23. THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (1988)

“This fearful worm would often feed on cows and lamb and sheep,
And swallow little babes alive when they lay down to sleep.
So John set out and got the beast and cut it into halves,
And that soon stopped it eating babes and sheep and lambs and calves.”

–Lyrics to “The D’Ampton Worm” from Lair of the White Worm
Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Ken Russell

FEATURING: Amanda Donohoe, Hugh Grant, Catherine Oxenberg, Peter Capaldi, Sammi Davis, Stratford Johns

PLOT:  An archeology student visiting the British countryside digs up an elongated skull he assumes belongs to an dinosaur while excavating the site of a buried convent, now an English bed-and-breakfast run by two young sisters.  Lord James D’Ampton is the boyfriend of one of the sisters, and also the descendant of a legendary D’Ampton who reputedly slew a dragon (the “D’Ampton Worm”) that had terrorized the countryside.  After wintering in climes unknown, slinky and regal Lady March returns to her mansion and discovers the skull, after which strange events begin to transpire…
Still from Lair of the White Worm (1988)

BACKGROUND:

  • Russell’s script was very loosely based on Bram (“Dracula”) Stoker’s 1911 novel, although the similarity almost ends with the shared title.
  • This was Russell’s second horror film in three years after Gothic (1986).
  • Hugh Grant had roles in six films released in 1988, including portrayals of Chopin and Lord Byron.
  • This was Amanda Donohoe’s second starring role in a feature film.  She went on to greater fame when she joined the cast of the hit T.V. show “L.A. Law” in 1990.  Catherine Oxenberg, on the other hand, had made a name for herself on the hit T.V. show “Dynasty,” and this was her first feature role in a theatrical release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A 30 second hallucination sequence featuring Roman soldiers raping nuns before a cross on which a monstrous worm slithers over a crucified Jesus while a topless blue vampire woman looks on joyfully, waggling her tongue.  The scene is dressed up in lurid colors and performed in front of a deliberately cheesy looking blue-screen inferno.  So over-the-top and parodic that it’s not nearly as offensive as it sounds.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Ken Russell throws a handful of his typically excessive hallucination/dream sequences into what is otherwise a subtle horror parody, creating a minor masterpiece of deliberate camp blooming with ridiculously memorable scenes.

Clip from Lair of the White Worm

COMMENTS:  The one word that immediately comes to mind to describe Ken Russell’s The Lair of the White Worm is “fun.”  It’s not an important movie, or a really scary one, or even a particularly well-crafted technical effort.  But everyone involved seems to be having a great time romping through this neo-Gothic, hyper-eroticized playground.

Amanda Donohoe is the engine that keeps the flick rolling along its kinky, demented path.  She’s sexy, slinky, witty and hammy, in equal parts.  Whether spitting venom on a crucifix, trading double entendres with Hugh Grant over a snifter of brandy in her bathrobe, or sacrificing a virgin to a pagan snake god with an enormous sharp horn strapped to her pelvis, she vamps her way across the screen with an obvious delight in her power to tempt men into perdition.  She’s simultaneously every boy scout’s wettest dream and direst nightmare, just as sexy when she’s showing the top of her stockings while shifting her sports car as when she’s tramping about a cave in blue-green body paint and plastic fangs.

The rest of the cast fades mostly into the background; appropriately enough, because they serve the role of horror movie dupes who take forever to suspect that the bizarre, eternally youthful local lady with the obsession with snakes and the villainously ironic mode of speech might be responsible for all the odd disappearances around town.  Mainstream movies fans may enjoy, or more likely cringe, at seeing Hugh Grant as the effete but effective young lord whose smashing idea it is to put speakers on the roof of his manor and play snake charming music to lure the culprit from her lair.  Catherine Oxenberg is appropriately vapid and pretty, especially in her virginal white underwear with her hands tied above her head dangling before the worm’s pit, although she struggles with a British accent that sounds sometimes country and sometimes posh.  Sammi Davis makes little impression as the tomboyish sister, and Peter Capaldi similarly brings little charisma to his role, although he is given a nice opportunity to charm snake-vampires with his bagpipe (which he apparently can’t play properly without changing into a kilt first).  Stratford Johns as the stereotypical butler gets little screen time, but hams it up beautifully when given the chance, showing barely disguised boredom at doing his master’s bidding until he’s called upon to deliver a plot point with widened eyes and an ominous pause.

The story’s framework follows the standard “creature feature” formula–weird occurrences, investigation, confrontation and triumph over evil, and coda suggesting the peril may rise again–and comes complete with plot holes.  By either ignoring, or accepting at face value, Russell’s flights of delirious fancy, Lair could be enjoyed as a straightforward horror movie.  Strings swell ominously to warn the viewer something mysterious is going on as each plot point is plucked: the discovery of the skull, the tale of the legendary worm, revelations of missing villagers, the reappearance of the mysterious Lady Marsh, and so on.  By the time the finale clicks into place, Hugh Grant is running around bisecting snake-people with his ancestral broadsword and the Scotsman is fighting off vampires with his bagpipe, all while the bound virgin is menaced by the naked pagan priestess and her slithery monster rising slowly from its pit.

Any standard AIP or Hammer horror of yesteryear could take us to the same ridiculous climax, but Russell drives us there not only with phantasmagorical excess, but also with considerable wit.  Certain characters (Donohoe and Stratford) overplay their roles with gleeful campiness, while our young quartet of heroes underplay theirs with the sincere cluelessness necessary to keep the plot moving.  Besides the constant undercurrent of subtle parody, deliberately absurd comic touches abound. When a minor character briefly breaks into a rhapsody on his harmonica, the suddenly hypnotized (and quite annoyed) Lady Marsh involuntarily places her hands above her head and begins dancing to the strains.  Dialogue sparkles with unanticipated wit: the innocent “Do you have children, Lady Marsh?” is answered with the wicked “Only when there are no men around.”

Of course, it’s not the horror, hallucinations and chuckles alone that have won this film its devoted cult following.  The film is about sex, and fear of sex.  Even the title suggests Freudian implications: both the “worm” and its “lair” (a hole on a hillside) suggest genitalia.  The abundant sex is never depicted without an undercurrent of horror, especially the threat of loss of sexual innocence.  The separate courtships of Lord James and Eve and Angus and Mary are innocent and staidly Christian, and never go beyond chaste kissing (which is itself interrupted by ominous music and the appearance of danger). Although James appears more worldly than the others, he doesn’t abuse his lord’s right with the virgin Eve, and his dreams are filled with obvious sexual repression (he’s tied to a chair and forced to watch helplessly as two women fight over him).

Lady Marsh, the embodiment of dangerous pagan sexuality, ostensibly intends to raise her dead, phallus-shaped god to rule the world, but she almost never appears anywhere without threatening to take away another character’s virginity.  Like the common earthworm, she has hermaphroditic qualities, and her trusty horn is never far away should she need to deflower a female.  She even has the power to defile the ultimate symbol of Christian chastity, the celibate nun (in dream sequences, at least).  She’s the ultimate symbol of fearful desire; when her body is revealed nude, the natural sensuality of her skin is troubled by an alien blue pallor.

Although the imagery occasionally veers towards outright pornography, when it does so Russell keeps it so brief that it’s almost subliminal.  The scenes he lingers over are those that are merely titillating.  Still, to avoid alcohol poisoning, it’s strongly advised never to play a drinking game based on taking a sip of beer whenever a phallic symbol appears onscreen.

Of course, weird-freaks will want to tune in for the psycho set-pieces, of which there are four of note.  The first is the elaborate and outrageous crucifixion tableau, where centurion rapists appear before the cross while the worm writhes over Jesus.  A second venom-induced hallucination is briefer, but even more transgressive: impaled nuns in a sea of blood, while a topless Donohoe suggestively licks blood off the tip of a stake. The third is a compressed sequence in which Sammi Davis is menaced by a gaggle of sexy, spike-groined vampire snakes that emerge from Donohoe’s flaming, fanged mouth.  The blue-screen backgrounds in these fantasy sequences are deliberately unreal; note the way that the appropriate shade of makeup if placed around Donohoe’s eyes so that the same crudely animated flames that burn in the background dance across her visage, as well.  If these scenes aren’t enough to satisfy your lust for Russell weirdness, there’s also that delightfully absurd and humorous dream sequence where a bound Hugh Grant watches catfighting stewardesses while his red marker rises to attention.

Russell’s previous works, like the medieval nunnery and religious corruption fable The Devils and the laudanum-inspired Gothic, feature the same obsessive, fantastical and perverse sexual imagery as Lair of the White Worm.  The difference between those previous works and this one is that Russell presented those visions with a largely humorless solemnity, and tried to attach philosophical musings whose profundities didn’t quite measure up to the grandiosity of the visuals.  The result frequently made this director look silly and pretentious in his self-importance, while at the same time his set pieces packed quite the effectively weird wallop.  By tackling pure genre fare, recognizing the inherent absurdity of his vision, and embracing the silliness wholeheartedly, Russell created a self-aware, self-parodic comedy that’s much less guilty than the prior pleasures he offered.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

” Russell loves the bizarre, the gothic, the overwrought, the perverse. The strangest thing about ‘The Lair of the White Worm’ is that, by his standards, it is rather straight and square.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

“…a rollicking, terrifying, post-psychedelic headtrip, features a fangy vampiress of unmatched erotic allure.”–Variety (contemporaneous)

“There’s permanent duality in the Russell/Stoker universe — Christian and pagan, violent and bucolic, earnest and decadent, real and surreal — and if you have a hard time figuring it all out, don’t worry. So did Russell, who, once again, seems to have overindulged in diabolic steroids.”–Richard Harrington, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

IMDB LINK: The Lair of the White Worm (1988)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Ken Russell’s The Lair of the White Worm – An extremely detailed unofficial fan site with a plot-hole FAQ,  a synopsis of Stoker’s novel, information on the filming locations, and more.  It also contains a message board for discussing the movie with lots of spam and occasional meaningful discussion.

Bram Stoker’s “Lair of the White Worm” at Literature.org – the complete text of the 1911 source novel online

DVD INFO: The Artisan release now in print (buy) comes with no extras besides the trailer, which is a shame. Devoted fans may want to pay a premium for a copy of the discontinued Pioneer special edition release instead (buy), which contained a Ken Russell commentary and other goodies.

[(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Nico.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)]

6 thoughts on “23. THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (1988)”

  1. Good review. Though, I have to say, perhaps slightly over thought. It may be the movie has suggestive “Freudian implications” but I somehow don’t think they were consciously put into the movie. This is pure head cheeze. Ultra camp. So bad it’s 5 Sarah Palin awesome. ;)

    1. Actually, if you watch enough of Russell’s films, the Freudian implications are not so much ‘suggestive’ as ‘bash your head in with a gold brick that has a slice of lemon wrapped around it’. ;D

  2. I, too, have been accused of overthinking films, but as I tell my accusers: “‘Tis better to overthink a film, than underthink it.”

    Thus, there does seem to be a “permanent duality” in the film, as Richard Harrington of “The Washington Post” so aptly puts it.

    Most notablely in the scenes with the boy scout, who in the space of under a hour, goes from having the best wet dream of his young life to having the worst nightmare of his young life.

    But, not only in the plot, but also in the characters. After their parents disappear, Mary takes on the role of the father, while Eve takes on the role of the mother. And James is the brains of the operation, while Angus is the brawn.

    I’ve seen some of Russell’s other films, and I don’t know whether this is the only one of his films, where this “permanent duality” exists, or I just missed it in his other films.

    Other points in the film.

    Catherine Oxenberg’s voice was apparently dubbed for the film.

    There is one other connection between Bram Stoker’s novel and Ken Russell’s film, besides the title, and that is Mercy Farm, which appears in both novel and film.

    And, not that I disagree, but what other plot holes are there, besides those described in the website dedicated to the film.

    Anyway, I enjoyed the “overthought” review, and as a contrarian, as much as I would like to disagree with something said in the review, I can’t.

  3. BoyScoutKevin:

    That FAQ on the fansite is so complete that I don’t have any new plot holes to suggest that aren’t listed there. Those are enough, aren’t they? I found it especially odd that no one except the cop seems to know Lady Marsh, although she’d been summering on the estate for years. These holes/inconsistencies don’t interfere with the enjoyment of the film, though; they’re just part of its carefree, tongue-in-cheek spirit.

  4. the whole pathos about the movie lair of the white
    worm is seeing the seductive and sexy amanda donohoe
    rising out of a snake basket in a tight black leather essemble writhing and slithering like a snake and she has one
    sexy hair dou with a supermanesque curl dangeling down her forehead and being seduced by snake charmer music from a loud speaker nearby to lure her out so the heros can rescue
    the damsel in distress from amandas evil clutches she is a sex symbol for both men and lesbians alike lets have a remake with kiera knightley playing lady sylvia marsh
    and the movie is a class of 80’s direct to vhs horror
    and a timless classic .

    frankie smales

    (amanda donohoe fan)

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