Death Line (1973)

Here's one I've been wanting to see for some time. Since – oh, I don't know – probably since I read a gushing article about it in a book left in the bathroom by my then-flatmate. I can't remember the name of the book, but it was a pretty insufferable collection of tragically iconoclastic essays concerning various aspects of British cinema. There's “celebrating the less familiar” and then there's “hey, let's stubbornly pour scorn upon anything that's beloved of more than ten people”. This book unfortunately went for the latter approach on far too many occasions, which might explain why I never deigned to remember the its title.

I'm an awful fickle rat sometimes.

But Death Line. Death Line.

They were right on the money when it comes to Death Line.

I know I moan a lot on this site about the state of modern horror. Death Line, though, takes pretty much every single one of the tired tropes about which I'm so fond of complaining and demonstrates how to treat them in such a way as to make a film that's oh so much more than a sum of its parts.

It's about a dying tribe of cannibalistic inbreds who live in the “rabbit warren” that is the London Tube. Trapped beneath the rubble after having been abandoned in the wake of a cave-in, it's implied that life is bleak, damp yet ultimately quite touching underground. Though they've all but lost language, they still communicate; and that they cling to such customs as defined clothing for men and women and even burial rites makes this film, on one level, a subtle exploration of what makes us human.

Only emerging to feast on the flesh of the living, it's likely that their existence would have continued unnoticed but for two reasons. First of all, their last remaining pregnant female just died. Second of all, they made the mistake of choosing, as their prey, one James Manfred – gentleman, pervert, OBE.

Being an OBE, not only does his death invokes the involvement of MI5 (a marvellously creepy cameo from Christopher Lee, above), but it also forces adorably lazy Inspector Calhoun to actually do his job for a change.

Played brilliantly by Donald Pleasence, Inspector Calhoun appears to be the reason as to why so many people rate this film so highly. In that you can tell that, at any given moment, he'd much rather be sat alone with a lovely cup of loose-leaf tea, he's wonderful and strangely cuddly despite his caustic chronic grumpiness.

There's a very long scene in which he and his second in command outstay their welcome in a grotty little pub – getting hammered and eating sausages whilst playing pinball and being really quite rude to the ever-tolerant barman. It contributes precisely nothing to the plot but goes in a long way to explain the appeal of this film: Death Line doesn't appear to take itself at all seriously, but with its fully-drawn characters and carefully considered cannibals, scratching beneath the surface reveals fathomless depth.

The only downside is the American – the eternally dour Alex Campbell, whose character doesn't seem to stretch too far beyond “student”. He's boring and almost threatens to ruin the fun for everyone else, but even he's saved thanks to his really, really lovely girlfriend and the gorgeous book shop in which it works. Wall-to-wall Penguin paperbacks and a big poster of Dickens? If I'm good, that's probably where I'll go when I die. The tea will flow like rivers, and there'll be a really comfy chair in the corner.

Region 2 DVDs of Death Line are surprisingly hard to come-by, but this is one I want to own forever and never give away. It's this close to entering my beloved pantheon of horror alongside The Wicker Man, Eraserhead and Evil Dead 2. I'm almost certain that I've found a new favourite here.

1 comment:

  1. Not flawless but a damned entertaining watch all the same. The theme tune is almost worth the asking price by itself.