The Lair of the White Worm

The Lair of the White Worm ★★★½

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Film #31

“Do you have any children?”
“Only when there are no men around.”

This is a forgotten little gem from Ken Russell featuring impossibly young versions of Hugh Grant and Peter Capaldi (who looks an awful lot like Harold Ramis in Stripes). It has a retro (for 1988) feel to it, either parody or homage to the Hammer Horrors of the Sixties or the Roger Corman/Vincent Price series of Poe adaptations where Amanda Donahoe is basically the Vincent Price character here as Lady Sylvia Marsh. Only a Tilda Swinton, who was offered the role but turned it down, could have played the gleefully wicked woman better as the priestess to the legendary “d'Ampton Worm” (not so 'legendary' it turns out) in the guise of a jet-setting old-money aristo. Grant as her neighbor Lord James d'Ampton is equally great in a somewhat concerned/somewhat aloof way his noblesse oblige demands of him. Since this is a Ken Russell film there's plenty of surreal scenes featuring religious desecration and craven carnality (à la the trippy visions William Hurt experiences in Altered States) that illustrate the war of “good” (modern, christian, patriarchal) versus “bad” (ancient, pagan, matriarchal). Russell's no stranger to religious or sexual controversy in his films and one can see sly references in the satire he's laying out in LotWW. English countryside of Staffordshire and Derbyshire with it's caves, rolling hills and moors and the “Wayne Manor” house in Knebworth creates the perfect Gothic atmosphere.

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