The Lair of the White Worm

The Lair of the White Worm ★★★

Chthonic, chintzy, and charmingly chilling, appreciating Ken Russell's cult-favorite The Lair of the White Worm is all about tone - when viewed as a legitimate horror flick, the Lair lacks luster, but when viewed as a delightfully weird horror-comedy, there's a lot to be loved even though punches are pulled in a relatively listless third act.

I first saw this 1986 adaptation of a Bram Stoker tale at around 2am one night in boarding school. Back then, I was mostly put off by the flick's oddly whimsical tone that somehow matched the now-signature mannerisms of some boyishly handsome British bloke (a young Hugh Grant) with shocking images of Roman soldiers raping nuns, a sexy snake lady, and a climax featuring a terribly-rendered giant alabaster phallus-beast. As a young man I was bewildered by Amanda Donahue’s serpentine performance as the fiendish worm-worshipper Lady Sylvia, and as the film progressed, I had the sense even back then that what I was watching would one day go on to be a cult classic.

The Halloween season beckoned me to revisit this film and I’m glad I had a chance to watch it with a fresh set of eyes. Amanda Donahue is perfectly casted as the immortal patron of the titular worm. Hugh Grant is also wonderful here as the heir to the ancestral lands once owned by the legendary worm-slayer, John D'Ampton. This was one of his first feature films and it is quite clear here how he became the darling of 90's and early 2000's rom-coms with his light tone and near effortless charm. Apparently in real life he was embarrassed by this film, or didn’t know what to make of its tone, which unabashedly strides the line between horror and camp. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Grant said:

"I'm not sure if it was meant to be horrific or funny. When I saw it, I roared with laughter. As ever, I get to play a sort of upper-class young man. I have some exciting things to do: I get to slay a giant worm with a big sword, cutting it in half. Very, very symbolic stuff.”

The 1980s were something of a golden era for horror comedies, with American Werewolf in London and Vampire’s Kiss serving as two prominent examples, but this sub-genre can often confuse audiences who go into the movies expecting one experience, while winding up with another experience entirely. What makes Lair somewhat unique and therefore difficult to categorize is that its humor is mostly centered in the comedic tone of its dialogue and the characters’ reactions to the weird events of the story, but not in the situations themselves. In other words, it’s not an inherently funny story, but its performed with a comedic tone and that makes it delightful to watch.

But in addition to the great dialogue and performances from Grant and an equally-young Peter Calpaldi, the film frequently veers into camp, and camp is something that I think American audiences struggle with, especially when the camp comes delivered wrapped up in the trappings of horror. So, Lady Sylivia slinking around her castle, seducing and claiming one victim after the next, is that meant to be sexy, funny, scary, or ironic? Or all the above? Regarding this tonal confusion, director Ken Russell said in a Fangoria interview:

 "I would like to state that I actively encourage the audience to laugh along with White Worm."

Whatever one wishes to make of the film’s mixed genre and unexpected tone will have a lot to do with one’s enjoyment of the flick, but aside from the comedic elements, it is also important to provide some commentary about some of the mytho-poetic matter that constitutes the film’s concept and story. I don’t know much about the Bram Stoker novel, but I do know that the idea of mankind and the gods contending with worms and serpents is littered all over many great mythic works, like The Volsung Saga featuring Sigurd battling the wyrm, or Siefried in Wagner’s Ring Cycle facing essentially the same monster on a site near the Rhine River that would later come to be known as Worms, Germany, or Thor versus the world-serpent Jörmungandr. Over and over again, the cycle continues, even 20,000 years into the future with the sandworms in Dune do worm-like serpent creatures appear in literary and filmic works to test the mettle of heroes, often representing the endless cycle of death and renewal. Additionally, there is no doubt a phallic aspect to the mythology and this may stem from an expression of a man’s need to overcome and unseat “the father” to assume individuated manhood. I had ironically watched this movie in the midst of reading The Volsungs and The Ring for my PhD program and watching the new Dune so I couldn’t help but marvel at the synchronicity of all of these tales appearing in my life around the same time.

Bottom line, this is very good, but not great, little culty campy gem that delivers great performances and some compelling psychological material but leaves much unexplored in terms of its foray into weirdness and terror and ultimately doesn’t go deep enough into its own lore and mythology. In the end, White Worm amounts to something of a letdown, especially given the film’s unique premise and excellent first-half execution. However, the film seems to collapse under the weight of its earlier goodwill and results in a unsatisfying climax and conclusion. I would definitely recommend to those who like their horror a bit on the silly side, or for anyone with a hankering for a twenty-something Hugh Grant.

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