screen, thereby saving it from the trashcan. Russell pours it on with all his might, but there's not enough here to hold the muck, and most of it ends up looking thin and childishly perverse.

Russell, who has never been known for his subtlety, has spent the last thirty-five years consistently pushing the envelope of both taste and comprehension. Sometimes he overloads his films with so much energy and reckless abandon, that the project gets lost in the process. With "The Lair of the White Worm," he actually shows hints of restraint, but it's not enough. Half-serious and half-mocking, this film occupies a confused area where it isn't exactly sure what it is. It has all the components of a B-movie, but it seems like it's constantly in a vain struggle to be more.

The main problem with "The Lair of the White Worm" is that it never really grabs your attention. There are a few jolting setpieces, such as a hallucination of a Roman army raping and killing a group of worshipping nuns while a giant serpent coils itself around a crucified Christ figure. There are also a few moments of real suspense, such as when a struggling woman is tied by her wrists, dangling above a giant pit where the giant white worm of the title is waiting with open, drooling jaws. Unfortunately, these scenes simply remain as isolated setpieces that don't work consistently with the rest of the film.

The story open with a Scottish archaeological student Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi) unearthing a strange, reptile-like skull near the home of the Trent sisters (Catherine Oxenberg and Sammi Davis). There is some other background information about how their parents recently disappeared, and a legend about the ancestor of the neighboring Lord James D'Ampton (Hugh Grant in an early role) who once slew a giant serpent. Add to that Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), a mysteriously vampy neighbor with a snake fetish who rarely wears much more than black lingerie, and the outline is in place.

None of it really seems to make a whole lot of sense, and I think one of the film's major flaws is that it's not based on a very good book. The story is based on a fairly obscure novel by Bram Stoker, the author of "Dracula." Stoker and Russell would have gotten along wonderfully if they had been born in the same century -- they're both extensively strange artists who enjoy shock and excess. However, Russell doesn't help us much either, because once he gets up and running, he rarely pauses for explanation. After all, this movie is really about shocking visuals, not logic or character development.

While the special effects are passable, they still detract more than they enhance. The hallucinations are particularly weak, with cheap blue screen shots and overlapping images reminiscent of 1961's cheapie 3-D shocker "The Mask." There's plenty of gore for the die-hards, including a woman being chopped in half in mid-air, and a man impaling the back of his head on a spike, leaving his eyeball dangling from the tip. However, when it comes to large scale effects, such as the white worm itself, the effects are laughable in the way the rubber monsters from Roger Corman's films were laughable.

Basically, "The Lair of the White Worm" was doomed from the beginning. Russell put all his energy into it, but it was never meant to be. Horror movies like this have to made with either complete sincerity, or complete camp to work. Because Russell walks the line on both sides, the film never establishes itself as anything truly memorable, even memorable trash.

©1997 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (1.5)

James Kendrick

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