We continue our journey through a month of frightening, bloody and violent films. For more, check out our 31 Days of Horror homepage.
Synopsis: A contemporary adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel, Ken Russell’s The Lair of the White Worm (1988) begins with archaeology student Angus Flint (In the Loop’s Peter Capaldi) finding a strange serpentine skull in the backyard of an English cottage. After some research, Flint makes the connection between the skull and the “d’Ampton worm,” a giant malevolent worm that was conquered in nearby Stonerich Cavern. The direct ancestor of the worm slayer is the rather charming James d’Ampton (played by a rather charming Hugh Grant), who shares suspicions with Flint that the worm may still be alive under the grounds of their otherwise quaint English hamlet. D’Ampton’s seductive and often leather-bound neighbor, Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donahue) is an immortal, supernatural force subservient to the worm, and her seductive search for a virgin sacrifice brings about all kinds of over-the-top, schizophrenic greatness.
Lair of the White Worm is full of brilliantly ridiculous, purely Russell-esque moments that are too fleeting to be consider scenes and too self-consciously ridiculous to be taken seriously, like the film’s many nightmarish visions of nun rape and crucifixion (why these images are in every Russell film I’m not quite sure). But one scene in particular stands alone.
Lady Marsh picks up a hormonal young boy and feeds and bathes him at her home. As she washes him, she asks him to stand up, and she then, erm, services him. As he looks more than happy about his predicament, Marsh bares giant serpentine teeth and returns off-screen to induce a giant “chomp” sound. The boy is left paralyzed in the pool to die in a great deal of pain.
There’s some pretty wonderful gore throughout Russell’s film. While much of it comes from Marsh predictably biting her mostly male victims, Russell finds ways to keep both the attacks and the protagonists’ attempts to defend themselves creative, whether it be a policeman having his eyes gouged out or, in one of the film’s best moments, a surprisingly bad-ass Hugh Grant slicing up one of Marsh’s worm-zombiefied victims in mid-air.
This is a Ken Russell film, after all. But as such, expect the sex throughout to be more decidedly aberrant than titillating. Any conventional promise of sex is usually one of Marsh’s ploys to sink her teeth into somebody. But then again, there’s some crazy Russell moments like Marsh appropriating a large drill-like phallus to complete the virgin sacrifice. You can read that last sentence again, if you’d like.
While there may be a light jump scare here and there, The Lair of the White Worm prefers entertaining excess over any attempt to actually instill fear in any of its viewers.
Easily one of Ken Russell’s most entertaining films, The Lair of the White Worm is a unique experience for anybody willing to take the ride. The plot doesn’t matter, scares are scarce, and Russell has never been big on subtlety, but his outlandish vision and kinetic style is quite enough to make for one hell of an enjoyable horror film. Plus, you see High Grant in a way you’ve never seen him before: not boring.