Monday 26 May 2008

Death Line (1972)

I have really fond memories of this one (as Death Line: the American release was called Raw Meat), but like so many films nowadays it seems like forever since I've seen it. I'd even forgotten that Christopher Lee was in it, because my memories focus around Donald Pleasence being more believably drunk in one scene than anyone else I've ever seen anywhere else in the movies and the whole concept of cannibal throwbacks populating a disused London underground station. The rest had relegated itself to the back of my brain somewhere where I've lost the ability to retrieve.

Pleasence is always a joy to watch but he's even more magnetic here than usual as a Scotland Yard policeman called Inspector Calhoun. He has a cynically suspicious nature and a highly spirited disposition, which together with Pleasence's substantial skills as an actor mean that every conversation he has with anyone is one to pay attention to. The best ones are between him and his colleagues: Det Sgt Rogers, played by Norman Rossington, his secretary WPC Marshall, played by Heather Stoney, and Christopher Lee as a deliciously cheerful MI5 agent called Stratton-Villiers.

Calhoun and Stratton-Villiers cross swords on a strange missing persons case. James Manfred, OBE, goes missing from the Russell Square underground station after a night of visiting peepshows and porn shops. He was last seen in a state of collapse on a staircase by a couple of students who had caught the last train in, but when they brought the police back to see, he had vanished. There were no more trains and no other way out of the station, but he had vanished nonetheless, seemingly into nowhere.

Because Manfred was a VIP, Calhoun digs a little deeper than usual into the disappearance and before MI5 unceremoniously close the case, he discovers a string of other disappearances from the same station and from nearby Holborn. He also finds that between Russell Square and Holborn was a disused line, one abandoned by the company building the line after a serious cave in that left a number of workers, both male and female, stranded and unrescued because the company was going bankrupt. Soon enough Calhoun gets the chance to investigate further, because there are murders at Russell Square and more disappearances, with the bizarre news from the lab that someone else has been present at the scene, someone with septicaemic plague.

I'm not surprised that parts of this film had stayed with me while the bulk of it hadn't, because those parts are truly awesome and the rest is so so. Pleasence is by far the best reason to watch the film, as he gives a fascinating and very real character study of an beleaguered inspector. He's not stupid and he doesn't get entirely nowhere, but he gets to be at points drunk, exhausted, hungover, overruled and a whole host of other states of being that get entirely overlooked in movies. My impression is that he took what could easily have been a one dimensional character and run with it to such a degree that his portrayal stuck with me for decades.

The last remnant of an abandoned people is fascinating too. Hugh Armstrong plays a character credited only as 'The Man', and it's a bizarre role for an actor. Ragged, malnourished and riddled with plague, he's missing whole clumps of hair, eats raw meat, drools and has only one repeated line, which is only vaguely recognisable as 'Mind the doors'. Yet he brings not just savagery but tenderness to the part, which can't have been an easy task given the limitations. Given an obvious interest in quirky roles, it's surprising to see a very sparse filmography for Hugh Armstrong.

But beyond them, there isn't much. There are a couple of students who get integrally involved in the story. One is Sharon Gurney and the other is David Ladd, son of Alan Ladd and husband to Cheryl Ladd. Christopher Lee has a great cameo, which is unfortunately also a short one. Clive Swift, of Keeping Up Appearances, has another. And there are a number of long and voyeuristically slow pans over corpses. The horror is kept realistic and far from sensational, but somehow it doesn't engage as it probably should have. The admirable characterisation unfortunately means that the story suffers from being painted in very broad strokes indeed. Maybe the budget prohibited a larger exploration into the abandoned underground. Whatever it could have been though, it's still a quirky British horror film that still deserves attention 36 years after its original release.

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