Saturday, November 29, 2008

#50: Lair of the White Worm (Ken Russell, 1988)

Ken Russell's work has always been a little off-putting to me, but I can never quite figure out why. I'm tempted to call him a vulgarian, but the line from A Fish Called Wanda pops in my head in which John Cleese calls Kevin Kline a vulgarian, and Kline responds, "You're the vulgarian, you fuck." I like vulgarity. Maybe it's Russell's garish excess. I'm tempted to compare him to Oliver Stone, another excessive guy whose films don't work for me, but Russell has so much more imagination and humor than that clod Stone. Maybe it's because Russell is kind of a dirty old man, but I hope to be a dirty old man someday. There's a determined ugliness to his work that is perhaps my closest, most viable reason to shrink away from what he's offering, but I'm still having trouble describing that ugliness. What have I got against Russell? I'm not alone, anyway. Russell's been fighting the high-profile critics for his entire career. Pauline Kael described Russell as a "shrill, screaming gossip" and said his "idea of art is purple pastiche." Judith Crist, using the royal we, said "we can't recall in our relatively broad experience a fouler film." Vincent Canby said he was "a hobbyist determined to reproduce The Last Supper in bottle tops." Roger Ebert gave his film The Devils zero stars. A quote I can't find attribution for describes Russell's work as "hyperthyroid camp circuses." That one should go on the poster.

I have to admit, anyone who can inspire such expressive vitriol is probably doing something right. And I haven't really seen anything like these Russell moments in other films: a nude wrestling match between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates on a bearskin rug in front of an enormous fireplace in his D.H. Lawrence adaptation, Women in Love, any random five minutes from The Who's rock opera Tommy, the last twenty minutes of Altered States.
I think Lair of the White Worm is probably the most enjoyable Ken Russell movie I've seen, even though I tried, and failed, to watch it twice before when I was in high school and my second year of college. I don't why I had trouble getting through it on those two occasions. Despite its horrible reviews when it was first released, Lair of the White Worm is a stylish, funny, ridiculous, smart, stupid, fantastic horror movie. Based on a late-period Bram Stoker novel, when the author was afflicted with gout and Bright's disease and suffering from mental problems (some historians think he was also suffering from advanced syphilis), White Worm works as a parody of the British Hammer horror movies of the 1960s and 1970s, a female version of the Dracula story, a campy comedy, a straight-up horror film, and a prurient teenage celebration of blasphemy, phallic worship, and boobies. Not to mention some wildly over-the-top dream sequences.

In the British countryside, a Scottish doctoral student in archaeology is staying on the farm of two sisters whose parents mysteriously disappeared a year ago. The farm sits above what was once a colonized piece of the Roman Empire. He finds some ancient Roman coins, but he also finds a mysterious, dinosaur-like skull that is soon stolen. Meanwhile, one sister is engaged to idle, rich snob Hugh Grant, whose ancestor supposedly killed a giant, white snake. The village has a festival every year celebrating the slaying of the white worm, complete with Pogues-esque songs of dragonslaying performed by a Celtic rock band, pickled earthworms, and a simulation of the snake's death performed by Grant and several villagers in papier-mache snake costume. Amanda Donohoe enters the picture as the female Dracula figure. She owns a large mansion in the woods, and hibernates for the winter there. She's very interested in the monster skull, the archaeology project, the virginal fiancee of Hugh Grant, her Snakes and Ladders boardgame, and walking around in various states of undress. Donohoe is perfect in this role, one that requires sex appeal, humor, and menace, often at the same time. Will the Scottish doctoral student, Hugh Grant, the sisters, and a cross-eyed cop team up to stop Donohoe's reign of snake-loving vampirism? Will dream sequences feature nuns being raped, giant snakes slithering around the crucified body of Jesus, and a topless Donohoe licking a homemade wooden dildo against a lava lamp background? Will the virgin be sacrificed to the giant worm/snake/dragon? Will a serum for vampire/snake bite be found? Will bagpipes be played? Some of the answers to these questions are yes. I like that.

This scene warmed my lapsed Catholic heart:

I would like to wish a happy decapitated zombie vampire birthday to my lovely unholy, undead vampire wife, Spacebeer! I hope you have a great day.

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