Remember the scene in Ken Russell’s Altered States where the film’s subject leapt out of his isolation tank as a kind of ape/werewolf and the film intentionally completely jumped the shark from horror into lunatic farce? Well, with his loose adaptation of Dracula author Bram Stoker’s novel The Lair of the White Worm, Russell more or less made a two-hour film out of the aforementioned scene. Following the success of Gothic as part of a four picture deal with Vestron Pictures, the studio offered to finance Russell’s prequel to Women in Love, The Rainbow, if he could come up with another horror movie to make.
Drawing upon the English legend of the Lambton Worm and starring Amanda Donohoe and Hugh Grant, The Lair of the White Worm is a supremely tongue-in-cheek silly snake/vampire romp that is all sensory overload and not to be taken seriously. Despite many hallucinatory interludes including ones that conjure up some of the more blasphemous imagery adorning The Devils, everything here is in service to the Hammer Horror movies and creature features dominating the 1950s drive ins. With the new Lionsgate reissues of the Vestron Video library hitting shelves, Ken Russell’s impish, sacrilegious, sexy, gory and just plain goofy horror movie comes to blu ray in a newly remastered package which ports over many of the extras included in the Pioneer Special Edition DVD along with some newly recorded extras of their own.
Russell’s penchant for carnality, over the top acting, surreal camera angles, hyperkinetic editing and snarky sense of humor all show up in some form or another in The Lair of the White Worm yet this may be his most escapist entertainment since The Boyfriend. Despite being a low budget effort with key hallucinations photographed on videotape before switching back to present time in 35mm, Russell’s cheapo horror flick is visually stunning with some truly creative wide-angled camerawork and beautifully rendered practical makeup effects. The synthetic score by Stanislas Syrewicz which threatens to work against the film but given The Lair of the White Worm is old fashioned check your brain at the door fun made by a formidable artist tickled pink by the ridiculousness of it all, not everyone will mind the soundtrack.
Arguably the high watermarks of Russell’s career encompass the late 1960s through the early 1980s before the quality of his work began to peter off as his personal life inevitably began to influence it. On it’s own, average horror movie fans will balk at the lack of scares and overt goofiness ensuing onscreen though it has some ardent supporters. Seen in comparison to Russell’s oeuvre, knowing the heights he reached as an artist, The Lair of the White Worm is one of the director’s lesser efforts but still a visionary blast of horror movie fun. The best approach one can give comes from an interview with actress Amanda Donohoe who confided in Russell that the film was coming off less like a horror film and more like a screwball comedy, to which Russell replied “of course it’s a bloody comedy, what did you think it was?”
- Andrew Kotwicki