Monday, April 6, 2015

The Lair of the White Worm (1988)

One of the oldest legends in English folklore, the story of the Lambton Worm, or “wyrm”, a dragon like creature, is also one of the most interesting and creative. Like most folktales, the story has been told in many ways over the years with variations on several details, but the basic gist of the tale revolves around John Lambton, a rebellious youngster who skips church to go fishing and catches a strange worm like creature. Discarding it, Lambton throws the worm down a well where it eventually grows to a monstrous size and begins to wreak havoc in the surrounding areas until John Lambton returns and finally kills the worm. The story partially served as the basis for what was to be Bram Stoker’s final novel The Lair of the White Worm, published in 1911. According to some, Stoker was quite ill with syphilis while writing the book which would account for the often delirious tone of the writing and the books overall bizarreness. The perfect type of material for Ken Russell to base a film around and the perfect follow up his previous insane piece of literature inspired horror Gothic (1986), a fantastic imagining of the night the premise of Frankenstein came to Mary Shelly, The Lair of the White Worm is Russell at his most outrageous and a film that is in a class all its own within the horror genre.

While digging around a farmhouse inn operated by sisters Mary and Eve Trent, archeologist Angus Flint unearths an odd, dragon-esque skull which is soon followed by a mosaic featuring a portrait of Dionin, an ancient Pagan snake god. The site of the excavation is owned by James d'Ampton (Hugh Grant), a descendant of John d’Ampton who according to local legend killed the d’Ampton worm, a giant snake like creature who terrorized the village. Coinciding with the excavation is arrival of Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), a seasonal resident whose estate is located near the farmhouse as well as the cave which was said to be the d’Ampton worms lair. Not long after the skull and the deeply religious Eve go missing, prompting James to suspect the legend of the d’Ampton worm to be true and in some way connected to the Pagan mosaic and Lady Sylvia.

Unapologetically blasphemous, often ridiculous, always absurdly humorous and at times jarringly frightening, there’s no question about it, The Lair of the White Worm is a Russell film through and through. This film is a shining example of how to properly blend horror and humor with both elements perfectly balancing off each other resulting in one very entertaining and bizarre film, one that combines bits and pieces of the Lambton Worm legend, Stoker’s novel and Russell’s own unique personal touches. On first viewing and possibly even on subsequent viewings the film may seem incomprehensible from a narrative standpoint and indeed there is quite a bit in the plot to digest, with Russell making no attempt to avoid what may come across as randomness (including a surreal dream sequence on an airplane that seems to come out of nowhere even for Russell) however in the end the film ultimately does come full circle and the way Russell has the story play out makes the seemingly convoluted plot all the more interesting. Visually the film is ripe with Russell‘s flamboyant excessiveness including two instantly memorable hallucinations that provide a nice shock in the way Russell has them just appear out of the blue. Both feature what most would probably consider dated video effects but have an endearing quality to them and give them a standout look. The actual look of Dionin is quite effective as well containing just the right amount camp and if that weren’t enough Russell also throws in some striking vampyric snake/human hybrids!

Russell originally wanted Tilda Swinton to play the role of Lady Sylvia Marsh however according to producer Dan Ireland in a Trailers from Hell commentary after Swinton read the script she felt so insulted she wouldn’t even return Russell’s phone calls. No offence to Swinton who is a great talent but thankfully Russell met Amanda Donohoe who for all intensive purposes owns the film. Donohoe IS Lady Sylvia and simply oozes sexuality and brings the right amount of campiness to the role while also never loosing the characters sense of mystique. The film just wouldn’t have been the same without her. Donohoe would go onto to co-star in Russell’s The Rainbow (1989), a prequel to his classic Women in Love (1969). Interestingly enough, The Lair of the White Worm was a holdover film of sorts in order for Russell to get the funding for The Rainbow. The casting of Hugh Grant is almost hysterical in itself considering the kind of roles he would become famous for in the 90’s but he’s really good here, clearly in the on the joke so to speak and it’s a joke well worth being in on. While it may not be as full-on as The Devils (1971) or as visually excessive as Altered States (1980), The Lair of the White Worm is nonetheless one of Russell’s most entertaining genre entries and an unforgettable horror film in general.

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