Sunday, October 14, 2007

Mind the Doors!

To celebrate Halloween, the Scribe delves deep into the archives to bring you the best of the frightening, the fearsome, and the forgotten.

Completely unavailable on home video in the US until the DVD release about 2 years ago, Gary Sherman’s Raw Meat (known by the more palatable Death Line in the UK) is one of the very best British horror films to appear in the 70s since the final decline of the Hammer and Amicus studios. It was the first narrative film for the Chicago-born Sherman, who interjects what could have easily been a standard programmer with an unexpected amount of pathos.

After finding a suspiciously well-dressed man passed out on the stairwell of a London tube stop, two young students, Alex Campbell (David Ladd, son of Alan) and Patricia Wilson (Sharon Gurney) run off to find a constable, only to find the body gone only a few moments later. The missing body turns out to be a highly placed O.B.E. recipient and frequent red-light district visitor named James Manfred and the case falls into the unwilling lap of Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasance) who has to confront both an unyielding bureaucrat (Christopher Lee, absolutely killing in a cameo-length performance) who wants the police to forget that Manfred ever existed and the fact that numerous other missing persons can be traced back to that particular tube station. What they find is the last surviving descendant of a group of workers who had been buried alive in a section of the tube over a hundred years ago, who, in addition to hunting people for food, now needs to find a mate to propagate his clan anew.

The early 70s were an eclectic era for British genre films; the "classic monster" template had been wrung dry, and the odd lot that remained busied themselves with olive branches to the youth market that, while enjoyable, played exactly as what they were – na├»ve, condescending efforts whose “youthful” sensibilities ended at puffy shirts and cringe-inducing hipster chitchat. Watch the scenes of “mod London” life in AIPs Scream and Scream Again or Hammer's Dracula AD ’72 to see the competition. Raw Meat eschews genre conventions early on by shifting the focus away from its young leads in favor of two middle-aged police inspectors. Pleasance, a notorious scene stealer, pulls out every trick in his considerable book and gives a brilliant comic performance that comes within a hair of being “from another movie”. In a career that rode an incredibly wide range between The Great Escape and Warrior of the Lost World, he was rarely allowed such free reign to create a character. His comic banter with subordinate Norman Rossington is a welcome respite from the grim goings on in the tube.

The cannibal’s underground world is no Gothic playground festooned with artistically placed cobwebs - you feel like you’re in a centuries old section of subway. “Man” (as he is listed in the credits) is the product of several generations of inbreeding, and survives from eating unlucky late night straphangers – and to the makeup department’s credit, he looks it. With his mate slowly expiring, he tries to nourish her with the blood of freshly killed aristocrat Manfred and wails in frustration as he is unable to save her. After secreting away Patricia, rather than taking her by force, he tries to communicate his plight using the only words he’s ever known, but ones that he hears repeated each day of his life “Mind the doors”. In spite of Pleasance’s efforts, the movie would have collapsed had these scenes come off as laughable, but the result is both heartbreaking and terrifying. Hugh Armstrong’s near-wordless performance gives the monster a soul in the best tradition of Lon Chaney.

The film depicts the ultimate upper class fear, with the lowest socio-economic class literally feeding on its “betters”, but like George Romero at his best, Sherman never gets on a soapbox; he leaves the subtext exactly where it ought to be and gets on with creating a brutally violent horror film. One of the very best of the decade.