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Posts Tagged ‘Donald Pleasance’

Gary Sherman’s 1972 debut Death Line (known in the US as Raw Meat) could almost get lost in the crowd of British horror movies that were released in the early seventies: Hammer, Amicus and Tigon were all still going concerns at the time, on top of which there were assorted independent productions usually knocking off the style of one of the foregoing. The fact that it features two very distinguished actors – Donald Pleasence and Christopher Lee – somehow only serves to make it more anonymous, because if there’s one thing that unites low-budget British horror movies as a subgenre, it’s the quality of their casts.

First on screen during the opening credits is James Cossins, a capable character actor who made a lot of appearances as slightly pompous authority figures. Here he plays a bowler-hatted establishment chap embarked upon a nocturnal tour of the seedier spots of London’s nightlife. The image slides in and out of focus as the credits appear, a brash piece of radiophonic-sounding music plays, somehow both jaunty and ominous; your expectations start to creep up. The credits conclude with Cossins on the platform at Russell Square underground station in central London, soliciting a passing woman (yes, he’s that big a sleaze). She declines his understated advances and he becomes aware that he is, perhaps, being watched.

Shortly afterwards, a couple of students (imported American David Ladd and obscure Brit Sharon Gurney) get off the last train of the night and find Cossins’ character sprawled on the platform steps, not at all in a good way. Ladd’s character, Alex, doesn’t want to get involved with what he assumes is just a drunk sleeping it off, but his girlfriend Pat is more compassionate and help is duly fetched… but in the meantime the body has mysteriously vanished.

Alex is inclined to forget the whole incident, but the police are now involved and procedures have to be followed. Assigned to the case is Calhoun (Pleasence), an abrasive and sardonic working-class police detective, who is initially inclined just to do the minimal work and forget all about it. But it turns out that the man Alex and Pat found really has gone missing, and was a significant government figure. Calhoun’s initial investigations also turn up the curious fact that there have been a string of missing persons cases, all connected to the Russell Square tube station. Is something fishy actually going on?

Calhoun’s research into the station reveals something of a tragic history: construction of a new station in 1892 was halted by the collapse of the tunnels in the area, and the loss of many of the workers who were working at the time. However, he is warned off the case by an MI5 operative (Lee), at least until two more dead bodies turn up at the station… and forensic results indicate they were killed by someone rather unusual…

What, you may be wondering, are Alex and Pat up to all this time? Well, not much. They fall out. She comes back to him though. They help Calhoun and his assistant (Norman Rossington) with some follow-up enquiries. Basically they just sort of tick over as characters until the third act of the movie, where Pat gets properly menaced by the thing in the tunnels and Alex has to try and rescue her. This is probably just as well as David Ladd isn’t a particularly good actor (he eventually quit the profession and became a producer like his half-brother Alan – who was involved in the making of this film, too).

Much of the movie is concerned with another character, anyway. Death Line would probably be much better known – as a full-blown cult movie rather than an obscure oddity – if the initial casting choice had worked out. The character in question is the killer lurking in the underground, who is an insane, inbred, plague-ridden, cannibalistic descendant of the workers who were trapped eighty years earlier (he’s basically a sort of morlock but without the technical nous). In the final movie this character (credited as The Man) is played by Hugh Armstrong, but the initial choice for the part – and this particular little trivia factoid is so utterly bizarre I simply didn’t believe it when I first heard it – was Marlon Brando, who had to drop out due to a family crisis. (It would have been interesting to see how a devotee of the Method approached this kind of role.)

As all the cannibal does in the movie is moan and gibber, shout ‘Mind the doors!’ (a phrase which echoes through the underworld of the tube lines many times a day), and molest people, you might be inclined to wonder what the hell Brando was thinking of. However, it’s telling that this is not exactly the kind of horror movie where the killer is a barely-glimpsed lurking shadow for much of the running time (vide Creep, a 2004 movie with Franka Potente which likewise deals with something horrid in the catacombs under London). This sort of resembles a slasher movie in a very loose way, there’s also obviously a suggestion of cannibalism, and even a touch of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the horrors of the cannibals’ lair – but there’s no real attempt to conceal the nature of the killer. There are long, arty shots drifting around the lair and the tunnels around it, with the situation of the Man and his partner (billed as, you guessed it, The Woman) depicted in some detail. You can see why the challenge of this role might have appeared to a ‘serious’ actor – he isn’t a joke shop monster by any means. The cannibals come across as pitiable unfortunates as much as objects of fear, and Sherman generates considerable pathos in his depiction of them. A little-known actor like Hugh Armstrong finds depth in this part: someone of Brando’s calibre might have done something really extraordinary with it.

As it is, though, most of the heavy lifting in the acting department is done by Donald Pleasence – Christopher Lee only appears in one scene, alas, and the odd thing about this is that he and Pleasence are barely on screen at the same time. (Lee did the movie because he wanted to work with Pleasence, but the foot-plus height difference between the two apparently made a conventional medium- or two-shot impossible.) Perhaps sensing that this is really quite a bleak, dour film, Pleasence goes into quirk overdrive to inject a bit of life into it – he’s too good an actor to ham it up, but there’s none of the quiet intensity he brings to some of his other famous horror roles. It’s an interesting performance, and certainly the best one in the film, but also slightly at odds with the general tenor of the thing.

In the end there is some jeopardy and running about and screaming, but very little sense of catharsis or relief that the world has somehow been made a better or safer please. The story almost fades out inconclusively. There is the odd shock, but the film is atmospheric rather than actually scary. In the end it’s a grim old tale, but interestingly different if you like these old horror movies, and certainly worth at least one watch.

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