The Lair of the White Worm (1988) ***
Fucking Ken Russell, manÖ What do you make of a career in which Altered States is the normal movie? The Lair of the White Worm is a stop or two weirder than that film, but still relatively sedate and straightforward by Russellís standards. It might usefully be thought of as his equivalent to Body Double, as the project on which he lampooned his own reputation for stylish excess and exuberantly poor taste by making a calculatedly bad movie in a thoroughly disreputable genre. That analogy is far from perfect, however. When Brian De Palma made Body Double, it was simply an exaggeration of the movies he was already famous for making. But Russell, although heíd certainly dabbled in horror on occasion, was hardly known as a creator of occult monster flicks. The Lair of the White Worm also differs from Body Double in that it is much more overtly a comedyó except that itís deadpan enough that I didnít quite grasp that when I saw it for the first time circa 1989. In stark contrast to the typical late-80ís horror comedy, The Lair of the White Worm achieves its humor by playing an increasingly absurd situation rigorously straight.
Somewhere in Mercia, thereís a wee little country hamlet called DíAmpton, named for the local seigniorial family. The old lord of the manor died recently, and his heir, James (Hugh Grant, of Cloud Atlas), has lately returned from someplace more cosmopolitan to take up the position. Weíll get to him later, though. For now, our attention belongs to the Trent sisters, Eve (Catherine Oxenberg, from Sexual Response and Road Rage) and Mary (Sammi Davis), and their boarder. The latter is grad student archaeologist Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi, of World War Z and House of 9), who is renting a room from the Trents to facilitate a dig on the grounds of the farm which their family has rented from the DíAmptons for generations. In early Medieval times, there was a convent on the property, and before that, the site was consecrated to some poorly-attested snake cult. Thatís particularly interesting in light of some artifacts that Angus uncovers in the Roman stratum of his dig. For one thing, a few bronze coins of 3rd-century vintage bear on one side the image of the then-current Roman provincial governor (or maybe the emperor himselfó the script canít seem to make up its mind), and on the other a cross with a huge serpent coiled around it. That to Angus looks like an assertion of superiority over Christianity by the neighborhood cult, together with evidence that the latter faith had official backing. Even more striking is the skull that Flint digs up in the same layer as the coins. It looks like a dinosaur skull, but obviously there should be no such thing in a Roman archaeological site. Could the skull have been something the snake-worshippers excavated and made the centerpiece of their religious observances?
Flint gets something else to ponder that night, when he attends Lord James DíAmptonís homecoming party at the castle. Foremost among the entertainment is a Gaelic folk-rock band who incorporate into their performance a ballad recounting the legend of the DíAmpton Worm, the dragon supposedly slain by the founder of Lord Jamesís lineage. Caught and tossed down a well in disgust by John DíAmpton while he was fishing one day, the initially small creature grew into a monster powerful enough to terrorize the whole region before it was killed in a rematch with its discoverer. Aficionados of Medieval folklore will recognize that as the real-world legend of the Lambton Worm with a few minor detail changes. Now Iím not saying Flint jumps directly to the conclusion that there really was a DíAmpton Worm, or that he dug up its great-grandpappyís skull that afternoon, but it sure is a curious coincidence that the subject of giant reptiles has intruded itself upon his consciousness twice today. And as if that werenít odd enough already, thereís yet another echo of the DíAmpton Worm tale in the mysterious fate of the Trent girlsí parents, who disappeared without a trace near the very cave where the monster is supposed to have made its lair after it outgrew the well.
Now it happens that James DíAmpton isnít the only entitled personage whoís come home to the village recently. A second huge old manse in the woods outside of town is intermittently home to Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe, of Castaway and Starship Troopers 3: Marauder). Normally, Lady Sylvia stays away from DíAmpton until the spring is more advanced and the weather less obnoxious, but this year, something possessed her to return early. From the look of things, her impetus was Angus digging up that funny skull, because practically the first thing Lady Sylvia does is to sneak into the Trent house while everyone is out, so as to steal the thing from Flintís room. Normally, Iíd ask how in the hell Sylvia knew about the skull, but in this specific case, I think we can chalk it up to a natural affinity for snake monsters; on her way out of the Trent house, Sylvia pauses to spray a gout of hallucinogenic venom all over Eveís crucifix from a pair of fangs she sprouts especially for the purpose. So potent is that poison that when Eve touches it with her fingertips hours later, it triggers visions of Christian nuns being raped by Roman soldiers while a giant serpent gnaws the limbs off of the crucified Christ. It gradually comes out, via the murder of a boy scout (Chris Pitt), the enthrallment of Police Constable Erny (Paul Brooke, from Lighthouse and the ridiculous Joel Schumacher Phantom of the Opera), the kidnapping of Eve, and assorted other disagreeable acts, that Lady Marsh is an immortal were-snake vampire who serves as the agent of Dionyn, the somewhat less immortal monster of which Angusís skull and the DíAmpton Worm were previous incarnations. The current incarnation is down in that cave where the elder Trents went missing, and itíll fall to the unlikely team of James DíAmpton, Angus Flint, Mary Trent, and Lord Jamesís extremely eccentric butler (Stratford Johns) to stop Sylvia from feeding it enough villagers to bring it up to full strength.
In theory, The Lair of the White Worm is based on a novel by Bram Stoker. Iíve never read it, but all things considered, Iíll be very surprised if more than the broadest outlines of Stokerís version are recognizable in Ken Russellís. At the very least, I feel confident in predicting that the bookís protocol for a ritually correct sacrifice to Dionyn does not involve Lady Sylvia painting herself all over with woad, putting on nothing but a loincloth and a jeweled skullcap, and fucking the victim to death with a pointed ivory strap-on dildo as big as her forearm. It just doesnít sound like something old Bram would have dreamed upó but itís exactly what we would expect from the creator of The Devils, isnít it? And that, I think, is the key to understanding The Lair of the White Worm. More than anything, Russell is playing around with what we would expect from the creator of The Devils (and the creator of Altered States, the creator of Lisztomania, the creator of Gothic, etc.). Heís poking fun at his reputation as a purveyor of sexually charged, arty sleaze by living as far up to it as the more censorious climate of the late 1980ís would allow. He fills the movie with hallucinations of sexual violence (much of it, significantly, directed against nuns) and hyper-Freudian dreams in which a cigar (or, more accurately, a highlighter pen) is never just a cigar. He ladles on the blasphemous imagery, from the aforementioned nun-rapes to the DíAmpton Worm chewing on Jesus to Lady Sylvia defiling any holy symbol that comes within armís reach with gouts of psychedelic poison. And he pushes hard against the eraís diminishing tolerance for sexual transgression, outfitting his topless, blue snake-woman with a colossal ivory phallus and incorporating into Sylvia Marshís introductory sequence a bit in which she gives paralyzing and ultimately lethal head to a literal Boy Scout. The Lair of the White Worm may be less explicit than Russellís most outrageous work from the 70ís, but its subject matter is just as unapologetically offensive to prudish sensibilities.
Okay, but if The Lair of the White Worm is so much in keeping with the themes of earlier Russell films, then what makes me so sure heís having a goof on himself? Well, that brings us back to what I was saying before about Body Double. Simply put, The Lair of the White Worm is something that Iíve never seen another Ken Russell movie beó itís cheesy. The dream and hallucination sequences that Russell is usually so careful about crafting look here like imaginative but cheap music videos. Angusís Exposition Boffin speeches are as full of slovenly factual errors as their counterparts in any cut-rate 50ís monster programmer, like when he says that dinosaurs predate Romans by 25 million years instead of 65 million, or when he identifies Mercia as a Roman province instead of a Medieval kingdom. (The relevant Roman province was Britannia, and it included not just Mercia, but everything from Hadrianís Wall to the English Channel.) Sylvia Marsh ridiculously sleeps curled up in a humongous wicker basket, like a stereotypical Indian fakirís cobra, and the heroesí strategy in the third act is premised on the notion that snake-charming works because of the music. At one point, Angus sics a mongoose on Lady Sylvia. And the final confrontationó my God! The only reason I can think of why I didnít immediately catch that Russell was trolling us when the decisive weapons against prehistoric evil turn out to be bagpipes and a hand grenade is that Iíd already seen enough truly terrible movies by 1989 to understand that some filmmakers would put together a climax like that and genuinely mean it. Back then, I had no reason yet to trust Russell not to be one of them.