Too often, the discourse surrounding horror films tends to become overly combative. Our strong feelings for a particular film, be they good or bad, can sometimes overcome our better nature and cause us to lose sight of the fact that although we may not always see eye to eye on a certain movie, we’re all bonded by our love of the genre. It’s with this in mind that Liam O’Donnell and I have come up with I Love That You Love It.
This is a column devoted to the idea that when we disagree on a film, we can discuss our thoughts in a rational, reasonable manner without resorting to personal attacks and vitriol. And what better way to start the column than with a movie from England, the birthplace of good manners, as we dive into Gary Sherman’s 1972 film DEATH LINE.
Released in the U.S. as Raw Meat, the film centers on an urban legend about a group of Victorian-era railroad workers trapped in a cave-in, who resorted to cannibalism to survive. It turns out that these may not just be tall tales, however, as present-day students Patricia (Sharon Gurney) and Alex ( David Ladd) report a man who has gone missing from one of the subway stations they frequent. On the case is the acerbic Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasence), who is skeptical when descendants of the rail workers are proposed as possible culprits. Calhoun believes Patricia and Alex may be responsible for the disappearance, putting them in an awkward position as people continue to go missing.
Alas, for a film featuring a society of cannibals, I couldn’t help but find the movie rather hollow and lifeless with very little pushing the plot forward, making its 87-minute run time seem much longer. My good man Liam, however, quite enjoys the film. So I’m quite intrigued to find out, Liam, what is it about DEATH LINE that you find so compelling?
Bryan, you poor deluded soul. I understand, DEATH LINE is not as immediately satisfying as your various Jason clones that entice you with their cheap nudity and cheaper kills. Yet, I think the film does offer many obvious as well as subtle delights for the discerning viewer to get excited about. The story is a bit mundane, but the combination of Donald Pleasance’s scene chewing with a truly morose antagonist mixed up in a heady amount of class commentary creates a kind of over the top horror drama that I really vibe with. Let me elucidate for you just a small sampling of the true delights in what might be my second favorite Gary Sherman film (all hail the almighty Vice Squad).
First, as I suggested above, Pleasance is a fucking force in this film. It was not surprising to me while watching the special features to learn that he was the toast of London film-making at the time, and his mere involvement was enough to lure the great Christopher Lee to have his own brief but memorable moment in the film, only so he might share space with Pleasance. Donald is not so much the wild drunken mess he has become known for in some of his later horror work, though he does manage to be a little too believable in an inebriated scene later in the film. Instead, he is an idiosyncratic, cranky, and yet unbelievably charming police inspector who not only drives the investigation forward, but allows for some of the brutal class commentary of the film.
Alright, Liam, let’s calm down on the Donald Pleasence performance, shall we? It’s fine. I mean, it’s what we expect. Pleasence can’t help but be great in pretty much every role he’s in. But let’s not pretend that’s enough to to elevate a film that you yourself just admitted has very little going for it in terms of story. And as for Christopher Lee’s…I don’t know, let’s call it a cameo? Well, that might have been more interesting if not for the fact that Sherman kept Pleasence and Lee in separate shots throughout most of the scene, because Sherman couldn’t figure out how to frame the taller Lee in with his shorter co-star.
To suggest that these juggernauts could not carry this scene regardless of editing mishaps is of course blasphemy, but I expect no less from you. Still, Pleasence, known as the Robert Redford of Europe at the time, is extraordinary in this role. My second favorite performance of the film is Hugh Armstrong as “The Man,” the lone survivor of generations of trapped railway workers who have become diseased and turned to cannibalism over the years. He starts to increase his usual relaxed abduction of victims from the subway because his only other living inhabitant of the catacombs is sick, and he believes fresh blood will save her. His desperate actions to cure her, his pathetic efforts convincing Sharon Gurney to care for him, and then finally his wailing of the only phrase he can manage, “MIND THE DOORS,”–all of these ingredients to what would otherwise be a gross cannibal figure, really adds a sense of tragedy to the film. There is a humanity that has been ignored, and crushed, and thus has turned into something dark and corrupt but familiar. Granted, he is no hero, he is a kind of villain. He is, however, incredibly sad and a bit sympathetic in that even as his actions are horrifying and upsetting. This works for the film and brings it to a level beyond many horror films of its ilk.
OK, give me a moment to figure out how to properly phrase this, because it’s critical I convey my message appropriately here: you’re a goddamn idiot. Armstrong’s “performance” is literally just prolonged, incoherent babble. Yes, I get that we’re supposed to see him as a tragic figure who’s been discarded by society, and that it’s not his fault that he can’t function within the modern community that’s thrived off the backs of him and his ancestors. It’s a grand statement that would have been much more effective had Sherman not spent about a half hour too long making us sit through scene after scene of Armstrong’s various grunts and squeals. Every time the movie cuts back to “The Man’s” lair, the narrative grinds to a screeching halt. And these are supposed to be the juiciest scenes of the whole damn film!
Oh, your buffoonery and jagaloonocity know no bounds! If you cannot hear and feel the beating heart beneath the melty visage, well that is upon you good sir. Surely no performance prior or since has made such generous and informative use of three simple words. Perhaps it is no Nic Cage or whatever mouth breathing American you prefer, but it is very strong and compelling.
Finally, I love the very British kind of class commentary in the film. The most obvious formation of this would be the backstory of “The Man,” the idea that after a cave-in whilst digging a new subway station, the powers that be simply abandon the workers because they simply do not matter–is perhaps not subtle but is satisfyingly cutting. However, this occurs again in one of my favorite scenes in the film, the brief exchange between titans Christopher Lee and Donald Pleasance.
In this scene, Lee plays a mysterious MI-5 agent warning lowly Inspector Calhoun that his job is not to care about the affairs of his betters, but simply to marshal the denizens of poverty. The condescension and tension of this scene might be difficult for class blind Americans to discern, but the idea here is simple. Our missing Order of the British Empire, it turns out, is a philanderer and ne’er-do-well, but he is also important. And it is not concern for his well being that motivates Lee’s concern, but a fear of exposure. This feeling that there is one law for them (the rich and elite) and another law for us would be much more pointed in its original British context, but is still clear today. These various elements take a film that is already entertaining and haunting and lift it to a vaunted level.
I’m sorry, are you really trying to say the scene between Lee and Pleasence is subtle? Fuck right off, old chap. Everything about this film is about as subtle as being struck in the head repeatedly with a pick axe. This film has literally one thing to say: those with power exploit those that don’t have it. And it says it over and over and over again. Notice we keep coming back to the Lee/Pleasence scene? That’s because that’s the only time anything every happens in this fucking movie!! Honestly, this film could have been twenty-five minutes long and it would lose none of its thematic threads. I agree with everything Sherman is trying to say, but by the end of this movie I was one step away from wishing myself back into the days of serfdom.
Oh, does this lack the deep contours of some 80s dreck like Pumpkinhead? Not enough BMX-related child death for you? Perhaps an awkward bit of rubber we are supposed to pretend isn’t just a silly class project? The film I think manages what genre does at it’s BEST, that is entertain, titillate, and yet point towards something real and meaningful. Plus, it has some real gross bits and some really ridiculous moments as well. Each of these manage to yell the point, but also echo it in some really fun ways. I get it, at heart you are a class traitor looking for horror that will enable your cult of Elon Musk worship. However, you and your fellow “Muskies,” as you like to be called, will have to look elsewhere for bland Ayn Rand takes that are regurgitated into some mediocre splatter film. DEATH LINE is a bit of tawdry and exploitative art and I love it for that.
First of all, Pumpkinhead features dirt bike-related child death. Pay attention, dipshit. Secondly, you keep making allusions to my being American as if you’re a sophisticated British academic. You’re from Philadelphia, you stupid dickhead. And just because something is British doesn’t make it smart. Boris Johnson is British. But if you think England is so great, then why don’t you take a copy of DEATH LINE and go live in those shitty abandoned rail lines that you seem to find so damn entertaining. I’ll stay here and watch a movie where something actually happens.
I SAY GOOD DAY TO YOU SIR!
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