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5. Death Line (1972), dir. Gary Sherman

I taped this film off of t'telly-box in my early teens, and remember thinking it was fantastic stuff at the time. Of course, not everything one likes at that age still appeals twenty years later - but I had fond enough memories of its Seventies charm and surprisingly sympathetic main 'monster' character to upgrade recently to a DVD copy. So when ms_siobhan invited me round recently for one of our Sunday afternoon horror film sessions, I took it along, and offered it up as a suitably silly bit of enjoyment.

By the end of the film, though, we all agreed that I'd done it an injustice. Sure, it's low-budget - but my teenage self had been right to think it was something a bit special. Like The Wicker Man or Witchfinder General, it is one of those films which gloriously transcends its own limitations. Certainly a cut above the standard cheesy, inept and formulaic horror flick which we were expecting anyway.

The plot explores the final tragic consequences of a roof-fall during the construction of a new London Underground station in the 1890s. It takes a while before the full story is revealed, but eventually we learn that a group of workers - both male and female - had become trapped when a tunnel collapsed, the company building responsible went bankrupt, and they were given up for dead. In fact, though, enough of them survived to develop their own culture deep underground - at first staying alive by eating their own dead companions, but eventually breaking through the roof-fall and preying instead on stray Underground passengers.

The story of the film begins in the (1970s) present day, by which time only two survivors are left - a man and a heavily-pregnant woman, both covered in sores and riddled with disease. She lies dying in their underground lair, while he desperately tries to keep her alive by capturing new victims and feeding her their blood. In most films, he would be straightforward scream-fodder. But although he is physically repulsive and capable of hideous violence, he is also portrayed as a very human character - ultimately the last victim of the tunnelling company's negligence, and profoundly affected by fear and grief as the woman who had been carrying his child finally dies.

One of the greatest strengths of the film is the attention paid to the fine details of the tunnel-dwellers' society. We see things like the care with which the man pours himself some lamp-oil from a storage tank, complete with a bowl placed carefully under the tap to catch and conserve every last drop. Or the funerary chamber where he lays out his now-dead companion, lined with row upon row of decaying corpses - a striking visual record of the previous generations who have lived and died in the tunnels since the original roof-fall. And, most touching of all, the way that he communicates only in grunts and cries - except for one single phrase which he has picked up, and imitates plaintively without knowing what it means: "Mind the doors!"

Meanwhile, up on the surface, all of this comes gradually to the attention of Donald Pleasence's character - an absolutely brilliant Sweeney-style cockney police inspector with a great line in sarky banter and an intellectually-challenged detective sergeant to vent it on. Since one of the victims who has gone missing from the tube is a government minister, he finds himself up against the condescending and obstructive forces of MI5, personified in the form of Christopher Lee, who orders Pleasence to keep his nose out. It sits very nicely alongside the story of the train company's abandonment of their workers back in the 1890s as another example of the establishment over-riding the interests of ordinary people - but this time, Pleasence's character won't let himself be shoved aside.

ms_siobhan was quite right to point out afterwards that by comparison with Pleasence's character, the young couple whose main function in the film is to fall victim to the tunnel-dwelling cannibal have pretty lame dialogue, and generally aren't anything like such well-developed characters. But still, even they are a little more than your standard cardboard cut-out hero and heroine. In fact, they break up part-way through the film because she gets so annoyed at his callous reaction to what appeared to be a dying man lying in an Underground station - not the usual trajectory for a romantic couple in a Seventies horror film. And besides, she has an awesome patchwork Afghan coat and yellow platform boots that I will forgive almost anything for!

There must be more films like this - little-known, under-rated numbers from the late '60s and early '70s which deliver far more than their budgets should have allowed them to. In fact, I guess tracking them down is what going to the Bradford Fantastic Film Weekend is all about. And if you see a few cheesy formula-flicks while finding your way to the hidden gems, then what have you lost? :-)

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( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 23rd, 2011 10:14 am (UTC)
It's one of the best films I've seen in ages - and I don't mean that in a so bad it was good kind of way but in a *it was* really good kind of way. I especially enjoyed Donald (Un)Pleasant being drunk in the pub and it did genuinely make all 3 of us jump at one point.

Another lemon drizzle cake is in the oven as all being well my folks arrive later :-)
Apr. 23rd, 2011 10:56 am (UTC)
Indeed! Turns out my early-teenage self had pretty good taste after all. Who knew? ;-)

Hope you have a lovely weekend with your family, and as I said on FB - lucky them for getting to gorge on your delicious lemon drizzle cake. :-)
Apr. 23rd, 2011 12:53 pm (UTC)
Wow. I can't believe I never heard of this. It sounds right up my alley (or down my tunnel).
Apr. 23rd, 2011 03:45 pm (UTC)
It definitely isn't as widely-known as it deserves to be, but if you're a fan of the classier low-budget British horror movie you can be sure you'll enjoy it. In case of potential confusion, it was released in the US as Raw Meat - but my Region 2 copy is labelled Death Line, so that's unlikely to mislead you too badly.
Apr. 23rd, 2011 04:04 pm (UTC)
I'm also in region two. Great! And thanks for the recommendation...
May. 2nd, 2011 05:07 pm (UTC)
I saw this at the NFT a couple of years ago and thought it was entertaining but thoroughly silly. You make a good case for it, however! (It was shown as a double bill with what's left of The Web of Fear).
May. 2nd, 2011 10:47 pm (UTC)
I guess what makes me hesitate to call this film 'silly' is that most of the humour in it is intentional (mainly springing from Donald Pleasence's dialogue), while at the same time the main horror plot is tolerably plausible and really quite moving. It certainly lifts itself above your typically inept low-budget horror flick, anyway - I think mainly by treating its monster as a tragic figure rather than a straightforward baddie.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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