The Lair of the White Worm (1988) (93 minutes)
Directed by Ken Russell.
Written by Ken Russell.
Adapted from the 1911 novel The Lair of the White Worm, written by Bram Stoker.
Starring Amanda Donohoe, Hugh Grant and Catherine Oxenberg.
Adapted from the Bram Stoker novel of the same name, The Lair of the White Worm was written and directed by Ken Russell (The Devils, Gothic), and released in 1988 by Vestron Pictures. Based upon the North East English ‘Lambton Worm’ legend, revolving around John Lambton and his battle with a gigantic ‘worm’ (versions of this folktake describe that of a European dragon), The Lair of the White Worm was the last novel released by Stoker (Dracula) before his death in 1912.
In Ken Russell’s adaption the story goes that the ‘worm’, a mythical creature that feasted on the flesh of virgins, was slain in Stonerich Cavern by John d’Ampton (renamed in Russell’s version of the gothic tale); ancestor to the current Lord of the Manor, James d’Amptom (Hugh Grant). Staying at a country guesthouse run by Mary (Sammi Davis – Mona Lisa) and Eve Trent (Catherine Oxenberg – Sharktopus vs. Whalewolf), Scottish archaeology student Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi – Doctor Who) unearths an unusual, monstrous, serpent-like skull during an excavation on the grounds the Trent sisters have rented from the d’Ampton family for generations. The excavated grounds were previously used by an ancient pagan convent, prompting Flint’s theory that the skull may be connected to the legend of the d’Ampton worm, but this local legend is dismissed as nothing more than folklore; even by James d’Amptom himself.
Flint’s discovery however, is of great interest to the mysterious Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe – Starship Troopers 3: Marauder), the beautiful and seductive temptress of Temple House; whom unknowingly is also a priestess to the pagan snake god, Dionin! It’s not long before the skull is stolen, and Eve is abducted by Lady Marsh, intending to offer her as a sacrifice to her god roaming the underground caves which connect Temple House with Stonerich Cavern. “Virgins are in such short supply these days.”
“Fancy praying to a god who was nailed to a wooden cross, who locked up his brides in a convent. Did they really enjoy themselves, hmm? Poor little virgins masturbating in the dark, and then in penance for their sins, indulging in flagellation until their bodies wept tears of blood. Captive virgins…in the hands of an impotent god. Dionin will have none of that, Eve.”
Ken Russell is a director whose work has never been conventional. So to say that the The Lair of the White Worm may be his most conventional offering doesn’t quite sit well with me; and yet it is true. What do you make of a career in which The Lair of the White Worm is considered conventional?
I must confess that I have not yet read Bram Stoker’s novel, but The Lair of the White Worm just don’t seem like the sort of narrative that would be conceived by the Irishman. Hedonistic hallucinations and religious sacrilege are played out entirely with tongue placed firmly in cheek. It certainly isn’t the gothic horror we would expect from Stoker, but it is exactly the type of absurd, blasphemous imagery that we would expect from the director of The Devils, isn’t it?
It is also strange to say, in an unsettling film where Amanda Donohoe’s sensational performance as a naked (painted blue), serpent-like vampire, glares ecstatically at the mass rape of Christian nuns situated in front of a crucified Christ, that The Lair of the White Worm is reminiscent of American International Pictures’ horror output during the 1960s. The film achieves its camp humor by playing each absurd situation rigorously straight.
The Lair of the White Worm is presented on Blu-ray; courtesy of Lionsgate’s Vestron Video Collector’s Series, with an AVC encoded 1080p 1.78:1 transfer from the original film elements, along with a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track and English subtitles for the deaf or hard-of-hearing. Grain is featured throughout the presentation which, in my opinion as a collector of early Vestron Video VHS, adds to the overall experience and doesn’t detract from the proceedings.
However, it is the two audio commentary tracks that are worth the price of admission alone. The first features director Ken Russell whose archival commentary of the film is as hilarious as one might expect. His self-deprecating humor enforces that his “masterpiece” was filmed entirely tounge-in-cheek, but defends the film’s more hyperbolic elements that were criticised by his detractors. The second commentary comes from Lisi Russell, in conversation with film historian Matthew Melia. The track is far more subdued than the first’s manic energy, but no less informative.
This Vestron Video Collector’s Series release also includes Worm Food – The Effects of The Lair of the White Worm; an interview with SFX artists Geoffrey Portass, Neil Gorton and Paul Jones who recount the challenges and rewards of working for Ken Russell, Cutting for Ken; an interview with editor Peter Davies, Trailers from Hell; featuring producer Dan Ireland, and finally Mary, Mary; an interview with actress Sammi Davis.
Due to the success of Ken Russell’s previous film, Gothic (1986) on home video, Vestron Pictures wanted another Ken Russell directed horror movie, and were willing to finance the sequel to his 1969 romantic drama Women in Love in order to secure the deal; a film that would become 1989’s The Rainbow. Thus The Lair of the White Worm was born; now resurrected in high definition! Ken Russell never once approaches the idea of subtlety. The Lair of the White Worm is weird, campy, sexually-charged and downright offensive; and yet ultimately endearing.