Sometimes in cinema a basic mistake or two can lead to the derailing of an entire work. Mark Fraser looks back at a B-grade horror film set in metropolitan England where a few fundamental errors almost undermine the whole production.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
While not the strangest thing about a movie featuring a subterranean cannibalistic dweller living beneath London during the early 1970s, Gary Sherman’s Death Line is nevertheless an inappropriately-named work, even though its title successfully denotes the piece of exploitative cinema it truly is.
Of course the British moniker of this 1972 movie is neither as gruesome – nor as suggestive – as its US handle, where the distributor (American International Pictures) saw fit to call it the far more sensational-sounding Raw Meat.
The basic problem with Death Line, though, is that the story is not about a line per se. Rather, it’s more to do with a death stop, with the destination in question being the London Underground’s Russell Square Station (RSS), which sits on the network’s Piccadilly Line just north east of the British Museum.
This causes a notable logistical hiccup very early in the narrative – albeit one which shouldn’t really bother the average horror fan, whose blood lust will no doubt be adequately satiated by some of the gorier scenes in this modestly brave cinematic endeavour.
Instead, the error in question has to do with geography and, in particular, RSS’ location in relation to Soho, where the film’s opening credit sequence – with its fancy series of focus pulls (by veteran English cinematographer Alex Thomson) – takes place.
As the movie begins the moustached, middle-aged, bowler-hatted, suit-attired James Manfred OBE (James Cossins) is trawling the sleazy nightclub district in London’s West End, obviously enjoying the abundance of female flesh on display within the neon-lit landscape.
When he eventually enters the Underground to catch his train home (or back to his office, or wherever he is going), Manfred ends up in RSS. Yet in reality this station is about 800 metres (as the crow flies) from Soho’s north east corner, and a little further still from the heart of its once infamous skin district.
Given it’s highly probable Manfred is passing through Wardour St and its surrounds, which at the time was where all of this sort of fun took place, it’s more than likely he actually would have ended up at Tottenham Court Road Station, which is just a few blocks along Oxford St to the east. The issue here, however, is that this stop is on the Elizabeth Line, in which case – had he wanted a more direct route to his destination – he could have instead wandered down to the Piccadilly Circus Station to the south west and caught the tube there; it is, after all, also on the Piccadilly Line and a way shorter walk to get to than the one kilometre-plus foot journey to RSS.
Although this may all sound a bit too nit-picky and unnecessarily pedantic to carp on about in a horror movie review, it’s worth mentioning because the film suffers another major logistical flaw later on when it is revealed – after the aristocrat’s unexplained disappearance from the Russell Square platform area – that others have also vanished from the vicinity, leaving the local constabulary somewhat flatfooted despite a well-known urban legend which, according to the amusing Inspector Richardson (Clive Swift), goes: “The old City in South London Company were tunnelling down there in 1892 when a whole section of the roof collapsed, burying a number of men. Eight of them and four women. But there were some old tunnellers who believed there were air pockets down there and they could survive for some time, and the company refused to listen.”
On the trail
Thus the stage is set for a somewhat run-of-the-mill horror/detective film which, quite seamlessly at times, mixes dry humour with unpleasant gore as the police – led by an eccentrically funny Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasance in a show-stealing performance) and his sidekick foil Detective Sergeant Rogers (Norman Rossington) – belatedly stumble across the entrance to a hitherto undiscovered corpse-strewn and rat infested subterranean butcher’s chamber, where the remaining cannibal (Hugh Armstrong), who is simply referred to as “The Man”, chops up and eviscerates his victims before consuming the good bits and leaving the rest of the bodies to rot (and be gnawed upon by the rodents) in the cavernous dampness.
While this hideout is surprisingly well lit (although it is never explained how its sole occupant manages to keep the dim lights on all the time), its killing space is as gory as they come – a makeshift slaughterhouse so hideous that even the murderous rednecks’ ramshackle rural mansion in Tobe Hooper’s 1974 terror opus The Texas Chain Saw Massacre pales a little in comparison.
And, though it is easy to bang on about logistical issues – petty or otherwise – it should also be noted that Death Line does contain one truly horrific revelation in its second half when it transpires that the dying pregnant woman (Jane Turner), whom The Man is caring for at the start of the movie, is not his cannibal soul mate but a hapless kidnapped victim.
This becomes apparent when he captures and imprisons Patricia Wilson (Sharon Gurney), an English university student who, along with her obnoxious American boyfriend Alex Campbell (David Ladd), find themselves embroiled in the Manfred case.
Ultimately, by the film’s climatic chase/hunt-down-the-monster scene, the perpetrator is not just a primitive and grunting flesh eater worthy of a modicum of sympathy – he is also a kidnapping rapist who permanently enslaves his female victims while forcing them to try and reproduce.
It’s a terrifying scenario, and one that is handled quite deftly by Sherman, who both wrote and directed this movie.*
One final point worth mentioning is the fact Death Line was a product of the Rank Organisation, the studio established in 1937 by J Arthur Rank which went on to produce some of Britain’s finest cinema during the 1940s, as well as a number of its most commercial movies the following decade.
Sitting through this Sherman opus, it becomes obvious that this prolific outfit – which provided an early platform for film makers like David Lean, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and boosted the careers of well-known English thespians such as Sir John Mills, Dirk Bogarde and Donald Sinden – had become a spent force by the 1970s, making most of its money through some lurid horror thrillers and the tacky Carry On series.
Back in July 2005, author Geoffrey MacNab, in an article about Rank which appeared in The Guardian, suggested there were a number of reasons why the studio’s “bold vision for the British film industry … began to crumble”.
“The US market wasn’t ready to open up to British films, and even in Britain, audiences preferred Hollywood films to home-grown product,” he wrote.
“Patriotic critics railed against Rank’s appetite for backing big-budget prestige movies at the expense of lower-budgeted British films that could have recouped their costs in the domestic market. The left was strongly critical of his (J Arthur’s) monopoly tendencies.”
One interesting thing about this observation is that, by the early 1970s, the studio had well and truly stopped making so-called prestige films and instead was concentrating on producing low rent material aimed at a broader market.
In this regard there are two things worth considering when looking at Death Line.
Firstly, despite being undeniable schlock, it is still a work which took a risk as it went out on a limb to garner the patronage of the collective (and then marginalised) gore hound audience. In this regard, credit really should be given to Denis Gordon-Orr, Harry and Peter Frampton as well as John Horton – the film’s respective art director, make-up artists and special effects co-ordinator – who all did a great job in creating a truly repellent chamber of horrors.
Second, maybe the producers should have taken a leaf out of the American’s playbook and come up with a more marketable title – something like the appropriately confronting Raw Meat, perhaps?
*The only other Sherman film I’ve seen is 1981’s Dead & Buried, another modest schlocker about a mad mortician (Jack Albertson) who is reanimating the dead in a small New England coastal town, and the local sheriff (James Farentino) who’s efforts to work out what’s going on leads him to a grim self-discovery. While not exactly a masterpiece, this AVCO Embassy Pictures release has enough going for it to suggest the director (born in 1945) – who eventually establish a prolific TV career – should have received a few more movie offers.
Words by Mark Fraser
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