You know what you’re getting with old Ken Russell. Weirdness. The Lair of the White Worm, without doubt, is no exception. Based loosely on the novel by Bram Stoker (he of Dracula, no less), Russell takes the story about the legend of the Lambton Worm and crafts something deliciously eccentric, devilishly sordid, and frightfully old English in its construction. Re-released on BluRay by Lionsgate as part of the Vestron Collector’s Series, The Lair of the White Worm has been given a visual spit and polish, while the new package is festooned with extras including two commentaries and various documentaries which go in depth on this horror curio.
Russell made White Worm as part of a four-picture deal with Vestron Pictures, and this was the bargaining chip which allowed him to next make his adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, for which he retained the services of both Sammi Davis and Amanda Donohoe. Russell made a significant part of his name on 1969’s Women In Love, also adapted from a Lawrence novel and remembered most for the Oliver Reed/Alan Bates naked wrestling match, and he brings plenty of his kinky affectations to bear on White Worm, not to mention a fair bit of blasphemous holdover from his still outrageous The Devils from 1971, a film long banned by censors.
White Worm isn’t necessarily scary but there are a fair few unsettling moments beyond the oddness of Russell’s direction, as he tells Stoker’s story about a professor (played by a young Peter Capaldi) who discovers in Derbyshire trace evidence of the d’Ampton Worm, a mythical snake-like creature which was killed by a brave Knight centuries before, embroiling the lives of two sisters, the local Lord (played by a young Hugh Grant, in one of his first film roles) and Donohoe’s beguiling Lady of another local manner, who may be a lot older and more evil than she appears. Vision scenes Russell shoots of orgies on the Cross with Roman soldiers, snake monsters, and Donohoe seductively licking blood off a shaft-like object are filmed in such a frighteningly discordant manner they’re theatrically disturbing.
People forget sometimes just how big a star Amanda Donohoe was in the 1980’s, particularly in Britain, and in no small part thanks to directors such as Russell. She retains here a magnetically aristocratic air of seduction which blossoms when necessary into calculated, sinister evil, particularly when she’s seducing lost schoolboys she intends to sacrifice to an ancient snake God. Though it takes the characters longer to catch up on what Donohoe’s Lady Sylvia is up to, part of the fun is watching her corrupt, charm and kill her way to achieving her goals. Solid as the supporting cast are (the presumably dubbed Catherine Oxenberg aside), it’s Donohoe’s movie and she vamps it up with aplomb.
As with most Ken Russell films, however, you always feel the man behind the camera is the real star of the show, as theatrical and histrionic as the man is. Lionsgate’s release features an enjoyably effervescent and insightful commentary with the late director on the film, while production staff regale us with tales of Russell starting a morning’s filming with glasses of champagne, such was the day to day life on the set with such a bon vivant. The comprehensive BluRay release also packs in an alternate commentary with Lisi Russell in conversation with film historian Matthew Melia (equally insightful), while refreshingly honest and down to earth extended featurettes see special effects advisors, editors and producers talk candidly about what did and didn’t work about production of the film.
The Lair of the White Worm isn’t Ken Russell’s best movie, nor is it a great horror movie, given a story which occasionally takes its time and certain effects (particularly at the end) which leave a lot to be desired, but it’s undoubtedly often creepy and retains a unique sense of eccentric style which doesn’t even necessarily date it to the period its made, as many horror films can find happens to them. White Worm is a bit timeless in the Gothic story it tells and takes plenty of Russell-style liberties with.
Thanks to a fine new release from Lionsgate, however, there is a lot to enjoy and rediscover about this unusual British picture.
The Lair of the White Worm is now available from Lionsgate.