Monday, January 30, 2012

Lair of the White Worm (1988)

The Movie: Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi), a Scottish archeology student is staying at the local boarding house owned by the Trent sisters, Eve (Catherine Oxenberg) and Mary (Sammi Davis). For his thesis Flint is excavating some of the local Roman ruins, which apparently have not received much attention thus far. Is Angus in luck today, because right in the front yard of the boarding house he uncovers the ruins of a convent. Not only that, he discovers a strange skull; almost like a dinosaur, although as he points out dinosaurs and Romans missed each other by about twenty-five million years.

That evening, while attending the annual party thrown at the local lord’s castle, he learns a bit more. Eve’s boyfriend, Lord James D’Ampton (Hugh Grant, yes the Hugh Grant), has just come into his inheritance; and he explains to Angus that his ancestor, John D’Ampton, is popular in local legend for slaying the neighborhood dragon many centuries ago. In fact, the yearly party is specifically to celebrate that event. He is particularly interested to hear about Angus’ discovery.

But before James is able to see the skull; his neighbor, Lady Sylvia Marsh (the prolific Amanda Donohoe, who you may recognize from the Jim Carrey movie Liar Liar), steals it. The mysterious disappearance of the skull is only one of several peculiar incidents. When Eve comes home and touches the crucifix hanging on her wall (which Lady Sylvia spat some weird venom on while she was pilfering the skull), she is overcome by nightmarish hallucinations. Around this same time, a pocket watch that belonged to Eve and Mary’s father is found in the local caverns; and their parents disappeared without a trace a year ago. Lord James starts to wonder if the legend of his ancestor might not have some truth after all; and if his ancestor actually finished the job.

Unfortunately for our heroes, Lord James is more right than he knows. The D’Ampton Worm was actually worshipped as the god Dionan by an ancient local cult. Things get worse when Lady Sylvia kidnaps Eve. You see, Lady Sylvia Marsh is actually Dionan’s immortal, inhuman priestess; and she has been in the area since at least Roman times. Eve is not only the current Lord D’Ampton’s girlfriend, or even a virgin and devout Christian, which, of course, makes her an ideal sacrifice for Dionan; but the reincarnation of the woman who tried to build the convent over Dionan’s temple. Lady Sylvia Marsh is in the mood for some millennia old vengeance. And of course, the D’Ampton worm lays waiting for its next sacrifice…

The Review:

My dear man, you should know by now that I change my cars as regularly as a snake sheds his skin."
-Lady Sylvia Marsh

I have long been sure that Lair of the White Worm is the main reason why my sister does not trust my movie suggestions. Back when I was a teenager over a decade ago, she came into the room when I was showing it to a friend. She was appalled at what she saw, and to this day my sister will still react if the movie is brought up.

Lair of the White Worm was based off of the novel of the same name, which was Bram Stoker’s last. It is also one of the few cases I have found where the movie is actually better than the book that inspired it. The book reads like Stoker was heavily medicating while he wrote it; although, considering that he was suffering from strokes and possibly syphilis at the time, he very well could have been.

However, considering that the film was directed by the late Ken Russell, a significant amount of that drug fueled sensibility inevitably makes it into the movie. Russell built a rep on excess and his own bizarre creative visions. Among the other examples you’ll find in this film are nightmarishly sexual, psychedelic hallucination sequences; and various subtle, and not so subtle, uses of sexual symbolism in both the back and fore ground.

Ironically, compared to other examples of Russell’s work that I’m familiar with, Lair of the White Worm is rather tame and conventional. However, considering what said body of work is like, that’s really not saying much. All throughout the film is this sense of dementia and long-repressed sexuality bubbling to the surface, to the detriment of all in its way. It mixes in weird ways to provide us in the audience with both a really warped laugh and the sensation that things are going nightmarishly out of control in ways we can’t comprehend.

At the same time though, and this is the really bizarre part, all of this dementia and lunacy is bound up in a fairly conventional plot and setting. Lair is, among other things, a very British film. The basic plot, hero rescues his girlfriend from a huge monster, fuels millions of movies. Also, the dialogue and character interaction is almost every bit what we are led to expect from a British film; polite, sedate, formal, and rather deadpan. The fact that this is true even during the most extreme scenes of psychedelic nightmare and sexual deviance creates an emotional contrast that really affects you. It’s quite a trip.

Another notable feature of this movie is Russell’s unconventional approach to conventional horror movie tropes, which covers my two favorite elements in this movie. The first is the exposition; we learn the history of the D’Ampton Worm through a source I have not seen used in any other movie, a rock band playing at James’ party. It is an extremely catchy and fun little tune; and what’s more, in a few short minutes we know everything that in most other movies we learn from ten minutes of some dry academic character talking.

The other unconventional approach that I love is the heroes’ approach to fighting Lady Sylvia and her god. All throughout the movie Lady Sylvia is depicted with snakelike features and symbols; her fangs, her ability to spit venom, one scene that has her slithering out of a huge basket. In response, the heroes take her on using conventional snake fighting and/or charming methods; bagpipes and records of snake-charmer music alongside the conventional explosives and poison gas.

Amanda Donohoe is perfect as Lady Marsh. Not only does she look the part, stylishly attractive but with a face that actually looks snakelike given the right accentuation; she really gets into the role. From her attitude and the energy Donohoe puts into the part, one gets the impression that she was having the time of her life. The role is also well written; a strong, competent, clever and ruthless villain who is nevertheless elegantly depraved and twisted enough to capture the imagination. Among the things I like best about her is her ability to adapt to the heroes’ strategies against her and form her own strategies to counter them; it’s not something you see very often in movie villains. Ultimately, she’s one of the main parts of the movie that sticks in your mind.

I wish I could be as equally impressed with the other female leads, but unfortunately they ultimately come across as your typical damsels in distress. I apologize for the mini-rant, but I really like strong women. It’s extremely frustrating for me that in the majority of movies, particularly mainstream ones, the heroines are nearly always weak, passive individuals who need the male leads to save them. Worse, on the rare occasion when a female character is strong and competent; more often than not she is depicted either as the villain, or as having something wrong with her.

The male leads are more interesting. Grant and Capaldi establish a rapport from the beginning that’s fun to watch. One thing I noticed that I found interesting is that they seem to start out with a mild but latent hostility to each other. What’s more, the way it’s played out makes me think that it’s more instinctive than conscious; the two men come from very different social backgrounds and aren’t sure what to expect from each other. However, as the movie progresses; their struggle in the face of a common foe finds them forming an equally subtle, but effective, respect for each other. Some of their exchange of dialogue is great.

I find particularly interesting the role of James D’Ampton in the fight against Lady Sylvia. Admittedly, he doesn’t confront her or the D’Ampton Worm directly; that job falls to Angus. However, it’s James who first notices something is wrong, who is able to put most of the pieces together, and who convinces the others of the threat. Also, while he doesn’t confront the villains directly, he does play an equally essential role in the conflict. I’m sure Eve, for one, is very glad that he plays his hand when he does.

Finally, I would be negligent if I failed to mention Stratford Johns in the role of James’ butler and manservant, Peters. While a very small role, Stratford captures my attention in one particular scene. For most of his time in the movie, Peters fits pretty much all the stereotypes of the proper English butler. However there is one scene, when he is discussing snake-charming music with James, where he lets the fa├žade drop and gives a lecherous leer and tone to his voice that is just wonderful.

In short, Lair of the White Worm is a bizarre film by a bizarre director, who’s taming down of some of the perversity actually makes the rest of it stand out even more. Twisted, perversely funny, and downright weird in some aspects; this movie is a must see for a certain personality type. However, keep in mind that this isn’t a film for everyone. Even a little over a decade and a half later; my sister still looks at me suspiciously whenever I suggest a movie to her.

1 comment:

  1. You are absolutely correct. That moment created a mistrust in your movie preferences that I fear will never fade. Did you know that for every female role there are 4.8 male roles in film? And in a crowd scene, only 17% of the crowd is female? Geena Davis started a non-profit that does research about gender equality in films. She agrees with you that there aren't enough non-stereotypical female roles.