BY HANK REINEKE – Cinema Retro

BY HANK REINEKE

With a screenplay penned by anotherwise obscure advertising copywriter named Ceri Jones (adapted from anoriginal story by director Gary Sherman), the premise of Death Line is rather simple. Late night travelers on Londons famed underground tubes have beendisappearing with alarming regularity from the Russell Square TubeStation. Two young, unmarried collegians,Alex Campbell (David Ladd) and Patricia Wilson (Sharon Gurney), unwittingly getthemselves entangled into the mystery when they find an unconscious, well-dressedfop lying comatose on the lower steps of the station. They alert a wary and hesitant policeman toinvestigate, but the slumped body whose wallet had earlier identified thebody as Sir James Manfred, O.B.E. – is suddenly nowhere to be found.

We soon learn that Manfred (JamesCossins) is merely the latest delicacy in the supper plans of a gruesome characterbilled only as The Man. Even puttinghis cannibalistic appetite aside, The Man (Hugh Armstrong) still cuts apretty morbid figure. Filthy, ragged,and with skin tone thats both beyond the pale and ravaged with festering sores(think of the iconic and disheveled but still healthier appearing – figure thatgraces the cover of Jethro Tulls seminal AqualungLP), this mostly mute subterranean has somewhat reluctantly – become the lastsurviving offspring of a band of tunnel dwellers.

Theres a back story here,of course. It seems that during theconstruction of the South London tube in 1892, there was an unfortunate cave-inthat entombed a team of construction workers. The company contracted to build that particular section of this nineteenthcentury subway went immediately into bankruptcy, coldheartedly making noattempt to rescue those (apparently) mixed-sex workers trapped in the dank andrat infested arc-shaped tunnels.

This was unfortunate as someof those abandoned not only managed to survive, but to reproduce and flourish(more or less) by eating the flesh of their less fortunate comrades. Its never adequately explained why in theeighty years between the tunnel collapse of 1892 and the films current date of1972, the youngest and last surviving of the mining offspring has lost all oftheir language skills aside from a grunting, guttural mimic of the rail lines oft-repeatedconductors phrase Mind the Doors. Likewise, its never explained why while searching out potentialfuture meals on the underground platforms – the trapped tunnelers simply didntwalk up the stairwells and out into the sunshine. Of course, if they had, therewould be no drama. Certainly romancing Universitystudents Campbell and Wilson wouldnt have been begrudgingly dragged into theon-going police investigation much in the manner of Fred and Daphne from theold Scooby Doo cartoon series. To some degree it hardly matters. Theyrewindow dressing. British actor DonaldPleasence is the true star of this vehicle, bringing more than a dollop ofchurlish intensity to his blue collar character, Inspector Calhoun. Pleasence is a decidedly old-school policeman,a cantankerous, prudish sort who continually badgers his secretary for cups oftea. He also relishes belittling andsneering at young Campbell and his generations immoral lifestyles, live-ingirlfriends, and hippie mindset. Hesparticularly disdainful of privileged middle-class kids dabbling in thepolitical protest movements of the day.

To be fair, Calhoun showslittle regard for the more well-heeled citizens of Britain either, tossing morethan a few cynical barbs at the newly deceased snob James Manfred, O.B.E. He also possesses an almost pathologicalantipathy toward M.I.5. He views theorganization not as an ally but more as a smug, self-important competitor in hisstreet level fight against crime.

Though horror film iconChristopher Lee gets a feature billing in DeathLine, his role is relatively small and the single scene he does appear in doeslittle to move the narrative forward. Producer Paul Maslansky had previously worked with Lee on a number offilms (including the very atmospheric and spooky black and white chiller Castle of the Living Dead). It was through Maslansky that Lee was cast asPleasences smirking antagonist, the condescending and derby-toppedStratton-Villiers of M.I.5.

Though the two actors wouldonly share a single scene together oddly, the pair would only share thebriefest of moments seen together on the big screen Maslansky recalled Lee gladlyaccepting the small role if only to work with Pleasence, an actor he muchadmired. The young American actor, DavidLadd, was also duly impressed by Pleasence, describing him as the consummateactors actor. He found workingalongside him somewhat intimidating. Ladd is the younger brother of Oscar-winning producer Alan Ladd, Jr.,and was certainly no leading man in Britain. He had previously worked mostly in the U.S. as a child actor. Though Ladds role of Alex Campbell wasoriginally purposed for a British actor, the producers thought having anAmerican in the part might make the film an easier sell in the States.

Since no U.S. companies seemed interested investing in the grim production, the Rank Organisation stepped in and floated the most significant part of the films budget of 83,000 GBP.Maslansky recalled the film was shot on a tight twenty day schedule, suggesting an almost strict Hitchcockian-type adherence to the written scenario: If it aint on the page, it aint on the stage. The underground sequences of this otherwise low-budget production are atmospherically murky: dark tunnels dripping water from their sloped corridors, armies of rats, burning oil lamps, tool sheds, the rumbling of underground trains, and rooms stuffed with rotting corpses and skeletons.

Producer Maslansky recalled the dank, low light tunnel shooting to be the most challenging. The crew was subjected to near-freezing temperatures in the cavernous tunnels and they were surrounded disturbingly by an army of rats, both real and prosthetic. Though the movie lights cut through some of the darkness, the heat from the lamps also caused the rotting layers of decaying meat doubling as human corpses to become even more odiferous and gag-inducing.

The rotting meat wasnt the only thing that stank. There would be future disappointment for director Sherman and the producers as well. Following a private preview screening of the film, legendary Paramount Pictures president Frank Yablans found Death Line so chilling and well mounted that he told Sherman he desperately wanted the film. But before Yablans could get green light consent from Paramounts top brass, second-stringer Samuel Z. Arkoff swooped in and gobbled up the rights for American-International. This, in effect, condemned the morbid film as drive-in fare. It was Arkoff who chose to change the British title Death Line to the far more lurid and exploitative Raw Meat when the film made its U.S. debut.

Released on a bare bones DVD in 2003 by MGM Home Entertainment under its garish U.S. title Raw Meat – Blue Undergrounds Blu Ray/DVD two disc combo set blows this earlier issue out of the water. The set features no fewer than three – not to be missed – supplemental features. The first, Tales from the Tube, features a round robin discussion and reminiscences courtesy of Director Gary Sherman and Executive Producers Jay Kanter and Alan Ladd Jr. The second, From The Depths, features interviews with actor David Ladd and Producer Paul Maslansky, while the final supplement, Mind The Doors, features an interview with primary ghoul Hugh Armstrong. There is also an audio commentary track with Sherman, Ladd, producer Paul Maslansky and Assistant Director Lewis More O’Ferrall. Rounding off the special features, there are both the British and U.S. trailers, television and radio spots, a poster and still gallery and a twenty-page Collectible booklet featuring notes by Michael Gingold and Christopher Gullo.

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BY HANK REINEKE – Cinema Retro

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