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


  1. How come you get spammers and I don't?

  2. Even being turned into a vampire snake wouldn't keep me away from Amanda Donohoe's Sylvia.

  3. This looks like something for me to watch, I am really intrigued by the content of this post, so I will be checking this out by myself, thank you for posting this and letting us all know about it.

  4. Thanks for sharing the review in detail. The post is good and fun to read and I am sure it is very informative for many who follow.

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