Raw Meat/Death Line (1972/1973) ***
We’ve discussed at some length elsewhere the difficulty that Hammer and their main rivals in the horror field, Amicus and Tigon, had in adapting to the changed environment of the 1970’s. Britain’s independent producers were much more nimble, however. While the name-brand companies tinkered indecisively with the recipe they’d been following since 1957, the independents learned how to compete with the new American and Continental imports on their own terms. It was not enough to regain for Britain the leading role in international horror cinema that the country’s movie industry had enjoyed during the preceding decade, but it did lead to the creation of quite a few distinctive and memorable films in the genre, and Raw Meat was among the most distinctive and memorable of the bunch.
Far from the Carpathian castles that were still the normative setting for British horror movies in 1972— and equally far from the hokey counterfeit of Swinging London with which Hammer’s writers had just begun embarrassing themselves— Raw Meat sets out from a rendition of London’s red light district that might have won an approving nod from Frank Henenlotter. It’s the middle of the night, and some bowler-hatted upper-class licktwat (James Cossins, from The Lost Continent and Horror of Frankenstein) is making the rounds of the strip clubs, working himself up into as much of a lather as his stiff upper lip will permit. Eventually tiring of the look-but-don’t-touch scene, he heads over to the Russell tube station, where he hassles a pretty girl less than half his age in the hope of getting her to go home with him. The girl isn’t having it, though, and Mr. Bowlerhat Licktwat surely doesn’t help his case any by taking out his wallet and literally waving a handful of money in her face. We will not feel very sorry for him a moment later, after the girl has retreated up to the street level, when something we don’t get to see lurches out of the shadows and attacks the smarmy old fuck.
The man’s inert but still living body is found lying on the stairs shortly thereafter by college student Patricia Wilson (Crucible of Horror’s Sharon Gurney) and her American boyfriend, Alex Campbell (David Ladd, of Beyond the Universe). Alex is a New Yorker, and thus thinks nothing of encountering unconscious people on the floors and staircases of the subway, but Patricia insists that they stop to help. Mr. Bowlerhat Licktwat is still holding the wallet with which he had attempted to bribe the other girl into sleeping with him, so Alex is able to ascertain that his name is James Manfred, and that he has no medical card identifying him as a diabetic or an epileptic or any other such thing. Alex, a mediocre Samaritan at best, considers his job done at this point (Manfred has no medical alert card, ergo he must be a passed-out drunk, ergo he’s somebody else’s problem), but Patricia presses him (in a curiously passive-aggressive manner, while we’re on the subject) to tell the police constable on duty in the station about the situation. There’s no sign of Manfred when the constable goes to investigate, however, despite the fact that he hardly seemed capable of going anywhere under his own power.
That constable reports to Sergeant Rogers (Norman Rossington, from The House of Long Shadows), and he in turn reports to Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasence, from Eye of the Devil and Prince of Darkness). When Rogers mentions the incident at Russell Station the following morning, Calhoun recognizes that stop as the site of two previous disappearances. He also recognizes Manfred as one well-connected bastard, an Officer of the Order of the British Empire and a high-ranking civil servant, and he relishes the prospect of scooping MI5 on a case with possible national security ramifications. Naturally, Calhoun needs to talk to both Alex and Patricia. The latter cooperates readily, but the mistrustful Yank immediately decides that Calhoun considers him a suspect, and determines to part with what little he knows only in the most obstinate and ass-paining manner. (To be fair, though, Calhoun’s demeanor at their initial meeting is so abrasively weird that it would be easy to read all sorts of hostile ulterior motives into it.) Calhoun also touches base with a colleague, an Inspector Richardson (Clive Swift, from Frenzy and Excalibur), who helps him look over some maps of the tube system in the vicinity of Russell Station, and who fills him in on an odd bit of history concerning that part of the underground. Back in the 1890’s, there was a cave-in at a dig not far from where the Russell stop now stands, and quite a few people— men and women alike— were caught in it. It was widely believed that everyone concerned must have perished, but a few engineers argued at the time that there might have been air pockets on the far side of the fallen debris. There would have been plenty of water, what with the city’s plumbing so close to hand, so a large air pocket or two would have afforded anyone not crushed by the cave-in a chance to survive until starvation claimed them— and that might have been a very long time, provided they didn’t mind eating the bodies of those who were slain in the initial collapse. No one ever found out for sure, though, because the construction firm conducting the ill-fated dig quickly went bust after the disaster, and there was no money available to fund such a massive and hazardous excavation. Calhoun finds it an interesting story, but doesn’t see what it could have to do with James Manfred’s vanishing act.
We have some idea, though, don’t we? Yes indeed. And in fact, the next thing we see is a slow pan around a crudely furnished subterranean chamber filled with the partially eaten remains of several people— James Manfred included. Living in this artificial cavern are a man (Hugh Armstrong, of Girly and The Beastmaster) and a pregnant woman (June Turner), both of them ill with something that makes their skin peel and suppurate, and their hair fall out in handfuls. If the homemade mausoleum which occupies part of the cannibals’ lair is any indication, these two are the last living descendants of the trapped 1890’s work crew that Richardson was talking about. And if the woman’s near-silence and near-motionlessness are any indication, there isn’t going to be another generation, the bulge in her belly notwithstanding. Evidently the main work of this clan of urban troglodytes for the last 80 years has been digging their way through the cave-in by hand, with the final success having come during the past few months. Unfortunately, three or four generations of isolation and inbreeding have seen to it that the man who achieved that victory has no concept of the original point of the exercise. Far from rushing upstairs to fetch help for his mate, he has merely been using the passage to the surface as a means of accessing a new food supply. Whereas before, rats were apparently the staple of the tube-dwellers’ diet, supplemented with human flesh whenever any of them died, the breakthrough to the main tube system means that these days, long pig is on the menu anytime the last two survivors feel like it. It also means there’s a way to recruit a replacement when the woman finally succumbs to whatever ails her. As the Great God Coincidence would have it, the healthy new female that strikes the cannibal man’s fancy is Patricia Wilson, and he kidnaps her one night when she and Alex inadvertently get separated in the subway by the automated closing of the doors on their train. Not so easy to maintain that callous Big Apple detachment now, is it, Alex?
It’s hard to imagine how the Harbor Ventures production company and J. Arthur Rank Distributors ever got Raw Meat past the British Board of Film Censors. This picture is comparable to all but the most extreme American or Continental horror films of its age in terms of onscreen gore, and the very idea of cannibalism was usually enough to get a movie in very hot water with the BBFC. I know censorship standards were slackening in Britain just as everywhere else in those days, but this really is extraordinary. Either it plays up the failure of the established horror-specialist studios to evolve in a direction appropriate to the times, or it suggests a double standard opposite to the one that obtained in the United States a decade later. Could it be that independent producers in the UK enjoyed more leeway than the bigger studios when it came to how much bad taste the censors were willing to tolerate?
Raw Meat’s enthusiastic embrace of so much that had traditionally been proscribed to its country’s horror films is only a relatively small part of what makes it worth seeking out, however. Conceptually, Raw Meat is extremely appealing for being so unmistakably British even despite its more typically foreign subject matter. It seems impossible that any movie about subway-dwelling cannibals could be so mannerly, especially without flinching from the bloodshed and nastiness that such a premise would naturally imply. I also find it very interesting that Raw Meat’s creators, in contrast to many if not most of their American counterparts by 1972, still can’t seem to get behind the whole youth-counterculture thing; Inspector Calhoun appears to speak for the filmmakers when he growls at Alex to get his hair cut— both in the sense of the utterance itself and in the apparent expectation of and resignation to being ignored with which he says it. And while we’re on the subject of Calhoun, he is far and away the most enjoyable thing about Raw Meat. Partly it’s the character in and of himself that I mean when I say that, this eccentrically irascible Anglo-Saxon answer to the Columbo of American television. But Calhoun wouldn’t be nearly the attraction he is without Donald Pleasence’s marvelously deranged performance. Pleasence was another of those sadly rare actors who are able to overact with enormous sensitivity and nuance. Chewing the scenery is too crude a term for what people like Pleasence do— they masticate it; they manducate it; sometimes they even pop out their dentures and give it a good gumming. Raw Meat shows Pleasence in fine form, managing the extraordinary feat of making Calhoun look impeccably competent and completely fucking bonkers at the same time. In fact, he might be just a little too effective and entertaining for the movie’s good, as the scenes in which he does not figure can come to seem rather limp in comparison. One wishes for a bit more verve from the scenes in the cannibals’ lair especially— doubly so after Patricia has been kidnapped. The more I think about it, the more unfortunate it seems that Raw Meat couldn’t have spun off a sequel or two pitting Calhoun against other manifestations of horrid urban weirdness. Carl Kolchak got a weekly TV series; surely Calhoun could have supported a couple more feature films.