We’ve all seen some scary stuff on the London Underground, whether it’s enormous rats, drunk people or a busker playing a particularly harrowing rendition of ‘Hallelujah’. Just yesterday I saw this advert featuring a baby that looks like Donald Trump:
Two Bond villains (Donald Pleasence and Christopher Lee) share the screen in this British horror film from 1972, about a cannibal (Hugh Armstrong) who lives beneath Russell Square tube. More recently, the idea was revisited by Christopher Smith in his 2004 movie Creep. And while Death Line (known as Raw Meat in the US) isn’t as relentlessly nasty as Creep, it has the edge in a number of other zones.
For one thing, it makes its villain sympathetic in a way few horror movies even attempt. By the end, we feel much more for Armstrong’s tragic cannibal than Pleasence’s unpleasant policeman; an archetype from American slasher films, and one of many references to US cinema. This is perhaps due to the film being written and directed by an American, Gary Sherman.
While many elements are distinctly British (the tube, pubs and plenty of tea), Sherman gives the film the social dimension of its American contemporaries. It’s a bit like a British version of Q: The Winged Serpent, where a class divide is literally built into the geography of the film. This makes London the perfect stomping ground for this confrontational creature feature, minding the gap between British classes.
Like the New York of Q, London is a city characterised by its apathetic inhabitants, indifferent to those around us. In Death Line, it’s only when a politician (with an OBE) disappears that the authorities start to take notice, while the cannibal is descended from Victorian railway workers who were buried alive in a construction accident and never rescued.
Armstrong’s performance is extraordinary, eliciting tremendous sympathy through just his physicality and the only three words in the cannibal’s vocabulary: “Mind the doors.” Of course, these days he’d have a much more extensive range of announcements to mimic, but if he went round saying “please report anything suspicious to a member of staff” it would be far less effective.
Pleasence is also on great form as the cynical copper, while Lee appears as an MI5 agent for a single scene, and steals the show as only he can. In terms of characterisation, the only weak links are a student couple (David Ladd and Sharon Gurney); a problem shared by Hellraiser, where quite dull young characters are included, presumably to attract the youthful slasher crowd.
Thanks to its social commentary, uniquely sympathetic villain and cinematography that delves through the pitch-black, rat-infested tunnels, this is the most fun you can have on the Piccadilly Line since they banned drinking on the tube.