[box cover]

The Lair of the White Worm

Having been bitten by the Victorian-era horror bug after his intriguing Gothic (1986), in which he restaged the frenzied, drugged-out evening that gave birth to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Ken Russell apparently decided that he'd like to make a more conventional monster movie of his own. Thus, the filmmaker settled on that other legendary dabbler in 19th century dread, Bram Stoker, and brought to the screen a very loose adaptation of the novelist's lesser known The Lair of the White Worm. Done in the florid style of a Hammer production, the British studio that, from the late '50s to the early '70s, cranked out a steady stream of bloody variations on the well-established Universal monster movies, Russell slapped together a pretty uninspired mixture of blasphemous imagery and campy sensuality that, thanks to its half-hearted execution, failed to spark the religious outrage of his X-Rated The Devils (1971), while purposely throwing cold water on its every attempt at genuine arousal. The latter is a particularly remarkable feat considering the enticingly game and pansexual performance given by Amanda Donohoe as the hermaphroditic tender of the titular beast (her work here probably landed her the role of lesbian temptress C.J. Lamb on "L.A. Law.") But while Russell enjoys costuming her in a progressively outrageous array of fetish gear, reveling in the lurid sexual licentiousness that invigorates his best work with a transgressive kick, he doesn't seem to be engaged by the material. This is evident from the beginning, where Russell, who also wrote the screenplay, bogs down the first act with laborious, ham-fisted dialogue so laden with artlessly integrated exposition, the film is practically undone before its story has a chance to lurch forward. And it's not as if the plot is any great shakes anyway: A Scottish archaeologist with the punny moniker of Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi) discovers the skull of an ancient, serpent-like creature in the backyard of his boarders' inn. He believes it's the skeletal remains of a legendary white worm worshipped as a pagan god back in the third century A.D. This coincides with a local legend that tells of the Lord D'Ampton slaying a dragon several centuries ago. The lord's modern day descendant, James D'Ampton (Hugh Grant), is skeptical until his girlfriend, Eve (Catherine Oxenburg), falls victim to disturbing hallucinations brought about by her touching a cross sprayed by the projectile vomit of Lady Sylvia Marsh (Donohoe), who's made off with Flint's recently unearthed artifact and is preparing to sacrifice a virgin to sate the worm-god's appetite. When that virgin turns out to be Eve, James is galvanized to fulfill his destiny as a D'Ampton. Obviously, this screams out for parody, which is problematic because Russell's never been one for outright comedy, at least not intentionally. Instead, he tries to strike that difficult balance between scares and laughs mastered by John Landis in An American Werewolf in London, but what sets these films apart is that Landis clearly has a great affection for the genre; Russell, on the other hand, displays little more than contempt. To keep things interesting, he dials up the heat on the sacrilegious dream sequences, depicting hordes of Roman centurions raping virgins at the foot of the cross while Christ is savaged by the worm. It's all very graphic, and very silly. The film ultimately goes right off the rails with a deus ex machina extravaganza of a finale that reaches a surreally hysterical peak when Flint, apropos of nothing, starts warding off the worm's possessed minions with bagpipes, an inexplicable twist that recalls the end of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. If only Russell had had the foresight to cast the San Diego Chicken, he might've been on to something. Artisan Home Entertainment presents The Lair of the White Worm in a decent anamorphic transfer (1.77:1) with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. The disc is entirely supplement-free. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks



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