English director Ken Russell never directed a straight-up horror film, but his filmography contains its share of terrifying themes. Most infamous is 1971’s The Devils, which painted a harrowing portrait of humanity’s worst impulses. Despite the horrors on display, The Devils is also rife with humor, one of the most prominent characteristics of Russell’s cinematic oeuvre.
Russell brilliantly melds humor and horror in 1988’s The Lair of the White Worm, a film that is inexplicably underrated and often considered one of his lesser works. This categorization has always seemed unfair, and even more so now that Vestron Pictures has reissued the film on Blu-ray.
The opening shot of the The Lair of the White Worm juxtaposes the image of a cave on a hill with unsettling music from composer Stanislas Syrewicz, successfully establishing a tone of dread that carries over into the early scenes of the film.
After archaeologist Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi) discovers a giant skull in an excavation site at Mercy Farm, there’s another flourish of creepy music, accompanying a close up of a garden hose that is seemingly moving of its own accord like a snake. It’s the first of many visual snake puns used in the film, but it still strikes a chord of unease.
That night, Angus attends a local party with one of the Mercy Farm owners, Mary Trent (Sammi Davis). Mary’s sister Eve (Catherine Oxenberg) is also there with her date Lord James D’Ampton (Hugh Grant). The party is an annual event which celebrates the legend of the D’Ampton Worm. Not only does the D’Ampton Worm get name checked in a song performed by a band with rubber snakes on their hats, it also makes an appearance as a massive papier-mâché beast, similar to the dragons used in Chinese New Year festivities.
The film’s exquisite production design extends into a table laden with thematically appropriate food, including octopus tentacles and pickled worms in aspic, all of which are prominent in the foreground as James D’Ampton explains the history of the worm and his family’s relationship to it. James’ dry wit seems to contradict the weird mise-en-scène, but instead of feeling reassuring, it only becomes more uncomfortable. This kind of contradiction continues throughout the film, with Grant’s characteristic wit providing a hilarious counterpoint to the increasingly hysterical proceedings.
Another sinister feeling scene occurs when Mary and Angus take a shortcut through the wooded grove back to Mercy Farm. Mary confesses that this is where her parents were last seen before mysteriously disappearing the previous year. and she’s subsequently startled by the sound of a car driving by with its headlights turned off. When Mary and Angus arrive home, local constable Erny is waiting for them. He’s discovered Mr. Trent’s pocket watch in nearby Stonerich Cavern.
Mary is genuinely shaken by this news; Davis does a wonderful job at portraying Mary as both spunky and sympathetic. Still, the fact that the actor playing Erny (Paul Brooke) has eyes that look in two different directions poses a conflict: are viewers supposed to laugh or feel uncomfortable? Or both?
Russell and cinematographer Dick Bush (who also worked on Crimes of Passion) suffuse the ordinary qualities of Lair’s English countryside setting with menace, including the interiors of the farmhouse. Low angle shots and natural light give a sense of claustrophobia and eerie stillness, both of which underscore the idea that evil is always lurking in the background (ironic considering how many obvious snake/penis double entendres are crammed into the movie).
The film’s villain, the delightfully wicked Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), emerges when she sucks the venom out of Erny’s snake bite — a scene that makes it obvious director Russell is taking the piss. Lady Sylvia is responsible for much of the film’s delicious dialogue. At one point, James asks her, “Do you have children?” She replies flirtatiously, “Only when there are no men around.”
Yet, there are several times when the anticipation of humor is undercut by shocking imagery. Eve has a series of hallucinations provoked by contact with Lady Sylvia’s venom. As it turns out, she’s an immortal creature that worships Dionin, an ancient pagan snake god. These hallucinations are both outrageous and disturbing: nuns being raped by Roman soldiers and impaled on spikes, Jesus on the cross being attacked by a giant snake, and Lady Sylvia licking the blood from the tip of a giant phallic object and appearing in her immortal form, complete with reptile eyes and long fangs.
James also has a bizarre yet hilariously symbolic dream, one which helps him realize that Lady Sylvia is responsible for all of the terrible things happening (including the fate of Mary and Eve’s missing parents). The film then fully embraces its camp nature. There’s snake-charming music, Lady Sylvia creeping out of a wicker basket and Angus playing a bagpipe to distract Erny, who has transformed into a toothy Dionin acolyte after being bitten by Lady Sylvia. The film’s climax is ridiculously over the top; a codpiece-clad Lady Sylvia attempts to sacrifice the virginal Eve to Dionin, but Angus manages to rescue her after tossing both Lady Sylvia and a grenade into the hungry snake’s gaping maw.
Just when it seems everything is going to be all right, Russell subverts expectations once more, with a classic horror movie switcheroo. Angus acquired a snake venom antidote from a local laboratory and used it on himself after Lady Sylvia sunk her fangs into his leg. He receives a phone call from the lab apologizing for accidentally switching the antidote with anti-arthritis serum. As Angus realizes his metamorphosis is imminent, James innocently asks if he wants “to stop someplace for a bite?” Angus answers, “Why not?” with a wicked grin on his face.
The problem with most horror comedies is that they are often neither funny nor scary. Rare is the horror comedy that evokes laughter while also giving one the creeps. This is precisely why The Lair of the White Worm deserves a second (if not a third or fourth) look.
Lionsgate Films reissued The Lair of the White Worm under their Vestron Pictures imprint on January 31, 2017, with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.78:1 and a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track. There are two audio commentary tracks: one from Russell (ported over from the Artisan/Pioneer 1999 DVD release) and a newer one from the director’s wife Lisi Tribble.
There are also several featurettes, all courtesy of Red Shirt Pictures. “Worm Food: The Effects of The Lair of the White Worm” includes interviews with the SFX team of Geoffrey Portass, Neil Gorton and Paul Jones. “Cutting for Ken” is a short interview with editor Peter Davies. “Trailers from Hell” is a short but informative interview with producer Dan Ireland (who sadly passed away in 2016). Finally, there’s “Mary Mary: An Interview with Actress Sammi Davis,” in which the subject talks enthusiastically about Ken Russell, the cast and crew. The disc also includes the theatrical trailer and a stills gallery.
Less Lee Moore (@popshifter) is the Editor in Chief of Popshifter, which she founded in 2007. She also writes for Rue Morgue, Everything Is Scary, Biff Bam Pop and Modern Horrors.