Directed (and story by) by: Gary Sherman
Screenplay by: Ceri Jones
Produced by: Paul Maslansky
Cast: Donald Pleasence, Norman Rossington, David Ladd, Sharon Gurney, Hugh Armstrong, Christopher Lee etc.
Cinematography: Alex Thomson
***CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS***
In my last review I wrote with nostalgia about trips to the video shop. Yes, an actual shop where you could hire films existed! Imagine that. Now, I further lament the splintered streaming marketplace where you have to pay a subscription to watch a film when I used to be able to see it on telly for free. Plus, there are TOO MANY platforms. Those £5.99 and £4.99 and £7.99 per month fees soon stack up. I used to love turning on Channel Four or BBC2 or latterly Film Four and there would be a cult horror film, classic film noir, World cinema, art film or early directorial release from a now famous director on there late at night – FOR FREE! Thankfully, aside from all the streaming stems I have to manage, a channel on digital TV called Talking Pictures does show some genuinely great movies that time and humanity may have forgotten. One such is Deathline (1972).
Deathline (1972) – (AKA Raw Meat in the U.S.) is a genuine cult classic horror film which is gruesome, darkly witty and incredibly moving in equal measures. In this era of constant remakes I am surprised no filmmaker has decided to transfer this grimy and quintessentially British movie into the modern day. In many ways I am glad they haven’t as it, despite some glaring flaws in characterisation of two main protagonists, borders on being a bona fide under-rated classic. The premise involves a series of missing persons who are disappearing around the area of Russell Square underground station. The sarcastic Inspector Calhoun (inimitable Donald Pleasence) is tasked with cracking the case. He does so with gallows humour and gallons of cups of tea.
Pleasence is not the only person who gives a memorable acting performance in Deathline (1972). Because the screenplay and direction spends a lot of the grisly running time creating a thematic and visual mythology around the antagonist. Indeed, while the killer, described in the credits as the ‘Man’ (Hugh Armstrong), commits several brutal slayings and abductions, the ghastly backstory given and Armstrong’s emotionally charged portrayal really make you empathise with his situation. The combination of pustular make-up effects, the rat-infested underground lair he inhabits, plus the tragic circumstances surrounding the ‘Man’s’ plight ensure he one of cinema’s most empathetic monsters since Karloff in Frankenstein (1931).
It’s a shame therefore that more wasn’t done to develop the leading couple in the film, students Alex Campbell (David Ladd) and Patricia Wilson (Sharon Gurney). While she is at least sympathetic, he is completely unlikeable and mostly unheroic. So much so I was rooting more for the plague-pocked ‘Man’ at the end rather than him. But hey I’m watching this for the gore and deaths aren’t I? Well, there’s plenty of that in between Inspector Calhoun’s chirpy working-class snipes and demands for cups of tea. Plus, director Gary Sherman gives us a tremendous, long take which establishes the cavernous setting for the murder and horror, utilising the dank London underground tunnel system to maximum impact. While Christopher Lee is given poster billing, he’s only in one scene as a privileged MI5 agent. Finally, did you know Marlon Brando was originally cast as the ‘Man’. Well, I’m kind of glad that was an offer he did refuse. Because Armstrong’s tragic human monster lives on long in the mind, even after the film’s haunting final echoes have faded.