The 1980s was a fantastic decade for feminist horror with countless movies featuring a combination of resilient female protagonists pitted against same sex antagonists. The former of which became known as the final girl because she was usually the sole survivor or the one that actually prevailed over the monster, killer, etc. In one way or another, many of these movies featured women driving the narrative, which included popular franchises like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, as well as notable genre examples like The Hunger (1983), Hellraiser (1987), and Night of the Demons (1988) to name but only a few.
Arguably, the pinnacle of the feminist horror movie from this decade is The Lair of the White Worm (1988), a loose adaptation of Bram Stoker’s last novel, written and directed by British maverick filmmaker Ken Russell. He manages to have his cake and eat it too in the sense that the film is chock full of scantily-clad women, full-on female nudity, but balances this out by featuring two female protagonists, each with boyfriends that, by and large, act as arm candy, reacting to what the women do, as they go up against a powerful villainess. It makes for a wild, cinematic ride that saw the veteran provocateur still capable of skewering sacred taboos and has fun doing it.
Scottish archaeology student Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi) finds a fossil that he believes may have come from Roman times over a thousand years ago at an excavation site of an English convent. We are introduced to the young man celebrating his find with an off-kilter yell that is certainly an odd way to introduce his character and sets the tone for the rest of the film. He’s staying on site at a bed and breakfast run by the Trent sisters, Mary (Sammi Davis) and Eve (Catherine Oxenberg), who take him to a party later that night at a lavish mansion belonging to their landlord, James d’Ampton (Hugh Grant).
James theorizes that the fossil Angus unearthed is that of a large snake, the legendary d’Ampton “worm” that was slain in Stonerich Cavern by the former’s ancestor. Russell does a nice job of relating the snake legend through song by a local folk band whose stage show anticipates a similar strobe-lighted affair in a certain Canadian roadhouse in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992).
Meanwhile, one of the local constables (Paul Brooke) checks out a disturbance over at Temple House, the stately abode of Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), who “saves” the man from snakebite. When she’s not casually bragging about changing cars as often as a snake sheds its skin, Lady Sylvia is not above hissing venom on a crucifix she encounters while skulking around the Trent B&B. In no time, she has stolen the fossil and later kidnaps Eve with plans to sacrifice the girl to her snake god Dionin. It’s up to Angus and Mary, with James’ help, to stop the evil snake lady from summoning her ancient god.
Cast as an immortal priestess, Amanda Donohoe steals every scene as the sexy Lady Sylvia, chewing deliciously on the campy dialogue and playing up her vampy seductress role as evident in the scene where she takes in a hapless hitchhiker and proceeds to paralyze him with a bite, but not before toying with the young lad by dancing to his somber harmonica playing all the while decked out in a sheer black negligee and thigh-high black leather boots. Donohoe exudes the cool confidence of an evil mastermind and looks like she’s having a lot of fun with the role.
The Lair of the White Worm was an early role for Hugh Grant that saw him in classic foppish Englishman mode and whose purpose is to convey expositional dialogue, which brings our heroes (and us) up to speed on the d’Ampton worm legend. Peter Capaldi has a little more to do as he finds the fossil that kicks off the story and swoops in at the film’s climax to save the day. Sammi Davis is the proactive female protagonist that is unfortunately reduced to a damsel distress at the aforementioned climax while Catherine Oxenberg doubles as eye candy and also as a catalyst in the sense that her abduction motivates our heroes to go after Lady Sylvia. This young cast gamely delivers all kinds of playful dialogue that include numerous snake references and a cheeky nod to Citizen Kane (1941).
In 1912, Bram Stoker wrote his last novel The Lair of the White Worm, which recalled English literature that depicted legends about giant serpents or “worms,” and fused that with folklore and traditional songs to create a story about a white worm so powerful it could transform itself into a beautiful woman that found victims to sacrifice. At the time, Stoker was suffering from a crippling illness and that affected his mind and, in turn, influenced his writing.
As a result, the novel was considered unfilmable until Ken Russell decided to adapt it. In doing so, he was candid about his views of Stoker’s book: “The Lair of the White Worm was written by someone who had a good idea in his head but didn’t have the capacity to properly put it on paper.” He found the book to be a narrative mess and took what he felt were the best parts and incorporated folk songs like “The D’Ampton Worm.” Tired of doing Victorian gothic films, Russell decided to set it in contemporary times. Filming began in February 1988 on location in Hertfordshire and Derbyshire counties in England and at Cannon Elstree Studios outside of London.
Surprisingly, The Lair of the White Worm received generally positive to mixed reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars and felt that it was not up to Russell’s standards: “This is the sort of exercise he could film with one hand tied behind his back, and it looks like that was indeed more or less his approach.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Miss Donohoe plays the role with a marvelously withering verbal understatement, which is not exactly matched by the film’s visual style.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas wrote, “While an abundant sense of humor cannot save the film from terminal silliness, it might make watching it bearable and even sometimes amusing.” In his review for the Washington Post, Richard Harrington wrote, “There’s so much going on (we’ve barely touched the surface here) that Lair may be better served on video, where, like Russell himself, it can be more easily analyzed. His mind boggles.” Finally, the Chicago Tribune’s Dave Kehr wrote, “There is enough gore and cheesecake to appease the marketplace, though this is a film that functions largely through the skill and swiftness of its storytelling.”
Russell has a bit of fun with the notion of feminist horror by snarkily poking fun at it in his trademark fashion. Early on, Eve has a bizarre, blasphemous vision of Jesus on the Cross being attacked by the d’Ampton worm while Roman legionnaires brutally rape several nuns. Lady Sylvia looks on in approval. In addition, there is a dream sequence in which James imagines Mary and Lady Sylvia as stewardesses fighting it out on an airplane while he, dressed as a pilot, is strapped to a seat, literally a captive audience to a sexy girl fight, which he finds quite arousing as symbolized by the erect pen he holds. Subtlety is not one of Russell’s virtues, but his sledgehammer obvious imagery is part of the film’s charm. While The Lair of the White Worm may never be ranked among his masterpieces, it is still my favorite film of Russell’s and the one I watch the most as I find it an endlessly entertaining experience.
The Lair of the White Worm Production Notes, 1988.