Title: Lair of the White Worm (1988)
Director: Ken Russell
Cast: Hugh Grant, Amanda Donohoe, Sammi Davis, Peter Capaldi
Ken Russell’s The Lair of the White Worm is a film that’s partially based on Bram Stoker’s novel of the same name. In turn, Stokers novel is based on the old English legend of the Lambton Worm. This ancient myth revolves around the story of an English knight known as John Lambton, who ends up having to fight with a giant white worm after he decides not to go to church one day. After he fights this worm, he ends up thinking that he fought with the devil as a punishment for not having gone to church. Its obviously one of those stories meant to scare you into going to church on Sundays. The story is more complex then that, but what I’ve mentioned above is basically what it’s about. It’s a metaphor for battling against our natural impulses of staying at home sleeping or doing whatever (in John Lambton’s case, he wanted to stay home and fish) instead of going to church like god and country expects you to. So in comes Ken Russell circa 1988 and decides to make a film based on Bram Stokers novel. How was it?
Basically, this film is kind of like modernization of the ancient legend. It’s the story of how a Scottish archeologist named Angus Flint, discovers the skull of a giant snake while excavating in his backyard. They start searching for the possible origins of the snake, and soon discover that it could quite possibly be the skull of a giant white snake/worm known to the local folk as the Dampton Worm. An ancient legend that nobody thinks is true. One day, the ancient snake skull is stolen by one Lady Sylvia, the only living priestess of the ancient snake worshipping cult. Soon, people start disappearing in town. Others start behaving strangely. Can the snake worshipping cult be stopped before the whole town is turned into snake/vampires?
Ken Russell is one of those filmmakers whose movies are instantly recognizable. You see them and something in them will immediately let you know its one of his films. Lair of the White Worm is like that. It has everything you could expect from a Ken Russell film. Religious visual references, pagan rituals, snakes, crosses, orgies, fire. And well, this kind of story is ripe for that kind of thing because it deals with a cult of snake worshippers. The only thing I thought was kind of weird was that the cult is composed of a very small group of people. Actually, I only counted three people. Lady Sylvia, who lives isolated in her mansion, a cop and another lady. It really didn’t feel like it was a big group of people. I got the impression that this cult was more like a dying breed of snake worshippers, practically on the brink of disappearing. They don’t gather to worship, they don’t seem like a group. They felt more like a few scattered individuals, trying to keep their ancient beliefs alive. I think this shortage of worshippers in the film was probably due to the films low budget. The production probably didn’t have enough money to pay for hundreds of extras. So they kept the story more personal, smaller in scale.
I thought the film had many similarities to Robin Hardy’s The Wickerman (1979). Besides this whole snake worshipping cult angle, there is one scene where a group of people are at a party and suddenly some band starts playing a song on stage. The song tells the whole story behind the legend of the Dampton Worm. Giving us at the same time, through music, a background of what the whole story for the film is. That’s really the scene that made me connect it the most with The Wickerman, cause you all know how in The Wickerman (1979) the townspeople are always singing their songs, and they all have something to do with their religious beliefs. Speaking of religious beliefs, another thing both of these films have in common is characters who have a flaming hatred for all things christian. Also, the fact that the leader of the snake cult is called Lady Sylvia, just like the leader of the sun worshippers in The Wickerman was called Lord Summer Isle. Little things like that, so expect a film similar in tone to The Wickerman. But of course, this is a Ken Russell film we are talking about here, so you can expect his distinctive style in the film as well.
A lot of what makes a Russell film a Russell film are his dream/hallucinatory sequences. There are a couple of those on this film. Its really one of the things I enjoy the most about Ken Russell’s films; when he goes crazy, cuts loose and gives us some of his visual flare. On Lair of the White Worm we get to see dream sequences which include nuns being stripped naked and raped by Roman soldiers. We have Jesus Christ being strangled on a cross by a giant white snake. We have images of Lady Sylvia in blue make up and yellow eyes vamping out. Or snaking out, depends on how you look at it. This reminds me of yet another thing that’s unique about this movie, the whole snake/vampire thing. The snake worshippers grow fangs, feed on the blood of others and “turn” others by biting them, so they are really snake worshipping vampires.
When I compare Lair of the White Worm with other Russell films I notice a few differences. The emphasis on freaking us out with surreal or nightmarish images is toned down a bit when compared to films like Gothic (1986) which is a non stop onslaught of one freaky situation after another. Yet it does turn up the heat whenever Lady Sylvia (the snake priestess) is around. Also, its not too heavy with themes. When compared to films like Russell’s Altered States (1980) which tackles THE big questions in life (where do we all come from? Is God real?) this one doesn’t go too deep. This one is essentially a “kill the bad guys” movie. That’s it.
The film has a very unique tone to it. It has its horror film elements sprinkled with subtle comedic elements. Some of the dialog is hilarious if you pay attention to it. Only problem for me was that the audio on the DVD wasn’t all that good. This was the same problem I had while watching Russell’s Gothic. To top things off, the characters all talk with that thick English/Scottish accent, which isn’t always easy to follow. Still, it’s not an impossible task. Once again, the technical faults of a low budget production are the only things that bring this movie down. I have to wonder what kind of film Ken Russell would make had he a decent budget at his disposal. Sadly, since most of his films aren’t what I would call “marketable”, most of the time he has to make do with the budgets that he is given. As it is, Lair of the White Worm had a modest budget of 2.5 million dollars.
As I mentioned before, thematically speaking, this one isn’t all that heavy. It’s your typical “evil cult” film, where at the end of the film we get to see the giant monster emerge, only to see it killed in a couple of minutes. But it does have many Lovecraftian angles to it, with the whole creature coming out of the depths thing. While watching this movie, I couldn’t help of thinking of how many other films fall under the same category. A couple of the ones that come to mind are, Brian Yuzna’s Faust: Love of the Damned (2001), Stuart Gordon’s Dagon (2001). The last one being the one that resembles Russell’s Lair of the White Worm the most, I wouldn’t be surprised if Gordon was more then just a little influenced by Russell’s film. The ending of both films is extremely similar. But of the two films, only Gordon had the guts to have his sacrificial “lamb” appear completely naked as opposed to having her dangle in her underwear. I thought that was so funny about Lair of the White Worm. It’s a film filled with nudity, pagan rituals, nuns being raped and even Jesus being strangled by a giant white snake, but when the time comes to sacrifice its virgin, she keeps her underwear on. That really didn’t go well with the rest of the picture. It felt more like the main actress just wasn’t okay with nudity, so they went with the underwear instead. It completely took away from the validity of the scene, especially when you take in consideration how sexual Lady Sylvia Marsh is through out the whole film.
What we got here is a Russell film dealing with his favorite themes and visual elements. The film has a real Pagan tone to it. It’s a film that your regular movie watcher will immediately categorize as "strange" and "weird" (cant say Id blame them) but that lovers of the bizarre will or should dive wholeheartedly into. Plus it’s got a funny tone to it at times. Seeing Hugh Grant take a stab at the horror genre is a hoot. I mean theres a certain amount of joy in watching Hugh Grant (whom we normally see in romantic comedies) cutting a vampire lady in half with a sword!
Rating: 3 ½ out of 5