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Death Line (aka Raw Meat) (1972)
15th May 05
Tagline: Beneath Modern London Lives a Tribe of Once Humans. Neither Men Nor Women... They Are the Raw Meat Of The Human Race!
Most fans of horror movies like Donald Pleasance. This is because he is known as the babbling madder-than-his-patients psychiatrist Dr Sam Loomis from the Halloween films, but what many people don't know is that he starred in a little British horror film called Death Line (AKA Raw Meat - US title, the only one available on DVD) and, although it seems that critical feedback regarding his role is a mixed bag, especially in regards to Pleasance's acting, I am here to tell you that his performance is 50% of the reason why this film should be hailed as a classic of British Horror.
The story opens with James Manfred O.B.E. - the classic dirty old man (played by James Cossins) cruising London's Soho porno theatres before making his way to Russell Square underground station where, after getting kneed in the bollocks by a proactive young recipient to one of his unwholesome propositions, he is attacked by an unseen something on the deserted platform. As another train pulls into the station, a young couple, Alex (annoying American economics student) and Trish (annoying English student) disembark to find the man slumped, face down on the stairs.
Alex ignores him, believing him to be drunk, while Trish begs him to report it to the station staff. In the time that it takes for Alex and Trish to fetch a policeman down the stairs, the dirty old man has vanished. What ensues is the police investigation into this 'missing persons' case, led by one Inspector Calhoun (Pleasance), Alex and Trish's involvement in the case, and a brilliant background story that explains how in 1892 the roof collapsed during construction in a deep underground station. Without funding to take the work any further or to clear the damage, the company leaves the construction workers (men AND women) down there to rot, probably presuming all of them to be dead. In fact, some survived and have lived there ever since, feeding on the raw meat of the tunnel victims and anything else they can get their hands on.
By 1970, there are only two left - one man and a pregnant woman who dies during childbirth. The baby is not delivered before the woman's death, which leaves one man - the sole survivor of a 78-year-old underground clan of cannibals - to deal with being the last in line. However, instead of accepting the fate of his culture, he now goes in search of the one thing that he believes will sustain his race - a mate.
Directed by one Gary Sherman (the same guy responsible for the loony Dead and Buried) in 1970, Deathline took me by surprise when I purchased the new MGM Region 1 DVD. About 5 years ago I saw the same film recorded off television but apart from Pleasance's role, the film had very little impact. For a start, the DVD features a gorgeous widescreen transfer which is of paramount importance when one considers that the "man" (played by Hugh Armstrong) scenes in Deathline are entirely set in dark underground locations. In one key scene, Sherman skilfully illustrates the existence of this strange subterranean world with a very slow, prolonged shot depicting rotting corpses in the darkness. We see James Manfred O.B.E from the beginning - he's in a stupor. We hear groaning and sounds of a distressed person as the camera slowly pans to show us where the sound is coming from. Then we see a man knelt by a dying pregnant woman. She's in trouble, sinking fast, so the man does his bit to help by cutting open James Manfred O.B.E's throat into her mouth. How thoughtful. She dies anyway, and the man's cries fill every catacomb in the vast underground maze that is his home. It's a bit like Love Story meets Cannibal Ferox.
This is in no way a simple, by the numbers horror film. Armstrong's creation as "the man" is hugely affecting, moving, and involving. The background story's strange plausibility adds weight to his character's suffering and when his partner dies, it means the end of his very race - human beings who do not exist as the rest of us do, with little alternative to eating human flesh. He cries in despair and utter incomprehension at the loss of his mate, his body riddled with every disease you can think of, his head and face covered in huge, infected sores. Instead of portraying him merely as a straightforward evil character, Sherman develops the role with a whole other dimension which enables us, the viewers, to empathise.
In one of the final scenes, the man takes Trish from the platform at Holborn tube station. She awakens to find herself in his lair with rats for company and when she screams in disgust and fear, the man chases away the rats and bites one of their heads off for good measure, the point being that he wants to protect her from danger. He has no idea how to go about it, but he wants to get off with her - to procreate with her, and sustain the race. Trish puts up an admirable fight and as the man's frustration at not being able to communicate with her peaks, we finally hear those legendary words: "Mind the doors".
This is the only phrase he knows - he's heard it all his life. This is the only way he can communicate. Unfortunately for him, "mind the doors" does not mean "can we have sex please?" but he continues, undeterred, repeating it again and again, louder and louder until it becomes an aggressive shout at which point he uses force to get his evil way and she bashes one of his sores, crippling him. This is his physical weak point - one good slap to his head and the chances are you'll hit the jackpot of a weeping infection, making him fall to the ground and cry out in pain. In the end, this is his undoing because of his heamaphilia (meaning his blood lacks the enzymes necessary to form clots, leaving him to bleed to death). If he does die however, we don't see it. In the film's closing shot, the police walk away from the lair and the camera pans around towards the dark depths of the tunnels as we hear the final "Mind the dooooors!" and we know he's still alive. It's difficult to blame Sherman for such a tacky ending, even if he overdoes it a little. Trust me, by the end of Death Line, you'll be repeating "Mind the doors!" over and over.
While I was totally impressed with Hugh Armstrong's (almost mute) role in Deathline, it is Pleasance who rules the "manor". His character, Inspector Calhoun, is the kind of guy you would hate were he really to exist. I'd put my money on it that there was a guy just like him working in Holborn Police Station in 1970. He's an arrogant little shit of the highest order. Having said that, he's also hilarious - a mockney-cockney London detective who seems to have had enough of everything the world has to offer, he hates any kind of change. For example, we know from his first scene that he hates the concept of tea bags. For a man as addicted to tea as he is, this is not good, so he protests throughout the entire film by hatefully spooning out his tea bag and dropping it directly onto the floor beside his desk. Believe it or not, this is one of my favourite features of Death Line. How can his teabags hitting the floor be so damn funny all the time? Maybe it's that moist 'thudding' sound as they hit the floor, or maybe it's just because it's this horrible, world-weary little policeman played by Donald Pleasance who's doing it.
His role is deliberately imbued with many a fine comic touch which makes this movie even more special, in that Pleasance was not exactly known as a comedy actor. He has some of the best lines ever - imagine, if you will, Pleasance's cockney saying the following:
* "Tea bags? You've been using tea bags?!"
* "James Manfred, O.B. bloody E!"
* "Could it be that you had a quick shifty to see if there was anything worth nicking?"
* "Get your 'air cut!"
* "This is my manor!" * (Voice on phone: "Inspector Kalhoun?") "No, it's a man called Ironside."
* "Let's get pissed. Jimmy? Doubles."
And yes, Pleasance does get pissed and has the expected drunken rant about the state of the country, threatening to arrest the landlord for not serving him further whiskey, etc. It's such good fun. Pleasance looks like he's having the time of his life with the role and is obviously taking more risks than usual.
Death Line is the only real precursor to last year's London Underground horror, Creep. It's a shame that such a menacing setting hasn't been used for the genre more often, and then again maybe it isn't. The fictional tube station of Hobb's End was such a powerful feature in the immortal Quatermass and the Pit, and we all know how effective the underground station setting was in Landis' An American Werewolf in London. As far as I'm concerned though, this is the only real London Underground horror film (ok, so I haven't actually seen Creep yet). Witty, well-acted, nicely shot, good attention to detail, flat-out funny, poignant (without being sentimental), and all on a very low budget. A British Horror Classic, and that's official. See it.