The late Ken Russell was certainly a divisive character and love him or loathe him a person who was hard to ignore. As far as his films were concerned they often courted controversy and indeed still do so. He baited the censors at every opportunity and no doubt James Ferman’s career would have gone a lot easier if it had not been for the movies that were submitted before him on a regular basis by the mischievous rogue. From the nude wrestling in his adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women In Love (1969), to his blasphemous nunsploitation epic The Devils (1971) a film we are still begging for on an uncut hi-definition format and let’s not forget later films such as Crimes Of Passion (1984) and Whore (1991). Lair Of The White Worm, based incredibly loosely on the Bram Stoker story, is no less contentious with its imagery although is perhaps a bit more of a fun film than others in his oeuvre. It contains a lot of laughs as well as a few digs at society in its tone but it is essentially a film that you can sit down and watch with a bucket of popcorn and enjoy without looking for any particular subtext. It’s not his only movie based on the literary horror novelists of old, Gothic (1986) also comes highly recommended although sitting down to watch that head-fuck of a film on anything resembling such a simplistic level is going to leave you a bit of a gibbering wreck. Although Russell plays it relatively straight here, be warned the director’s love of hallucinatory imagery is going to shift you dimensionally in the process, but that should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever watched the excellent Altered States (1980)
Made in 1988 the same year as the arty ‘Salome’s Last Dance’ it’s a different head we find here on a platter or a skull to be precise as an excavation unveils the noggin of what could well be a famed white worm that is reputed to have existed and been slain in Derbyshire. It is unearthed by Angus a very young Peter Capaldi who hangs around generally with two sisters Eve and Mary (Catherine Oxenberg and Sammi Davis) as well as lord of the manor and posh boy James D’Ampton (Hugh Grant). Don’t let the latter luvvie put you off; this is not a film that is essentially about human relationships but more to do with those between man and giant worm. Things get strange quickly, we discover that the girl’s parents disappeared a while ago and some dug up effects lead to a search for them. Meanwhile slinking around the woods is the aristocratic Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe) who has a penchant for wearing lots of shiny PVC and helping boy scouts out in a way the likes of bob a job were never conceived. Add to the plot ancient cults of slithery worshippers and vicious venom that throws its victims into mass blasphemous phallic hallucinatory states and we have a plot that goes up and down like a game of snakes and ladders.
The film is British through and through, the cast is excellent and Donohoe vamping it up became a bit of a visual poster image for many on the film’s original release. Directed with flair the story hardly slows down to take breath, it’s got the perfect balance of humour, horror and smut about it and even the main theme song, which we see performed at a lavish party is a barnstorming number. I guess there are plenty of people that did not like Lair on release but I always had a fond spot for the film, picking it up on VHS, then DVD and now I will certainly be grabbing the full Blu-Ray too.
Obviously Ken is no longer with us but his unmistakable voice is from beyond the grave for an audio commentary and there is also another which sees his wife Lisi Russell, in Conversation with Film Historian Matthew Melia. Feature extras are a little more restrained than on the previous Vestron releases but sometimes less is more and if like me you have to sit through them all in OCD fashion before you allow yourself to watch another movie this can be a blessing in disguise. The main one here is ‘worm food,’ a just short of half an hour piece about the special effects of the movie. Geoffrey Portas, Neil Gorton and Paul Jones the SFX team talk us through this and make no bones about the fact that Russell was every bit as eccentric to work with as his persona suggested. Experience had been gained by some of the team working with Bob Keen’s Image Animation on films like Hellraiser 2, The Unholy and Waxwork. The job was described as chaos and good fun by the young team with Ken’s irascible attitude looming over proceedings. Some of the team were working on just their 3rd-4th picture. A series of “big soft squidgy puppets” were what made up the worm and it was apparently rather a simple build but were effective for purpose and the stunts and finale of the film are talked about too. The hallucination crucifixion scene sounds crazy, for one the effects team suddenly realised that they were causing the guy on the cross to be injured as he was wearing a real crown of thorns and also whilst this is going on a bunch of Roman centurions are raping a load of page 3 models dressed up as nuns. Crazy Ken was not holding back here in the slightest. Various apocryphal tales and insights into how gags were achieved pre CGI days are discussed and it all sounds like working on this was as much of a delirious hoot as the film itself turned out to be. Editor Peter Davies is up next and naturally the emphasis of the conversation is on working with Russell. Apparently Davies was suddenly informed the director was outside to meet him, conversation was done in 2 minutes and he later was told he had the job. Everyone seems to have the same story to say that the only way to deal with Ken was to stand up to him and not show any weakness and then a bearable working relationship could be achieved and maintained. Davies states that as far as he is aware nothing was cut due to censorship and this is indeed as I remember the film from its original release. Another thing he says that working with Ken meant champagne was an essential breakfast ingredient; can’t beat that.
Producer at Vestron Dan Ireland only has a few minutes but unveils some interesting facts such as the film is a real homage to Oscar Wilde and Donhoe’s character quotes him constantly. Also she was not original choice for the part but Tilda Swanson was but on reading the script she was completely insulted and didn’t even return calls. Have to laugh at that. As I could have guessed it is apparently Hugh Grant’s least favourite film and one he is embarrassed about to this day. In my opinion it and Polanski’s Bitter Moon (1992) are the only ones I could bear (not Paddington) to sit through. Needless to say he is not involved to give an actor’s viewpoint and no doubt would have been too busy juggling twins and charity events anyway. Capaldi would have been busy racing across the universe in the Tardis and not sure about Donohoe but if I had realised she had been in Emmerdale I may have watched an episode. Anyhow this means that it is Sammi Davis left to fill things in on that perspective. She knew the works of both Stoker and Russell and obviously saw the vision of combining them and again got a quick decision from the director on getting the part of Mary. She has very fond memories and describes it all as great fun but very cold shooting on location in the cave system and Peak District. Sounds like she enjoyed every second of it and loved everyone involved from the actors to the director, who she got on famously with and was not actually scared of at all.
There’s been plenty of talk recently of the rather hip sub-genre of ‘folk horror’ partly to do with the films of directors such as Ben Wheatley. Looking back into the past and classics such as Piers Haggard’s Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971) Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, Don Sharp’s Psychomania (both 1973) it’s a quintessential and unique British style of film and story-telling that Lair Of The White Worm fits perfectly in with. If you have never seen it before Lair comes highly recommended, if you have, you will definitely be wanting to grab this upgrade and relive this utterly barmy tale told in only the way a flamboyant director like Russell could envisage it.