This review is as much a homage to the wonderful talents of one Donald Henry Pleasence (1919-1995) as it is a commentary to what is a fine piece of movie madness which was written and directed by horror auteur Gary Sherman whose next project, which came some nine long years after this masterpiece would also become a genre classic. The 1981 shocker, ‘Dead and Buried’ would later court its own piece of controversy by being given the ominous title of a considered ‘video nasty’ by the UK’s BBFC. Though it was never outright banned as many may think. In actual fact The DPP – Director of Public Prosecution had placed it on a covert list that became the secretive 72 list during the 1980’s. With many video rental outlets becoming jittery during the video witch-hunt many had become familiar with murmurings of this second list and therefore did not wish to take the risk of being prosecuted. Many video outlets chose sadly to take this title (though cut and rated 18 by the BBFC) off their video shelves. One day I imagine we will get to both the film ‘Dead and Buried’ and also work on a more in depth analysis and review of the 80’s Nasties era. Such joyous and subversive times?
Firstly I would like to say this before we go any further, this film is a ‘masterpiece’ and one of the finest films ever made in the horror genre, end of! This movie encapsulates everything the genre should be and if handled correctly and this movie does perfectly, show what can be produced with great vision and hindsight. This film is a fine representation of the genre in thick juicy slabs of great horror entertainment. Though this movie has an American born director at the helm and US financial backing and one of its main stars David Ladd is also American and yes he is the son of the acting legend Alan Ladd but despite these influences, which may I add are very welcome and offer this film its uniqueness and defines its individual quality. The movie is in essence a British classic in every other sense of the word. I still believe strongly that this is one of the last ‘true’ great British horror films, that is how much I hold this film in esteem.
The movie opens in glorious Technicolour to a loud and repetitive, early electronic soundtrack written and performed by Jeremy Rose and Wil Mallone. The theme music is darkly repetitive and both enthralls and irritates but nonetheless immediately invites you into the visual opening ceremony in equal measure and is in fitting with the opening title sequence of fades and distorted neon lights that advertise and offer whatever your heart desires in a place were fully lit shop frontals offer unprecedented access to sexual pleasures as you begin the journey down the tight Soho alleyways that lead to many backstreet den’s of iniquity. The opening credits last close on five minutes and features a peak into the dark underbelly of an adult only world. A quick but satisfying performance by James Cossins as James Manfred, O.B.E. Introduces us to a wandering, bowler hatted, suit wearing, off the leash civil servant of alleged respectability who in this case is out to enjoy what would seem a night of voyeuristic even physical entertainment amongst the innumerable low brow, largely gangster owned properties, strip joints and sex bars come brothels and Porn shops galore that came to epitomise this area of London way back in 1972. Cossins’s on screen portrayal though brief sets the tone for his seedy characterisation and whose personal situation and circumstance start the films story plot line snowballing in to a bleak but enthralling horror adventure. From his slovenly platform solicitation to a knee to the groin which fells him, this man is a menace to woman kind and is soon punished deservedly so, however we are truly unprepared for what soon transpires following said incident. From this moment on the film never lacks a hypnotic pull and serves as a template that sets a even greater seedier, brutal undertow which is beautifully maintained throughout the very spine of the entire films darker and melancholic moments from minute one until end credits and great humour in between not withstanding are wonderfully noted may I add. The next eighty minutes that follow are some of the best in horror, with its added humour and numerous excellent performances that will make you not just wish for more but will set you thinking as to why we do not still make such layered and textured quality genre movies like this so very infrequently, anywhere in the world today. You have to go as far back as John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London, 1981 to find such a template for complete horror film making and like Death Line, ran on the same perfection of horror technique and the encapsulation of dark humour and there place in a natural, organic backdrop and the use of the real settings of London and the echoing platforms of its famous tube system. I would even suggest that Landis may be in fact a fan of Sherman’s movie? The story really begins when two of the main characters for whom a large portion of the stories plot uses for juxtaposition. Alex, (Ladd) and girlfriend Patricia, (Sharon Gurney) are at journeys end and traveling on London’s underground tube train system, their destination Russell Square were they find a somewhat incapacitated Manfred O.B.E. in a state of near comatose but still breathing. They go in search of help despite an initial reluctance by Alex who if back home in the states would not dream of such a good deed, it is only through the persistence of his British girlfriend who frowns upon his initial behavioural attitude in not wanting to get involved or report their findings and only Patricia’s persistence finally brings him onside, despite still having doubts about getting involved in matters unrelated to them. This moment also makes an uncomfortable parallel with our real behaviour in everyday social interaction and those sometimes awkward what-to-do situations? The couple do however eventually find a Bobby on the beat and report their concerns. Shortly after their good deed they unwittingly become drawn into strange events that take a turn for what later becomes the gruesome worse as the alleged mystery ‘drunk’ – Manfred goes missing from the tube platform.
Enter one Inspector Calhoun, played by the majestic Donald Pleasence in what for me is perhaps one of his finest role, (yes I mean every word.) Is other tour de force performance that stays firmly planted in the memory bank was when he played William Hare in John Gilling’s 1960 classic, ‘The Flesh and the Fiends’ still one of my all time favourite genre films and features a performances from Pleasence that still makes my skin crawl and my bodily hair stand on end even to this day.
The drunken scene in Death Line which features Pleasence’s character Calhoun is set in a local pub were he is joined by his cohort, Detective Sergent Rogers played by and again wonderfully I may add by British stalwart actor Norman Rossington is either a genuine booze up or is simply fine acting of the highest order by both actors, Pleasence in particular. It is simply a brilliant captured earthy, organic moment, even though this is merely a scene that has no major relevance other than stupefied brilliant dialogue in conjunction with noting great acting nuisances, including some funny and highly amusing exchanges with the barkeep. The over all performance from Pleasence never at any point falters, it is pitch perfect and runs seamlessly throughout every moment of his screen presence during the duration of the film. It is the most natural of performances and clearly invites other cast members to literally bounce off his character, in return all gladly oblige. As I will mention and detail shortly the early exchanges in a scene between Christopher Lee and Pleasence, though brief, is truly magical. His association and relationship with close work colleagues including Det Sgt Rogers, (Rossington) His trusty and put upon W.P.C. Marshall, (Heather Stoney) seem genuine in their acts of Co-habiting in the day to day work routines. His exchanges with Inspector Richardson of the transport police (Clive Swift) when discussing certain leads and the checkered history of the tube system also bring great joy. When Ladd’s character Alex is being interrogated by Calhoun you get a sense of tension that underlines the awkwardness and very deliberate antagonism on Calhoun’s behalf, as a result the humour in their exchanges is uncomfortably littered with touches of sarcasm and wit which just flow like a natural spring, giving them both the benefit of a superior written dialogue by Ceri Jones, sadly his one and only screenplay, based on Sherman’s original story. This back and forth relationship between Calhoun and Alex throughout the film cements the whole story together with great aplomb it must be said. That is what makes this film so exceptional the moments of exchange in dialogue seem as realistic and fully rounded as is artistically possible well dealing with such a dark plot and simply adds a massive value and impact worthy of mention due to Sherman’s allowance of letting these numerous moments play to there fullest potential. Today only Quentin Tarantino springs to mind in regard of the use of dialogue and actors exchanges being allowed to flourish and fully develop even in the most basic daily mundane routines. This work ethic which Sherman and Tarantino share is what enriches the cycle of a films extension beyond the normal conventions of trying to hurry things up. The quality in this movie and Tarantino’s film output, he being the modern equivalent is what often separates excellence from mediocrity.
MGM DVD Official cover (A.K.A. Raw Meat)
The early focus of an otherwise standard missing person brief and an initial lack of a warranted investigation sadly begins to drag both Patricia and Alex’s intended good deed into a web of intrigue that makes Calhoun initially focus in on them as suspects to a crime that really as no substance other than awkward questions and lack of any real evidence that a crime as actually been committed anyway. What does unfold however is the sudden interest and interference, when it soon becomes clear that the ‘alleged’ mysterious disappearance of a man as important as James Manfred O.B.E. awakens the powerful British civil (secret) service from positions of their highest office and indubitably applies unwanted pressure and solicitations that subsequently set off a chain of events as we soon see. Intimidation and threats by a higher authority persuade Calhoun in his stubbornness and brief anger at the sudden interference from outside sources of bureaucracy which seem intent on applying an unwarranted pressure soon becomes the catalyst for greater endeavour by Pleasence’s character who becomes less blasé and more involved and suddenly focused and thorough in his investigation. The metaphoric warning shot fired at Calhoun comes in the form of and via a high profile member of MI5, a man by the name of Stratton – Villiers. A cameo performance from none other than horror legend Christopher Lee. This meeting leaves the audience in no doubt that people like this character do indeed live and exist in our society in order to protect what is considered matters of national security and shows an intimidating glimpse as to what lengths people will take in order to get involved with matters that should rightfully be investigated by the police with out such threatening posturing of which the Stratton – Villiers character seems intent on pursuing in the loyal service and protection of the political hierarchy, whose faux pas he must cover up at all costs with the emphasis on results and discretion and the secrecy that as unwittingly become compromised by Manfred’s problematic behaviour and disappearance. Stratton – Villiers is a cleaner for the elite status quo, an agent provocateur at any cost, including threatening the countries very own constabulary if needs be. Lee who passes through the movie in several wonderfully played out moments is what puts this film far beyond the reach of other would be contemporaries and future imitators in this specific area of the horror genre, of which there have been numerous comparisons since. (Creep, Mimic and more recently the very enjoyable Clive Barker film adaptation of The Midnight Meat Train). Don’t get me wrong since this ‘trend setter’ there have been efforts from good to the more mediocre and sadly poorer fair but alas still none better. This is only my opinion of course and therefore people may find my statement perhaps slightly crass but for a film from the early stages of what I consider the second and more glorious golden age of cinema, horror movies in particular, then for me the comparison as to be high and indeed mighty. Therefore the showdown between Pleasence and Lee’s characters who meet at an illegal entry into the home of James Manfred O.B.E. is again superbly set out, written and performed and paced in what few minutes of screen time pass and yet again emphasises the wonderment of this masterful film, because you literally feel the antagonism and disharmony between the two characters in their class, culture and career status come leaping out at you. There is no love lost here!
Now let us get to the meat of what truly matters here. Not only is this film gory and ultra-violent in part but the underlining story that causes our ‘monster’ (if that is what he truly is?) of the piece, who without discourse carries out terrible acts of atrocious, frenzied violence that is extremely and graphically depicted are for its time and its underlying British, 70’s horror backdrop show and highlight the probable American influence here of a more visceral imagery largely unfamiliar with British audiences of the time! this film coming only shortly before the American horror invasion and its more world renowned graphic depictions of extreme violence. Not even British television would wander beyond the Universal, Hammer formats we had all become familiar and accustomed too. Before this movie event it had been a limited choice of TV self financing horror productions, again mainly mainstream American productions but nothing quite as violent as Death Line and it is because of this combination the film stands out of British mainstream.
The grave events that follow are given an explanation with a veracity of why such base bloodletting occurs and soon the audience come to understand the nature of the so called ‘monster’ or ‘The man’ (Hugh Armstrong) as he is come to be known in the films credits. A role that again works brilliantly in context of story and a performance from Armstrong to match. Though he grunts and groans through much of the movie like a caveman from One Million Years BC, his anger and sadness are conveyed with great conviction which allows us to feel a certain empathy and sympathy towards ‘The Man’ and how wonderful and poignant it is that the only vocabulary he utters throughout the entire film as a form of primeval communication in which to explain everything, are the only words he as heard echo through the cavernous man made underworld which he accepts as normality. “Mind the doors” are his only spoken words for reasons pretty obvious? (Watch the film). Armstrong’s character is created as a consequence and the result of a terrible misfortune, an accident that is quite literally covered up, hopefully forever. This character behaves in the only way he knows, his growth as a functioning human being whose plight we come to understand only adds a resonance toward ‘The Man’ and his caveman like behaviour which at times is absolutely terrifying and quite dreadful but does go a long way to explaining much and ultimately puts the main burden of blame not on ‘The man’ as we perceive him in his obvious illness and condition both physically and mentally but how his underground upbringing and extreme lifestyle do indeed “make’th the man”. He is indeed a character created from a uncultured, dark civilization, he a living consequence of a company quick to put profit before the safety of its workers. “Sound familiar anyone?” (Reality jolt).
The final part of the film concentrates on the incidents and misfortunes that eventually conspire and lead to a greater drama that sadly befalls the Patricia character in particular, whom unwittingly becomes engulfed in events that over-roar and reveal everything that the bleak storyline needs to move it along to the next phase and creating the tense, extraordinary and traumatic last quarter of the film, which ends in bloody violence and an extreme battle for survival that is as much sad as it is savage and at times very unrelenting.
A large portion of the latter part of the films storyline takes place and is set in and around the sealed off, disused part of the old underground system. The masterful use of a real location that reveals a dirty, forgotten world, a system that as been hidden away from prying eyes becomes a major revealing moment of what dreadful an incident once transpired beneath London’s metropolis. Despite many parts of this underground world suffering from obvious decrepitude and neglect, Sherman amplifies the scale of mans battle to construct and disrupt and build the impossible dream and make it possible by digging deep into natures earthly foundations by revealing the scale of mass abandonment which includes the completed but disconnected construction site and the silent and unused work equipment and the vast land and lost spaces which hide a terrifying maze of tunnels and dark corners (and what might be hiding there?) which in cinematic terms only adds to a building, palpable real fearful sense of trepidation and a nightmarish vibe that intensifies proceedings as the movies climax drives ever closer, with its dark, dank and sometimes very claustrophobic, melancholy atmosphere. This part of the film was shot on location at Holborn Station and was a genuine disused part of the London underground known as Aldwych station. Re-named aptly as ‘Museum’ in the film for plot purposes. The way all the main characters are drawn together for the final moments of the film is well thought-out via the Patricia characters misfortune and finally brings together the main players of the plot and so the inevitable confrontation with the alleged antagonist himself. As we enter this final phase of horrifying drama we suddenly become forcibly punch drunk by Sherman’s direction with his deliberate intent to spook and visually attack the audience with doses of real dread, despair and conflict and eventually a unexpected anti-climatic ending that throws the whole ensemble cast into a scene of sheer visual carnage and death that would honestly leave anyone who witnessed it surely mortified and silent. The final moments of this powerfully dark movie are indeed the polar opposite of the colour and vibrancy and loud soundtrack that opened proceedings, there is none of that. There are only the remains of a hidden bunk bedded sarcophagus and a posthumous shrine to a lost and terrible secret. You also get the feeling of impending hopelessness and a journey into a world of indescribable madness and the most frightful state of limbo for those that lived on after the ‘event’ and remained imprisoned within the walls that held them in this other world, a place sealed off from the real world just beyond their reach. The reveal of the film is a dramatic reminder and a terrible vision of a macabre secret and a shocking pretext of what must have been great terror and hardship that befell those left behind in the necropolis, now filled with the dead, only their rotted corpses remain and remind us of their misfortune and though still and silent you still feel their presence in the air, like ghostly specters.
Unique official artwork poster
The travesty of history and the impending battle for Patricia and her hopes to stay alive, becomes the visual quest for survival and eventually this takes central stage as she enters a world of sheer terror and comes face to face with the ‘Man’. Scenes of child like empathy drifts in and out the mans behavioural patterns, from calmness in memoriam, to the more extreme act of uncontrolled rage, it is all there within the mans fragile and at times confused state of being. The cultural barrier he serves to protect and the horrid vision of his life as he sees it is mechanical and brutal but again not really the fault of the protagonist who is unfamiliar with the basic etiquette and civil conventions of life.
This place is soon discovered firstly by Alex who goes in search of his missing girlfriend and then shortly afterwards by the search party of Calhoun and Co. The search parties voices finally break the bleakness of the doom laden screams of Patricia’s fight and flight to survive beforehand and is only temporarily replaced with a brief Cessation, a silent void his created just before the pursuers voices echo through the cavernous, dark, disused underworld and become a fresh vibrant sound of unfamiliarity which breaks the wretched silence of dark tunnels which hide the terrible travesty that left the ghosts of the dead entombed in a catacomb of their own building, a place that should have been a defining part of London’s grand vision and design, created by advanced architectural genius. A sign of Britannia’s industrial power and strength, a show piece of the countries spirit of achievement and invention but instead we are left to wonder at what cost for such progression of a ‘civil’ society. This film as absolutely everything you could wish for in the genre and again shows the magic of a good script, dialogue and direction. The gore is plentiful but is used in context of storyline and not as just another gorefest for the sake of it. The ‘man’ kills only because he thinks it is his right to do so and not because he wants too. This is what makes this character a unique creation from other ‘movie monsters’ again I use those words figuratively only. I love this film as passionately as you can love a visual piece of horror film making. Despite its forty years, it still stands up to the test of anything genre orientated even today. If it as not been your good fortune to see this masterpiece, may I suggest you do so without delay or be forever damned for not knowing the joy of Death Line aka Raw Meat.
Interesting facts regarding Death Line’s status as a classic horror film. It is one of legendary director Guillermo Del Toro’s all time favourite movies. In 2000′ the film was awarded the inaugural Golden Scroll award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. The panel of critics named Death Line as one of the ‘ten’ most important British Horror Films of the 20th Century. I would concur. E.D. Leach.