Fangs for the Memories
"The Lair of the White Worm" is a Halloween camp classic.
Shamelessly Bonkers Halloween Classic of the Week: “The Lair of the White Worm” (1988, ⭐ ⭐ ⭐, streaming on the Criterion Channel and for rent on Amazon, Apple TV, YouTube, and elsewhere). By the 1980s, British director Ken Russell had given up trashing the great artists of Europe (“Savage Messiah,” “Mahler,” “Lisztomania”) and applied his lubriciously gonzo style to genres like science fiction (“Altered States”) and the erotic thriller (“Crimes of Passion”). “The Lair of the White Worm,” adapted loosely from a late work by Bram “Dracula” Stoker, is Russell’s version of a horror film, and an over-the-top hoot it is – perfect for an All Hallow’s Eve drinking game or for terrifying the neighbor kids by projecting it onto the side of your house.
Hey, look, it’s a baby Hugh Grant as James d’Hampton, the Cool Britannia heir to a manor in the Derbyshire countryside, and an unwizened Peter Capaldi (“Dr. Who,” “In the Loop”) as a Scottish archeologist who digs up the skull of an ancient serpent in Grant’s back yard. Could it be the remains of the legendary d’Ampton Worm? Or maybe its brother, since the Worm itself is possibly alive in the caverns beneath the stately home of Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe, above)? Lady Sylvia is the high priestess of an ancient serpent-god cult and a woman given to spitting venom at crucifixes when she’s not seducing boy scouts into her bathtub and serving them up as snake food.
I first saw “The Lair of the White Worm” in a 1988 New York movie theater rocking with laughter as Russell pushed his camp-o-meter way into the red, so it’s seemed confusing in the years since that the movie has been ignored as a failed bid at serious horror. Nothing could be further from the truth. "I would like to state that I actively encourage the audience to laugh along with ‘White Worm’,” Russell told Fangoria magazine in 1988, and the movie expertly toes the line between the absurd and the ridiculous. The eldritch fantasy sequences – which bubble over any time one of the characters comes into contact with Lady Sylvia’s Worm venom – are skronky FX montages that look like outtakes from David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” video, and if you aren’t giddy with trash happiness at the climax – which features a virginal Catherine Oxenberg (“Dynasty,” sure, but also a member of the royal house of Yugoslavia) dangling in her skivvies over a ravenous phallic monster while Lady Sylvia comes at her with a strap-on – lordy, I can’t help you.
Obviously to be avoided if your tastes don’t run to po-faced British horror silliness. Otherwise, dig in.
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