Question: What would a cheesy B monster movie look like if it were made by a visionary filmmaker such as Ken Russell? Answer: It would look like The Lair of the White Worm (1988). Based on the Bram Stoker novel of the same name, it tells the tale of a modern English country village whose local legend of “a great wyrm”, i.e. dragon, slain by a local nobleman may have its roots in truth. The legendary hero’s modern descendant and his friends find themselves up against a local noblewoman who just may have ties to an ancient snake-worshiping cult. Russell embraces the silliness of the premise by suffusing the film with a sly sense of humor and adding just the right amount of camp. In addition to the director’s usual religious imagery, he also has fun sprinkling in many snake and worm references throughout. A great cast with excellent chemistry gets the tone just right, making for a fun time.
Scottish archaeology graduate student Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi) is excavating ruins on the grounds of the English country inn where he is staying. Below the remains of a 1000-year-old convent, he finds Roman ruins as well as a skull of a large snake-like creature. That evening, he accompanies the young innkeepers, Eve (Catherine Oxenberg) and Mary Trent (Sammi Davis) to the town’s annual party being thrown by their friend, young Lord James D’ampton (Hugh Grant). James relates the town legend of the D’ampton Worm, wherein his ancestor, John D’ampton, reportedly slew a giant white worm, i.e. dragon, who was terrorizing the countryside. Angus speculates that the skull he found could indicate that the legend has some basis in fact. Walking home woods after the party, Mary tells Angus about how her and Eve’s parents went missing walking through those same woods just one year earlier. As they go to kiss, they are interrupted by a car coming through the woods towards the manor known as Temple House. It turns out to be the manor’s owner, Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), returning home after being away for the winter. After finding out that the pocket watch belonging to the Trent’s father was found in the cave tied to the legend, Angus and Mary go to help the search parties look for more evidence of her parents. While they are out, Lady Sylvia comes by the inn and steals the skull. On her way out, she notices a crucifix, promptly displays a rather large set of snake-like fangs, and spits venom upon the cross. This is the first hint that perhaps Lady Sylvia is not strictly human. Mary, Eve, Angus, and James soon come to realize that perhaps they may be dealing with an ancient snake-worshiping cult that the Lady Sylvia may be involved. Meanwhile, Lady Sylvia begins increasingly to show snake-like behavior as she searches for the perfect human sacrifice to please her ancient worm-god Dionin.
Harkening back to the plots of “snake woman” horror films of the past, such as The Snake Woman (1961) and The Reptile (1966), the premise of The Lair of the White Worm seems more at home in that earlier era. Russell knows that a creature feature such as this has the potential to feel silly and quaint, so he embraces those qualities and gives the film a strong humorous undercurrent and slightly campy tone. He gets the balance just right, with sly, understated humor that still has respect for the material. Some of the humor comes from the situations. For example, making the connection between snake people and snake charming, Angus honors his Scottish heritage and uses bagpipes to charm one of Lady Sylvia’s minions. When Lady Sylvia herself is charmed, Amanda Donohoe camps it up, slithering and gyrating in an iconic scene. Later, Angus pulls a live mongoose out from his sporran (kilt ‘purse’) so he can track down Lady Sylvia. They play these instances so straight that one can almost miss just how absurd they actually are. Wordplay and double entendres are also featured, especially in Lady Sylvia’s dialogue. When she seduces and paralyzes a boy scout with the intention of sacrificing him to Dionin, Lady Sylvia tells the helpless scout that he is now a vegetable, but just “metaphorically, of course. The god is not a vegetarian.”
Writer/director Russell is known for his use of religious and sexual imagery in his films, and The Lair of the White Worm, with its clash between Christianity and the pagan worship of Dionin, is no different, though he also adds in quite a bit of worm/snake references. Twice, the audience is treated to surreal quasi-religious visions for which Russell is known. In one, Eve touches the crucifix that is coated in Lady Sylvia’s venom, and she has a vision involving Jesus on the cross being assaulted by a giant snake while nuns – including herself, presumably in a former life – are raped and murdered by Roman soldiers with a snake woman version of Lady Sylvia looking on. In another, Mary is bitten by Lady Sylvia and hallucinates that she is attacked by snake men wearing giant strap-on ivory horn penises. Not all of the references are quite so over-the-top, though I would not go so far as to call any of them “subtle”. When the rather serpentine-like Lady Sylvia calls to Eve from a tree, it is pretty clear what Russell is referencing. From octopi (with their vermiform tentacles) and pickled worms in aspic on the buffet, to plates of spaghetti, to a game of snakes and ladders, items suggesting worms and snakes fill numerous scenes. Even Lady Sylvia’s appearance is suitably serpentine, regardless of whether or not she is in her snake woman form.
The Lair of the White Worm would not work as well if the cast were not on board for Russell’s brand of humor. Luckily, the cast here is top-notch and their performances hit just the right tone. While the whole cast is strong, the one who makes the movie is Amanda Donohoe as Lady Sylvia. She has fun with her part, giving Lady Sylvia just the right balance of menace, fun, and sensuality. Slithering around the screen, Donohoe embodies Lady Sylvia’s snake-like nature, even when she is in her human form. She is so much fun to watch here. Hugh Grant is perfectly cast the charming but slightly smarmy Lord James D’ampton. He gives James a quality that makes it feel like he is slumming, enjoying hanging around with the commoners, while still giving him enough charm and likability that the audience does not hold it against him. Sammi Davis and Peter Capaldi have great chemistry as Mary and Angus, and their relationship feels quite genuine. Catherine Oxenberg’s Eve is not given quite as much to do as the others, but she handles the role well.
The Lair of the White Worm is a fun B monster movie done by an A-list cast and crew. Ken Russell takes a lesser-known, and lesser-regarded, Bram Stoker novel and turns it into a fun monster romp. Russell does not shy away from the rather silly premise; instead, he welcomes it, giving the film an understated humor and campiness without going overboard. Religious, sexual, and snake/worm imagery fill the film, adding to the fun. The movie has a great cast that fully gets Russell’s vision, and their chemistry makes them a joy to watch. The Lair of the White Worm is an enjoyable throwback to the monster movies of old, as interpreted through the unique lens of Ken Russell. Fans of Russell’s other work and fans of monsterfests with find much to enjoy.
The Lair of the White Worm (4.5 / 5)