Whatever else one may say about Ken Russell and his films, it must be admitted that no one else makes anything like them. That, in and of itself, is praise of some sort. Originality is always hard to come by. Russell delights in the outrageous, the bizarre, even in the tacky. Yet he is a major film talent, with great visual gifts. Which means that whenever Russell makes a new film, you never can tell what you're going to get. Maybe it will be The Music Lovers, Women in Love, Mahler, or Crimes of Passion. On the other hand, it might be Salome's Last Dance or Lisztomania. Part of the fun of seeing a new Ken Russell movie is finding out which Ken Russell made it.
The Lair of the White Worm is vintage, though minor, Ken Russell. It's deliciously ludicrous and just barely under control. Working from a turn of the century horror novel by Bram Stoker, Russell updates and subverts the horror/adventure genre in his own peculiar way. The results are rarely terrifying, but usually thoroughly entertaining. The year has yet to produce a stranger film.
The story begins with a Scottish archeologist unearthing a huge snakelike skull from a small excavation of a Norman convent. Soon, the pretty sisters who run the hotel on which the excavation took place are entangled in sinister doings concerning local legends of a great white worm, pagan religion, and a mysterious Lady. Can the valiant archeologist and the local lord, a descendant of a legendary worm-slayer, save the poor girls from Certain Doom?
Russell, who also wrote the screenplay, has taken a most unusual approach to the story. Originally set, of course, around the turn of the century, Russell moves it into modern times. But he keeps the flavor of Victorian adventure novels. With the tiniest of clues, the heros spin incredible, yet utterly correct, theories that require complete rethinkings of their world views. And the most unlikely ideas work - this is a film where one can turn up a mongoose in Midland England on a moment's notice, or where one's pater is certain to have some snake-charming music in his old collection of North African gramophone records. On the other hand, Russell has injected a liberal dose of sex, much of it kinky, that Stoker surely did not include in the novel. He lets no opportunity pass to point out the phallic significance of snakes. Russell deftly turns cartwheels along a knife's edge between the delightfully silly and the naively charming, balancing a metaphoric ball of perversion on his nose.
The film is also visually interesting. Russell is bold with his camerawork, as always, and, as always, can be counted on to provide a distinctive visual style to his films. In this case, he and cameraman Dick Bush provide two - one for the "real world", and one for a set of visions inspired by snake venom. In the real world, he moves the camera smoothly and unobtrusively, lights the scenes with a fair number of sinister shadows, and frequently recourses to wide angle lens to distort the picture, sometimes slightly, sometimes wildly. In the visions, Russell overlights and flattens the shots, uses garish colors, snaps jarringly from one shot to the next, and, generally, makes everything look cheap and sleazy. One has definitely left one world and entered another when he switches styles.
Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the film is Russell's attention to details. He is absolutely serious about being silly, so, when the evil villainess picks up a hitchhiker for nefarious purposes, it is, of course, a Boy Scout. Where does she spend her sleeping hours? In an Indian snake basket, of course. And her favorite game is Snakes and Ladders.
Russell extends this attention to detail into the characters. The local lord has a wonderfully odd butler who obviously has no respect for his master and is prone to fall into vaguely lewd reminiscences of his adventures with the previous lord. His expression on being told to lock the chambermaids in their rooms is almost worth the price of admission on its own.
In general, Russell's actors give him precisely what he wants - straight-faced performances despite the general silliness. The heros keep their upper lips stiff despite appalling dangers, the heroines scream on cue, and the supporting players die in stereotype. The one exception, well calculated, is Amanda Donohoe who plays the sinister villainess, conveying not only the menace of the character, but an amusing self-awareness about just how dotty her religion is. Catherine Oxenberg and Sammi Davis play the girls, while Peter Capaldi and Hugh Grant (last seen as the aristocrat in Maurice) play the archeologist and the lord, respectively.
One could not really say that The Lair of the White Worm is a good film, but it certainly isn't a dull one. Russell has never done anything quite like it before, yet it bears his distinctive mark and could not possibly have been made by anyone else. One leaves the theater wondering that he actually made this film, and that somebody gave him millions of dollars to do it, and that, against all odds, The Lair of the White Worm was actually quite entertaining.
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