Death Line (1973)
By: Mr Intolerance on June 2, 2009  | 
Network (UK). Region 2, PAL. 1.78:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 2.0 Mono. 84 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Gary Sherman
Starring: Donald Pleasence, Norman Rossington, David Ladd, Sharon Gurney, Hugh Armstrong, Christopher Lee
Screenplay: Ceri Jones
Country: UK
External Links
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Subways can be scary places. Think films as disparate as Predator 2, The Midnight Meat Train or An American Werewolf in London – badness can happen in a subway station. Now prior to all of those films, director Gary Sherman must have been thinking the same thing, as the London Tube station Russell Square becomes the setting for (and practically a character in) this grimy and squalid piece of early 70s UK horror, also known under its inferior and tacky title, Raw Meat.

The basic jist of this film is remarkably simple, and pretty darned effective – a bunch of folks have been disappearing from, in, and marginally around the Russell Square Tube Station for a number of years, but it takes until the disappearance of a Knight of the Realm, James Manfred OBE (a nasty little man who visits strip joints, leers at hookers and propositions women on train platforms – all to the tune of a gloriously sleazy bump'n'grind soundtrack during the opening credits) before the coppers, helmed by the unsympathetic and sarcastic Cockney tea-addicted Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasence, in a role memorable even for an actor with his impressive resume), begin to piece together the fact that something ain't right here.

Manfred has tried propositioning the wrong woman, and after copping a knee to the goolies and being robbed by her is attacked by...something...on a platform in the Russell Square station. He's found unconscious on a staircase by annoying students Alex (a New York bozo with all the empathy of Attila the Hun) and his bleeding heart leftie girlfriend Patricia. Alex is all for leaving the fella there, believing him to be a drunk sleeping it off (on a staircase, as you do...), Patricia believes he might be ill, and so they rush off to find a bobby, having searched the body for ID. When they return, the body has mysteriously disappeared, which doesn't look too good for them. Inspector Calhoun, who the case eventually ends up with, is immediately suspicious of them, especially Alex, who isn't entirely truthful during their interview. Calhoun is a bitter, jaded man with little faith in the younger generation – Pleasence is obviously having a whale of a time being acerbic and venal in the role, berating Alex and telling him to get a haircut, as well as being a petty tyrant to his subordinates; I guess this is a product of its generation – gotta distrust, if not positively dislike The Man.

Actually, the whole cops and young people antagonism/intergenerational conflict thing reminded me of a less-confrontational version of Let Sleeping Corpses Lie – Pleasance's Inspector Calhoun might be unsympathetic, but he's not the abject prick Arthur Kennedy's Sergeant McCormick is in that other film.

We find out pretty early on what the hell's going on with the many disappearances at the Russell Street station – in the late nineteenth century an underground station was being built, but collapsed, with the male and female workers still inside. Somehow some of them survived in underground air pockets and lived through eating the flesh of the not-so-lucky victims, the company who employed them not having the resources to effect a rescue, or even the desire to do so – hey, they're only working class. Manfred was taken by one of the cannibal descendents of these workers, a degenerate breed of human (like something out of a Lovecraft short story – he was big on regressive breeding), and the last of his kind, seeing as how his missus is slowly dying of a kind of fatal septicaemia. The scene where we first see the cannibal's lair is grotesque and unsettling, being littered with the remnants of past meals, with rotting corpses nailed to the walls and body parts strewn about the place. The vibe is quite reminiscent of the set design of Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, unsettling and upsetting, if not quite as outre.

It's worth talking about Hugh Armstrong's portrayal of the cannibal at this point. An inarticulate creature of pure instinct, he's actually remarkably sympathetic at times – genuinely upset at the death of his mate, and unable to make himself understood to others (the only words he knows from our language are "Mind the doors!" - a phrase he has presumably heard since childhood living in the underground train system of London, but with no understanding of what those words mean – he repeats them like a mantra, a prayer – and it has an unnerving effect on the viewer hearing them uttered at various points of the film in different contexts, with different delivery and therefore different meanings) – okay, sure, he's a homicidal maniac in appearance and appetite on-par with George Eastman's titular character in Anthropophagus, but at the same time there's something that humanises the character.

There's a bit of domestic drama when Patricia leaves Alex, who really is a right plum-duff, due to his cynical writing off of Manfred as, to paraphrase him when having found him passed out on the staircase in the station, the kind of person you'd simply step over in New York, but they get back together again and it's all happy families for a while. During this saccharine series of moments, Calhoun and his off-sider Rogers are searching for the missing Manfred, but are warned off doing so by the appearance of Christopher Lee, as jovially sinister MI5 operative, Stratton-Villiers. There are, at this moment, two things the wary viewer needs to watch out for: firstly, the number of timely references to the Police and their methods of obtaining information from less than willing suspects (very subversively 1970s in its approach), and even moreso the face-off between two of the UK's best genre actors. It's not a long sequence, but Pleasence and Lee cross verbal swords wonderfully at this point, really sneering at each others' class background (Lee – upper, Pleasence – working) in a way that highlighted the class gap, still a part of the British psyche at the time. Believe me, we root for Calhoun at this moment, the bowler-hatted Stratton-Villiers representing all that we've all come to hate about the snobbish, effete and anachronistic British class system.

Can I talk to you about violence? This would definitely have to be one of the most violent UK films of its time. While not a patch on The Devils, or in terms of sheer sadistic nastiness Witchfinder General, Death Line would have to hold the distinction of being one of the bloodiest, goriest UK films of the early 70s. There are some grisly methods of dispatch seen – the sequence where the cannibal takes out three Tube-Station workers with a broom and a shovel are down and dirty, to say the least. Heads are sliced open, chests are impaled, claret is spilled with abandon – this is far removed from the more stylised and implied Hammer-style violence, this is visceral, graphic and nasty and leaves one hell of a bad taste in your mouth. The scene I mentioned before of the cannibal's lair is a long, long, loooooong tracking shot over a terrible series of dead, rotten and mutilated bodies infested with maggots that most UK films of the time wouldn't have gone within a wild coo-eee of. Like I said before, this one hell of a grimy, nasty film, given the fact that it would have been shot on a poofteenth of the budget of some of its big-dollar counterparts aiming for that fat exploitation cash.

Anyhoo, Patricia is captured by the cannibal – initially as his next meal, but possibly later as a future mate – and the film rolls around into its last act, which, when considering the fact that it's shown zero sympathy for any of its characters so far, leaves us to be rather uneasy about their fate. We watch as Alex battles against the stony face of the law (or The Pleasence, if you like) trying to effect her rescue. This last act is most definitely worth your watching, let me tell you.

Some trivia for you: when Death Line was released thetarically for US audiences under the title Raw Meat, it was a re-edited and truncated version done by AIP which the director hated (and he despised the changed title as well). If you buy the R1 MGM DVD version with that title, it's the same cut as the fully uncensored version I've been reviewing here. Apparently, the director actively campaigned to get Pleasence on board for the role of Calhoun, and Lee came to the fore in the nearly inconsequential role of Stratton-Villiers because he was sick and tired of having to wear the cape, contacts and fangs for Hammer in the Dracula role. It's a good thing in anyone's book that they both agreed to it – the results speak for themselves. Death Line is a minor masterpiece; weird to think it's by an American director living in England at the time.

Part legend of the Sawney Beane (which The Hills Have Eyes tried to ape to a certain level of success a few years later), part political statement about the problem with homelessness in the UK in the early 70s, part flat-out terror, Death Line delivers on all counts. It's a nasty, brutish film with a thoroughly repellent villain who possesses a sad and tragic human streak, and has a great performance from one of the genre's greats (I know I've said it before, but Pleasence really shines in this film). If you don't dig Death Line, there is something wrong with you.
The aspect ratio is cropped slightly here from its OAR of 1.85:1 to 1.78:1. I don't know why that is, and really, it makes very little difference, but I just thought I'd let you know (the US NTSC version as Raw Meat is in the OAR). It's a nice PAL picture, so it looks prety sweet. There are few, if any, artefacts of any kind, and basically I'm telling you to seek this mutha down! If UK horror from the 70s floats your boat, then this will turn your crank.
A lone a mono track. I'm not saying that a 5.1 track would have been necessary (although it probably would help with the final series of chases through the underground tunnels), but at least a stereo 2.0 track would have been nice. It's a little lifeless and flat, but serviceable, and still allows you to hear Donald Pleasence's wonderfully snide and sarcastic put-downs of all and sundry.
Extra Features
Bugger all to the power of less. While the film itself looks the bomb here, there is nothing else to make you want to buy this version of it. A totally bare-bones, vanilla disc. This could have been so much better.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
I wouldn't go as far as to say that Death Line is a "lost classic", but I would say that it's a film that has been overlooked, both when it came out, hampered by bad distribution and over-shadowed by the infinitely inferior US big-budget films The Exorcist and The Omen, and also today, due to a lack of cult fan support. A dirty, nasty film chock-full of good performances and a pretty neat premise, Death Line is a movie that should sit proudly on your shelf alongside all of your fave UK horrors – it's equal to all of Hammer's second division stuff (and some of their top-grade material), equal to Amicus' best material and far superior to all of Tigon's output (Witchfinder General, and Blood On Satan's Claw excused). When UK 70s horror is good, it's fucking fantastic and Death Line is proof positive of that particular pudding. Watch and enjoy.

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