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In 1972, making a horror film was a safe way to start a career: almost anything screen-able could get a release, and if your show had enough shock value, it might even get positive critical attention. Some Americans operating in London made a surprisingly serious and truly horrible horror about cannibalism. More importantly, it's a non-nihilistic story with a heart behind its wicked sense of political humor. Some movies seem to change over time. Back when new, this one seemed little more than a parade of rotting corpses, interrupted by scenes with the police and a pair of student lovers. Although one's personal reaction depends on one's diet of horror pictures, the gore is now less disturbing, and the film's characters seem more meaningful.
In 1972, everyone knew what kind of audiences went to see a movie called Death Line, or, in America, Raw Meat. This show remained relatively obscure for quite a while, if only because it had content unsuitable for TV broadcasts, without extensive editing. But the critics always loved Gary Sherman's morbid epic beneath the streets of London. Lauded in reference books like the Hardy Encyclopedia of Horror, rumors persisted that Death Line was a Guignol masterpiece apart from and superior to the general line of commercial exploitation.
Death Line is well directed and acted and doesn't show the frayed technical edges that mar many another low budget horror -- the celebrated The Sorcerers, for instance. Sherman's movie is much more than an exercise in vintage cannibal gore. Good intentions and an intelligent approach count for something.
The story works because its police-procedural underpinnings are highly entertaining in themselves. When an important personage, OBE James Manfred (James Cossins) disappears in a London Underground station, a series of missing persons mysteries finally receives police attention. But Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasance) and Detective Rogers (Norman Rossington) are made unhappy when M.I.5 agent Stratton-Villiers (Christopher Lee) warns them off the case. Calhoun's only clue is the testimony of a young couple, Patricia Wilson (Sharon Gurney) and American Alex Campbell (David Ladd). More unexplained bloody murders take place in the same station. The culprit (Hugh Armstrong) is a man lost to modern history, a savage survivor of tunnel workers buried eighty years before, living as a secret underground society.
CBS' 60 Minutes once aired a famous story on the myriad catacombs and tunnels under New York City. The urban myths about giant alligators may have been false, but the newsmen did indeed find hundreds of homeless people living in the systems of abandoned tunnels and passages unknown to modern-day subway riders. Yes, one could live rent-free in the heart of Manhattan, but the view was lousy.
Death Line does strain credibility somewhat to suggest that dozens of workers given up for dead in 1892 could have survived and procreated for four or five generations in an underground world, like H.G. Wells' Morlocks of The Time Machine. Now only two are alive, filthy and diseased, covered with open sores. The Man (Armstrong) snatches unwary late-night travelers, hangs them on hooks in a rat-infested gallery, and eats them. While working among all this carnage, he ministers tenderly to his pregnant, dying wife, The Woman (June Turner).
Commuters have apparently been disappearing regularly at this particular Underground stop for eighty years, but only now does anyone take any notice; the pre- C.H.U.D. cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers have been going about their business all this time. The last two survivors have lost the gift of speech. The Man's only understandable words are "Mind the doors," the common call heard in the stations as trains prepare to leave.
Death Line has been lauded on several counts. It's directed with unexpected sensitivity. A much-praised single-take trucking and panning sequence introduces the underground world. Starting on a close-up of rats and maggots around a half-eaten hand, it slowly pans across numerous mutilated corpses, comes full circle back to the hand and the rat, and then goes past the awful spectacle of The Man trying to comfort The Woman to reveal a large underground room where parts of the original tunnel workers still stick out of the rubble of a cave-in. Resources clock this slow-creep bravura shot at 8-plus minutes, but it appears to have two disguised cuts. The first 5-plus minute section attaches to a close-up of a bloodstained brick wall with a fade to black, and segues to a long truck down a tunnel with the aid of a nicely timed wipe. By any reckoning, it's an impressive, moody slice of extended horror, a tour of a slaughterhouse with Guanajuato-like cadavers. It's definitely not something one expects to see in a low-budget horror movie. The only thing that tops it for grisly art direction is the wondrously fearful house setting seen in Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which has less gore but much more dreadful evidence of cannibalism.
The two subterranean cannibals are supposed to have been the last survivors of an alternate mini-society beneath London. Betrayed and abandoned by capitalists in 1892 (the money ran out, so the company just declared them lost and moved on), they've lived ever since as a feral counterculture. It's a shaky concept, for to survive they'd have to find a food source, and if they could do that, escape would be possible. The film wisely doesn't go into detail, causing us to theorize that the buried workmen ate each other, and the last one became insane before he found an upward passage back to the newer tunnels of the London Underground. From that point forward he'd kidnap women to perpetuate his cannibal clan. Is Death Line yet another '70s movie about an alternative lifestyle?
It's a difficult concept for the screen, because the form of the horror film is designed to deliver shocks, not anthropological theories. The writers and director Sherman comment on the cannibal couple by comparing them to the modern young students that stumble upon The Man's depredations. The students have to deal with societal disapproval as well. Inspector Calhoun is our favorite character, but he alienates Alex and Patricia with disapproving insinuations that they are using drugs and having sex. That Alex already dislikes cops doesn't help get to the bottom of the mystery, or to help keep Patricia safe.
Genre reviewers almost always mention the film's extraordinary attitude toward the savage survivor, The Man. He's an incoherent, slobbering bogeyman-slayer but also a gentle and loving companion for The Woman. If there's a coherent sub-message to Death Line, it's that the basic human unit hasn't developed all that much beyond the troglodytic savagery of the past. We can be benign and sweet in our treatment of our loved ones, but we often behave as hostile barbarians to those outside our immediate tribe.
The police procedural elements are not meaningless, like the scenes that pad out Scream and Scream Again. Instead of walking through the role, Donald Pleasance creates a marvelously cynical policeman who constantly gives his staff grief, adding endearingly caustic bits of business involving tea bags and darts. He's likeable and serious, especially his interactions with his subordinates. Inspector Calhoun expresses his contempt for the class hierarchy that sees mysterious disappearances ignored until somebody important becomes a victim. Were the movie to place Calhoun at the center of the action, the show would be 100% successful instead of merely memorably diverting. Actor Norman Rossington played the Beatles' manager back in A Hard Days' Night), so carries a positive charge as well. Pleasance and Rossington discover that the VIP victim was a secret porn-meister, another plot notion that goes nowhere, except to fulfill the commercial demand that all upper-class types be corrupt.
Another diversion pointing up the class-consciousness theme gives Christopher Lee a good moment as a snooty government agent for Pleasance to get angry at. Crime solvers in London are far more concerned with competitive jurisdiction than justice; Calhoun keeps referring to the necessity of defending his 'manor' (turf). Chris Lee showed up in so many one-scene cameo roles in horror films that we no longer expect his parts to be longer -- that's just what he was doing around this time.
For viewers not accustomed to outrageously morbid gore, Death Line will be a real shocker. The slow reveal of scores of rotting corpses reduced to hunks of meat and being gnawed by rats is potentially skin-crawling material. Then again, it's scarcely more explicit than the plastic corpses we've seen on NCIS for the last dozen years. The storyline is short on incident and long on atmosphere -- with some highly effective violent surprises. The Man attacks some maintenance workers, and the script reverts to basic suspense when our young heroine is kidnapped and held as the savage man's potential new companion. The intrepid boyfriend bulls his way into the tunnels ahead of the police, setting us up for a final confrontation. Of course, the highest dread quotient comes as we await the moment when Patricia, Alex and even the cops stumble on The Man's lair and try to make sense of it all. Even the cynical cop Calhoun is impressed with the carnage.
Director Sherman's work far outclasses that of Gordon Hessler and most of the so-called stylists bumbling about in the Hammer films of the early '70s. The police procedural scenes have weight and balance, and Sherman's camera's explorations of the underground world are truly impressive. The violence is well shot, and the film does generate a little suspense to go with its dread. And the spooky atmosphere is well sustained. When the view holds on a deep tunnel with men slowly making their way in the darkness, it doesn't play like padding.
The camerawork is very good, especially in the underground chambers where the presence of source lighting has natural credibility problems. The set decoration and slaughterhouse detail are effective without being too exploitative; the makeup of the feral couple is truly repulsive. Call it a Guignol freak show with restraint. When The Man attacks a bunch of rats, he kills one by biting its head off, and spitting it out. Along with the drool and pus that leak out of this unlikely leading character, that moment really sells us on Death Line being a horror original. Not 100% successful ... but original.
Producer Paul Maslansky is the most interesting participant in the show. He started out with novice director Michael Reeves and spent the 1960s and '70s stumbling from one clever-sounding project to another without ever having a breakthrough success: Castle of the Living Dead, The Revenge of the Blood Beast, Race with the Devil, Damnation Alley, Circle of Iron, Hard Times. Maslansky finally struck gold with a genuine horror, the seemingly endless Police Academy series. Such is life. Director Sherman kicked around without a solid hit either. Dead and Buried has its devotees (I liked it, it was scary) but his 1990 low budget suspenser Lisa is a major snooze. Actor David Ladd is the son of Alan and the brother of Alan Ladd Jr., one of the film's producers who for several years ran the MGM studio.
Blue Underground gives their Blu-ray + DVD of Death Line a superb transfer that, with the added resolution of HD, brings new life to the film. No longer mushy or washed out, the dark 'n' dank scenes in the subterranean world below the Underground are simply excellent. Cameraman Alex Thompson was Nicolas Roeg's regular operator before breaking out on his own. He'd later apply himself to much more stylized shows, like The Keep. For this effort he stays naturalistic.
Great care was taken with the audio, and this transfer renders it in detail -- the sound effect environment in the cannibals' lair is quite sophisticated for the year of production.
BU's extras are exemplary as well, covering the entire story of the filming in depth. A commentary sees the proud filmmakers Gary Sherman and Paul Maslansky joined by their A.D., Lewis More O'Farrall. Producer-interviewer David Gregory gives us a trio of excellent featurettes. Sherman, exec producer Alan Ladd Jr, and co-executive producer Jay Kanter hold a great 20-minute conversation revealing everything about the show's genesis. We're told that Jonathan Demme was involved at the very beginning. We also learn more about screenwriter Ceri Jones, for whom Death Line was a solitary film credit.
A second, slightly shorter interview places actor David Ladd opposite Paul Maslansky, and a third piece allows actor Hugh Armstrong to cover his entire career. As is Blue Underground's M.O., we get a bushel of other extras. Trailers for both titled versions appear, as well as TV spots, radio spots, an advertising archive, etc. Insert pamphlet essays by Michael Gingold and Christopher Gullo cover much of the content of the interviews and commentary. Jeremy Rose's title music tries for something different, and sounds pretty good.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Death Line Blu-ray + DVD
Movie: Very Good +
Supplements: Commentary with Gary Sherman, Paul Maslansky, and assistant director Lewis More O'Ferrall; Tales From The Tube, interview with Gary Sherman and executive producers Jay Kanter & Alan Ladd Jr.; From The Depths: interview with David Ladd and producer Paul Maslansky; Mind The Doors: interview with Hugh Armstrong. Trailers for both versions, TV spots and radio spots for Death Line; art galleries; insert booklet with essays by Michael Gingold and Christopher Gullo.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, French, Spanish (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray and one DVD disc in keep case
Reviewed: June 12, 2017