In 1988, the once Oscar-nominated British director Ken Russell unleashed “The Lair of the White Worm”
While horror films like the “Halloween” and the “Friday the 13th” series ruled the box office in America during the 1980s, all was relatively quiet on the western front for the sub-genre of vampire and monster thrillers. Not so much across the pond among British and European filmmakers, luckily for us! In 1988, the once Oscar-nominated British director Ken Russell unleashed “The Lair of the White Worm” upon unsuspecting audiences. Russell liberally adapted the late-period Bram Stoker novel of the same name and created a horror movie so brazenly absurd, sexist and trashy, it was destined for Guilty Pleasure infamy!
Our story begins in the Derbyshire hills, with the beautiful and virginal Trent sisters, Eve (“Dynasty” tv star Catherine Oxenberg) and Mary (“Hope and Glory” alum Sammi Davis). Young archaeologist Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi) unearths what appears to be a giant snake skull during a dig on the farm of the Trent sisters. The discovery rouses the curiousity of their gorgeous aristocrat neighbor Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe, then a relative newcomer) as well as the floppy haired young Lord James D’Ampton (Hugh Grant in one of his earliest roles).
Lord D’Ampton happens to be the descendant of a legendary snake hunter rumored to have slain an ancient monster, part snake and part dragon, which when awakened from its cavernous lair in the hills feasts upon humans. No mere lady of leisure, Lady Sylvia is actually a vampire who worships the snake god Dionin, and she has the Trent girls on her mind for a virgin sacrifice. Does the discovery of the skull mean the giant snake was not just a myth? The Trent sisters parents have already mysteriously gone missing several months prior and now we know the corpses are really about to start piling up!
the amount of snake-as-phallus imagery on display here is truly mind boggling
The (late) Russell was never an auteur known for his subtlety or restraint around sexual themes. Many of his fans contend that “Lair” was merely him making fun of his own reputation as an kinky-minded director of arthouse fare. That being said, the amount of snake-as-phallus imagery on display here is truly mind boggling. One psychedelic hallucinatory sequence involving the raping of nuns by Roman soldiers no doubt had any Evangelicals in the audience running for the theater lobby.
Though it is never exactly scary, the film does succeed at being deeply unsettling. At times, the performances are so earnest (especially from Capaldi) that the copious double-entendres and campiness seem all the more jarringly uneven. Much of the camp is so utterly intentional, the actors are all but wink at the camera. In one of her first scenes at a party, Oxenberg squeals “Oh me spotted dick!” Other times, the camp is not quite as deliberate. The repeated biblical imagery also leads one to presume Russell had some intention of making a serious film. It seems at some point in making a gothic horror film he decided to liberally throw in bits of Benny Hill comedies.
Even by testosterone-heavy 1980’s standards, the film is frighteningly archaic in its depiction of male and female gender roles. Men are heroes that save the day; women are either helpless virgins or man-eating vamps. Well, snake worshipping vampires to be more precise. The women also seem to be spending an inordinate amount of time running around in their underwear.
Unexplained oddities occur throughout the entire film. Though it is apparently set in the 1980s, several of the cast (particularly Donohoe) dress in a manner that appears to be from the 1960s. Grant’s unemployed aristocrat wears a pilot’s uniform in several scenes. One utterly bizarre dream sequence taking place aboard a plane seems like a teenage boy’s homage to heavy metal videos and soft core porn. I suspect President Trump may have an old dvd copy lying around somewhere just for this sequence alone.
The cast performances, like everything else in the film, are bizarrely uneven. Grant shows some of the charm that would lead him to stardom just a few years later in the 90s. Oxenberg’s fluctuating accent seems copied from a commercial for either Irish Spring or Tetley Tea (I can’t be sure which). Davis, when not smiling blankly or gazing wistfully into the ether, always seems to be reading her lines from cue cards.
It is Donohoe, really putting the vamp in vampire, who clearly is having the most fun and makes for a wickedly memorable villainess. Her dead seriousness mixed with cackling camp, makes you want to cheer for her despite the fact that she’s basically out to kill everyone. She also snares the lion’s share of the best dialogue. When Grant’s Lord D’Ampton asks her if she has any children, she coos “Only when there are no men around”. Just for the record, she does have a child, a literal boy scout! After picking up the doomed teenage hitchhiker during a rainstorm, she asks if he likes the blaring music on her car stereo. “I’m not really into head-banging” the boy sheepishly replies. “Are you into any kind of banging?” she seductively purrs before bringing him home for a memorable sponge bath. Sure, she’s not the kind of sparkly vampire our “Twilight” era Millennial’s are used to. But the sight of Donohoe topless, covered in blue body paint, wearing only a pointed “accessory” makes “Lair of the White Worm” a guilty pleasure that they will agree must be seen to be truly appreciated! Streaming now on YouTube, Prime Video, Google Play and Vudu.
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Greg Lewis is a pop culture and entertainment vulture. As a freelance writer living in LA, he’ll never run out of material, even if he runs out of Xanax.