You know you’re on a good film when the trailer promises “ultimate terror so fearful that no additional scenes can be shown in this preview”. I mean, you have to watch it after hearing that, right?
Actually, DEATH LINE is a really great picture, with the fabulous Donald Pleasance as the London police inspector making a complete hash of his investigation. Terence Pettigrew in his book British Film Character Actors says Pleasence has “the kind of piercing stare which lifts enamel off saucepans.”
The polite British title Death Line was a little too tame for American grindhouse cinema, and it was retitled Raw Meat and disguised as a zombie movie in the USA. The plot involves the last descendants of a dozen railway construction workers who were trapped in a cave-in in 1892 between Russell Square and Museum stations, and have survived in the abandoned tunnels, cut off from civilisation – the last survivors now live by catching and eating commuters on the Underground platforms.
Fortunately, the British are famously reticent on public transport and, once seated, would not even look up from their papers if someone was being eaten next to them. However, a couple of students find a man collapsed on the station steps and report him to the police, but he’s gone when they investigate. Of course, horror movies are morality tales, and the man is a VIP, an important civil servant, who has just come from a strip club and then propositioned a woman on the Russell Street tube station platform. Cannibals, in movies, tend to eat rude people.
Demented cannibals, cut off from civilisation and preying on unsuspecting travellers, hark back to the story of Sawney Bean and his incestuous family, who allegedly murdered and cannibalised more than a thousand men, women and children in 16th century Scotland. Of course, the idea goes back much further than that into antiquity, when anyone outside the centres of civilisation was assumed to be a monster, and probably a cannibal. Maps in the age of exploration would simply have the word “cannibals” written on any parts not yet charted. It’s an evergreen trope, seen over and over in films like Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes and the interminable number of Wrong Turn movies (we’ll get to those one day).
Being a British movie, it’s replete with class struggle. Donald Pleasance (no stranger to horror, having been in five Halloween movies and Prince of Darkness) is Inspector Calhoun, who feels he is lord of the manor in his neighbourhood, bullies his Detective Sergeant (Norman Rossington, the Beatles’ manager ‘Norm’ in Hard Day’s Night), drinks interminable cups of tea, and hates the students on sight.
Calhoun is told to stick to his greengrocers and dentists and leave the investigation of the rich and powerful to MI5, by the elegant figure of Christopher Lee (Dracula and, yes, Saruman from Lord of the Rings!) who reportedly took the part because he admired Pleasance and wanted to be in a film with him, but then they never appeared together, due to their height difference. The scene in which they clash, though, is a highlight of the film.
The cannibal/monster, credited as “The Man”, (a masterful performance by Hugh Armstrong) is dirty, diseased and aphasic (unable to speak – his only vocabulary is “Mind the door” which is what you hear interminably on the London Underground trains), but he is able to express a world of different emotions with these three words, including anger, enquiry, soothing and sorrow. He also has septicaemic plague, which for some reason does not feature much in the plot. Marlon Brando was going to take the role originally, but pulled out for family reasons.
The Man’s first appearance is when he has freshly killed the important guy and is trying unsuccessfully to revive the second-last cannibal – the last female of his clan. He finds a fob watch on his victim and places it tenderly on her chest, as he has done for all the other dead cannibals who are strewn around the abandoned station. His weeping and moaning, his gentle stroking and rough shaking, the blanket he wraps her in as he weeps, his despair and sudden, futile hope that she is still alive – well, it reminded me of King Lear, and also Boris Karloff in Frankenstein.
Foucault in Abnormal : Lectures at the Collège de France 1974-1975 spoke of the “popular monster” – the cannibal who eats the rich, as happened quite a lot during the French Revolution. Foucault specifies two kinds of monster: “the cannibal (the popular monster) and the incestuous (the princely monster)“. The princely monster, the sexually deviant civil servant, is eaten by the popular monster, “The Man”. Yet this film challenges the paradigm, because The Man, the popular monster, is also the prince of his domain (the abandoned tunnels) and presumably the product of the incestuous unions of his predecessors among the descendants of the construction workers. He is both kinds of monster, and still totally relatable and sympathetic – perhaps the most human of all the characters.
Of course, it is the rich who eat the poor most of the time, and so this story fits into the reality of class warfare. The film critic Robin Wood divided horror films into progressive or reactionary, depending on whether the monster is a sympathetic character or not – on that basis, this film about downtrodden and abandoned workers taking revenge on the hierarchies of snobbery above them is, well, revolutionary. The Man may eat the rich guy in the bowler hat (and a few maintenance workers), but he cannot win that war, mainly because the rich don’t take trains.
Indeed, the real monster in this film is the Underground train system with its interminable corridors and flights of steps, its dark, satanic tunnels and its squalid carriages, imbued with despair. Train stations, the dark tunnels and the impersonal screeching of the train itself are all terrifying.
The cinematography by Alex Thompson, who later shot Alien 3, is outstanding, and the film scored a very creditable 91% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with one reviewer stating:
“Yes, it’s a cannibal film, but it’s also a startlingly tender film about a literal underclass abandoned by the world above, a story that roils in class division.”