Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Seen It: Lair of the White Worm (1988)

With the continuing nostalgia for most-things Eighties, one can only hope that some of the more unusual cult films of that era will be rediscovered in this New Year. A director certainly ready for rediscovery is British filmmaker Ken Russell (The Who's TommyAltered States, and many others). While well-known by film aficionados, I suspect that there are a number of college students who would appreciate his eccentric, sexually charged storytelling--college is where I first came across his literary-based films. While studying British Luterature I came across Gothic (1986) about the night that prompted Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and, later, The Lair of the White Worm (1988).

The Lair of the White Worm is a 1988 British horror film based (very) loosely on the Bram Stoker (Dracula) novel of the same name; a novel which itself draws upon the English legend of the Lambton Worm. Written and directed by Russell, Lair stars then-TV starlets Amanda Donohoe (L.A. Law) and Catherine Oxenberg (Dynasty), as well as a very young Hugh Grant (About A Boy, Bridget Jones Diary). Of more modern interest might be the co-starring turn by a young Scot named Peter Capaldi, who was just recently been selected to play BBC TV icon Dr. Who.

I hadn't watched Lair in its entirety in almost 20 years, so was excited to come across it on Netflix a few nights ago. I am even more pleased to share that it has aged fairly well. Being an update (of sorts) of an even older story probably helped, as did Russell's tongue in-cheek approach to what he considered his "horror film." For many reasons, his experimental horror film was ahead of its time (and ours). Russell's clearly anti-Christian bent would be hard pressed in our more conservative culture (regardless of what talking heads say about "left wing media") to secure financial backing in our more modern cinema. Russell always was one to push the boundaries of acceptable content (Whore, anyone?) and the use of psychedelic visuals (the background on the poster to the right does appear n the film) and depictions of crazed pagan nude dancing and simulated sex would be late-night SyFy horror in lesser-skilled hands.

Peter Capaldi, the new Doctor Who, as Scottish archaeology student Angus Flint.
The performances by all are splendid, from the headlining stars to the now-familiar British character actors who turn up in a variety of small roles. It struck me is how under-appreciated Hugh Grant is, and I was wondering why he isn't used more frequently in films. Here is at his easy-going best, nimbly expressing a calm and cool demeanor as the foppish Lord James D'Ampton who is destined to fight the evil, serpentine Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe). Grant makes acting look easy, emitting a devil-may-care vibe thoughout. It is Lord D'Ampton who gets to the crux of the problem when he surmises that, while brainstorming with Angus Flint Capaldi), "...a conflict between Christianity and some early pagan cult... possibly involving even human sacrifice" is afoot. As Grant's adversary, Donohoe is a charismatic snake-pire in blue body paint and fangs, capable of delivering hallucinogenic venom. It is Donohoe's topless performance as Lady Marsh, as well as some rather tame (by today's standards) "gore," that likely was responsible for Lair's R-rating.

Lady Marsh (Amanda Donohoe) get's freaky during a hallucination.
The Lair of the White Worm (1988) [Rated R] is a highly recommended horror film, that while short on straight up scares, does aim for a sort-of realistic approach to fantastical concepts. Creative direction and fun performances make this a worthwhile Netflix viewing experience suitable for ages 17 and up.

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