Death Line Review

Right from the opening credits, as a gentleman of dubious repute scours Soho for cheap thrills to the accompaniment of a lounge jazz score, it’s clear that Death Line is going to be something unusual. Made in 1972, the year of Last House on the Left and a year before The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it’s one of the few British films of the era to anticipate the change in horror movies which Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven were about to bring about. It’s not the first non-Gothic British horror film by any means but it has a genuinely contemporary feel to it that eludes, for example, the Hammer psychodramas such as Paranoiac and which lacks the dated period trappings of films like Scream and Scream Again. More than that, it deals with society in a clear-eyed manner which is more effective than many more earnestly ‘respectable’ dramas. Dismissed on release as gratuitously nasty, Death Line now looks like one of the best British horror movies and points the way towards the terror films of Pete Walker which emerged a year or two later.

After the gentleman we have met at the start, Sir James Manfred (Cossins) disappears, Inspector Calhoun (Pleasance) and Sergeant Rogers (Rossington) investigate with the help of two students, Alex (Ladd) and Patricia (Gurney) who have seen him lying, apparently drunk, on the stairs of Russell Square tube station. Despite being warned off by a sepulchral civil servant, played in a two-minute cameo by Christopher Lee, the policemen discover that the secret behind the mystery is linked to a cave-in which occurred eighty years previously during the excavations for the subsequently abandoned Museum station.

Spoilers follow

What they find out is, as far as I can gather, the first depiction of cannibalism in a mainstream British film and one which sets in place some of the iconography which Ruggero Deodata and Umberto Lenzi would make their own. It’s a lot more restrained than the Italian exploitation movies to come but we have half-eaten victims, entrails lying around and bloody stumps used as food sources. These are first revealed in a staggeringly good tracking shot which explores the 19th century squalor of the cannibal’s lair – he is known as The Man (Armstrong) – before (in a disguised cut) taking us above ground to the busy tube station. This idea of a primitive world existing, unnoticed, below the modern one is potent and well worked out, symbolic of a society which neither notices nor cares about the people it has to tread on. As for the explanation, it’s suggested that the cave-in resulted in air pockets which allowed survivors to live and breed, feeding first on each other and then on unwary travellers snatched from the platforms late at night. This stretches the bounds of credibility but its sufficient to prop up the narrative. It also provides a valuable basis for our sympathies because it establishes that The Man is basically an innocent victim of an uncaring state who have simply hushed up the disaster and forgotten about the survivors. Although we might reasonably question his methods, his motivations are as basic as our own – to live – and the scenes where he desperately tends his dying pregnant wife are remarkably touching. Indeed, apart from Sergeant Rogers and Patricia, he’s the only sympathetic character in the film. Inspector Calhoun is cynical and heartless – redeemed partially by his end line when he surveys The Man’s home and mutters, “What a way to live!” – while the representatives of the establishment we meet – Sir James, Lee’s civil servant – are as unappealing as Alex the glib American student. Incidentally, whether Alex is meant to be as obnoxious as David Ladd plays him is a moot point but I always get the urge to smack him in the mouth the moment he opens it.

It’s partly the film’s absolute solidarity with its ‘monster’, and its white-hot anger at a society which casually condemns people to death because they’re not considered important, which makes it so distinctive. Hugh Armstrong’s performance is beautifully achieved and the scenes where he tries to demonstrate affection towards the kidnapped Patricia, while only able to express himself in the three learned words “Mind the doors”, are very moving. His death at the end, at the hands (well, feet) of Alex, is far more affecting that anything which happens to the other characters and, in itself, sums up Alex’s attitude to ‘those kinds of people’. An incredible amount of screen time is put into establishing the character and it’s a finely etched portrait of desperation which has the realistic punch of a documentary on poverty.

Death Line is a grim and sad film but its lightened by a splendid performance from Donald Pleasance which is among his best. Pleasance was never given his due as a screen actor and his relish for performance is in evidence here. He claims never to have seen the film and to have improvised a lot of his dialogue but I suspect Ceri Jones’ script is responsible for a large number of his zingers.

Every time he opens his mouth, something unexpected and funny comes out and Pleasance takes great pleasure in playing a completely disreputable character; Calhoun may well be the sleaziest policeman in British cinema history. He’s particularly good in his short scene with Christopher Lee, the latter embodying the casual hypocrisy of an uncaring establishment with clipped precision. Pleasance and Norman Rossington play so well together as a comic team that it’s a shame they never had the chance to repeat their collaboration – their drunk scene is among my favourite screen moments.

The brutality of Death Line must have seemed outré back in 1972 but now seems a lot less gratuitous, though it still carries the power to shock. There’s quite a lot of gore but the cannibal stuff is completely integral to the storyline and the killings, while bloody, are relatively brief.

What shocks you is the emotional power of the narrative and the way in which it draws you in to a completely alien, subterranean environment. Perhaps the most disturbing thing is the central question it raises, an old but still relevant one; who are the real monsters? The cannibals or the people who condemned them to that existence and still maintain the secret?

The Disc

Granada’s barebones release of Death Line presents the film in its original ratio of 1.85:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. Every version of the film I have ever seen has been grainy but not this grainy. There’s a vivid texturing over every scene which sometimes ruins the careful lighting that Alex Thomson creates for the underground sequences. The print used is uncut and reasonably free of damage but its murky and the colours are oddly muted. While it’s good to see this come out on Region 2, Network can do much better when they set their minds to it. In contrast, the mono soundtrack is actually pretty good with crisp dialogue, strong sound effects and very groovy music.

There are no extras or subtitles on the disc. Considering what a good film it is, a commentary track or some kind of retrospective documentary would have been welcome.

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