Lair Of The White Worm, The
Released by: Vestron Video/Lionsgate
Released on: January 31st, 2017.
Director: Ken Russell
Cast: Amanda Donohoe, Hugh Grant, Catherine Oxenberg, Peter Capaldi, Sammi Davis
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When I was in my early teens my friends and I would rent horror movies and head over to one of our houses and essentially take over the basement for the night. The local video store did not prohibit us from renting R-rated or even unrated movies. If it wasn’t straight up porn, it was fair game – and puzzlingly enough our parents either didn’t notice or didn’t care. Over the span of a few years we must have rented every title out of Video Station and Jumbo Video’s horror sections. Most of the time, titles were chosen on nothing more than the cover art- which brings us to Ken Russell’s 1988 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s The Lair Of The White Worm. The cover art touted it as being from ‘the writer of Dracula’ and it featured a sexy woman clad in black leather emerging out of a wicker basket with a giant snake beside her. This was enough to get our attention, and so we checked it out along with whatever other choices we’d made that night – probably some crummy slasher movie or maybe Evil Dead 2 for the twentieth time. This was my introduction to Ken Russell. I was thirteen years old and all I wanted out of horror movies at that age was some gore, some scares, and if we were lucky, some naked ladies. What we got out of this particular film, however, was…. I don’t even know. I remember thinking Amanda Donohoe was a very attractive woman and laughing a couple of times but otherwise hating the picture. It wasn’t a horror movie, it was a comedy, and a really weird one at that. In short, I didn’t “get it” and neither did the half a dozen other teenaged boys sitting in front of the TV with me that night.
Time has a way of changing things though, doesn’t it? As I’ve aged, my tastes have broadened and as those tastes have broadened, Ken Russell has become a personal favorite. As we’ve been lucky enough to get some great DVD and Blu-ray releases of many of his best pictures over the years, I’ve seen most of his work by this point – but I never bothered to revisit Lair. Oh, I owned the DVD, found a used copy of the Pioneer release in Manhattan for three dollars years back – but I never watched it. It wasn’t until last night, almost thirty years later, that I bothered to give the film a second chance. Interestingly enough, in some ways my thirteen year old opinion on the picture was right – it is definitely much more of a comedy picture than it is a horror film and Amanda Donohoe is a very attractive woman. But this time around I was in on the joke.
The story begins at an archeological dig where a Scottish archaeologist Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi) finds a giant skull while poking through the remains of a convent that once stood on the grounds. That night he and the two sisters who live in the house next door Eve (Catherine Oxenberg) and Mary Trent (Sammi Davis), invite him to a strange party hosted by their landlord and friend, Lord James D'Ampton (Hugh Grant). Here Angus watches a strange dance ritual where D’Ampton slays a giant worm – this ties into his family history. He’s a distant relative of a valiant knight that once slew the sinister D'Ampton Worm, a giant snake that terrorized the land, or so the local legend claims.
Later that night, Angus and Mary walk back to the Trent house where he’s renting a room. Along the way she tells him how their parents disappeared. Sometime after, the local constable, Erny (Paul Brooke), finds a watch that once belonged to their father, and the girls have to wonder if maybe they haven’t been orphaned after all. At the same time, the somewhat reclusive Lady Sylvia March (Amanda Donohoe) arrives back to her mansion, a massive old home that lies not too far from the D’Ampton’s estate. March’s arrival would seem to coincide with a few disappearances that take place in the area, including a Boy Scout who she picks up on the side of the road. As D’Ampton and March get to know one another, Erny’s behavior becomes increasingly bizarre and Angus starts to realize the reality of what he’s actually uncovered in his dig.
Many of Russell’s odd traits are given free rein in this picture. His penchant for over the top visuals and his obsession with the subversion of Catholic imagery are good examples, particularly when they collide as they do in this picture when the Worm’s pagan ties blend into a sequence in which a gaggle of topless nuns are assaulted by its neck biting fanged followers, or when Lady March repudiates the crucifix that hangs on her wall by literally spitting venom onto it. But one never gets the impression that this is supposed to be particularly frightening. It’s provocative to be sure – we’d expect no less from Russell, the man was a master at pushing buttons - but the film, even in its last twenty-minutes or so, is never all that tense. It is, however, wildly entertaining and, from the eyes of an adult at least, pretty damn funny.
Most of the humor stems from the script, Russell’s own work based on Stoker’s novel. The characters are well written here, and the casting choices quite clever. Hugh Grant might be best known for a lot of bad romantic comedies but in Russell’s hands he proves to be quite good. He’s dashing and (sort of?) heroic, clearly ‘worm slaying’ still runs through his blood. His character comes by it honestly. Peter Capaldi, decades before he’d become genuinely iconic in Doctor Who, is quite funny as Angus. At one point he decides the best way to deal with a snake is to charm it with music. As the lone Scot, of course he puts on his kilt and grabs his bagpipes to do just that – it doesn’t quite work out as he had hoped, but it’s a kick to watch him try. Catherine Oxenberg and Sammi Davis are both quite good as the Trent girls. Their characters are a little dim but they play them well. Most importantly they’re likeable. Paul Brooke is a completely unorthodox choice to play the top cop in town. He’s pudgy and strange looking, his eyes go in two different directions at once, but he perfectly encapsulates the sort of strange small town denizens that tend to populate odd horror pictures. The real scene stealer here, however, is Amanda Donohoe. Not only is she a beautiful woman but she’s a talented actress as well. Russell gives her plenty of great lines and typically frames her in interesting serpentine poses, such as the shot where Eve approaches her in a garden as she rests on the limb of a tree above her. Subtle this movie is not.
The makeup effects and prosthetics used in the picture are well done. They’re not always realistic but Russell wasn’t going for realistic, he was clearly more concerned with the impact of the visuals, of making an impression. On that level this all works quite well, there are images in this picture that you won’t soon forget. Throw in a lot of the twisted sexual humor that the director also tends to toy around with The Lair Of The White Worm turns out to be pretty entertaining stuff. It might not be the right picture for narrow minded teenage boys looking for cheap cinematic thrills on a Saturday night, but it is ninety minutes of wicked, subversive fun.
The Lair Of The White Worm arrives on Blu-ray for the first time on a 50GB disc in an AVC encoded transfer framed at 1.78.1 widescreen. This is a very big improvement over the previous DVD releases from Pioneer and Artisan, but you’ve got to keep your expectations in check. All of the effects heavy sequences use a lot of matte work and what look like some eighties era video effects and these sequences suffer from a noticeable drop in clarity and detail whenever they occur. They film also leans brown, making you wonder if the elements have faded over time, and this does dampen color reproduction somewhat. Having said that, the good most certainly outweighs the bad here. Aside from the aforementioned effects sequences, detail is typically very good, though it shines through better in the nicely lit outdoor scenes than it does in many of the interiors, which are intentionally dimly lit. Skin tones look good, the transfer is nice and film like showing a reasonable amount of unobtrusive grain and very little print damage at all. Black levels are good and shadow detail isn’t bad at all. Not a perfect transfer but a very good one, given the film’s tricky visuals.
The only audio option for the feature is an English language DTS-HD 2.0 Stereo track with optional English SDH available. There are no alternate language tracks or subtitles provided. Quality of the loss track is pretty solid here. Dialogue stays clean, clear and nicely balanced and the levels are properly set throughout to ensure that the performers are never buried in the mix. The score sounds good with solid depth to it, and the musical number that happens early in the film at the party scene is punchy and lively. There are no problems with any hiss or distortion, the track is clean from start to finish. No problems here at all, the movie sounds really good here.
Vestron has carried over the commentary track that Ken Russell recorded for the old Pioneer DVD release in 2001, and if you’ve not heard it before it’s quite a fun track. Russell’s sense of humor really shines here as, while talking up the film, he also makes some interesting observations about drinking in America, tells a fun story about the Boy Scout’s scene in the film and the nudity it was supposed to require, the difficulties of shooting in a freezing cold cave and which members of his crew likely saw the Loch Ness Monster on the way home from the location shoot one day. He also points out some interesting visual aspects, such as how there are a lot of snake like movements in the film, talks about his take on Bram Stoker’s source material, offers up thoughts on the visuals and the performances in the film and quite a bit more.
A second, and newly recorded, commentary pairs the director’s fourth wife, Lisi Russell, with Film Historian Matthew Melia for a track that is considerably more subdued than the first one. There’s a fair bit of dead air here and stretches where nothing happens, but when Lisi is engaged and Melia gets her going, she shares some interesting stories about her relationship with the film’s director as well as her thoughts on the film, its cast, and the humor that plays such an important part in the picture’s effectiveness.
Red Shirt Pictures has put together a few featurettes exclusive to this release, starting with Worm Food - The Effects of The Lair of the White Worm, which is a twenty-seven minute interview with special effects wizards Geoffrey Portass, Neil Gorton and Paul Jones. Here they speak quite candidly about working on this picture, which was made on a modest budget, and about working with the infamously eccentric Russell. Lots of talk about why the effects pieces look the way that they do, some of the makeup and props work needed and more. Cutting For Ken is a ten minute interview with editor Peter Davies who also shares some interesting stories about working with Russell, his thoughts on the film itself and what he tried to bring to the picture with his editing work. A third and final featurette, Mary, Mary, is a fifteen minute interview with actress Sammi Davis. She starts out the piece by talking about how she met Russell for the first time while working on this picture, the impression that he made on her and what it was like being directed by him. She also talks about working alongside the other cast members in the film and offers up her take on the merits of the film itself. Sadly, no interviews with Hugh Grant, Peter Capaldi or Amanda Donohoe but what’s here is interesting and put together quite well (which is pretty much always the case with Red Shirt’s work).
Rounding out the extras are the film’s theatrical trailer, a Trailers From Hell segment with producer Dan Ireland, a nice still gallery of various bits of behind the scenes material and more, animated menus and chapter selection. The disc comes housed in a standard Blu-ray ‘Eco-case’ and fits inside a slick foil embossed slipcover.
The Final Word:
The Lair Of The White Worm won’t likely ever be regarded as one of Russell’s masterpieces but it is a damn fine horror-comedy with some great performances and some unforgettable imagery. This new Blu-ray release from Vestron Video presents the movie with a good transfer, strong audio and a really nice selection of supplements. All in all, a solid release for a really entertaining picture.
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