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Death Line (1972) starring Donald Pleasance Blu Ray (Network)

Underground cannibals

One evening, while travelling on the London Tube, an American student named Alex (David Ladd) and his English girlfriend Patricia (Sharon Gurney) discover a bowler-hatted gentleman (played by James Cossins) who is lying incapacitated on a stairway in a station exit passage. When Patricia becomes concerned that he may be a diabetic experiencing hypoglycemia, she asks Alex to inspect his wallet to see if he has a medical card. While this proves not to be the case, they are able to identify his name from another card in his wallet: James Manfred OBE (for the benefit of non-British readers, this title means that he has been awarded an honorary knighthood by the Queen). They decide to alert a nearby policeman about the unconscious dignitary whom they’ve just found. When they return to the spot, however, they discover that he is gone.

The couple tell their story to the Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasance) and his trusty lieutenant, Detective Sergeant Rogers (Norman Rossington). While the two officers are initially skeptical of these young folk, that soon changes when they receive a missing person report for Manfred. They are briefed by Inspector Richardson from London Transport (Clive Swift) who makes a rather interesting cursory revelation about the place where he disappeared. It seems that the station was built near a section of tunnel which collapsed in 1892, resulting in a number of workers either being crushed to death or trapped behind the rubble. Since the company which was involved in constructing the tunnel went bankrupt, that section was abandoned along with any potential survivors.

Somehow, however, a cannibalistic couple are still hanging on down there - by eating any hapless commuters who attempt to take a lonely ride on the last train home…

Watch a trailer:

A gruesome cult semi-classic

This UK/US co-production was the directorial debut of Gary Sherman. As with his subsequent Dead and Buried (1981), it’s an intriguing horror film which falls slightly short of greatness but, nonetheless, went on to gain a modest cult following over the years. How much you enjoy it depends on how willing you are to accept the rather far-fetched premise. Okay, so its entirely within the realms of plausibility that a bunch of workers trapped in an abandoned London Underground tunnel might ultimately resort to cannibalism. Here, however, the story posits that they were able to survive for 80 years as a multi-generational prototype Texas Chainsaw Massacre family by feasting on commuters. Since they’ve evidently been able to dig out and reach wider society, how have they remained undiscovered up until this point? An idea which might have seemed more realistic in a remote rural setting is just incredibly hard to swallow when it occurs in (or directly under) a bustling metropolis like London.

Nonetheless, if you can overlook these details then Death Line has a lot to offer. It marks a period where the stylised sets of the 1960s classical/gothic horrors were giving way to naturalistic on-location shoots, and where filmmakers were attempting to push the gore envelope - often stepping across censorship red lines in the process (especially where the UK’s then-prudish BBFC was concerned). Despite the bloodlettings (shots of gruesome corpses, a spade embedded in a man’s head and a broom impalement), however, the film’s approach is somewhat wider than simply shocking its audience. Unlike in the later, ostensibly similar Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), the Sawney Bean-styled cannibal family here manages to gain some audience sympathy. There’s a great, telling central tracking shot here which prowls through their underground layer - initially repulsing the viewer by dwelling over the latest unconscious victim alongside human remains in various stages of decomposition, and then turning to focus in on a hideously deformed man crying over his half-dead pregnant lover. In the same cinematic breath, the monster is demonised and then humanised.

There’s also quite a lot of thinly-veiled social commentary about age and class prejudices, as well as on how the wealthy don’t give a damn about the lower orders of society. The workers who resorted to cannibalism were, in turn, abandoned by a concept whose name sounds uncannily and tellingly similar to their own nefarious practices: capitalism. The most prominent on-screen character here is Inspector Calhoun, a determinedly working class authority figure who loves drinking tea during the day and pints down the local pub at night. When he searches James Manfred OBE’s home as part of his investigations, he ponders jealously over his painting and antique book collection before helping himself to a glass of whiskey from a crystal decanter. On the other hand, when he’s interrogating the hotheaded student Alex, he displays a certain patronising semi-disdain towards this young upstart.

Better than average performances by horror standards

While the film’s pacing is quite slow, Donald Pleasance’s hilarious turn as Calhoun ensures that the proceedings remain entertaining throughout. Yes, he’s pretty much playing a caricature (Pleasance was never the most restrained of actors), but it’s an enjoyably colourful and eccentric one nonetheless. Sadly, another great cult and horror movie icon, Christopher Lee, has only been given one scene here as an MI5 bigwig. Still, he turns in a marvellously smarmy performance and bounces nicely off Pleasance’s gruff inspector for a couple of minutes.

The other notable performance here is that of Hugh Armstrong as the central cannibal. He manages a commendable level of both pathos and angry despair via his hunched body language and a range of dialogue that’s limited to wailing and the single, endlessly repeated line “mind the doors” (learned from the tannoy announcement which is made every time a train leaves the platform). According to Gary Sherman, Marlon Brando was in line for this role but had to back out due to his son’s ill health. While it might seem incredible that such an iconic big-name actor would sign up to play a flesh-eating savage in a low-budget horror film, one has to bear in mind that his career was sagging badly at this point and would only recover due to the huge success of The Godfather (which, ironically, was released before Death Line, albeit some time after filming on the latter had wrapped).

Hugh Armstrong as a cannibal in Death Line

David Ladd and Sharon Gurney fare less well as the young couple who prove central to the discovery of James Manfred OBE’s disappearance. David is the son of another classic Hollywood star, Alan Ladd, who had suffered an untimely death due to an overdose of drugs and alcohol 8 years before this film was released. Unfortunately, his petulant performance here displays little of his father’s star quality. He was probably cast because one of the film’s executive producers was David’s half-brother and Alan’s older son, Alan Ladd Jr. The latter subsequently went onto considerable success when he became the president of 20th Century Fox (during a period when they released Star Wars: A New Hope and Alien) and then formed his own production company, The Ladd Company (which was responsible for the likes of Chariots of Fire, Blade Runner and The Right Stuff).

Death Line may not be a perfect horror film but it is certainly a cut above average. It’s gruesome, atmospheric and intelligent all at once. Don’t forget to mind the doors before you step on this subway ride.

Runtime: 88 mins

Dir: Gary Sherman

Script: Ceri Jones, Gary Sherman

Starring: Donald Pleasance, Norman Rossington, David Ladd, Sharon Gurney, Hugh Armstrong, Jane Turner, Clive Swift, James Cossins, Christopher Lee

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

It’s bit of a mixed bag here, folks. The picture looks great during the well-lit scenes. However, contrast levels could have been improved during the darker scenes set in the underground lair. Likewise, while the synth-based score comes out pretty well during the opening credits montage, the dialogue sounds a little tinny at times. Still, it’s nothing too bad.

Extras

Enclosed Booklet

This booklet contains an essay on the film by Laura Mayne, an associate lecturer on film at the University of York. She takes a look a the wholly negative contemporary critical response, most tellingly by The Daily Mail, whose critic Cecil Watson lamented “how such a sick and sick-making film came to be made”. Sound like the ultimate ringing endorsement for horror fans everywhere! She also examines the film’s shared British and American roots, the cast and its core themes.

There are also a few pages devoted to images of various contemporary publicity materials.

Mind the Doors!

A nice interview with actor Hugh Armstrong, who starts out by telling us how he got into acting, following stints in the army and accountancy (he hated both professions). Prior to reading for Death Line, he was primarily a theatre actor who performed for the Royal Shakespeare Company and then the National Theatre when it was ran by Lawrence Olivier. He reveals that his performance for the film was largely improvised around the given situations in the script. His scenes were shot in a disused underground station during a chilly November. It took around 4 hours each day to apply his gruesome makeup.

He also discusses his experiences with the cast and crew on the film. He remembers playing ludo (and old dice-based board game) with Donald Pleasance in his caravan. He was surprised at how nice a guy he was, considering that he tended to play villains. He also reveals that Alan Ladd Jr. agreed to back this low-budget horror as a side project to Zee and Co., a major production starring Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Caine and Susannah York which was being filmed in London at the time.

Overall:

A reasonable, if unspectacular release of a modest 1970s horror gem.

Movie: ☆☆☆1/2

Video: ☆☆☆1/2

Audio: ☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆

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