Sunday, August 11, 2013

Werewyrms Over D'Ambton :: A 25 Vid-Cap Look at Ken Russell's The Lair of the White Worm (1988)

While excavating the ruins of an old convent that dates back to the Roman occupation, a Scottish archeologist uncovers something else buried underneath even that; a pagan temple for a cult of snake-worshipers and the giant, fossilized skull of some unknown creature. Meantime, several locals have disappeared, including the parents of the two sisters who run the hostile where the excavation is taking place. And if you wanted to wager any money, I'd bet their oddball neighbor, with the penchant for growing fangs, spitting venom, and biting people, just might have something to do with it...

As the apocryphal story goes, author Bram Stoker's inspiration for his most famous work was a hellish nightmare, fueled by a case of food-poisoning, caused by the consumption of some contaminated crab. And out of that delirium, of course, came the novel Dracula; a tale of gothic horror where a vile creature is resisted by a ragtag coalition of folks and former victims, who are completely in over their heads as they battle and prevail over the forces of darkness and the plague of living death he carries. I have no idea what Stoker ate before he started The Lair of the White Worm, his last published novel, but it definitely came from the same menu and place setting -- only it was mesmerism, not vampirism, that moved the plot along this time; that, and a fiendish shape-shifter with a penchant for human sacrifices, mixed in with the local legend of the Lambton Worm. 

My introduction to this mythical tale came courtesy of the All About Monsters volume of Usborne's The World of the Unknown series, which, along with her sister books on Ghosts and UFO's were read and reread back in my grade school days until their spines broke. (They were an odd and awesome combination of Richard Scarry mechanics and the gruesomeness of Topp's Mars Attacks trading cards.) I'll skip recapping the details and let you read the published account above on how Sir Lambton slew the worm; and I know a worm may not sound very threatening, but I believe when the legend started we were talking about a wyrm (pronounced vierm) -- a form of dragon. Now, with Stoker's incarnation, the wrym shares some genetics with the selkie, another mythical sea creature of Scottish lore, who could assume human form by shedding its skin, who then puts the hypno-whammy on folks and lured these mesmerized victims into the sea to drown. 

First published in 1911, the story was later re-released in a severely truncated version with nearly 100 pages and 12 chapters gutted out it, making it kind of an incoherent mess. The story proper begins when a prodigal heir is called home to be groomed to take over the family estate. Unfortunately, Adam Salton's ancestral home is surrounded by some odd and downright sinister neighbors doing some odd and outright sinister things, namely one Arabella March. Also of note, the grounds are currently being overrun by some very large black snakes; snakes Salton believes are responsible for a rash of animal slaughter that has escalated to attacks on some children and the disappearance of several other locals. To combat this, Salton imports several mongoose (mongeese?). These critters don't take too kindly to Arabella, who later and clandestinely tears them to pieces with her bare hands!

 Illustrations of the White Worm and Arabella
from the 1911 edition by Pamela Colman. 

Teaming up with a surrogate Van Helsing, Salton eventually gets to the bottom of things. Seems Lady Arabella is an acolyte for the White Worm, a not quite kaiju-sized snake like creature (-- probably the closest cinematic surrogate would be Reptilicus), who lures unwitting victims to the catacombs under her house, then murders them, and then casts their bodies into a large pit to feed her master dwelling therein. (I haven't read the story, myself, but conflicting reviews seem to think Arabella is the Worm in human form who lures people back to its den for consumption.) But instead of spiked armor, Salton slays this particular dragon with a bundle of dynamite.

Now jump ahead some 75 years to 1986, where Vestron Video had just expanded into Vestron Pictures; a fledgling production and distribution enterprise, that was about to hit big with Dirty Dancing. Meantime, they were so happy with the home video profits on Ken Russell's Gothic they approached the volatile auteur with a four-picture deal if he would make another horror movie for them. Depending on who you ask, Russell's surreal cinematic vision is either eccentrically quirky or morbidly perverted. (I say it's both.) Now, Gothic was a fictionalized account of the narcotics-induced, literary jam-session where Lord Byron, Dr. John Polidori, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his soon to be wife, Mary, tried to outdo each other by coming up with the best horror story. Safe to say Mary's Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus, won that bet -- and the film is nowhere near as bad as you've heard.

Now, I have no idea if this subject matter (or Vestron) influenced Russell's choice for this follow up, but it kinda makes sense. For Frankenstein and Dracula (or Shelley and Stoker if you wanna get technical) go together like peanut-butter and jelly. I assume some rights issues might have blocked telling the tale of the old Count himself, but Russell seemed content to take another whack at the trappings of religion (-- several whacks, actually, and they're quite the trip), and just tossed the element of vampirism back into Stoker's lesser known tale -- with just a hint of Curt Siodmak's version of lycanthropy, mainly because I kinda like to refer to the villainess of our piece a werewyrm. I mean, just say it, wereveeerm...

The Lair of the White Worm also, I believe, introduced American audiences to Hugh Grant, who plays James D'Ampton (Salton), several branches up the family tree form the infamous John D'Ampton, who slew the dastardly wyrm several centuries earlier; an event that is now celebrated annually with quite the bash. And though Grant does a really good job balancing a role where twit and man 'o' action meet on the graph, and the DVD release really play up his presence, the movie and top-billing rightfully belong to Amanda Donohoe as Lady Sylvia Marsh (Arabella), high priestess of Dionin, and the Werewyrm of Temple Hall. (C'mon, say it: were-wyrrrrrmmmmm...) I just love the pure unadulterated glee she radiates as she slithers through the role's more *ahem* saucier and predatory elements. I'm telling ya, the total wattage could power a city for a month. And I wouldn't fault anyone for rooting for her. (I know I was.)

Rounding out the cast is Sammi Davis and Catherine Oxenberg as our prerequisite love interests / damsels in distress for our errant knights to save. And, yeah, the main reason this film got back on my radar was the recent announcement of Peter Capaldi as the new Doctor on Dr. Who. After the announcement was made, my subconscious had been screaming at me all day about something I'd seen him in many a moon ago, with a hat tip to my friend Jess for finally breaking the memory floodgates wide open, reminding me that Capaldi had played Angus Flint (Van Helsing, basically) in The Lair of The White Worm, who, like a certain archeological colleague, went into battle against supernatural forces with nary a backward glance. And not armed with a fedora, bullwhip and pistol, mind you, but a kilt, bagpipes, and a hand grenade, prompting me to forgo my old VHS tape and finally upgrade to a DVD on this one. 

All told, The Lair of the White Worm is a highly endearing throwback to the monster movies of the mid-1960s right before Night of the Living Dead changed the game forever, punctuated by several moments which starkly remind you that, oh yeah, this is a Ken Russell movie. Its true spirit animal is The Reptile (1966) or any other Hammer film of that era, or it could even pass as a really perverse episode of Dr. Who (and the thought of Amanda Donohoe as the Master suddenly seems like a really good idea), mixed with a vintage Slade music video, meaning it truly is awesome and then some.

The Lair of the White Worm (1988) White Lair :: Vestron Pictures / EP: Dan Ireland, William J. Quigley / P: Ken Russell / AP: Ronaldo Vasconcellos / D: Ken Russell / W: Ken Russell, Bram Stoker (novel) / C: Dick Bush / E: Peter Davies / M: Stanislas Syrewicz / S: Amanda Donohoe, Hugh Grant, Catherine Oxenberg, Peter Capaldi, Sammi Davis


Ed said...

Good stuff, I reviewed this for my blog a few months ago. A true forgotten gem of a film.

W.B. Kelso said...

It'd definitely been awhile since I'd seen it last, which was a good/bad thing in that I also forgot how wonderfully screwy it got in spots.

Thanks for commenting!

Happy Miser said...

One of those rare instances when the movie is better than the book!!! Love the "music video" beginning and the disturbing/erotic hallucinations!

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