Monday, April 17, 2017

Colossal (2016)

I think most of my readers have surmised that I take giant monsters very seriously. This is not to say that I can't laugh at them--far from it--but I tend to distrust non-fans who laugh at giant monsters.

After all, they tend to laugh at them for the wrong reasons.

For starters, let's put aside the outright racism of telling someone I love Godzilla, only for them to put on their best Mickey Rooney accent and say, "Run, it's Go-Zira!" (To paraphrase the 1998 film, "It's Gojira, you morons!") As I've opined in the past, most folks immediately react to the mention of Godzilla by mocking the "cheap" special effects and bad dubbing, which is just plain lazy. Not only does everyone make that joke, but that leaves so much more material to be mined.

And no, I don't mean the racism that people usually go for instead.

At any rate, mocking Godzilla films for being cheap because they use a guy in a rubber suit--something that has never caused anyone to mock the Alien or Predator franchises--is a great way to get on my bad side. So you can imagine my great annoyance when director Nacho Vigalondo, best known for Timecrimes, announced in 2015 that he was going to make a kaiju movie and, in his own words:
"It's going to be the cheapest Godzilla movie ever, I promise. It’s going to be a serious Godzilla movie but I’ve got an idea that’s going to make it so cheap that you will feel betrayed.”
Yes, you read that right: he called it the cheapest Godzilla movie.

You might think Vigalondo was merely using a brand name in place of an object, like saying "Kleenex" when you mean "tissue." However, that is not the case. For when it came time to shop the movie around at Cannes, with Anne Hathaway already attached, it was being sold by literally claiming Godzilla was in it! Right down to using official images from the 2014 film in press releases and, even more shamelessly, displaying a poster that featured Godzilla and Mazinger Z facing off in Tokyo!

"Damn, that's ballsy." --The Asylum
I'm sure you're shocked that Toho sued. Even though I had found the film's premise intriguing, this entire boondoggle soured me on the enterprise since it seemed like an elaborate publicity stunt with no genuine sentiment behind it.

So imagine my surprise when the film was actually completed and started getting positive buzz at the festivals. Alas, that was largely where the buzz stayed because the film did not have a wide release scheduled--not even near me, in Chicago!

Luckily, however, it finally crept into a local theater and I was able to see it. Finally, I could see if I was right to be distrustful of a cynical publicity stunt or if the positive reviews were right on the money.

We open in Seoul, South Korea about 25 years ago. A young girl and her mother are searching a park for the girl's doll when lightning comes down from the sky in a strange arc. Even stranger, this is followed by the shadowy outline of a giant horned beast standing among the nearby buildings. The girl screams in terror...

And we return to the present, as sometimes freelance writer, Gloria (Anne Hathaway) sneaks into the New York apartment she shares withe her boyfriend, Tim (Dan Stevens). She spins a long yarn to him about why she is sneaking in after seemingly being gone all night, but the end result is the same: they both know she was out drinking and partying. This is clearly a dance they've done for a while now, especially since Gloria lost her regular job recently.

Tim has had enough, though. He has packed her things and doesn't want her to be there when he gets back from work.

Well, not having any other options--since it seems her only friends are the ones who just like to party with her--Gloria moves back to her hometown. Her parents apparently still own her (gigantic) childhood house, but they no longer live there and it's empty of any furnishings. So, in an effort to settle in, she goes to buy an air mattress.

Finally, a movie that tackles the problems of attractive, inexplicably affluent white people.
Lugging the bag back home, Gloria encounters her childhood friend, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) driving to his work. After a brief exchange about how he can't believe she's back, he offers her a ride to his place of business: the bar his dad used to run. Despite Oscar having established he has followed Gloria's social media life since she left town, Gloria is shocked to find out his father passed away--and then turns out to not even remember that she attended his mother's funeral.

At the bar, Gloria sees that Oscar has tried to make the bar his own--stripping it of the Country & Western theme his dad used. He did this to bring in more people, but it doesn't seem to have worked. Instead of giving it what he calls a "vibe", it just seems dull. In fact, about his only patrons are his friend, Garth (Tim Blake Nelson) and...okay, I don't actually know how the fuck Joel (Austin Stowell) fits into the dynamic. He seems to be much younger than the others and he's not an employee of Oscar's, but he hangs out after close with Oscar, Garth, and Gloria just the same. Maybe he's Garth's friend.

Whoever Joel is, even Gloria is shocked at how much Oscar explodes when Joel misreads her cues and tries to kiss her. Gloria had already set the boy straight, so Oscar threatening to kick his ass seems pretty excessive.

It's morning when Gloria makes her way back home, lugging her air mattress, and she cuts through a school playground on her way home. And then she promptly falls asleep after opening the air mattress, only to wake up with a stuff neck hours later and get a phone call from her sister to check the news online: a giant monster has appeared in Seoul, killed hundreds, and then mysteriously vanished into thin air.

Gloria watches multiple social media videos of the creature's rampage. The beast, which looks rather like a scrawny version of Pulgasari, fittingly enough, just strolls casually through the city in a straight line until it vanishes in a puff of electricity and smoke. Curiously, though Gloria won't make anything of it at this time, the beast is walking as though it was carrying an invisible load over its shoulder.

"Hi there! I have been expertly designed to avoid any possible lawsuits from Toho studios!"
In a state of shock at what she is seeing, Gloria calls Tim. However, he's less than helpful since he just points out that the attack happened at 8:05AM their time so it's hours in the past, before he then berates her still staying out all night partying instead of working on self-improvement. Luckily, she has an easy out from that conversation because Oscar has just mysteriously showed up with a huge TV for her.

Oscar tells her they talked about it last night, but she mysteriously does not remember. However, she isn't about to turn down a free TV even as bizarre as its appearance may be. Later that evening, Oscar's bar is packed with patrons watching the replay of the monster footage on the bar's projection TV. After mentioning the creature was sighted 25 years ago, but written off as a hoax at that time, Oscar casually points out how it always seems to work this way--seeing something this horrible happening across the world and just being glad you get to just watch it on TV.

"Really makes you think about how to solve your own problems, doesn't it?"
It's good for business, though, so Oscar is not so heartbroken when the monster appears again in the exact same place at the exact same time the next day, though the fact that nobody is injured this time allows him some extra moral distance. Oscar shows up at Gloria's house this time to tell her he offered her a job at the bar the night before after she revealed the real story of why she was back in town--which she previously avoided discussing directly--and he offered her a job at the bar. Drunk Gloria said yes to that, and hungover Gloria decides to honor that, especially when has Joel help him deliver her a futon just in time to save her from a deflated air mattress.

However, she also notices something strange about the way the monster behaves in this second appearance. At 8:05AM Gloria had been at the playground arguing with Tim over the phone, and the monster's strange gestures sure seem to resemble those she made--right down to scratching the top of its head in the way she does when she's agitated.

"Yes, I'd like to speak to my agent. I was told this would be an art film!"
Surely what Gloria thinks she saw can't be possible, so she decides to test it at 8:05AM the next morning. After mapping out the closest approximation of which parts on Seoul are represented by which sections of the playground, she stands there and makes a series of hand gestures.

Over in Seoul, the creature makes the exact same gestures.

Well, that's either a huge coincidence or she is somehow controlling a monster. So the only thing for it is to say, "Hold my beer and watch this." After another night of drinking in the bar, she has Oscar, Garth, and Joel follow her to the playground and reveals, via dancing like a goofball, that she is the monster.

Actually, that's not shocking: Korea has been subjected to the horror of dancing kaiju before.
The others are, naturally, astonished. Everyone is having a little too much fun with all of this until the Korean military starts shooting at the monster--and Gloria feels it. Well, it doesn't hurt her much, but she's drunk and starts swinging her fists wildly until she hits a helicopter and it crashes into the monster's forehead.

"Aw, man, I just polished my horns!"
When it dawns on Gloria that helicopters have pilots, she suddenly remembers that the monster killed hundreds in its initial appearance. Suddenly, making a kaiju do a silly dance in a densely populated city isn't fun any more and she panics, trying to figure out how to safely extricate herself from the playground/Seoul as Oscar tries to calm her down.

Unfortunately, she trips and falls.

When she wakes up on her futon, Oscar walks in with the newspaper. Gloria, panicked, demands to know how many she killed. Oscar is reluctant to tell her, but finally reveals that things didn't really play out the way she or anyone expected. As the newspaper headline states, the monster was not alone--and the accompanying photo reveals that it was mysteriously joined by a giant robot.

A giant robot right where Oscar was standing.

Oscar thinks it was awesome, but Gloria wants no part of this any more. Oscar knows a Korean barbecue proprietor nearby and at her request he has the man translate some phrases into hangul. This is one of the few glimpses into the horror Gloria has caused here, as she sees the proprietor and his wife holding each other while staring forlornly at a TV screen next to a sign asking for donations to help Seoul.

In monster form, Gloria carves the hangul message into the payment, apologizing for her actions and swearing it will not happen again. the world at large is astounded and begins to regard the monster as an intelligent hero of some sort.

On a whim, Gloria closes the night by going home with Joel for a one night stand. As she tries to make her escape in the morning, however, she sees that the robot has reappeared in Seoul and is gingerly walking around in order to terrorize the business district but trying not to squash anyone. Desperate to stop him, Gloria has Joel drive her to the playground. When Oscar, jealous and mad with power, refuses to leave she walks onto the playground and slaps him before ordering him out of the area.

In Seoul, this means the monster orders the robot away and everyone hails the kaiju as a hero and starts making memes of the slap. Oscar, however, laughs a little too much at the memes. He also suddenly turns cruel, ordering Gloria around more than necessary and mocking Garth for being a recovering junkie. When Gloria refuses to have a beer, since she has sworn off alcohol on account of the danger she represents when drunk, Oscar gets even angrier.

Not only does he drive home drunk--which Joel does nothing to stop--but he returns to the playground. A scuffle ensues between him and Gloria, but despite Oscar eventually giving up and going home--to the cheers of nearby people watching on their TVs.

They won't be cheering for long, however, Oscar has accepted that he's the villain and he also knows that that role carries a lot of power. More importantly, it carries power over Gloria. Oscar knows she will do whatever he wants, because if she doesn't a giant robot is going to kill hundred and maybe thousands of innocent people...

"I had this horrible nightmare: I was hosting the Oscars and my co-host was so stoned I had to carry the whole show!"
There's one thing I have to address right off the bat: my half-Korean fiancee went to see this movie with me and as the credits rolled and we exited the theater, she made it clear in no uncertain terms that she hated it. It isn't hard to see why that is, if you've been paying attention to my synopsis. Notice how many named characters I mentioned who are Korean.

That's right, I didn't mention any.

This is a film about well-off white people having problems that need the horrific deaths of multiple faceless people of color in order to improve themselves. There is exactly one speaking role for a Korean person in the film after the prologue and she's a bartender who is just there to immediately start to talk to our heroine about her problems instead of the devastation her city has suffered up to that point.

Oh, yes, did I mention this is the kind of movie where the supposedly broke main character can easily book a flight to Seoul? Between that and the gigantic house she spends most of the movie in, Anne Hathaway has to work overtime to make the audience care about Gloria's plight.

Well, until Oscar really shows his true colors, of course. But we'll get to that.

So, yes, there is no question this movie has a core concept that is based on some seriously racist concepts. I could get past that a lot easier if the film had something to say about that, but the film pays only the slightest lip service to that. Hell, when it's eventually revealed why the monster and robot have to be attacking Seoul instead of London or Seattle, it just goes to show there's not really a good reason at all. Maybe if Gloria was a Korean-American woman, this film would have had much more to say.

That said, I did not hate this movie. In fact, I liked it quite a bit.

Don't get me wrong, this movie is very flawed. Beyond the inadvertent racism and hilariously mistaken idea of what "broke" looks like, it has some serious story issues. For one thing, Joel adds nothing to the story beyond the effect his relationship with Gloria has on Oscar, and yet the film gives us a moment with him at the end that was utterly unnecessary. Nobody gives a shit about Joel!

Second, it's a magical realism story that feels the need to "explain" the source of its magic--and that explanation is entirely unnecessary and adds nothing beyond revealing that Oscar was always a bitter asshole.

That's especially frustrating because of what the movie does so right with Oscar. Oscar doesn't wear a fedora and we almost never see him near a computer, but he is unquestionably the sort of guy who would whine on a message board about how life has been so unfair to him because he's such a nice guy. He clearly feels he deserves Gloria, and when we see the hoarded mess that is his home it's not shocking to see he still has pictures of his ex around with her face scratched out.

The kind of entitlement and desire for power isn't born just from being a hateful person or self-loathing. That's simplifying it far too much, when Oscar feels so real in all other aspects. Jason Sudeikis is not an actor I would have expected to be a convincing and disturbing villain, but he very much is and I suspect any woman who has dealt with an abusive male partner or friend will see his heel turn coming the moment he brings Gloria that first gift of the TV.

He's so horrible I'm sure there's already a Reddit thread of GamerGaters declaring him the hero.
Oscar isn't a cartoon villain: he's a very real threat that way too many women, men, and intersex individuals will face at some point in their lives. Having him appear in a movie with a dancing kaiju just emphasizes his threat all the more.

As for Gloria, Anne Hathaway is also really great. That's not very surprising, since I've loved Hathaway as an actress for a long while, but she really nails the awkward dance this role calls for her to perform, and I don't just mean on the playground. Hathaway is a goofy fuck-up one minute and the horrifyingly tragic face of a trapped woman. She manages to sell watching a grown man stomping on wood mulch in front of her as the deaths of hundreds that she is helpless to stop.

I suppose one could argue White Feminism and Toxic Masculinity are the real monsters in this movie, but I'm not sure the filmmakers realized they were showcasing the former.

And that brings us to the monster action. If you loved the hilarious cut-away from Godzilla roaring at the male MUTO to the hero's son watching it on TV, as I did, then you're in luck: that's basically this entire movie! When Nacho Vigalondo promised the film would be "so cheap that you will feel betrayed," it turns out he didn't mean that he was going to do a super cheap monster suit and deliberately bad miniatures.

And all the Death Kappa fans are crushed.
No, he meant he was going to make a monster movie that wasn't about the monster at all. People who whined that Godzilla didn't have enough screen time in the 2014 film are not going to be super pleased with this film. Most of the shots we get of the giant monster and the robot are rendered pretty well--though honestly I wish Vigalondo had had the guts to follow through on the man in a suit promise--but the giant beasts are mainly seen through various smaller screens and we certainly never see the entirety of their rampages.

And if you're going to this movie because I told you that a monster and a robot fight more than once, well, I hope you like that slap because that is all that we see of the monster vs. robot fights. The rest of it is just Hathaway and Sudeikis on the playground, with the sound effects of destruction added over it. It's an effective gimmick--even if it renders the faceless victims even more faceless--but Pacific Rim it ain't.

Then again, that isn't really the point, is it? This is about the characters, not the monsters. And whatever else can be said about this film, it delivers on the characters.

Except for Joel. Fuck Joel.

He even manages to have to stupidest jacket in this picture. Fucking Joel.
On the whole, while it's a rather unique take on the giant monster genre, it's far from original as many critics would love to declare it to be. Applying toxic masculinity to the formula is pretty novel in its own right, but I'm pretty sure "ordinary person finds themselves unwittingly controlling a kaiju" is an entire subgenre of Ultraman episodes alone.

Calling it an "Instant Classic" is also quite a stretch. I think this is a good movie that I enjoyed quite a bit--I particularly liked the ending punchline, I have to say--but I've already seen much better genre fare this year alone in films like Get Out and Kong: Skull Island.

Bottom line, if this ends up showing near you, it's worth a look. I can't see it having much rewatch value, but I'm glad I saw it once. Considering the positive buzz it's getting, ui suspect most fo my readers would feel the same way.

Though I certainly wouldn't recommend pre-ordering that signed Blu-ray that comes with a statue of the monster, unless you just really want that statue.

To be fair, it is a sweet statue.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Lair of the White Worm (1988) [Russelmania]

I believe I have previously mentioned that when it comes to religion, I don't partake. However, the few times I have been tempted to, of my own volition, always involved pagan religions. I once pondered Druidism, for example, but ultimately decided that--like any religion--it just had too many rules to follow.

I'm also very fond of reptiles, so snake-based religions are always going to have my sympathy.
This is especially so when they come into conflict with Christianity--a religion so tainted by its false practitioners that it's hard for me to separate it from the actual tenets, most of which I can actually get behind.

The trouble, of course, is that the snake worshipers lost long ago. So whenever pop culture pits the two against each other, guess who's going to be playing the villain? However, as many actors will tell you, being the villain is often the most fun role you can play.

And when you're the villain in a film by Ken Russell, based on a novel that Bram Stoker wrote as he was thought to be dying of syphilis, well--you're definitely going to have a blast.

Considering he probably didn't expect to find very much of interest beyond a few Roman coins while digging in a field behind the Derbyshire bed and breakfast, you can understand why Scottish archaeology grad student Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi!) lets out an excited whoop when he uncovers a strange skull. His cry brings the owners of the farm, sisters Mary (Sammi Davis) and Eve Trent (Catherine Oxenberg) running to his aid, though their "alarm" is pretty playful.

Angus is understandably bewildered by the skull, which he found only a lair below the ruins of convent from 1066.  He has no clue what it is, though he can be sure it's not a dinosaur--not only is not a fossil, but the skull only dates back to the Roman occupation, and they weren't known for keeping pet carnosaurs.

He won't make the connection yet, but it looks like a snake skull--though it's far bigger than any snake that was ever thought to live in England.

"I can get so much for this on eBay!"
Angus has barely had time to clean any dirt off the skull before Mary tells him that they're all invited to the annual shindig at the D'Ampton estate. And what a shindig it is!

See, the D'Ampton family have a proud tradition because an ancestor, Sir John, is a local legend. As an absolutely delightful folk rock song tells us, Sir John was responsible for slaying a serpent known as the D'Ampton Worm. And to my delight, the D'Ampton Worm is a real legend, known actually as the Lambton Worm*--and the song lyrics are a slightly modified version of the actual folk song that recounts the tale of how Sir John discovered the worm while fishing and threw it in a well, only for it to grow to monstrous size and go on a rampage until Sir John cut it in halves with his sword.

[* I'm honestly not sure why they couldn't just use the Lambton worm, unless it was a concern of the legend being too well-known to easily fit the narrative in the way its alternate here does. However, looking up the legend did allow me to learn that screenwriter Anthony Shaffer wrote a sequel to The Wicker Man that would have involved Sgt. Howie facing off against the Lambton Worm! It seems like an utterly bonkers concept and I'm sad it was never made now. based on what I hear, it would have been fair preferable to the director Robin Hardy's much later sequel, The Wicker Tree]

Well, the D'Ampton household has recently passed to young Lord James D'Ampton (Hugh Grant!), who takes great delight in dancing with Eve and then delights the revelers by slaying a worm portrayed by the maid staff in a costume, as it snaps at the playfully "terrified" Eve.

Well, I know the theme for my next birthday party.
Angus and James make each other's acquaintance and discuss the skull, which James half-jokingly assumes must belong to the D'Ampton worm. Angus scoffs at first, but James points out that "worm" in this case is actually derived from "wyrm" and means something like a dragon--and then James advises Angus that the dish he's heartily devouring are pickled earthworms. This seems slightly unlikely, but it's possible James just felt like getting a dig in at the poor Scot.

On the way home through a grove, Mary tells Angus about how their parents disappeared a year ago in the same grove. It was a path they had used coming home from the pub many times, and yet somehow this time it resulted in them vanishing mysteriously. She then casually mentions her previous boyfriend dying, which Angus uses as the cue to kiss her.

Only a mysterious car driving past to the gate to the nearby Temple House distracts them. Angus thinks nothing of it, but Mary is disturbed. So much so that she insists the car didn't have its headlights on when it plainly did.

However, she's in for a bigger shock when she gets home. Since Eve chose to stay over night with James--the two being somewhat flirty best friends--Mary and Angus are the first home, and find local constable Ernie (Paul Brooke, best known as the Rancor Keeper in Return of the Jedi) waiting with some new evidence: her father's watch, which was found in Stonerich Cavern. With a new lead, they'll be starting up the search again the next day. Mary mentions seeing the strange car, so Ernie says he'll stop and check it out on the way back to the station.

Well, Ernie finds that someone is wandering around inside the darkened Temple House with a lantern, but his attempt to call for backup is waylaid because the other constable is a doofus who can't make it out there because his bicycle pump is broken. (The voice on the radio is director Ken Russell) Then poor Ernie manages to get himself bitten on the ankle by a snake that never shows itself. Luckily for Ernie, the prowler appears and turns out to be the rightful owner of the house, Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), dressed in a hilariously garish manner. She corrects Ernie when he refers to having been "stung" by a snake, since snakes bite and bees sting, but she takes him inside at least. There, set to a sultry saxophone, she pulls the old "suck out the poison" method on his ankle that I have previously mocked. Note that she does not spit the poison blood out, however.

Was she at a cosplay convention?
After some jovial conversation, she learns from Ernie that it was one of the Trent girls who reported her--since the car was new and Sylvia wasn't expected back so early in the season. She also learns that the search for the girls' parents will be resuming after the watch was found.

Sylvia pays a visit to the Trent farm in the morning, but no one is in. After briefly snooping around, she finds the skull of the snake that Angus found and absconds with it. However, on her way out she sprouts fangs and expectorates a large quantity of venom over the crucifix on the wall. Eve and James return to the farm, just missing Sylvia.

Eve is rather distraught when she sees her father's watch on the table and the note that her sister and Angus have joined the search party. It's too late to follow them, so she says she's going to go lie down upstairs while James says he wants to go poke around at Angus's dig site--both out of concern as the local landlord and out of genuine curiosity. Unfortunately, Eve notices the soiled crucifix on the wall and goes to wipe away the venom with her fingers--which results in her passing out and having a vivid nightmare of herself as a nun in an ancient convent.

A convent that suddenly finds its live Jesus on the cross (!) wrapped in the coils of an immense white serpent, which begins gnawing at his flesh while roaring-and then cartoon flames surround the nuns as a familiar-looking snake woman cackles from the flames and Roman soldiers rush in to rape and murder the nuns. It's a pretty bad trip.

Titanoboa vs. Jesus, coming this Fall on SyFy!
James finds Eve muttering to herself and carefully leads her down the stairs. She can't remember what happened, until James notes that the watch hands have somehow twisted into a snake shape. Eve raves about seeign a snake coiled around a cross and James asks if it was white, like the one in the pit outside. Eve is confused but James coaxes her outside to show her that Angus must have uncovered a mosaic depicting a white serpent on a cross since she was home last. It matches her hallucination pretty closely, but when James asks to see the skull the two discover that it's missing.

Angus and Mary return, crestfallen and dirty, to find Eve and James rifling through Angus's room. James rather rudely excuses himself after it's established the skull has apparently been stolen and he can tell the search did not go well.

Meanwhile, Sylvia casually picks up a teenage boy scout named Kevin (Chris Pitt) who is trying to hitchhike back to his youth hostel in the pouring rain. He doesn't pick up on her incredibly unsubtle innuendoes as she offers to take him back to her house to get warmed up. Even as she plays Snakes & Ladders with the lad in her underwear, he doesn't get the hint until she draws him a nice bath and begins to scrub his body. He begins to get the hint when she asks him to stand up--but then she breaks her promise not to bite him, sprouting fangs and biting him in a, uh, sensitive region.

Kevin is instantly paralyzed by her venom, which she explains to him with great glee. She also mentions that he is going to be fed to her god, the great Dionin--and she stands on the edge of the huge tub, holding the skull above her head to emphasize her words...

"Can you believe the steal I got on this on eBay?"
...only for the doorbell to ring. Her irritated, "Shit," when her grand speech is interrupted is delightful. Taking no chances, she pushes the helpless Kevin down into the tub with her foot so he is both hidden and drowns. The guest at the door turns out to be James, in his military uniform. He advises he heard about Ernie and came to follow up with Sylvia and make sure she is doing well.

Sylvia proves to be delightfully charming and extremely bizarre. She makes innuendo at James, quotes Oscar Wilde to his confusion when referencing the way the Trent girls became orphans, and then pretends to have a meltdown due to a fear of snakes. When james asks why she plays Snakes & Ladders if she's afraid of snakes, she artfully throws the board into her fireplace and mutters, "Rosebud," to herself. It's all incredibly silly, very odd, and inexplicably endearing.

Certainly James is intrigued and asks if he can see her again before she kisses him, and then he takes his leave. Before bed, James calls Mary to make sure Eve is doing well, and after he determines she is--while watching a silent movie involving a very snake-like caterpillar becoming a butterfly--he wishes her a good night. As he falls asleep, he glances at the painting of Sir John D'Ampton slaying the worm...

"Was it something I said?"
...and then he dreams he is in the painting. As he walks into the cave in the painting, he finds himself boarding an airplane. An airplane where the flight attendants are Sylvia, Eve, and Mary--and his fellow passengers are the missing Trents, Joe (Christopher Gable) and Dorothy (Imogen Claire). The two look catatonic as Sylvia pours what appear to be drugged drinks into their mouths. James settles in with a red pen and a newspaper. Just as he discovers that the connect-the-dots on his crossword puzzle forms a serpent, he realizes he is strapped down and Sylvia is laughing evilly as she goes to make him drink the same concoction.

However, Eve grabs Sylvia by the hand to stop her and the two fight. his fight quickly devolves into a wrestling match, and Russell decides to get subtle on us as James watches the fight with a stone face and the red pen on his lap begins to point higher and higher...

I think this is telling me something, but gosh I just can't figure it out!
Then the fight abruptly ends and James watches as Joe Trent gets up and walks out of the plane, as if mesmerized. And then James follows, finding himself in Stonerich Cavern, and picking the glowing watch off of the cave floor.

Unfortunately, James is woken by his butler Peters (Stratford Johns) bringing him breakfast. When Peters hands his boss the latest paper, James notices that the photo of Stonerich Cavern looks an awful lot like the cave in the D'Ampton Worm painting. Peters advises that it isn't too surprising, given that the cave was the legendary lair of the D'Ampton Worm. James is surprised, since he somehow missed that part of the legend over the years.

Combined with his dream, James decides to drag the reluctant Angus, Mary, and Eve to Stonerich Cavern on a hunch. After Angus shows him the only thing they found on the last trip--an ancient cave painting depicting hermaphrodites as part of a ritual--James decides explain his pet hunch to the others:

The D'Ampton Worm is real and somehow survived being bisected by Sir John D'Ampton, and is hiding somewhere in the cave. He thinks that the watch was passed through the beast's gullet, undigested, after it swallowed the late Mr. Trent. The others are horrified and bewildered in equal measure. Eve, having had enough, decides to walk back home on her own to tend to duties at the bed and breakfast.

Except she doesn't get there. Sylvia is waiting in a tree and spins a yarn about having gotten stuck after trying to rescue a kitten. When Eve helps her down, Sylvia mesmerizes the poor girl and abducts her. Back at Temple House, after lounging naked in her own tanning bed, Sylvia orders Eve to disrobe while she explains a few things to her victim.

First, Sylvia is much, much older than she appears. Old enough to have seen that reincarnation is a very real thing and she met Eve once before--as a nun belonging to an order who build a convent on top of Sylvia's sacred temple to Dionin despite her warnings. Second, Sylvia has never gotten over this particular transgression. Third, she knows Eve is a virgin--and she tests this with the carved ivory phallus from her mantelpiece just to make sure--and Sylvia's God is just as fond of virgins as Eve's is.

Well, except ol' Dionin prefers to eat virgins rather than marry them.

Sylvia orders Eve to call her sister and say she is going away for a few days to London to get away from it all. It almost works, but Eve sees the crucifix ring she always wears and it breaks the spell long enough for her to yell a warning to her sister about Dionin. Sylvia repays that insolence with a face full of hallucinogenic venom and Eve passes out to dream of being impaled on phallic spears.

"Today on The 700 Club..."
At the Trent farm, Mary shares what she heard. Angus recognizes the name Dionin as belonging to the god of a snake cult and James remembers Eve muttering it after he found her on the stairs. Sicne the railway station confirms they never saw Eve and none of her things are missing, it's pretty obvious she's been kidnapped. James even thinks he knows who did it and he formulates a truly silly plan.

Obviously Lady Marsh's return is connected to all this weirdness, and he deduces she must belong to the Dionin cult and potentially took on some characteristics of snakes herself. So all he needs to do is blare a recording of snake charmer music and it will draw Sylvia out of her house so Angus and Mary can sneak in. If you aren't laughing uproariously at the fact that this plan works, despite the fact that that isn't how snake charming works at all, then you must be dead inside.

I don't know what's funnier: the snake basket she hangs out in or the inflatable T-Rexes she keeps as decor.
Well, it works to a fault. After Sylvia slinks outside, Angus and Mary sneak into the castle and find Dorothy transfixed by a recording of a snake dancer. Mary is so excited to be reunited with her mother--until Dorothy sprouts fangs and bites her on the neck. Angus manages to drive Dorothy off, but only quickly sucking the poison from Mary's wound saves her from following her mother's fate. Though the hallucination she suffers of being impaled by a gang of snake men wearing carved penises isn't very pleasant.

Angus calls to warn James that Sylvia's venom can turn other people into snake vampires, but it's a bit too late. The power is cut off and Peters is killed. Only quick thinking on James's part allows him to grab a huge honking sword and slice Dorothy in half when she charges at him. Hilariously the momentum of his swing causes him to crash into a drum set nearby. Dorothy's two halves are still trying to get at James when he calls Angus back and the record that contained the music has been snatched from the turntable.

Together Angus and James form a plan. Well, sort of, since they actually manage to form it independently but toward the same goal. Angus will storm Temple House armed with bagpipes (to do his own snake charming, you see), a live mongoose, and a hand grenade to rescue Eve and stop Sylvia. James, meanwhile, will lead a crew into Stonerich Cavern to smoke the D'Ampton Worm out with gas.

Unfortunately, neither of them anticipated that Sylvia had already turned Ernie to her side and after he lures Mary to Temple House, things become a lot more complicated. Especially when our heroes learn what's living in Sylvia's basement...

"Dionin demands mice!"
The popular opinion on The Lair of The White Worm is divisive, to say the least. Then again this is basically true of most of Ken Russell's filmography, of course, but of my limited experience with Russell's filmography, this is unquestionably his most accessible film to the average viewer.

And frankly, this film is a hoot.

There are most definitely moments that make it hard to recommend, of course. As I alluded to before, the hallucinations that Sylvia's venom bring on invoke a lot of extremely brutal rape imagery--though at least it's tough to accuse this film of treating rape as titillating instead of horrifying. These scenes especially stand out as shocking because the rest of the film has such a playful, silly attitude to it.

However, the overall film is a delightful romp. It's unquestionably a horror movie, rather than an out-and-out horror comedy, but it's clearly not afraid to be deliberately silly. Not only with the snake charming bit, but Russell also seems to be pulling the other one with a lot of the film's religious aspects, too.

Russell is no stranger to casual blasphemy, certainly, and he seems tempted to side with Lady Sylvia. (As do I) But he ultimately portrays her as equally silly in her beliefs, particularly since she seems to believe that Dionin was the serpent in the Garden of Eden while also decrying his treatment by "the False God." Russell seems to view this clash of ideologies as two buffoons of different sorts striking at each other.

Buffoon or not, though, the casting of Amanda Donohoe as Lady Sylvia is inspired. She embraces the role with infectious enthusiasm, and she seems to be having the time of her life. Russell's first choice was apparently Tilda Swinton, but it's clearly for the best that she turned it down because she could never have done the role the same justice that Donohoe does. She is menacing when she needs to be and utterly charming in all other scenes.

When will we ever realize the true danger of tanning beds?
Certainly not many actresses could have seemed dignified and intimidating when half naked, covered in body paint, and wearing a scaly swim cap and a screw-on ivory dildo.

In case it wasn't already obvious, this is definitely not a film to watch with the family.

There are definite weak points to the film. Whether because they're underwritten or due to the limitations of the actresses, Mary and Eve come off as wooden and unnatural virtually every time they're on screen; the film's score is often way too melodramatic even when it isn't trying to be; and the big reveal of the titular White Worm is pretty anticlimactic since it's a largely immobile puppet in a hole that can't do anything but roar and that gets dispatched in the laziest way maybe all of two minutes after it first appears.

No, I changed my mind, now I know the theme of my next birthday party.
As a monster fan, there is almost nothing more disappointing than a monster that barely shows up and goes out like a punk, so that almost soured me on the whole enterprise when I first saw it. However, over the years I've come to find the abrupt resolution kind of hilarious in its own right. And it's hard to fault the film for that when it follows that up with a stinger ending that's outright hilarious instead of merely obligatory.

There's nothing particularly revolutionary about this film, and yet it's hard to imagine any other film quite like it. So, if you enjoy a good atypical vampire story, then The Lair of the White Worm is definitely right for you. If nothing else, you can't help be entertained every time Amanda Donohoe is on screen.

This has been my (late) entry for the Celluloid Zeroes Roundtable of Ken Russell's filmography, just in time for Wrestlemania!

Checkpoint Telstar was possessed by The Devils

Cinemasochist Apocalypse went through a Gothic phase

Micro-Brewed Reviews got heavy with some Altered States

Web of the Big Damned Spider went on a date with The Boy Friend