Mutant Popcorn #15

Nick Lowe

The Lair of the White Worm

Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn series of essays on cinema fantastika has been an integral part of Interzone since 1985.

IZ Digital has managed to coil its many-suckered tentacles around the vast and unexpurgated Mutant Popcorn archive and will be dishing out each and every delicious portion.

The serving below – Slipstream, The Lair of the White Worm, Edge of Sanity – appeared first in Interzone #29 (May/June 1989).

Is there a British sf cinema? The question doesn’t seem to have occurred, amongst all our other agonies of tribal identity. But most of us would accept an idea of ‘British sf’ as something more than just a demographic label, and we seem to have swallowed a notion of ‘British film’ in stark defiance of the de facto cosmopolitanism of a collaborative artform in an international market. Does it seem intrinsically absurd to thnk about the space where the circles cross? After all, there are strong local traditions of genre cinema in neighbour fields of fantasy and (especially) horror. You couldn’t cut the cred in my clique at school without intoning the solemn names of God: ‘Max-J.-Rosenberg-and-Milton-Subotsky…’ Lack of studio continuity’s fragmented the picture in latter years, but the Hammer-Amicus epoch gave splendid solidity to the idea of a peculiarly British form of horror – whose identifying signals were impossibly deadpan scripts, very good actors playing very badly and very bad starlets playing brilliantly, wonderful lighting camera coupled with wildly erratic direction, and a resolute determination not to frighten anyone very much. Even in more recent years, we’d probably acknowledge a mild family resemblance between a few sporadic indie crossovers in the auteur fantasy arena: ExcaliburTime Bandits, anything based on Angela Carter. But do these amount to an island tradition of fantasy film, of the kind there undeniably was in the innocent sixties?

Of course, in the leaner eighties, the wide picture is more complex. Native writers, actors, directors shuttle in and out of Hollywood; west coast movies work London studios, technicians, and extras for US dollars with only the core cast and shoot team imported, or (as especially at Columbia under Puttnam) bankroll vast intercontinental follies like Munchausen and The Last Emperor without an American accent in shot. Nevertheless, I’d argue there is a recognisably British eighties sf/f movie, and that the principal reason we don’t acknowledge it is not that the money is foreign (we still claim A Fish Called Wanda for the nation, to our shame) but that the films aren’t generally very good.

Details flicker, but let me describe a typical profile. The genre is fantasy-adventure, loosely medieval in texture. Our hero is a minor American star name, the heroine an emerging British starlet; supporting cast are veteran homegrown character actors working heroic things with impossible dialogue. The title is a single word, chosen for vague ambience rather than informative content: KrullLegendLadyhawkeLabyrinthWillow. Sometimes the director is American, as the effects team often is and the script nearly always; the villain, however, must be a Brit, ideally a distinguished stage actor down on his pennies. All the locations are green and damp-looking.

It’s easy to object that these movies – and Clash of the TitansDark CrystalThe Princess Bride – are essentially Hollywood product, using UK facilities as a matter of simple economic convenience; that in the end it’s not the writer, director, or performers that determine the nationality of a film, but whose picture on the banknotes. Despite that, I can’t help feeling it’s precisely the Britishness makes all these movies so fundamentally naff in a way that even not very good all-local product (Company of Wolves, say, or Dream Demon) isn’t quite. And if we really needed proof that the product’s the same whether it’s Soho or Beverly Hills on the ultimate end of the phonelines, the deity in his irrepressible good humour has given us Slipstream.

Slipstream, of course, is the first arrival from the new production arm of rising UK distribution company Entertainment, notable for some years for their inspired pickups of independent features from the likes of Empire Pictures, and lately dipping an increasingly confident toe in the waters of mainstream distribution. Everyone wants a new British production company to succeed, especially one with a proven sense of enterprise and wit, and a high-budget sf adventure with credits chocka with famous names and faces looks a worthy kickoff to a long and glittery future.

Well, by the time you see this the film will have opened, and even the obits will be stone stiff cold. Perhaps the making-of story will one day be told, because I’m sure it has all the inexorable convergence and doomed inevitability of a superior Greek tragedy. At the very least, this movie deserves to pass into some niche of legend unjustly occupied at present by the likes of Heaven’s Gate and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, because this one is finally it: an acephalous thing that could never have lived and breathed, let alone made expert love to the eyes and ears of a nation while deftly easing the wallet from their inside pocket.

The ironic thing is, Slipstream is on its surface a lot like the great tradition of British sf. For one thing, it’s about the weather. The title refers to a world-circling wind current born of late twentieth-century environmental phase-change, which has swept the planet virtually clean of life and is ridden now by the scattered survivors in microlights: a grim symbiosis with the force that has wiped their species. (Isn’t that great? Doesn’t the whole concept give you a primeval buzz in the alveoli? How could they go wrong?) Treasured relics of the world that was are preserved by a subterranean commune of curators; and in the circuits of the last remaining androids, one of whom (Bob Peck) is adrift in the Slipstream, searching for a mythical settlement of his kind in the airless reaches where humans cannot live. (I love it. I feel betrayed…) But hunters are on his trail: psychotically single-minded lawman Mark Hamill (‘I’m fed up with wimpos, Larry! I want to play a psychotically single-minded lawman!’) and rugged individualist, entrepreneur, and loser Bill Paxton. Who will win the struggle for the android’s elusive soul? Will humanity’s last hope be ripped away on the Slipstream?

Trying to untangle the exact pattern of what went so horribly wrong with this movie is like fingering through the rubble of a collapsed building. Gary Kurtz has been involved with some massive hits, but this film marks his comeback to production after a highly-publicised bankruptcy; director Steven Lisberger cut an excellent debut with Tron but bombed with his stab at light comedy Hot Pursuit (unreleased here); and the writer seems to have penned a lot of films nobody’s ever heard of. Certainly the script must carry much of the guilt, because even an astonising supporting cast (cameos from Robbie Coltrane, Rita Wolf, Ben Kingsley, F. Murray Abraham, Roshan Seth, Heathcote Williams…) can make nothing of the dialogue and relationships they’re expected to carry. But there was some strange acting also in Tron – Jeff Bridges’ strained delivery had much in common with Paxton’s here – and some of the problems are very deep. For instance, the locations intercut Cappadocia with the Yorkshire Dales, which would probably be okay for transatlantic customers to whom they’re not familiar, except that of course they don’t look anything like each other. Again, considering the premise of the scenario, there seems surprisingly little wind around most of the time, and little trace of its effects in the human landscape. Huge tracts of ineffectual explanatory dialogue draw notice to glaring inadequacies of plot and motivation; and the pace and editing are so haphazard, presumably after many weary recuts, that ends of scenes seem decided by a pin in the script. It’s hard to convey the kind of numb horror that comes over you as you watch this queue of bewildered people commit acts of ritual potlatch with large-denomination banknotes. It’s like a slow-motion replay of the Suez crisis, as if we were trying to fool the world our film industry was still an imperial power. You find yourself hoping against hope it was just Kuwaiti money.

How pleasing, then, to one’s pride in the national heritage to be able to turn to a load of utter cod’s bollocks like The Lair of the White Worm. Bram Stoker’s much-admired, little-read novel of Edwardian stirrings in the naughty reaches of the limbic system cried out to be filmed in the eighties; whether it cried out to be filmed by Ken Russell is a matter for discriminating judgment, but at least this is Russell’s best in years. (I’d actually have little hesitation in saying it’s his best ever, but others find more than I can in his sixties product.) And most of what I liked a lot about it, once you get past the obligatory trip-o-color video effects and mass impalings of nuns, is that at heart it’s an old-fashioned all-British horror cheapie in the tradition of golden-age Hammers.

And oh, how they ham… Amanda Donohue is the immortal and scantily-clad priestess of a prehistoric serpent god lurking deep beneath the moors, and appeased by the periodic sacrifice of a virgin to the greedy snake. (Oh yes, it’s all on this level.) This year’s model is scrumptious Catherine Oxenberg, left to fend along with kid sister Sammi Davis by running a guest house for visiting Scottish archaeologists like Peter Capaldi. (Why does he have to be Scottish? It would be too kind to say further…) Only a year ago their parents tragically-and-mysteriously disappeared and the bodies have never been found; and now the ancient skull of a gigantic serpent turns up amid Roman remains excavated under their lawn, the site of an ancient convent fallen to ruin. The dashing new Lord of the local manor (Hugh Grant) recalls the family legend of his ancestor the first Lord D’Ampton (geddit), and how he slew a great Worm at the very cavern where traces of the missing couple have been found! But will our heroes assemble the clues in time to prevent Lady Donohue from raising the serpent and renewing her vows in a bloodbath of innocent life…?

The great thing about all this is the way the unique Hammer style has been deftly and immaculately transposed for the eighties. How can you cast a Hammer classic without Peter Wyngarde, Hazel Court, Martine Beswick, and their irreplaceable kith? Just look around, is Russell’s solution: they’re here, only the names in the credits change. Davis and Oxenberg scream fetchingly in designer frocks and never let their feelings about the dialogue slip; while Donohue is a true Joan Collins for the style-mag era, a great English vamp in the aristocratic mould. The boys have more trouble with their lines – Grant, who has been in ostensibly serious British films, has occasional difficulty holding the giggles – but they’re well used, and it’s nice to see a fine character comedian like Capaldi, whose unobtrusive work redeemed Dangerous Acquaintances, getting cast. The script has a nostalgic flavour of having been dashed off in a single draft over a wet weekend, and the set pieces are managed with suitably lurid gusto.

Lair of the White Worm’s a modest, certainly a slapdash, entertainment, but hard to loathe. By contrast, I watched Lair back-to-back with a second new Brit shocker, a wholly odious Jekyll/Hyde remake called Edge of Sanity that dumps Tony Perkins and Glynis Barber into a cynical if belated exploitation of Ripper nostalgia. Lacking all the wit and humanity of the Hammer classic Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde, it exchanges everything of value in our native fantasy film heritage for the sadistic exposure and mutilation of a series of actresses in anachronistic fetish makeup and underwear. Like Lair, it’s a calculated shot at emulating the grand tradition of British horror twenty years on; like Slipstream, I’m astonished and mortified it could get made at all. Stick with the Russell, and go see Munchausen or Paperhouse if you’re seriously hot for the best of British. Just keep this puddle of spew at a savoury distance.

Nick Lowe has been dispensing Mutant Popcorn for Interzone since 1985. By day he teaches Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London, where his books include The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative (2000) and Comedy (2009).

Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn appears in each issue of Interzone. Subscribe to the print magazine to get it delivered directly to your door, six times a year.

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