Ah the good old London Underground, iconic though it is for us Londoners it’s a place we only venture if totally necessary. Overcrowded, subject to meltdowns, a place where manners go completely out the window and I could go on and on and on. Today though we get back in a time capsule and catch a tube back to 1972. Many of the problems we face now existed then, although the late night trains were hardly as busy as the empty platforms on this film contest. They could however be a breeding ground for all manner of problems, including in this case Cannibalistic Human Underground Dwellers (but that’s a completely different movie). The Underground has at times been littered with film crews and the atmosphere is perfect for a horror film. Who can forget that moment of lycanthropic terror in An American Werewolf In London (John Landis 1981)? Then there’s Creep (Christopher Smith 2004) with a killer stalking a woman trapped in the tunnels of the tube and baring certain similarities to the film in question. One motion picture so horrifying I couldn’t even bear to view it is Sliding Doors (Peter Howitt 1998) but that’s for completely different reasons which should be obvious, ugh!
Also known as Raw Meat, Death Line was feature-length, directorial debut for Gary Sherman who also wrote it, possibly on a long trip from somewhere like Rayners Lane to Epping which back at the time would have taken several days on the underground! He managed to score himself a section 2 DPP Nasty 9 years later with the really rather nifty Dead And Buried (1981) and was also responsible for Poltergeist III in 1988. He is probably well remembered for Death Line too as it has been shown countless times over the years on late night TV and is a bit of a cult film. No doubt you have caught some of it, head spinning after a night out at the pub at some point but for me its true testing was a relative sober viewing on its Blu Ray UK premiere courtesy of Network films; something that turned out to be much more enjoyable than I had actually anticipated.
We start in sleazy Soho where James Manfred OBE (James Cossins) is stropping about the various sights before they became de-sanitized and having a good old perv around town. After trying it on with a lady and receiving a knee to the balls he is found slumped and unconscious by fashionably scary hip students Alex (David Ladd) and Patricia (Sharon Gurney). After alerting the authorities they discover he has disappeared. As he is important and possibly impotent after that kick in the nads Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasence) and sidekick Detective Sergeant Rogers (Norman Rossington) get on the case. After victimising the poor students with lines like “and get your hair cut” the trusty duo begin to think all may not be as simple as expected but are warned off investigating further by MI5 bod Stratton Villiers (Christopher Lee, obviously drafted in on a half day pay rate). People and workmen begin to get in a bit of a jam when they go underground and down at the tube station at midnight and the gruesome monster emerges and causes blood and guts mayhem. We discover that certain stations such as Museum were closed down in the 1890’s. Miners were trapped down there and the bodies were not brought up as the company went bust. Could their descendants be down there like an Underground Sawney Bean? Well when Patricia is trapped down below you can guess we are gonna find out.
Yep it’s pretty daft and indeed formulaic but there are plenty of reasons that Death Line should not be dismissed. The dialogue for a start is absolutely hilarious and Donald Pleasence delivers the bulk of it. It seems he hates everyone and everything, the well to do, the layabout protest marching students and as for tea bags, well new-fangled inventions like them just do not get his approval. The scene with him and Christopher Lee trading verbal blows is excellent and gives the inspector plenty of chance to shout out the legendary words “not on my manor” in true cockney style. As for going for a “couple of beers” to unwind with his put upon side-kick it’s one part Carry On and another Derek And Clive, hilarious. By comparison the student side of things is overly melodramatic and weak as far as the acting is concerned but is needed to pad out the plot and gives an interesting insight to afghan fashions and scenes just outside the swinging 60’s in central London.
Although the cannibal side of things is thin on the ground and there is only really one star of that particular dinner party Hugh Armstrong simply billed as ‘The Man,’ he really gets convincingly to the meat of his role. It has to be said he could be a long distant relative of a certain other notorious flesh eater too, namely an Anthropophagus one from Italian infamy. If they had tubes in Italy at the time this would have been an excellent idea for a Joe D’amato remake starring big George Eastman (Luigi Montefiori). The make-up and effects here are really very good especially in this polished up presentation and the gore is sudden and startling, obviously a precursor to what would eventually follow in Dead And Buried. Death Line exists in a somewhat strange place containing plenty of the sort of atmospheres and indeed the actors of the days of Hammer but coming across as more of a contemporary film of its time as seen through the lens and mind of directors such as Pete Walker and Norman J Warren etc. Ultimately Death Line is a great film to leave your brain at the door to, laugh at the quick fire dialogue and revel in its splattery moments. One thing you won’t be able to escape is grinning next time you catch a tube train and hear an oft repeated phrase, just don’t go wandering down any tunnels even when the electricity is turned off.
Speaking of which there’s only one extra to speak of and entitled as per said phrase, an interview with The Man himself Hugh Armstrong. Looking remarkably chipper considering all things in the actual film it’s amazing that a short tenure at The National Theatre led him down underground into this particular part. At least he didn’t have to learn his lines and there was a lot of improvisation involved. It sounds like he had a bit of a laugh but may have taken it to heart a bit much saying that it was feasible that “it could have all happened.” Yeah right.