Ken Russell has made some 'crazy-ass' movies. You know the ones, not just by him but by other directors. There's no definition in the dictionary for these movies, but you know them when you see them (Terry Gilliam has made a few, Neveldine/Taylor east-sleep-breathe them, David Lynch thinks they're relatively normal, and it's Jodorowsky's religion). Russell doesn't always make movies that have flipped their lid, and indeed his best film, the much controversial The Devils has its brilliance by being a straightforward drama with its crazy-ass quality threatening to break down the hatches. The Lair of the White Worm, however, needs its crazy-ass-movie quality in order to keep afloat. It's like Russell is an addict for the visually inspired and horrifically imbalanced when it comes to showing the nightmare side of horror. And in this case, circa 1988, he's not making a horror movie for the Cineplex-masses, heavens no. He wouldn't stoop so low as that, at least in his estimation.
In this 'adapted from a novel by Bram "Dracula" Stoker', we get the story of an archaeologist who has discovered a large skull in his excavation site, and it turns out to be something that is not really dinosaur related. It's a skull of a White Worm, a monster that has been a mythological being (that is, just a "myth" for the townsfolk) for centuries. But not so for a Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe) who swoops right in and takes the skull right out from under the archaeologist's nose. From here she goes on to do what any evil witchy-woman would do: gather up some virgins, bite and infect anyone that gets near her, and make sure to sacrifice one of them for the worm itself to rise up.
|No relation to Mystique|
So not only is there some freaky mythological stuff that brews about, but some statements on religion. How deep this all is doesn't matter too much except to say that Russell really loves getting wild with lots of Christian-Pagan imagery. When a character touches something, for example, like a crucifix that has come into contact with the Lady Marsh or her venom, many delightfully horrible of people writihing in fire and around another crucifix with the big white worm coming around and madness all abound, you get where Russell is going with it (or, as Beavis from Beavis & Butt-head might put it, it's like a music video). This is only some of the time that we get such crazy commentary - that is except when Marsh expounds upon how silly Christianity is, with its "locked away virgins (nuns)", and loves much more the more truthful, radical pagan ways... such as stabbing a virgin with a large phallic tusk as a sign of fertility to the non-Gods.
Some of what Russell pulls off, and his wise casting of a British femme fatale like Donohoe in the role, is inspired. Other times, he just decides to get silly. For example, a young Hugh Grant (and, appropriately, playing a stuffy upper-class gent who has a stake in the town), gets bad-ass at one point and actually gets medieval with a sword on one of the possessed creatures. I never believed for a moment that Grant was really a bad-ass, but Russell's fun with the scene, and how Grant plays it, makes it come as close as Grant has any right to be as one. So, in short, it becomes a cool moment. Another comes in the last half hour as the now enraged Angus Flint archaeologist goes to fight back against the worm-demon people and uses, you guessed it, bagpipes. In really one of the funniest moments (and I'm sure Russell must know it as well) only a little blood is spilled, near the end, and the rest of it is a kind of defensive fighting - with bagpipe music.
Russell is making, in a sense, a kind of Hammer Films camp version of something that could be more serious (if not the Devils something of its controversial religious side). He also has a great knack for fetishizing certain images, such as Donohoe's legs, or certain objects in her house. I don't know if it really has the power to stick with me the way The Devils or Altered States did as real mind-fuckers, but it doesn't shy away from being dark and disturbing, for not backing away from the 'sacrificing virgins' bit, and it takes a piss out of this kind of movie as it could have likewise been by a Hammer production. It's bold, stupid, dangerous and just this side of nearing cult-classic territory, though not quite.