Ken Russell’s The Lair of the White Worm makes an ideal companion piece to the filmmaker’s earlier Gothic. Both films engage the “foundation myths” of modern horror with Russell’s characteristic cheeky humor and phantasmagorical style. Gothic expands on the “haunted summer” that Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, and John Polidori spent at the Villa Diodati in 1816, swigging laudanum by the bottle and scaring themselves silly with German ghost stories. Their spectral séances inspired the creation of both Frankenstein and the first modern vampire tale, The Vampyre. Loosely based on Bram Stoker’s final novel, The Lair of the White Worm allows Russell to surreptitiously sneak in elements of Dracula, effectively grafting an outbreak of slithery vampirism onto Stoker’s outré story about an enormous subterranean serpent that just might be a pagan deity.
Like The Devils before it, The Lair of the White Worm explores the conflict between Christianity and paganism (read: authority and rebellion), albeit in a far more humorous manner this time out. The film explicitly refers to a practice common in Britain: situating a Christian convent or monastery on a site previously held sacred by pagan worship. When the film’s resident pagan priestess, Lady Sylvia (Amanda Donohoe), catches sight of a crucifix on the wall of the Trent home, her response is a viperous hiss straight out of Hammer’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness. The “rebel emperor” Marcus Carausius, whose statue Lady Sylvia proudly exhibits in her foyer, is an authentic historical personage, though his penchant for monstrous white serpents remains conspicuously undocumented.
Later, the aptly named Eve Trent (Catherine Oxenberg) discovers the poison-spattered cross, and coming into contact with the venom triggers a disturbing hallucination, a barbarous act of rape by Roman centurions, not unlike the more hysterical visions visited on the Ursuline nuns in The Devils. Russell’s films fairly teem with trances, hallucinations, and deliriums, to the extent that Altered States would work as an alternate title for any of them. The Lair of the White Worm is no exception, its visions of violation and rape rendered in chunkily pixelated video that only makes them seem all the odder. Russell layers visual elements—faces, bodies, flames—into the video footage using chroma-key compositing, achieving a disorienting surrealist-collage effect. Russell even throws in an unabashedly Freudian dream sequence, as a mischievous nod to Hitchcock’s Spellbound—except, of course, Hitch’s film never boasted catfights between flight attendants and phallic Sharpies.
Russell’s vision of a predatory aristocracy literally feeding off the lower classes supplies some caustic satire on Thatcherism, Britain’s own brand of “trickle-down” Reaganomics. It also works as an indignant riposte to the appreciative fawning over upper-crust chicness evident in the predominant “cinema of quality” of the Merchant-Ivory vein. Russell sprinkles his film with irreverent sight gags, including a few parodic swipes at his titular beastie, in the shape of a lawn hose or vacuum cleaner that somehow manages to entangle the film’s characters. Moreover, the acerbically witty dialogue often playfully alludes to serpentine matters, as when Sir James D’Ampton (Hugh Grant) offers to give Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi) a lift with the line: “Slither in.”
The Lair of the White Worm cheerfully spoofs a plethora of films and genres; archeological artefacts that exert a baleful influence over their discoverers feature prominently in “folk horror” films like Blood on Satan’s Claw. The entendre-laden exchanges between James D’Ampton and Sylvia Marsh recall Noël Coward’s Private Lives. And the whole idea of the idle class turning detective evokes every Agatha Christie film ever made. The final scene merges echoes of John Carpenter’s The Thing—two characters, one or both of whom are likely infected, eye each other warily—with the sense of triumphant evil loosed upon the world reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s revisionist Nosferatu remake. But the mood of gleeful mischievousness is all Russell’s own.
Lionsgate's 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer looks bright and clean overall, even if the image sometimes inclines toward softness. Colors can vary in intensity according to lighting schemes; overall, the film's visual palette effectively contrasts muted earth tones and more vibrant primary hues, especially in the effects-laden finale. Grain levels are well-managed, and there's little evidence of crushed blacks. The Master Audio stereo track sounds full-bodied, putting across Stanislas Syrewicz's score (not to mention that rollicking punk-folk ballad) with some real dynamism.
Ken Russell's commentary track is alternately extremely funny, self-deprecating, and full of anecdotal information. Some of the most interesting bits concern the authentic folklore and historical incidents that contribute to what Russell likes to call the "documentary quality" of an otherwise utterly fantastical film. The commentary track with Lisi Russell and Matthew Melia strikes a nice balance between personal insight and analysis, and it's particularly strong when pointing out similarities between The Lair of the White Worm and other Russell films, as well as situating the film in the context of 1980s British cinema. In "Worm Food," Geoffrey Portass, Neil Gorton, and Paul Jones discuss their early days with Imagine Animation, working on The Lair of the White Worm and Hellraiser II simultaneously, reveal how they accomplished various makeup and creature effects, and recount some amusing on-set anecdotes involving temperamental directors and disrobed nuns. In "Cutting for Ken," editor Peter Davies talks about his initially strained relationship with the filmmaker, then relates Russell's directorial mandate for the hallucinatory rape scene: "All right, Romans, bonking positions!" Producer Dan Ireland admits in his "Trailers from Hell" segment that Hugh Grant remains embarrassed to this day by the film, and further claims that Tilda Swinton (Russell's first choice for Lady Sylvia) was so offended when she read the script that she never returned the director's phone calls. Sammi Davis fondly recalls working back-to-back on Lair of the White Worm and The Rainbow, Russell's Women in Love prequel.
Ken Russell’s bonkers The Lair of the White Worm makes its Blu-ray debut with a clean, colorful transfer—and a slate of solid supplements—from Lionsgate’s recently inaugurated Vestron Video Collector’s Series imprint.