Wednesday, July 1, 2015

"Watch Out for Your Asp!"


Once Adam Ant's partner, Amanda Donohoe is in her element as a worm-worshipping vamp. Gaining notoriety in Nic Roeg's CASTAWAY, the actress also appeared in Ken Russell's next film THE RAINBOW.

LOOSELY based on Bram Stoker's final book, Ken Russell's bombastic spoof horror opens with Scottish archaeology student Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi) excavating an old convent. On grounds now occupied by a Derbyshire B & B run by Trent sisters Mary (Sammi Davis) and Eve (Catherine Oxenberg), Flint unearths a large snake skull and serpent mosaic, which are tied to a local myth. The legend states that a monster was slain in Stonerich Cavern by John d'Ampton, the ancestor of current Lord of the Manor James d'Ampton (Hugh Grant). When the pocket watch of the Trent sisters' missing father is found in the Cavern, James surmises that the legendary creature may still be alive. Soon James, Angus, Mary and Eve are drawn into a deadly game with Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), an immortal priestess to the snake god Dionin.

Dialogue is laced with sexual innuendo ("playing with yourself can't be much fun"), and the fusion of loopy dream/hallucination sequences and garish 80's monster effects (the giant worm's jaws were made from Volkswagen Beetle parts) make THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM a curio even by Russell's standards. Joseph Lanza expertly sums up the tone in Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films, by describing the film "as if a dotty, old, and salacious English auntie is telling it from an attic where her more prim relatives have exiled her." The scenery-chewing, mincing Donohoe casts a long shadow over the other leads, but bit parts from Paul Brooke - as lazy eyed P. C. Erny - and Stratford Johns - playing James' eccentric manservant Peters - crackle with life. 

Lady Marsh steals the excavated skull of Dionin. The prop was constructed by adding sculpted sections to a real cow head.

With Russell's forked tongue firmly in cheek, it is one delirious sequence after another. Marsh - in PVC boots and black underwear - seduces a half-witted boy scout, and later her strap-on defloration of Eve is interrupted by Dionin itself. One of the shot on video hallucinations has nuns being gang-banged by Roman centurions as a snake wraps itself around Christ on the cross, and kilted Angus plays bagpipes while battling a possessed Erny (which ends in a Fulciesque eye-gouging). Treading the fine line between kitsch and downright embarrassing, James' fever dream sees Eve and Lady Sylvia wrestling in air hostess outfits, the red-tipped pen in his hands standing to attention. Its a glorious mess that was debunked by critics at the time, but over the years the picture has gained a cult following worthy of Dionin, and stories even circulate of chic Los Angeles parties where revellers dress as their favourite characters.

Russell's initial flirtation with Stoker occurred after making TOMMY in 1975, when British cinema's enfant terrible wrote an adaptation of Dracula. The venture lost its impetus when a number of similar projects were released in the late 1970's, such as John Badham’s big-budget DRACULA starring Frank Langella, and Werner Herzog's remake of NOSFERATU. Whereas Herzog's vampire longed for death, Russell's Count rejoiced in possibilities of the forever, a master of the undead who loves the arts so much he seeks to bring great artists back to life; "how jealously God guards his immortality. Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Tchaikovsky: as soon as they challenged him with their visions of heaven, he cut them down - until we started to fight him." Russell claims that Mick Fleetwood was so eager to play his Dracula, that the musician offered to drain a pint of blood from his body each day throughout the shoot. But as Paul Sutton notes in his introduction to the full script published by Bear Claw in 2012, "Ken Russell's Dracula is a cloaked portrait of Ken Russell himself."