THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (UK, 1988) *** 1/4. Written, directed, produced by Ken Russell, from the novel by Bram Stoker; camera, Dick Bush; editing, Peter Davies; music, Stanislas Syrewicz; sets, Anne Tilby; costumes, Michael Jeffrey; special effects, Geoff Portass (Image Animation); cast: Amanda Donohoe, Hugh Grant, Catherine Oxenberg, Peter Capaldi, Sammi Davis, Stratford Johns., Paul Brooke, et al. A Vestron release. 94 minutes, Rated R.
The motto for the Bauhaus designers was "Less is More." For Ken Russell, the film prince of excess, the formula is "More is More." Sometimes this works, sometimes this doesn't. It does with THE LAIR, which has to be the eccentric Englishman's funniest movie.
It's not for all tastes . It's not for people who insist on good taste. It's not for those who dislike the horror genre or are easily offended by kinky goings-on. But, for others --especially those familiar with genre movies -- the film can be anywhere from amusing to hilarious.
Russell adapted the last novel by Bram Stoker (the author of DRACULA), written as Stoker was suffering from the Bright's disease which killed him in 1912. The American title of THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM is THE GARDEN OF EVIL. Stoker's story was a tale of terror, a folkloric working of old English legends about giant snakes. In Russell's film, a young Scottish archaeologist, digging in England's Peak district, and preparing a paper on the Romans in Mercia, finds a large, mysterious skull. This triggers evil all around and involves, among others: two sisters who run a rural bed - and -breakfast and whose parents vanished the previous year; a young Lord who celebrates his inheritance in his manor house and whose ancestor had once slain a snake-dragon; and the chic vampire Lady Sylvia Marsh, who is a the High Priestess of the Worm cult. She is played by Amanda Donohoe, familiar to us only from CASTAWAY (by another British master of excess, Nichola Roeg), where she displayed au naturel her lithe figure. She does here too, now clad in black undies as in a S-M magazine, now "in toto", lounging in a high-tech glass coffin.
What could have been a straight horror fantasy is transmogrified by Russell into a shaggy snake story, a wild, extravagant parody of the horror genre, of Russell's own mannerisms, of some of his films, of British classes and behavior, and, beyond that, of cinema at large. There are visions, hallucinations, apparitions. The old and the new alternate or co-exist. There are people who, bitten, are fresh vampires and look normal, as in THE INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHER. There are sacrificial virgins. Snake and sex symbolism, serpentine jokes are all over, some awful, some clever, all obvious. Russell throws in all the tricks of the trade --including the snake-killing mongoose --plus expanded references, from Oscar Wilde quotations to videos of antique Georges Melies films, to a salute to Orson Welles. The latter occurs when Lady Sylvia, the sexy seductress, throws the board of her Snake and Ladder game in the fireplace, watches it curl in the flames and says" Rosebud."
The orgiastic spirit of Russell knows no bounds, goes from a modern rock band to a garish vision of ravished nuns and later to a brandished dildo. Nor are there limits to Russell's campiness. He contrasts non-stop the elegance of his aristocrats' abodes and clothing (Lady Sylvia's hats are gorgeous, Lord D'Ampton is impeccable in his airman's uniform) ) with the frumpiness of the yokels. D'Ampton's bed is such a baroque affair that just lying in it should give anyone both asthma and nightmares, while the two girls' inn is basic lodging.
More amusing, to my taste, is the sly way in which the film, especially in speech, arbitrarily mocks other movie situations, from all genres. Right after a crisis, the first solace is the inevitable British cup of tea. When a girl does not return, we hear the movie-hallowed terms: " Somebody's got her. They are holding her against her will." When another girl is being driven by a policeman, she comes up with the familiar: " Where are we going? This is not the way to the police station." And, in a parody of the detection in fantasy- fiction, the Scotsman who has obtained a suspicious liquid declares : "I 've had it analyzed", as though this could have been done in the boondocks and within minutes.
The long shot of the Lair is itself like a joke on the mountain in the Paramount Pictures logo. And, in a nod to Americans, the archaelogist huffily declares that he is Scottish, not Scotch: "Scotch is a drink."
What in effect, Russell has come up with is a drive-in, B-movie with an A budget. Not a movie for people in ordinary autos, but one for drivers of road machines, like the elegant long-nosed sports cars in the film. The actors perform in a mock-serious fashion, speaking their lines flatly, like creatures from old Saturday matinee serials, cheapo films (like the American quota quickies which once invaded England) or at times as in Bresson movies . At the same time their delivery mocks that of the upper classes, of butlers or of rural movie cops . At the other end of the scale we have Lady Sylvia playing cat-and-mouse with her victims in the supercilious tones of villainesses from black and white flicks. Sometimes she declaims phrases in the ominous accents of Bela Lugosi, minus the Transylvanian pronunciation.
THE LAIR, on its own terms, is that rarity: a movie that sets out to be an extravaganza of camp and fully succeeds. It ends with a twist which just may leave room for a sequel . Whether or not there will be a SON OF THE LAIR (or OF THE WORM) I cannot tell. But, for sure, this work promises to turn up as the centerpiece of future Snake Fear Film Festivals.
[Pub. March 3, 1989 by Edwin Jahiel]