Cheeky horror spoof mixes Hammer with Carry On...
This is a lot of fun and doesn't take itself toooo seriously. Director Ken Russell decorates the story with hints of history, if only to justify some outrageous dream-imagery, graphically pitting paganism against Christianity. He also mixes in vampirism, in a nod to Bram Stoker's far more famous novel, Dracula. One of the publicity stills shows a half-naked nun impaled on a stake, a reference to Vlad The Impaler, though I didn't spot it in the film. The legend of the D'Ampton worm, quoted in the film, is an actual English legend. Russell points out that an older derivation of the word 'worm' could also mean serpent or dragon, alluding to the British legend of St George.
All that backstory and a very impressive cave location should be enough for a good horror film, but Russell is more interested in the sex. Anyone familiar with his other movies will be unsurprised. While Roman soldiers ravaging nuns looks more like a cheap spoof of The Devils, the antics of the sensual villain (Amanda Donohoe) are comparatively subtle. She's especially good at the serpentine double-entendres hinting at what's to come.
The minor amount of gore occasionally shocks and there's an good monster considering the budget. The climax is all the more impressive for being shot in forced perspective, sidestepping the need for obvious visual effects compositing.
Like Altered States (1980), Russell's trademark imagery is relegated to wild hallucinations, mixing up snakes, nuns and fire. These were realised using electronic bluescreen on video transferred to film. Derek Jarman also used this method for several of his later films. (Jarman also worked as production designer for Russell's The Devils). The visual texture is suitably different to the reality of the rest of the story.
Simply put, an archaeologist (Peter Capaldi) discovers a monstrous skull on the site of an old temple, on land owned by a local Lord (Hugh Grant). The discovery is of great interest to the mysterious Lady Marsh (Amanda Donohoe) and provides a clue in a string of local disappearances near a dangerously deep cavern...
Although tongue-in-cheek, some unintentional humour can be had from some of the 'northern' English accents on offer. Sammi Davis' accent is distracting and Catherine Oxenberg sounds like she's been completely redubbed, sabotaging much of her performance. She was the most famous cast member at the time, presumably chosen to stir up controversy in the newspapers. Oxenberg is related to British royalty, had played a Princess on Dynasty and even starred as Princess Diana in a US TV movie. Russell was playing with her Diana image by cheekily sexualising and terrifying her character.
Hugh Grant is effortlessly upper-class here, very early in his movie career, five years before his breakthrough hit Four Weddings and a Funeral. Not yet a buffoon, his character has far more steel than in later comedy roles.
Another young performer in the film who has since hit his stride is Peter Capaldi (seen here with Sammi Davis), the cruel backbone of In The Loop and The Thick of It, only known back then for his supporting role in Local Hero (1983).
It's a shame that Amanda Donohoe's sensational and memorable performance didn't keep her in higher profile roles. She enjoys the punny dialogue and doesn't overplay it. Before providing most of the outrageousness by running around completely naked, painted blue, sporting the hugest fangs this side of Fright Night. She'd again court controversy by giving American TV an early lesbian kiss in the hit series LA Law. Coincidentally, Donohoe and Oxenberg both recently appeared in Starship Troopers 3 (2008).
After Gothic (1986), Ken Russell made this as part of a three-picture deal for Vestron Pictures, along with Salome's Last Dance and The Rainbow (a prequel to his earlier hit, Women In Love). But this was the last time he was allowed a creative spurt in the cinema. The three films shared many of the same actors and even a few overlapping themes, worth viewing together as a very diverse trilogy.
After these, Russell only made one more film, Whore, before being tossed back into TV, and making video projects in his garage with friends and fans. At least there was The Girl With Golden Breasts, a suitably bizarre segment for the horror compendium Trapped Ashes (2006), which showed that his titular obsessions and humour are still rampant.
Russell's golden days of big budgets were the 1970s. His seriously horrific The Devils (1971) would have made The Exorcist (1973) look relatively tame had it been given a wide and uncut release. It continues to be controversial today, still missing from DVD (review and more details here).
The Lair of the White Worm is fun as a comedy horror and a fair introduction to this uniquely cheeky director. The last time the film appeared in the UK was on VHS (at top), though it's been on DVD twice in the US, both times in anamorphic widescreen. My 1999 Pioneer Special Edition DVD also has an amusing and brash commentary track by the director.
There are other fans of the film out there - witness this screengrab-heavy review from The House of Self-Indulgence.
The original release trailer is clumsy, unsubtle, full of spoilers and presented here in washed-out full-frame. The DVD looks much better than this...