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  Lair of the White Worm, The Beyond Our Ken
Year: 1988
Director: Ken Russell
Stars: Amanda Donohoe, Hugh Grant, Catherine Oxenberg, Peter Capaldi, Sammi Davis, Stratford Johns, Paul Brooke, Imogen Claire, Chris Pitt, Gina McKee, Christopher Gable, Lloyd Peters, Miranda Coe, Linzi Drew, Caron Anne Kelly
Genre: Horror, Comedy, WeirdoBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 3 votes)
Review: Archaeology student Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi) uncovers a strange, dragon-like skull and bizarre mosaic at the Trent family farm setting in motion a series of supernatural events involving sisters Eve (Catherine Oxenberg) and Mary (Sammi Davis) Trent and their aristocratic neighbour Lord James D’Ampton (Hugh Grant). A string of mysterious disappearances and vivid hallucinations seem tied to the legend of a giant white worm that Lord D’Ampton’s distant ancestor is reputed to have slain, whilst further mayhem arrives in the shapely, malevolent form of Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe) who does rude things to boy scouts and policemen.

Bram Stoker’s 1911 novel ranks among his more obscure works though this deliberately campy screen version is somewhat less than faithful. While a growing number of fans rate The Lair of the White Worm as a neglected gem of Eighties horror, for many this was a lurch too far towards the ludicrous for aging enfant terrible Ken Russell. This is a hard film to get a handle on even if one accepts Russell’s contention that it’s meant to be a comedy. While the folksy northern setting and regional accents border on parody and the theatrical performances seemingly hark back to old British thrillers from the 1930s, the outrageous imagery attempts an artful contrast of Christianity with paganism, sensuality with purity, earth with fire.

The film highlights Russell’s strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker as it wavers between potent, provocative imagery and sub-vaudeville skits. Notably a bizarre dream sequence where Lord D’Ampton envisions the female characters as air-hostesses literally wrestling for his affections and the amusing moment when Lady Sylvia sinks her fangs into gormless boy scout Kevin (Chris Pitt) piercing a delicate part of his anatomy. Using then-trendy, now arcane video-generated effects Russell conjures hellish visions of the white worm strangling Christ on the cross while Roman soldiers rape topless nuns and the naked blue-painted Lady Sylvia spews venom at the crucifix. However, unlike The Devils (1971) there is no satirical edge to his blasphemy leaving one unsure whether there is any point to the lunacy or if this is just a cheekier version of Carry On Screaming (1966).

Russell goes overboard with the serpent imagery and all its Freudian phallic overtones but the cast catch the tone quite capably, in spite of his lame innuendo-laden dialogue. Amanda Donohoe generally draws the most plaudits as she vamps it up as slinky Sylvia Marsh, but Hugh Grant and Peter Capaldi offer intriguing parodies of traditional tweedy heroes, while Sammi Davis registers strongest as the only believable, non-comic book character and former Dynasty star Catherine Oxenberg has her weaknesses turned into a plus as a vulnerable virgin sacrifice in her fetching underwear. Z-Cars veteran Stratford Johns, who next starred in Russell’s Salome’s Last Dance (1988), offers a tongue-in-cheek turn as Lord D’Ampton’s butler while a young Gina McKee figures briefly in the silly twist ending that doesn’t quite add up if you really think about it. And considering the prominence given to the legend, it’s strange how little Lord D’Ampton has to do with the final outcome.

Away from the silliness, it’s hard not to be beguiled by the sight of Angus snake-charming vampires with his bagpipes, while Russell yokes a nicely off-kilter atmosphere with his disco strobe-lighting, very wide angles and skilful photography of the impressive subterranean cavern. The entrance of the white worm itself is an effectively loopy set-piece with special effects courtesy of Bob Keen. Music by Stanislas Syrewicz plus a memorable folk/pub rock theme song by some Dexy’s type band.

Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam


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Ken Russell  (1927 - 2011)

It was trips to the cinema with his mother that made British director, writer and producer Ken Russell a lifelong film fan and this developed into making his own short films. From there, he directed dramas on famous composers for the BBC, and was soon making his own features.

French Dressing did not make much of an impact, but if his Harry Palmer episode Billion Dollar Brain was fairly well received, then his follow up, Women in Love really put Russell on the international movie map. From there the seventies produced most of the highlights of his career, never shying away from controversy, with The Music Lovers, The Devils (most reviled of his films and his masterpiece), musical The Boy Friend, and more music and artist based works with Savage Messiah, Mahler, Tommy (the film of The Who's concept album) and Lisztomania.

After the seventies, which he ended with the biopic Valentino, his popularity declined somewhat with Altered States suffering production difficulties and later projects difficult to get off the ground. Nevertheless, he directed Crimes of Passion, Gothic, Salome's Last Dance, cult horror Lair of the White Worm and The Rainbow in the eighties, but the nineties and beyond saw more erratic output, with many short films that went largely unseen, although a UK TV series of Lady Chatterley was a success. At the age of 79 he appeared on reality TV show Celebrity Big Brother but walked out after a few days. Russell was one of Britain's most distinctive talents, and his way of going passionately over the top was endearing and audacious, while he rarely lost sight of his stories' emotional aspects.

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