Deathline [aka Raw Meat] (1972)

While much is made of the dismal organization and general quality of a certain retail electronics and media establishment (one which I’ll forego naming in the interest of avoiding that as a subject of this review) especially as compared to their product-equivalent competitor, I’ve often noticed a more varied selection of horror wandering their shelves–generally more cheap and more older titles. This one and Squirm (in the pipeline for a future viewing) both caught my eye while I was perusing said store at one time, and I recently picked this one up when the opportunity came around. I’d heard Donald Pleasance turns in a fantastically weird and amusing performance and that it was a pretty thoroughly creepy film.

Alex Campbell (David Ladd) and Patricia Wilson (Sharon Gurney) are two student-aged people in London, Alex an American student and Patricia a native (who seemingly does nothing occupationally or educationally, though it’s not terribly relevant either way–I was just trying to parallel and realized there was nothing established on that front), who stumble across the collapsed body of one James Manfred, OBE (James Cossins) on the stairs of a tube (or subway to those of us on this side of the pond). Patricia insists they help, while Alex goes on New York City experience and insists they leave him. Eventually Patricia wins out and they return with a constable, only to find Manfred missing. When report of this is brought to the attention of Inspector Calhoun (Pleasance) by his man Det. Sgt. Rogers (Norman Rossington), he investigates to clear any possibility of wrongdoing–be it missing persons, foul play, theft or filing a false report. One faked posh accent call to Manfred’s office reveals Manfred is indeed real and missing, but the interview of Alex and Patricia separately turns up equal stories of thus-proved innocence. Soon we are returned to the tunnels below the tube without them though, for a shockingly long steadily roving shot across the grisly remains of one victim and the still-blinking Manfred, before passing over a man covered in sores and boils wordlessly tending to a pregnant woman in an otherwise similar condition, dragging our view outward and upward to reveal its proximity to the tube. A series of open murders and another disappearance leads the protagonists back into the tunnel to discover what exactly is occurring.

This is a peculiar film. It has the dark lighting of an 80s film (in a bizarre twist, I discovered a thread about the 2004 film Creep, which had allegedly ripped off this film–only to have someone else claim the director had in fact been inspired by An American Werewolf in London, which came 9 years later–and was the very film this one reminded me of!) and similar filmstock, but the more matter-of-fact, pseudo-“cinema-verité” styling of 70s horror, where there is no upgrade of hysterics, effects and gratuitously obvious T&A seen in later decades. Any tongues in cheeks are not instantly noticeable or otherwise obvious, coming in, if at all, in the character of Calhoun, who Pleasance plays as a rough Cockney detective with a sharp tongue and enough snarky sarcasm to make even me blush. Rogers is not a bumbling foil like the assistant seen near the beginning of (to bring it up again!) An American Werewolf in London, instead trading back similarly cheeky comments and not being devoid of perception himself–though neither is he spared the acerbic charms of Calhoun. Ladd and Gurney are a little stiff (occasionally enough to make me wince), though director Gary Sherman (who later helmed the fantastic Dead & Buried) manages to keep their performances generally in line–with editor Geoffrey Foot managing to whittle and alternate shots enough to keep the seams from showing up too long in their performances. The establishing shot of the home of the cannibalistic human…ok I won’t say it, but those of you “in the know” know exactly where that was going*, and get the gist of where the film goes. But beyond that it instead tries (pretty successfully) to humanize our unwashed, infected antagonists, their verbal skills lost to lack of social contact, built primarily of the phrase they hear uttered repeatedly from the stations (“Mind the doors”–if you’ve seen it and were wondering, apparently this is constantly blared in British tubes) and moans and grunts. Hugh Armstrong’s performance as The “Man” (quotes in the credits) is fantastically believable–threatening and creepy but not without sympathy and some semblance of humanity even. It’s probably the best performance in the film, though Pleasance’s is brilliant, put to the test in a brief scene with an intruding MI5 agent–played by Christopher Lee, with acid class-based condescension and thinly veiled threats, a perfect opposite to Calhoun’s working class wit.

So, I say it’s peculiar–but as is often the case, this does not mean bad. It’s not a simple murder mystery, nor exactly straightforward horror but some strange amalgamation–as it’s carried out almost more like a murder mystery of sorts, but with rather gruesome gore for its time. The serious and oppressive tone, along with a wonderfully darkened, dreary, dripping atmosphere (in the tunnels at least, sharply contrasted with the cleaner, brighter interiors of the regular world) are only broken by the humour of Calhoun’s commentary on the cleverness of those around him, never pushing the tone away from the unsettling and into comedy. A good film, and a good background to bring Sherman into Dead & Buried.

*Apparently, so does Robert Downey, Jr., who both loves that film and apparently can name what it stands for without pause. Kudos to him for that.

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