Review: Death Line

A young couple (David Ladd and Sharon Gurney) discover the dead body of a government minister (James Cossins) at a tube station in London. Unfortunately, once the bobbies show up, the body has mysteriously vanished. Odd, seemingly aloof Scotland Yard Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasence) investigates, though his strong suit seems to be pissing off ex-pat American Ladd with his disarmingly disinterested interview technique. The investigation eventually leads all the way back to an 1890s London Underground tunnel collapse disaster. Norman Rossington plays Pleasence’s #2, with Clive Swift appearing briefly as another Inspector, whilst Christopher Lee guest stars in one scene as a smug MI5 operative named Stratton-Villiers.

 

Uneven, sometimes dull, but completely barmy 1972 film from American director Gary Sherman (“Vice Squad”, “Wanted: Dead or Alive”, “Poltergeist III”) and co-writer Ceri Jones (an ad exec by trade), which is also sometimes listed as “Raw Meat”. I personally think the other title “Death Line” is at least more appropriate to the plot of the film. It doesn’t quite add up to a satisfying whole, with the scenes down in the underground with the dishevelled ‘Man’ (played by a make-up assisted Hugh Armstrong) dragging on endlessly in a film that is too short for such repetitive time-wasting. Also not helping is the truly terrible, wooden performance by David ‘Son of Alan’ Ladd. He doesn’t even have his dad’s charisma or presence (Alan Ladd wasn’t exactly Olivier, let’s face it), nor is co-star Sharon Gurney much better. It’s a frustrating cinematic experience as their characters are also seemingly only kept around in the middle stretch of the film because they’re going to be needed at the climax. In that middle section, they’re given absolutely nothing of relevance or interest to say or do.

 

However, whenever Donald Pleasence is on screen shamelessly chewing the scenery, the film is sometimes a kooky delight. I’m sure he pissed off many a co-star for it over the years, but Pleasence’s refusal here to let any actor other than himself take command of a scene is very, very, very funny. The man is having a high old time being busy on screen and I guarantee his character’s allergies weren’t in the original script whatsoever. I see what you’re doing there Donald, you shameless magnificent bastard. His character and performance are both irritating and hilarious in equal measure. He’s essentially the protagonist, but he seems like such a distracted, oddball jerk. The other plusses here are fun cameos by Christopher Lee and the always odious-looking James Cossins, as well as excellent cinematography by Alex Thomson (“Excalibur”, “Alien3, “Legend”) and a cool, sleazy jazzy score by Wil Mallone & Jeremy Rose. Those cameos by Lee and Cossins and veteran character actor Clive Swift are pretty useful, because they make up some of the difference in the severely lacking performances by Ladd and Sharon Gurney. Playing a smug, oily, disingenuous rival of Pleasence, Lee only has the one scene but it’s bloody marvellous. The fact that the very tall Lee and the very short Pleasence are unable to be equally visible in the same frame is very funny stuff.

 

It’s such an odd duck of a film that is completely all over the place. At times it’s playing like a tongue-in-cheek police procedural mixed with a giallo (but with more raw-looking photography perhaps), and there’s a few rather nice bits of gore. There’s a nice spade to the head in particular. However, when we get down into the bowels of the subway it has suddenly turned into “Phantom of the Opera” infused with “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, only far more static and dull than that description might sound. For such a short film, it’s a real shame that the director lets those scenes drone on and on to no real benefit. A little of it is plenty enough to get the general idea and clearly just serves as padding to a thin story. The underground set is impressively gruesome and grimy, though.

 

Intentionally irritating Donald Pleasence is a scenery-chewing laugh riot in this otherwise frustratingly uneven horror pic. It looks and sounds terrific, but some of the romantic leads are awful, and it gets bogged down with too much unnecessary padding. An interesting curio with a smallish cult following, but clearly quite thin, with Christopher Lee in particular barely getting a walk-on.

 

Rating: C+

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