In 2004, Franka Potente graced our shores for the slight but effective London Underground horror flick, Creep. In it her foreign PR gal is trapped in the tube system and becomes the chased-down prey of a psychoanalytical bogeyman. When watching 1972's Death Line, comparisons are inescapable. It, too, revolves around bods being picked off by a subhuman thing down in the darkness. At the time of Creep's release, its director Christopher Smith said in an interview, "There are similarities, but they are different, too." Looking at these provides a fair introduction for any fans of the genre.

So what are the similarities? Well, both find innocent "pavement walkers" braving the Underground during the night. Both see people venturing into areas of the veritable "rabbit warren" of tunnels and rooms around the tube system that everyday commuter folk are oblivious to. Both have a heroine (of sorts) who falls into the grisly man's nasty hands. Both go for a bit of gore when they can. Oh yeah - and both have conclusions that are so predictable that you really don't need a colour-coded map to work it out.

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The differences, then. On the poorer side, Death Line suffers from a fairly plodding script and wooden acting, which belie its small budget origins. It's also low on scares, but 30 years can make most things look tamer than they first were. The plot itself is membrane thin, not that Creep's wasn't, but where in 2004 the origins of the Creep were revealed slowly through some gruelling scenes, here, all exposition is spoon fed very early on.

While digging a tunnel in 1892, eight men and four women were buried alive under collapsed tunnel roofing. Bankruptcy forced the digging company to abandon the supposedly dead bodies, although some postulated that with pockets of air and enough water, survivors might be alright, as long as they ate each other when the food ran out - the film was also known as Raw Meat in the US.

It is, however, in this difference that Death Line finds its most idiosyncratic strength. Ceri Jones's script works hard to create tangible pity and sympathy for its flesh-eating monster. Known as The Man, Hugh Armstrong invests the character with a wailing anguish at being the only survivor left, grieving his partner's recent death and the blatant tragedy of his abandonment. The horror comes, not from The Man's freakish otherness, but the fact that he is recognisable, identifiable. That and the cannibalism and the long tracking shots of collective rotting corpses and body parts.

Sherman also experiments with minimal and atmospheric sound effects, isolating footstep echoes, dripping leaks and pounding heartbeats to cheap but mostly gritty use. Combined with Armstrong's embittered pre-lingual utterances, the film carries an undeniable visceral punch. It is not pure carnality that leads The Man to venture out to Holborn and Russell Street stations, but the voiceless rage at the confines of his predicament (which we know he had no choice over) and a deeper need to find another partner to be with and care for.

Such prowling brings Sharon (of Jason King) Gurney's Patricia to his arms. She is a sensitive young student, girlfriend to David Ladd's trying-to-be hunky American. With their humble topside abode just as cramped, cluttered and personalised as The Man's inherited lair, the film is able to rustle up some interesting comparisons to modern living.

Finally, holding everything together above ground is the indomitable Donald Pleasance. With spades more gruff than Morse, his Inspector Calhoun is ever more intent on solving wots 'bin goin on in iz manar! Pleasance is clearly revelling in the role and pushes his caustic and antagonistic copper as far as he can, his blase attitude to the crimes evolving as the film goes on and he gets more cups of tea. He brings narrative vim and a fair injection of humorous hubris to the proceedings, while Christopher Lee's cameo, as an intimidating MI5 agent, is entirely superfluous. He must have been doing the director a favour.

With "cult" written all over it, this could be a treat for discerning genre fans and is, in many ways, better than the CGI-elasto-plastered pulp that gets churned out every year.

Reviewed on: 18 Apr 2006
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Death Line packshot
Cult horror re-emerges after 30 years down the tube.
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Director: Gary Sherman

Writer: Ceri Jones

Starring: Donald Pleasence, Norman Rossington, David Ladd, Sharon Gurney, Hugh Armstrong, June Turner, Clive Swift, James Cossins, Christopher Lee

Year: 1972

Runtime: 87 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

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