I've got a soft spot for batshit-crazy moviemakers. David Lynch and Terry Gilliam are shining examples. And their predecessor, Ken Russell, whose output includes: straightforward but somehow still excessive literary adaptations like Women in Love and The Rainbow; wacked-out biographies like Valentino and The Music Lovers; and wild wallows in imagery (and often heavy-handed symbolism) like The Devils, Tommy, and this movie – Lair of the White Worm.
Based (I've no idea how faithfully) on a novel by Bram Stoker that I haven't read and haven't heard anything good about, Lair of the White Worm isn't a good movie, nor is it particularly frightening, but it is a comical, ghoulish, and entertaining exercise in absurdity.
Somewhere in England, paleontologist Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi) unearths a vaguely reptilian skull while digging on the site of an ancient convent. Despite the fact that Flint's excavation is a whopping two feet deep, the skull is incredibly ancient, and doesn't match up with any known species living or extinct. The find happens on the day Lord D'ampton (Hugh Grant, not stammering at all for a change) hosts his annual party where he re-enacts the myth of his ancestor slaying a fearsome, giant worm that terrorized the area a thousand years ago. Not at all coincidentally, local noblewoman Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe, the main reason to see the movie) arrives back from vacation. Lady Sylvia is an interesting sort who gads around in fetishistic clothes like thigh-high leather boots and tricorne hats (no idea why, but it is easy on the eyes!) and is very prone to double-entendres involving snakes.
The movie kicks into high gear with its first official wacky moment: young innocent Eve (Catherine Oxenberg is a beautiful blank slate) has a hallucination that involves nuns being attacked and raped by Roman soldiers while a giant white serpent twins around a crucified Christ and bites Christ's arm off. Oh, and Lady Sylvia is in the vision too. Did I mention that Eve and her sister Mary (nope, no loaded names here!) are orphans, their parents having mysteriously vanished when they were near Lady Sylvia's property? Just a coincidence, I'm sure.
As with all the Russell films I've seen, it's impossible to tell if the director's often outlandish style and imagery are mean to evoke laughter or he's just on a different wavelength than the rest of us. Lair of the White Worm hits a note wrong for every note it hits right, and the result is not a melody but a jangle. A prime example is Grant's dream sequence, involving snake imagery, a flight on a Lear jet with the female cast as catfighting stewardesses, and some ludicrous phallic symbolism. It somehow works, except when it doesn't.
The same can be said for the cast. It's Donohoe's show all the way, and her Lady Sylvia should be an icon for females in the horror genre: intelligent, beautiful, and supremely confident. But we know even before she gets dolled up in fangs, blue body paint, snake eyes, and a really scary strap-on that she's not at all human. Donohoe brings a serpentine quality to her walk, and she even sleeps in a basket. In the best, most subtle touch, she flicks her tongue as a snake would before she kisses a man. Grant is surprisingly good, free of the annoying mannerisms he's well known for. His character is heroic but strangely remote, with a detached "well isn't that the damnedest thing!" air even when he's being attacked by vampire snake-women.
Less successful are the other cast members. Oxenberg and Sammi Davis (who plays Mary) exist to need rescuing. Capaldi is more or less forgettable, and his character is absurdly well-prepared for the climactic showdown, bringing both a mongoose and a grenade along. Yeah.
It's an outlandish romp that somehow doesn't have the cult reputation it deserves, probably because Russell's influence was on the wane by 1988 (his heyday was the 1970s). Sadly, the Artisan DVD doesn't do the movie justice, giving it a mediocre transfer and no extras whatsoever. (I've heard there's an earlier, out-of-print edition that has a commentary by Russell – now that I'd like to hear.) It's too bad, because this nutty movie deserves better.