Death Line (1972)

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*. What makes this movie so interesting, and so good, can be boiled down to its time and place.
*. The time was 1972, which is two years before the release of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. This gives it pride of place when discussing a gritty film about a feral “family” of cannibals. The remarkable long camera pan around the meat cellar — seemingly drawn out even more by the drip-drip-drip and heart beat we hear on the soundtrack — reveals a design comparable to the furnishings of the grisly homestead in Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which was in turn one of that film’s most noteworthy elements. So let’s give this film some credit for being ahead of the curve. I mean, the British horror industry at this time still mainly consisted of the neo-gothic and anthology comic books of Hammer and Amicus. Death Line is clearly a very different beast.
*. The place was England. As noted, not a country whose film industry was known for horror. The director, Gary Sherman, was American though, and this was his first dramatic feature, which probably helped in some ways.
*. As we listen to the groovy score playing under the opening credits, which are themselves run over a series of out-of-focus blobs of coloured light that bulge psychedelically, it’s hard not to think of the hard times that “swinging London” had fallen on.
*. The fact that we’re in England is also important for the mythic shape the story takes. In America the cannibals live out on the frontier, off the main highway somewhere. They are rural figures, obviously lower class white trash, but they are mainly divided from the rest of civilization by geography.
*. In England the degenerate subway dwellers are an underclass in the rigid social hierarchy. They have proletarian roots, as the descendants of navvies who were buried alive when excavating the subway and then left to rot. Their undoing is in killing James Manfred, O.B.E. (that means he’s an Officer of the Order of the British Empire). The scruffy detectives will take a lot of pleasure insisting on that O.B.E., and in a final dig it’s still attached to his name in the credits.
*. The class hierarchy is something that informs the entire movie. Donald Pleasence is a rumpled figure who enjoys life’s simpler pleasures (tea during working hours, a pint at the pub later). When he goes to Mr. O.B.E.’s house with his assistant Rogers he tears a strip out of the décor before being humiliated by a toff from MI5: an ultra-posh Christopher Lee with the hyphenated ruling-class moniker of Stratton-Villiers. Pleasence protests that he is the master of his manor and will prosecute any villains (or villeins?), but this is empty bluster and they both know it.
*. Of course underlying all of this is Wells’s The Time Machine, with the underground workers literally feeding on the upper classes. That’s a staple of a lot of science fiction, but it doesn’t crop up quite as often in horror. The Descent is one counter example, but the dominant tradition in American horror anyway is, as I’ve said, to situate such baddies in an anti-Romantic rural ghetto or wilderness. I guess that might have something to do with a more egalitarian society and the myth of the frontier, but I won’t pursue this point here.
*. Another English vs. America divide can be seen in the different titles the movie was released under. Death Line is pretty good, being original and yoking together the idea of the Man representing the end of his family line with the subway stop being a dead end for various passengers. In America, however, it was released as Raw Meat. Just because.
*. It was also released with a poster that is one of the most egregious examples of false advertising you’ll ever see. It looks like it’s going to be about a whole “tribe” of super-sexy zombies. Which it isn’t.
*. As far as the movie itself is concerned, I think it’s very good but not because of anything Sherman does. It seems to me there are a lot of opportunities for suspense wasted. Sherman went on to direct Dead & Buried, another cult horror favourite, as well as other thrillers, but I never get the sense that this is what he wants to be doing.
*. I like watching Donald Pleasence in just about anything, and he seems very at home here. And Hugh Armstrong is excellent as the Man, giving him all the pathos of Karloff’s monster in Frankenstein. And I do think Sherman helps out, for example with the long shot of the Man’s mourning after his wife’s (mate’s?) death in childbirth, which really emphasizes a sense of isolation and loneliness.
*. It’s also a relief to see the Man get taken down so easily in the various fights he gets into. Yes, he’s very big and strong, but he’s also wracked with illness and seems to have a serious head injury. He’s not one of those killer supermen we see in so many, more conventional horror films. In this respect I compare him very favourably to the radiation-sickened powerhouses in The Hills Have Eyes remake.
*. The script also strikes me as very good, balancing the obvious comic elements with the horror. The ending in particular underlines this. What are we to make of Inspector Calhoun going through the Man’s underground home and muttering that it’s no way for someone to live? Understatement yes, but comic? And what about the Man’s chant of “Mind the doors!”? It’s absurd, but also pathetic.
*. There are parts that don’t work as well. The young leads, for example, strike me as uncomfortable and almost unnecessary. But despite any miscues it’s such a well-executed and original little film that it makes a lasting impression. More than enough, I think, to assure it a place in the underground horror hall of fame.

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