Friday, October 30, 2009


DEATH LINE (1973). Directed by Gary Sherman. Starring Donald Pleasance, David Ladd, Sharon Gurney, Hugh Armstrong, Christopher Lee.

There’s something nasty lurking in the London Underground, something that is snatching late-night commuters from the platforms, never to be seen again. But when this particular nasty something snatches James Manfred O.B.E, big shot at the Ministry and general all-round sleaze merchant, people start to take notice.

Or to be more accurate, typical 70’s couple Alex and Patricia take notice which in turn leads to the involvement of not-so typical copper Inspector Calhoun (played with lip-smacking comic relish by Donald Pleasance) and, very briefly, Stratton-Villiers of MI5 (Christopher Lee who, it appears, was just passing that afternoon and popped in to do a quick cameo).

The investigation leads to the revelation that the descendants of tunnel workers, trapped by a cave-in many moons ago, have been living and breeding in the London Underground and have, over the years, developed a taste for human flesh. Or rather they had been since this cannibalistic colony has now been reduced to a single member – known in the credits only as ‘the Man – an unnaturally strong, disease ridden, drooling pile of rags whose only words are ‘Mind The Doors’.

Cue some nicely gory set-pieces, a chase through the darkness when Patricia is kidnapped by the Man to start a new line of underground commuter-munchers and a brilliant performance from Donald Pleasance holding the whole thing together.

Death Line is an odd film, even by the standards of early 70’s British horror (and let us not forget that this is the era which gave us Pyschomania, Dracula AD 1972, Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter and The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, among others). The direction by Gary Sherman (who would later go on to direct cult favourite Dead and Buried) is smooth and assured – particularly in the long takes that show us around the Man’s underground lair, filled with mouldering corpses, or during the opening credits that show Manford (James Cossins, in fine bowler-hatted, moustache twitching form) prowling the flesh-pots of Soho – and the use of sound is particularly effective in creating mood and tension, but most of all it is the performances raise Death Line well above the usual exploitation film standard.

Donald Pleasance’s Inspector Calhoun in particular is a delight. By turns comic, sinister and frustrated (“I sometimes think coppers should be like elephants, big feet and long memories… or is that the other way round”) he holds centre stage in virtually every scene he’s in, even when up against Christopher Lee (although to be fair, Lee has very little to do here). Norman Rossington as his long-suffering side-kick, Rogers, provides a nice foil for him to work off, and even the rather bland young couple (David Ladd and Sharon Gurney) manage to elicit some sympathy from the audience.

But it is Hugh Armstrong’s performance as The Man, which makes Death Line such a compelling piece of schlock-cinema. Virtually wordless (apart from the aforementioned ‘Mind the doors’) his sense of animalistic rage, tempered by occasional flashes of humanity is practically a force of nature in the film and his grief at the death of his mate/wife, known here as The Woman is almost palpable. It’s strange that the audience should manage to feel empathy or sympathy for what should have been a comedy cannibal, but the combination of Sherman’s direction and Armstrong’s remarkable performance manage just that.

In some ways, it’s possible to draw a direct line between The Man and those other great icons of the 1970’s horror such as Leatherface (and the long, lingering shots of decomposing bodies certainly bring to mind Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and Michael Myers: yet The Man is a much rounder character, driven by need rather than desire and certain much more human than either.

But such matters are for academics or serous students of horror cinema - at its heart, Death Line is nothing more than a good old-fashioned horror flick and none the worse for it.

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