Starring: Amanda Donohoe, Hugh Grant, Catherine Oxenberg, Peter Capaldi, Sammi Davis
Lair of the White Worm is one of Russell’s most fun and, dare I say it, accessible films, though viewers are generally polarized by this irreverent, hallucinatory exercise in genre filmmaking. Angus, an archaeology student, is excavating the ruins of a convent located at a bed and breakfast run by sisters Mary and Eve. Angus finds a large skull, which he thinks is some kind of prehistoric snake, possibly related to the legend of the d’Ampton worm, a mythical beast slain by Lord d’Ampton. The mysterious Lady Sylvia returns to her home, Temple House, and nearby a watch is found that belonged to Mary and Eve’s father. Their parents disappeared a year ago, near Temple House and Stonerich Cavern, where the d’Ampton worm allegedly lived. The current Lord d’Ampton, James (Hugh Grant), believes that the cavern may have been the home of Angus’s prehistoric snake and possibly a modern descendant. The serpentine, overtly sexual Lady Sylvia thickens the plot when she shows her true colors, steals the skull and kidnaps Eve, intending to sacrifice her in Stonerich Cavern.
Loosely based on Bram Stoker’s lesser-known novel of the same name, Russell’s film focuses on the legend of the Lambton Worm, though most plot similarities end there. On one hand this is a campy, playful genre film about a giant snake monster, but it is also an outrageous mindfuck about the evils of sexual repression. The mix of comedy, horror and blasphemy can be jarring, particularly when graphic scenes of nuns being raped are suddenly and unexpectedly flashed across the screen. All good taste is thrown out with the bathwater (in this case bathwater full of boy scout), though I think this impulse is generally one of Russell’s strengths as a director.
A lot of excellent elements come together with Lair that didn't seem to gel in Gothic, his other genre effort from the same period. The set has a claustrophobic energy and is chock full of snake and worm imagery. The fantastic, technicolor hallucinations and hilariously bizarre dream sequences add a creepy, uncomfortable edge to what is otherwise a self-aware comic horror spoof. Though there are some nice Lovecraftian touches, the silly humanoid snake creatures have a certain vampiric tone that feels lazy. And let’s face facts: a key component to Angus and James’s solution to Eve’s kidnapping involves bagpipes and an antique broadsword, though they wield them with gusto. A very energetic Hugh Grant at first seems out of place, but has fun with his role. The plot is solidly lead along by Peter Capaldi, whose character seems resolute in his acceptance of bizarre events. There is also a great bit part from Stratford Johns as an ineffectual policeman.
The only truly sexual character, Amanda Donohoe, is easily the star of the film. She is sexy, sinister, dexterous and has the bulk of the film’s many witty lines of dialogue. Her hermaphroditic performance as Lady Sylvia is one of the major elements that marks Lair as truly a Ken Russell effort. A combination of sexual magnetism and a virulent hatred of all things Christian make her a memorable villain, in addition to the fact that she clearly had fun with the role and gave it her all, unafraid to climb a tree in tight leather clothing, dance naked in nothing but blue body paint or spit venom on a crucifix. Though the majority of the film is reminiscent of classic creature features from the ‘50s or the colorful, gothic Hammer films of the ‘60s, Lady Sylvia’s character stepped out of the more subversive, softcore, Eurotrash films of the '70s.
There are two region 1 DVDs available. The simple Lion’s Gate disc is still in print, while the superior Pioneer DVD can only be found online. The latter has a wonderful commentary from Russell himself and comes highly recommended. I'm still waiting a posthumous Russell box set that includes special editions of all his cult films and loads of special features.