The Horror Show: Gary Sherman’s Death Line is a downbeat film that sympathizes with its monster

Hugh Armstrong elicits pity and sympathy in his performance as “the Man”

Writing about the 1972 British movie Death Line, the late Robin Wood suggests that it “vies with Night of the Living Dead (1968) for the most horrible horror film ever.” Wood was, of course, writing before the advent of slashers, before The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, torture porn, and the so-called “video nasties,” one of which, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) was infamously brought up on charges by Italian prosecutors convinced it was a snuff film. (The charges were dropped only after Deodato produced his actors to prove they all remained alive and unharmed.) None of which is to suggest that Death Line (thuddingly retitled Raw Meat for its U.S. cinematic release) is not a distressing film, though it is tinged almost as much with melancholy as with outright horror.

The debut film from American director Gary Sherman, Death Line tells the story of a 19th century cave-in that trapped a group of workers during the construction of the London Underground. According to legend, they survived across generations in part by cannibalizing their deceased compatriots. Once their numbers dwindled, the remaining survivors began to use the tunnels leading to the Russell Square tube station, where they would kidnap commuters as further sustenance. When American economics student Alex and his British girlfriend Pat stumble upon a man in the employ of the British ministry of defence lying unconscious on the stairs of Russell Square station, they try to help, eventually finding themselves questioned by a detective named Calhoun (a typically grandiose Donald Pleasence). The truth of the underground dwellers (reduced by the film’s final reel to a single male who is listed only as “The Man” in the end credits) is revealed after Pat is kidnapped and taken back to the group’s home in the warren of disused tunnels.

For Wood, one of the most erudite and perspicacious critics of the modern horror film, Death Line’s entire force and effect can be reduced to a single sequence introducing viewers to the Man’s underground dwelling:

A rat is nibbling at a bloody arm, along which the camera continues, passing over decomposing bodies with flesh torn from them, then pausing on a living man – unkempt, filthy, and covered with running sores – bending in tender concern over a dying, pregnant woman. The movement resumes, revealing a tunnel-like opening, more bodies, eventually completing the full 360 degrees and coming to rest on the original arm; whereupon the camera begins to track slowly into the tunnel, leading us backward through darkness, then along dimly lit vaulted tunnels, part of the abandoned underground structure, to the point of access to the world above – the worlds of tube trains and modern civilization.

The late critic Robin Wood asks whether Death Line might be the most horrible horror film ever

According to Wood, the “core of the film is contained in that shot” (actually two shots, due to a hidden cut, though Wood points out that “the effect is of continuity”). The scene – which is completely devoid of dialogue and music, the only sounds emanating from the Man’s plaintive wails over the body of his partner – proffers some of the most horrifying images of the film, but that is only its surface significance. If it establishes the threat – the Man is responsible for the kidnapping, mutilation, and cannibalism of everyday commuters on the London Underground, the aftereffects of which are on display for the viewer to witness in all their gore and unpleasantness – it also admits a piercing sadness born out of the Man’s loneliness and his sense of loss at the death of his woman companion and unborn child.

The Man (portrayed in a completely committed performance by Hugh Armstrong) is a pitiful character forced into the role of outsider, living a life removed from society in the literal bowels of the city. Wood recognizes the obvious mythical connotations of the underworld and also draws a distinction between “the superficiality of the ‘surface’ characters” and “the intense desires and needs of their underworld counterparts.” He rightly locates the Man in a long line of sympathetic movie monsters that includes Boris Karloff’s monster in Frankenstein, Charles Laughton’s Quasimodo, and Lon Chaney’s phantom of the opera. The sores on the Man’s face are the result of the plague, carried by the seething underground rat population and never stamped out as it was in the world above.

The film highlights the Man‘s melancholy loneliness by counterpointing it with that of Inspector Calhoun, who we are led to believe is a widower. Both men exist in lives of forced solitude, though Calhoun has recourse to his subordinates, to whom he barks orders, and his never-ending consumption of tea and spirits. His existential emptiness is underscored in a pair of scenes, one in which he pours himself a middle-of-the-night cuppa from a teapot stationed beside his bed, the other in which he and his colleague, Detective Sergeant Rogers, are ejected from a bar after last orders. The inspector, drunk and with nowhere to go but home, pleads with the barkeep to be allowed to stay for one more Scotch.

An explicitly liberal horror film (and a rejoinder to Stephen King’s sweeping assessment that horror is a staunchly conservative genre), Death Line is almost Marxist in its subtext. Capitalism created the race of underground dwellers – when the cave-in occurred, no search was mounted for the survivors, who were simply left to die as the tunnels were sealed off for expediency’s sake. In the context of the final showdown between the Man and Alex, it is no accident that the former is the inheritor of a legacy of pain and ostracization built on the backs of workers while the latter is an exchange student attending the London School of Economics. The movie literalizes the idea of class warfare in this scene. If capitalism created the Man, how much more pitifully ironic is it that his only dialogue is the guttural repetition of the phrase “mind the doors,” which he has learned to mimic from the trains’ recorded warning to passengers. The Man’s only vestige of human language derives from a capitalist endeavour explicitly responsible for his dismal circumstances.

If Wood is close to the mark in calling Death Line the most horrible film ever (his essay includes a question mark in the title), it is not simply because of its horrific images or the plight that Pat endures (including an attempted rape) at the hands of the Man. It is also the result of a subtextual recognition that the antagonist’s situation as an outsider plague victim forced to eke out an existence among the rats underground was totally avoidable. The horrors of capitalist society are every bit as disturbing as images of half-cannibalized corpses beneath the London Underground.

The Horror Show: Gary Sherman’s Death Line is a downbeat film that sympathizes with its monster
Tagged on: