The Lair of the White Worm

December 2, 2011

Putting a novel by the author of Dracula, Bram Stoker, into the hands of the aging enfant terrible of the movies, Ken Russell, is either an act of bravado or surrender. Especially so when the book bears the title The Lair of the White Worm.

Russell, of course, is going to make a rumpus out of whatever material is thrown his way, and White Worm is no exception. But this sort of project, as with his last couple of films, Gothic and Salome’s Last Dance, seems designed to cater to Russell’s most indulgent instincts, to the detriment of the films, I think.

Russell has set Stoker’s story in the present day. An archaeologist (Peter Capaldi) finds a large reptilian head in a back yard in Derbyshire. The sisters who live in the house (Sammi Davis, Catherine Oxenberg) introduced the scientist to Lord D’Ampton (Hugh Grant), a local descendant of the legendary figure who slew a giant white worm, or dragon, many centuries ago. Could the skull belong to the dragon?

Or, more tantalizingly, does the dragon still exist? This possibility begins to be more prominent, particularly when we meet Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), a kinky character who is very into snakes, occasionally sprouts fangs, and sometimes drains the blood of unsuspecting hitchhikers. When Lord D’Ampton visits, and they play Snakes and Ladders, he surveys her huge castle and asks, “Do you have children?” To which she replies, “Only when there are no men around.” This is not a nice person.

Russell mixes these characters into his usual delirium. For the first couple of scenes, it almost looks as though he might play it reasonably straight, but camp begins to creep in. Some of which, naturally, is giddy and outrageous; who can resist a finale in which a virgin is dangled over the pit of a giant white worm, while the scientist tries to stave off a bloodthirsty policeman by playing the bagpipes?

At befits a director of his notoriety, Russell has attracted some of the top young actors in Britain. They’re fun to watch: Donohoe is unrecognizable here from the island inhabitant she played in Castaway, Grant was the friend in Maurice, Capaldi was the young Scotsman in Local Hero, and Sammi Davis the sister in Hope and Glory. They fall as much into sync with Russell as they can.

Perhaps Ken Russell may heave himself out of his current, frivolous vein with his next scheduled project, The Rainbow. It will be his second adaptation of a D.H. Lawrence novel; the first, Women in Love, was the film that brought Russell to international attention in 1970 (Donohoe and Davis will star). If Ken Russell ever has a worthy excuse to behave himself, that might be it.

First published in the Herald, November 10, 1988

My review of The Rainbow will be shortly upon us. This movie deserves its cult reputation, even if I recall it not being quite as much fun as it should have been. I’ll bet it wears well, though.