The Lair of the White Worm ★★★½

Watched as part of the July 2017 Letterboxd Scavenger Hunt
My list | Dex B's master list
#25: A film, excluding Doctor Who stories, featuring an actor who previously played The Doctor on Doctor Who

2017 movie viewings, #104. I have to admit, I haven't had much interest so far in my life in going back and visiting the '60s and '70s films of professional nutjob Ken Russell, the ones that first made him famous as a sort of missing link between fine-art respectability and New Hollywood subversive mayhem. (He got his start doing a series of documentaries for the BBC on famous classical music composers, which as the '60s continued kept ratcheting up the sex, violence and surrealism, which is how he ended up getting the job to direct the rock opera Tommy and then the even crazier rock opera Lisztomania!) But that said, in the '80s Russell made two of my favorite movies of all time, Altered States (in which William Hurt's former '60s hippie intellectual starts getting into sensory deprivation tanks in the '80s while ingesting psychedelics from the rainforest, eventually literally altering his DNA into caveman form Jekyll-and-Hyde style), and Gothic (a sex-and-drugs-drenched fictional look at the real night Mary Shelley came up with the concept for Frankenstein, and all the crazed proceedings at Lord Byron's mansion that led to it); and that's had me wanting for a long time to see the last chapter of his "'80s WTF trilogy," 1988's The Lair of the White Worm, which has perhaps the craziest reputation of all three.

Based on a Victorian horror tale by Bram Stoker, it provided early starring roles for Hugh Grant, Peter Capaldi, and Amanda Donohoe, and when all is said and done is not much more than the "Lovecraft Meets The British Upper-Class" tale you would expect from a late-1800s Stoker tale like this; the basic premise is that a small town in England has had a legend going back to Medieval times that the local lord once slayed a dragon, which turns out to be proven true once an out-of-town archaeologist (Capaldi) accidentally digs up the dragon's skull, starting a chain of events that leads to the lord's current youngest descendant (Grant) coming into mortal danger because of a sexy witch (Donohoe) who has decided to resurrect the demon who brought about the dragon in the first place. So what's made it so controversial, then, which is basically the same thing that made most of Russell's movies controversial, is that he bathes the proceedings in bizarre dream imagery, copious nudity, a cartoonish amount of gore, and his trademark obsession with Catholicism, including a running series of flashbacks in which a convent full of nuns are raped and then stabbed to death by a legion of Brittannian Roman soldiers under the influence of this demon worm back when it was first alive.

To tell the truth, it's all a bit silly, a cheesy low-budget look that embraces its '80s music-video times a little too much to its detriment (for those who don't know, Donohoe actually got her start in a series of music videos in the early '80s starring her then-boyfriend Adam Ant), and you can basically get the same surrealist dream-imagery effect but with a higher budget and better performances by watching the clearly superior Altered States instead. But still, certainly not a bad movie at all to choose as a midnight cult screening, a natural venue for a film like this that chooses to go deliberately over the top at every moment possible; and most importantly, watched here at an older age than I did the other two, it makes me finally want to go back and see the more mainstream and groundbreaking films from the '60s and '70s that first made Russell's reputation, back when he was still being talked about in the same terms as people like Stanley Kubrick and Nicholas Roeg. Not a movie to particularly go out of your way to see, but definitely worth your time if it falls into your lap one day.

Jason Pettus liked these reviews