The Vestron Pictures movie was written, produced and directed by Ken Russell (Gothic; Altered States; The Devils) and stars Amanda Donohoe, Hugh Grant, Catherine Oxenberg, Peter Capaldi (Doctor Who) and Sammi Davis.
Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi), a Scottish archaeology student excavating the site of a convent at the Derbyshire bed and breakfast run by the Trent sisters, Mary (Sammi Davis) and Eve (Catherine Oxenberg), unearths an unusual skull which appears to be that of a large snake.
He subsequently tries to find the local legend of the D’Ampton “worm”, a mythical snake slain in Stonerich Cavern by John D’Ampton, the ancestor of the current Lord of the Manor, James D’Ampton (Hugh Grant).
When the watch of the Trent sisters’ father, who disappeared a year ago near Temple House, the stately home of Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), is found miles away in Stonerich Cavern, James thinks the legendary creature may have survived and still be alive deep beneath the cavern.
The enigmatic Lady Sylvia is the immortal priestess to the snake god Dionin, which, as James suspected, still exists in the caves beneath her house which connects with Stonerich Cavern. She steals the skull and later abducts Eve to be the latest sacrificial offering to her god…
The idea that there are still, even today, critics who don’t get The Lair of the White Worm, and bemoan it as an example of Ken Russell’s supposed decline, is a depressing example of just how pig-ignorant some film ‘experts’ are. These are people who look at this 1988 film and think that Russell must have been approaching the material with a determinedly straight face, even when all the evidence on screen is that he was having a whale of a time satirising Hammer Horror and shooting one of the most gloriously camp, deliciously entertaining British horror movies ever made.
Loosely based on Bram Stoker’s potboiler novel, the film has Amanda Donohoe as an immortal snake-vampire who worships a giant dragon in Derbyshire. She’s given to sacrificing young virgins and spitting venom on crucifixes when not inspiring crazed blasphemous hallucinations involving Christ and assorted semi-naked nuns. Donohoe has great fun parading around in skimpy underwear, a variety of extravagant costumes or nothing more than green body paint, savouring her outrageous dialogue and gobbling on spotty boy scouts, and of course, she steals the film.
Yet, her larger than life performance is ideal for a movie that is excessive in all ways – lurid imagery, ludicrous special effects and florid dialogue add to the mix, creating a film that is a genuine joy from start to finish. With a cast that also includes Hugh Grant (who is predictably embarrassed by this, yet seemingly proud of the likes of Notting Hill… sigh…), Catherine Oxenberg and future Doctor Who Peter Capaldi, The Lair of the White Worm is a glorious feast of excess, glorying in its own bad taste and vulgarity.
Of course, if you are the sort of person who is so humourless that you will look at a film as wildly kitsch as this and only be troubled by ‘gender representations’ (that’ll be Peter Walker for The Guardian who sheepishly admits to enjoying this even though the fact that the women are either monsters or scantily clad innocents, which, perhaps never having seen a horror film before, he calls ‘worrying’), then you’ll never really ‘get’ it, and the more pompous strain of genre fan – not to mention those who inherently think that all horror is a bit trashy – will at best think that this is irredeemable rubbish, and at worse find it deeply offensive, catering to the sniggering schoolboy division of unreconstructed horror fan.
Forget those dullards – you should all rush out and pick up this Blu-ray right now, and enjoy it thoroughly – ideally will alcoholic accompaniment. And for once, listen to the audio commentary, as Ken Russell clearly has much more idea about the sort of film he (intentionally) made than his detractors ever will, and is suitably hilarious throughout.
David Flint, MOVIES and MANIA
“The Lair of the White Worm shows Russell having fun upending the stuffier ‘50s and ‘60s mores while still paying homage to their style; it’s there in the blue screened car rides and the aristocratic heroism (although that gets taken down a few notches with Grant’s ineffectual do-goodery), not to mention gratuitous lab analysis that plays a big part in the finale.” Daily Dead
“The Lair of the White Worm (1988) is quite entertaining (except to nuns), and slithers happily between surreal horror and deliberate black comedy. (Sylvia plays Snakes ‘n Ladders with her “offerings” and can’t help but twist-y dancing when hearing music.) You have to wait most of the movie’s 93 minutes to see the whopping worm, but there’s people being turned into vampire snakes ’n stuff.” Drinkin’ & Drive-in
“Amanda Donohoe is delightfully wicked and brings a goodly amount of credibility to a bizarre role. She is gorgeous throughout, both in her art deco style costumes and in the blue body paint she later dons. Hugh Grant and Peter Capaldi make likeable heroes and although the girls’ dubbed accents grate on the nerves a bit they put in solid performances.” Exploitica.com
“Russell’s schoolboy humour might be a tad lame, but his shocking visual asides at Catholicism are wonderfully irreverent, and the practical special effects are an inventive highlight. Donohoe’s tight-fitting costumes are also a seductive treat and the chilly location shoots that include the Peak District and Manifold Valley in Staffordshire are gorgeously lensed.” Kultguy’s Keep
“Badly shot, clumsily edited and seemingly scored by a teenage boy who has just taken delivery of his first synthesiser and then pressed all the buttons one by one, the film has a peculiarly jarring tone. Ostensibly making a gothic horror, Russell repeatedly undermines the mood with moments of absurdity – some deliberate, many not, and snippets of dialogue apparently borrowed from Are You Being Served?” The Guardian
“…a wonderfully screwy adaptation of Bram Stoker’s last novel … The plot quickly succumbs to Russell’s trademark flamboyance.”Mike Mayo, The Horror Show Guide
” …one of the director’s most accessible works and introduced him to an entire new generation of fans. It’s easy to understand why, since The Lair of the White Worm is an almost perfect savvy blend of horror and comedy that both honors the horror genre while standing it on its head.” Mountain Express
” …a rollicking, terrifying, post-psychedelic headtrip.” Variety
Buy Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films book from Amazon.co.uk
Cast and characters:
Hugh Grant … Lord James D’Ampton
Amanda Donohoe … Lady Sylvia Marsh
Catherine Oxenberg … Eve Trent
Peter Capaldi … Angus Flint
Sammi Davis … Mary Trent
Stratford Johns … Peters
Paul Brooke … Ernie – The Phantom of the Opera; Lighthouse; Straight on Till Morning
Imogen Claire … Dorothy Trent
Chris Pitt … Kevin
Gina McKee … Nurse Gladwell
Christopher Gable … Joe Trent
On January 31, 2017, the film was released on Blu-ray as part of the Vestron Video Collector’s Series. Special features:
Two Audio Commentaries: Director Ken Russell, Lisi Russell, in conversation with Film Historian Matthew Melia
‘Worm Food: The Effects of The Lair of the White Worm’ featurette
‘Cutting for Ken’ an Interview with Editor Peter Davies
‘Mary, Mary’ an interview with Actress Sammi Davis
‘Trailers from Hell’ featuring Producer Dan Ireland