You'd better "watch out for your asp" when LionsGate brings Ken Russell's THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM to Vestron Video Collector's Series Blu-ray.
Young James D'Ampton's (Hugh Grant, MAURICE) first year as Lord of the Manor and the annual celebration commemorating his medieval ancestor Sir John's slaying of the local dragon coincides with Scottish archaeologist Angus Flint's (current DOCTOR WHO Peter Capaldi) discovery of a large reptilian skull on the dig site of a Roman convent and discovery of a watch in the titular lair "Stonerigg Cavern" belonging to the father of his borders Mary (Sammi Davis, THE RAINBOW) and Eve (DYNASTY's Catherine Oxenberg) who inexplicably disappeared with his wife the year before. The disappearance of the skull and the virginal Eve have the resourceful archaeologist, the wry aristocrat, and Eve's plucky sister suspecting that the "D'Ampton Worm" may have been a real creature worshipped since pagan times and that someone is still making offerings to the beast: most likely, the slinky Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe, DIAMOND SKULLS) who enjoys a game of Snakes & Ladders, goes snake-watching in the rain, and changes her cars "as regularly as a snake changes its skin."
Adapted from the Bram Stoker novel and directed with forked tongue firmly in cheek by Ken Russell (THE DEVIL), THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM is simultaneously Russell's most conventional "horror film" and an endlessly entertaining and successful example of the camp horror comedy genre. Part of a multi-picture deal between Russell and Vestron that included GOTHIC (for Virgin Vision), THE RAINBOW, and SALOME'S DANCE (as well as ALL-AMERICAN MURDER prepped with CRIMES OF PASSION's Barry Sandler that ended up under another director at Trimark the same year Russell helmed WHORE for them), THE LAIR OF WHITE WORM finds Russell applying his wonderfully witty and bombastic style to one of Bram Stoker's lesser-known works and massively improving upon the 1911 source novel. The show belongs to Donohoe but a wry Grant gets to face off with her in a Noel Coward-esque exchange in the first half while Capaldi's archaeologist charms snakes in the second half with bagpipes and keeps a muskrat and a grenade in his sporran. Stanislas Syrewicz (THE FANTASIST) provides an effective but simple synth score and the authentic folk song "The Lambton Worm" (the inspiration for Stoker's novel) gets a catchy folk rock adaptation for the film. Russell, production designer Anne Tilby (PAPERHOUSE), and cinematographer Dick Bush (CRIMES OF PASSION) work wonders on a low budget in terms of production value while the effects work of HELLRAISER's Image Animation includes some grisly prosthetics, some striking shot-on-video optical work, and a wonderful latex worm. Russell veterans Christopher Gable (WOMEN IN LOVE's unfortunate groom) and Imogen Clare (THE MUSIC LOVERS' Lady in White) cameo as the Trent girls' parents. The location of D'Ampton Hall is Knebworth House (recognizable as Wayne Manor from Tim Burton's BATMAN and also featured in HORROR HOSPITAL, the "shadmock" episode of THE MONSTER CLUB, and HAUNTED HONEYMOON) while Lady Sylvia's house is Gaddesden Place (interiors of which Russell combined with GOSFORD PARK location Wrotham Park for both GOTHIC and his TV miniseries adaptation of LADY CHATTERLEY).
Released theatrically and on video by Vestron Pictures (as well as laserdisc by Image Entertainment), THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM was one of the fortunate Vestron titles to get the DVD treatment when Artisan Entertainment acquired Vestron's successor company Live Entertainment. The 1999 Pioneer Entertainment DVD featured a new anamorphic widescreen transfer with an amusing and informative audio commentary by Russell, text screens on the special effects work, and a TV spot for the film. Artisan would reissue the DVD in 2003, carrying over only the anamorphic transfer with no extras. HD transfers of LAIR, GOTHIC, and THE RAINBOW popped up on streaming services a couple years ago but a Blu-ray from LionsGate seemed unlikely until they started the Vestron series. Whereas the Artisan DVD unfortunately replaced the opening and closing Vestron Pictures logos with their own, LionsGate's new 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 widescreen Blu-ray restores them to a colorful presentation that improves on what was already a nice presentation of the film on DVD. The serpentine wide angle pans and the exaggerated perspective of these bits have a weighty feel less evident than before while the video opticals will never look great. The Dolby Stereo soundtrack is presented here in a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 encode and optional English SDH subtitles are provided.
The wonderfully witty audio commentary with Russell from the Pioneer disc has been carried over to the Blu-ray. Russell discusses Stoker's original story, the inconsistencies in the writing, and his choices in updating it. He also discusses the authentic folk song adapted for the film and its origins (which presumably also inspired Stoker for the source). He speaks affectionately of his cast ("she's quite a bitchy lady and venom springs readily to her lips") while also making a few backhanded compliments to Grant (who refuses to speak about the film) and also exposes some of the film's low budget shortcuts that might have gone by unnoticed (an added scene with Donohoe and FOR YOUR EYES ONLY's Paul Brooke was shot against studio flats and a forest scene was actually shot in his back garden and lit from his kitchen window). The disc also contains a second commentary track with Russell's last wife Lisi Russell in conversation with film historian Matthew Melia. Melia gets off to a rough start as he contextualizes Russell's use of landscape and depiction of class differences within his earlier works, his pro-miner sympathies, his nods to expressionism and Orson Welles, Russell pushing back at the Merchant-Ivory-esque eighties British film trend of romanticizing the notion of Empire, and a critique of Thatcherism but makes some tantalizing observations while also drawing on Russell's commentary track and producer Dan Ireland's (THE UNHOLY) autobiography. Russell provides anecdotes about working with the director – who described himself as a "Catholic Pagan" – his interest in British and Roman history, and being sent by him to procure sometimes embarrassing props. Some new information from this track includes Tilda Swinton (CARAVAGGIO) being offered Donahue's role, Russell meeting Donahue through Nicolas Roeg (CASTAWAY), Oxenberg refusing to do nudity (and Grant refusing the role that eventually went to Paul McGann in THE RAINBOW because he did not want to do nudity),
Red Shirt Pictures has produced a handful of video featurettes starting with "Worm Food: The Effects of THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM" (27:08) in which Image Animation artists Geoff Portass (LIFEFORCE), Paul Jones (MINDRIPPER), and Neil Gorton (NIGHTBREED) recall their working relationship with Russell and his frustration that they could not realize some the effects he wanted within the low budget. They reveal that the various snake heads at different scales contained no mechanical components and were puppets operated by hands or the entire bodies of crew members (with two technicians bending backwards and forwards to operate the jaws of the giant worm), and that the video effects had to be shot against red screens because Donohoe was painted blue. They also recall being eighteen and nineteen year old kids working on the sets with a bunch of page 3 girls (photographic models hired specifically for nudity) for the convent rape scene and Russell shouting out "assume bonking positions."
In "Cutting for Ken" featurette (9:32), editor Peter Davies (THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS) also recalls an initially volatile relationship with Russell until he made more decisive choices in the editing. He also recalls Russell's fondness for champagne in the morning, which he carried over to their editing room sessions. In "Mary, Mary" (15:42), actress Davis recalls being relatively new to the business taking a chance on a script that she thought was "a blast" (she also notes that Russell's script was better than the novel). She expresses affection for Russell, Donohoe, and the rest of the cast while noting that the only scene she had difficulty with was the pagan rape hallucination scene. The film's theatrical trailer (2:11) is full of spoilers and highlights set to the film's theme song and has the amusing tagline "What out for your asp!" The trailer can also be viewed with "Trailers from Hell" (1:45) commentary from producer Ireland who reveals that he and Russell were set to start pre-production on THE RAINBOW but Vestron wanted another horror film after the success on home video of GOTHIC. He recalls that Russell wrote the script in a couple days and that the final product was well-received by Vestron. A still gallery (2:59) is also included. The disc's standard Blu-ray case comes housed in a collector's slipcover. (Eric Cotenas)
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