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Whatever He Saw Was Probably Watching Us: Death Line (1972)

What if the cannibalistic clan depicted in The Hills Have Eyes (1977) were not lurking in the Nevada desert, but instead living in the abandoned tunnels of the London Underground? The latter scenario is the essential premise of Gary Sherman’s 1972 masterpiece, Death Line (Raw Meat).

Opening with a garish, colorful title sequence, Death Line portrays a different kind of sleaze than Wes Craven’s shocker. The camera follows an obviously posh British man (complete with bowler hat) browsing London’s red light district while appropriately saucy music plays. Later that night a young couple discovers the man’s limp body on the stairs leading to the Russell Square tube station. They check his wallet and discover his identity: James Manfred, OBE. The woman, Pat (Sharon Gurney), wants to help him, while her American boyfriend Alex (David Ladd) just wants to go home. Pat finally convinces Alex to alert the authorities, but when Alex and the police officer go back to the scene, the man has vanished.

Cleverly subverting the “cops are useless” trope, Death Line doesn’t rely on the stereotype that these young people are crazy for thinking something is amiss. The missing man’s social status also intrigues Scotland Yard’s Inspector Calhoun (a delightfully sassy Donald Pleasence). Furthermore, the quick-witted Calhoun recalls that a few other people have also recently disappeared from Russell Square. He and Detective Sergeant Rogers (Norman Rossington) immediately set to work investigating the case.

While at first, Death Line seems like a particularly grim police procedural, it’s actually a sublime synthesis of the mysterious and the macabre. For example, Inspector Richardson (Clive Swift) is thrilled to regale Calhoun and Rogers with his intimate knowledge of the subway’s history, tales which seem utterly boring until he mentions that, according to a legend, several cave-ins from the early days of the subway’s construction left many workers stranded and abandoned to die.

Death Line then cuts to one of the best sequences in the entire film. This seven-minute tracking shot takes a long, lurid look at a dimly lit room, veering from a close-up of a rat gnawing on a human limb, to a variety of bodies in varying stages of decomposition, to the clearly incapacitated Manfred, and back again to the rat. Despite the lack of music cues (we only hear the sound of dripping water) this scene is as riveting and suspenseful as it is disgusting.

We are introduced to “The Man” (Hugh Armstrong), a wretched figure covered in sores and boils, who lives here with his sickly partner, a woman who not only looks as ghastly as The Man, but is on the verge of death. The camera then pulls back to reveal a pile of rubble and skulls in a nearby tunnel opening with the faint sounds of chaos echoing in the background. It seems that the legends of which Richardson spoke are frighteningly true.

Calhoun and Rogers snoop around Manfred’s apartment, which leads to another wonderful sequence: the discovery of a secret BDSM playroom complete with closed-circuit television. If this were an episode of Law & Order: SVU, Manfred’s disappearance would be the result of sexual proclivities gone wrong, but Death Line uses this occasion to allow Calhoun (an educated but still working class man) to trade barbs with MI5 Agent Stratton-Villiers (played with dandified gusto by Christopher Lee), who subsequently bullies Calhoun into abandoning this particular investigative pathway.

Calhoun’s curiosity will not be sated, however, and neither will Pat’s; she is still concerned about the missing man from Russell Square. Yet instead of the typical horror film set-up where a civilian tries to conduct their own investigation into the mystery despite being warned away by the cops, Death Line once again subverts expectations when The Man abducts Pat. Like Richardson’s larger than life legends, Pat’s earlier statement to Alex also becomes reality: “Whatever Manfred saw was probably watching us.”

Concurrent scenes of Calhoun’s investigation and Alex’s search for the now-missing Pat generate much suspense. Instead alternating rapid-fire scary set pieces, however, Death Line maintains a methodical pace, one occasionally offset by jump scares and gory scenes that pay off from a narrative perspective.

Pat’s concerns about what really happened to Manfred and her subsequent frustration when Alex doesn’t seem to care help the audience become invested in their fates. Despite the hideous visage of The Man and his charnel house of horrors, his anguish at losing the last member of his family is palpable, and the audience pities him. Thanks to incredible make-up effects from Harry and Peter Frampton and a gripping performance from Armstrong, it becomes obvious that, like Frankenstein’s monster, The Man only became a villain because of an existence that was forced upon him.

The film also links the characters of The Man, Pat, and Alex by showing them wandering through the same tunnels at different times: when Pat is escaping from The Man, when he is trying to find her, and again when Alex is searching for her. Their human connection is further underscored when The Man tries to communicate with Pat. He makes a garbled approximation of the phrase “Mind The Doors,” but instead of telling him to go away or threatening him, terrified Pat can only mumble and shriek in reply. These elements further illuminate the humanity of the characters in Death Line; The Man may seem like a monster, but like Pat, he is only trying to survive.

Inspector Richardson’s stories of cave-ins and abandoned miners are not that far removed from the truth. Irish and Scottish immigrants (also called “navvies”) helped to build the London Underground and as Tim Shields, Curator at the London Museum of Transport notes in a BBC article, “they were fairly expendable. Death was a serious issue but there were many more people available to do the job.” (1)  Such class and social justice issues are at the heart of Death Line; writer/director Gary Sherman notes in the commentary track that legends about these “expendable” people inspired the film’s creation.

Despite being drastically recut and released as Raw Meat in the United States, Death Line had a big impact upon other films. Similarities to Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and the original The Hills Have Eyes might be purely coincidental, but the impact on a movie like Guillermo del Toro’s Mimic (1997) seems more purposeful, despite the film being partly based on a 1950 short story. (2) Del Toro has stated that Death Line is “one of my truest and fondest memories in film… It forever altered the way I see horror and, in many ways, the way I see film.”

The recent Blue Underground release of Death Line on Blu-ray marks the first time the original, uncut version has been available in North America. This is the kind of thing that makes horror fans’ mouths water; what’s more exciting is that Death Line is the kind of film that makes such a long wait worthwhile.

Blue Underground’s special features for this release are exceptional. The commentary track with Gary Sherman, producer Paul Maslansky, and assistant director Lewis More O’Ferrall is full of fascinating stories and observations, including a lot of well-deserved praise lavished on Ceri Dwyer (who worked on the screenplay) and director of photography Alex Thompson, as well as actors Hugh Armstrong and Donald Pleasence (who was, by all accounts, a wonderful person and a practical joker on set).

In addition to a poster, stills gallery, various trailers and TV and radio spots, there are three featurettes included. “Tales From The Tube” is less of an interview than an entertaining trip down memory lane with Sherman and executive producers Jay Kanter and Alan Ladd, Jr.  “From The Depths” uses a similarly casual but equally charming set-up for a conversation between actor David Ladd and Paul Maslansky. “Mind The Doors” is a single camera interview with Hugh Armstrong (who sadly passed away in 2016) where he discusses his life and career. All of the interviews feel spontaneous and unscripted, a nice change from some featurettes which come across as stilted.

This Blu-ray and DVD combo pack also comes with reversible art, a collectible booklet with engaging essays from Donald Pleasence biographer Christopher Gullo and horror writer Michael Gingold (Fangoria, Rue Morgue, Birth Movies Death).

Death Line was released by Blue Underground on 27th June 2017.

Bibliography:

Alexander, Chris, “Death Line” (“Raw Meat”). Fantasia Festival, Films, Schedule, Fantasia 2017. http://www.fantasiafestival.com/festival/en/2017/films-schedule/films/616. Accessed 2 August 2017.

Mower, Jane. “Tube 150th anniversary: How navvies paved way for Crossrail.” BBC News, London, Regions, England, 9 January 2013. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-20854680. Accessed 2 August 2017.

Omega, “Mimic Terrors.” MonsterLegacy.net, 3 March 2013. https://monsterlegacy.net/2013/03/03/mimic-1997/. Accessed 2 August 2017.

About Less Lee Moore

Less Lee Moore fell in love with weird music and movies during countless hours spent watching Night Flight and listening to college radio as an impressionable teenager. She is the founder of Popshifter, and also writes for Rue Morgue, Everything Is Scary, Biff Bam Pop, Modern Horrors & more. She has a degree in Film Studies from UCSB and a Hannibal tattoo.

2 comments

  1. Stopped reading n went off tae watch the film again eftir a couplay paragraphs Top review! Fire oan!

  2. Have to say, having just finished watching it, I am sure that Tobe Hooper lifted the sequence when the protagonist takes the girl back to his underground lair, and she wakes up among corpses, for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2; they’re just way too similar to be a coincidence.

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