Lair Of The White Worm


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Lair Of The White Worm
"As with so much of Russell's work, the film is let down by atrocious editing and tries to excuse its own failures with a desperate humour that only sometimes works."

We all make mistakes when we're young.

Bram Stoker doesn't have that excuse. He was 63 when he wrote The Lair Of The White Worm, a year before his death and at a point where his thinking may have been disordered by the influence of syphilis. Peter Capaldi, however, was 30 and at a very early stage in his career, whilst Hugh Grant was 28 and had only had one major screen role. Both were excited at the prospect of appearing in a Ken Russell film, which was, at least, a guarantee of getting noticed - but this is far from Russell's finest work.

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Capaldi plays young archaeologist Angus (he's Scottish, you see), who is visiting a village in England to dig holes in people's back gardens. In his search for ancient artefacts he has acquired the assistance of local sisters Eve (Catherine Oxenburg) and Mary (Sammi Davis), who speak as if they were in a school play. They introduce him to local aristocrat Lord James D'Ampton (Grant), whose ancestor supposedly fought off a giant worm that ravaged the countryside. Meanwhile another aristocrat, the unreliably clad Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe) has returned to the area after a period of absence, and she takes a peculiar interest in a giant snake skull Angus has unearthed.

Of the five of them, Donohoe is the only one who really knows what she's doing, throwing herself into the role with real gusto, whether she's nibbling on a boy scout in a hot tub or lounging on a sun bed threatening a hypnotised captive with an elaborately carved wooden dildo. Her mastery of camp makes her an appealing villain, and Grant comes alive in their scenes together. Though uneven, his performance is redeemed by containing just the right degree of smugness throughout. Capaldi isn't quite ready to compete with this but is likeable enough as, essentially, the straight man.

Along the way, we are treated to Russell-staple images of Christ on the cross (with a giant snake, or course), sexual fantasies involving air hostesses, and fanged policemen battling bagpipes. There's no shortage of imagination on display and a lot of the jokes do hit home, but coherence is sadly lacking.

As with so much of Russell's work, the film is let down by atrocious editing and tries to excuse its own failures with a desperate humour that only sometimes works. That it's actually an entertaining watch is mostly accidental. If you like monster movies and can deal with awful BBC TV style special effects, if you like the thought of Donohoe writhing around in blue body paint or if, just once, you'd like to see a Grant character get his comeuppance, you'll probably enjoy this. Just don't expect it to be good.

Reviewed on: 29 Aug 2014
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An archaeologist discovers that an ancient snake cult may not be as dead as he thought.
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Director: Ken Russell

Writer: Ken Russell, based on the book by Bram Stoker

Starring: Amanda Donohoe, Hugh Grant, Catherine Oxenberg, Peter Capaldi, Sammi Davis

Year: 1988

Runtime: 93 minutes

Country: UK


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