Thursday, October 5, 2006

Going Underground

CREEP (2004)

Franka Potente misses the last train in CREEP.

BY the early 1970s, Hammer was stumbling toward an open grave. This decline was illustrated by DRACULA A.D. 1972, a misguided attempt to lure back some patronage by locating the Prince of Darkness among the groovy Chelsea set. Placed alongside the burgeoning new wave of American horrors - socially relevant releases such as Wes Craven's LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT – Hammer perished because of this inability to adapt to a world beyond Home Counties Transylvania. But British horrors also typically endured disastrous relations with everybody from their distributors downward. Two important UK releases – PEEPING TOM and WITCHFINDER GENERAL – were both badly mishandled on release, and vilified in the national press. 

Although labelled repellent by British critics, DEATH LINE nevertheless tapped into the new-style unpleasantness being perfected by the US independents. Directed by Chicago-born Gary Sherman - who would go on to helm DEAD & BURIED and POLTERGEIST III - the film is the tale of a lone cannibal stalking Russell Square tube station, as Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasence), Detective Rogers (Norman Rossington) and Inspector Richardson (Clive Swift) uncover a truth that the authorities would prefer remain buried. The Man (Hugh Armstrong, in a role for Marlon Brando before his son contracted pneumonia) – riven by septicaemic plague and given to biting the heads off rats - is a sorrowful survivor of a race who have incestuously bred and fed on each other and hapless Londoners. A dispossessed spectre from a Victorian past, the only vocabulary at his disposal – “mind the doors” – is typical of DEATH LINE’s uncomfortable blend of pathos and black humour. 

One of the partially consumed cadavers suspended from a wall in DEATH LINE (affectionately released as RAW MEAT in the United States).

DEATH LINE’s political themes - collapse of Empire, class exploitation and high level corruption - were particularly relevant in the early 1970s. The humanity of the film’s aboveground characters is questioned from the outset: backed with kitsch striptease music, bowler-hatted civil servant James Manfred OBE (James Cossins) tours Soho and propositions women on platforms; we later learn that his luxurious home has closed-circuit TV to view any bedroom action. Pleasence is typically superb as the teabag-hating Calhoun, who initially dismisses the input from students Alex (David Ladd) and girlfriend Patricia (Sharon Gurney), and Christopher Lee’s cameo as Stratton-Villiers MI5 - complete with furled umbrella and Old Etonian tie - sneers at the proletarians. Conditions belowground are explored in the virtuoso 360-degree long, leisurely malingering pan of The Man’s den, culminating in his moaning over a dying companion (June Turner); the skeletal sets and fetid atmosphere clearly acted as a key inspiration behind Robert Burns’ design for THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.

Christopher Smith’s modestly budgeted CREEP also held its own against the US independent releases of the early noughties. The eponymous Creep (Sean Harris) has played an involuntary part in a programme within a covert surgical unit beneath Charing Cross station. The Creep becomes a surprisingly complex character: the absence of light, language, and love has turned this pale boy into a feral freak. More animal than man, his speech consists mostly of inhuman screeching as he hunts, snares and tortures anything in his path. But he also retains an unusual curiosity - at times almost sportive, as if playing hide and seek with his quarry. When Creep straps a homeless female (Kelly Scott) to an obstetrician’s chair, he prepares to operate as would a child playing doctor; donning a gown and surgical gloves, he pretends to anaesthetise before one of the most unmitigated acts of violence ever committed to celluloid. Regrettably there are plot holes large enough to drive a train through, but CREEP is fast-moving fare which benefits greatly from its haunting perspectives of the tube's otherworldly look, focusing on ominous low arches, ambiguous sewage tunnels and oppressive crawlspaces.

Beast and beauty: Hugh Armstrong and Sharon Gurney in DEATH LINE.

DEATH LINE and CREEP both successfully adapt a particular legend to the screen. The subterranean tunnels of London are rich in urban myths - ghosts searching platforms for loved-ones, killer rats of phenomenal size, and walled-up trains with cargoes of skeletons - but its most famous story remains that of a race of Troglodyte dwellers. Viewing these films, we can appreciate the sensitive process that eventually manifests as local legends. By means of these myths, we maintain a sense of what we are worth and who we are, a romantic response to our perception of the London Underground that manifests a certain fear in contrast to what we can see and touch. As cinematic experiences, they are cannibal films with a conscience. Analogies between man and monster – and how far a man can degenerate and remain human – are not difficult to draw. Yet society is the real villain, the kind of capitalist state that abandons its disenfranchised children, and denying them their essence.