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Blu-Ray Review - DEATH LINE (1972)

death line review
Londoners are mysteriously disappearing in the depths of the Tube.


Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Gary Sherman

Starring: Donald Pleasence, Norman Rossington, David Ladd, Christopher Lee, Sharon Gurney

death line blu-ray


A late night fixture on British TV in the 1990s - where it played in a muddy, pan and scan print - Gary Sherman's Death Line receives a much needed UK blu-ray transfer courtesy of Network. For any horror fans who grew up watching it in its murky TV form, watching this blu will almost be like experiencing the movie for the first time, as its crisp picture brings out crucial details previously lost in the fog of its broadcast transmission.

Pre-empting the Italian cannibal craze, Sherman's 1972 film was inspired by the legend of Scottish cannibal Sawney Bean, a gruesome tale of a family of cannibals that also influenced Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes. Rather than a historical setting however, Death Line (or 'Raw Meat', as it's known in the US) plays out its horrors in the very modern (well, 1972 modern) setting of the London underground, where commuters are falling victim to a cannibalistic descendant of a group of Victorian era workers left to die when a tunnel collapsed, trapping them underground. The role of said man-eater was originally meant to be played by Marlon Brando, of all people, before ultimately going to Hugh Armstrong, who manages to make the character both threatening and tragic.

death line review

One of his victims is a prominent conservative MP (James Cossins), initially found sprawled on the subway steps by cynical American student Alex (David Ladd) and his do-gooder British girlfriend Patricia (Sharon Gurney). When the pair return to the scene with a policeman, the politician has disappeared, and the case is assigned to the gruff Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasence) and his put upon Sergeant Rogers (Norman Rossington).

American writer/director Sherman presents a laughably quaint representation of London, where a drunk passed out on the tube is considered a shocking occurrence and the local police station has more in common with a cop shop found in a rural village than in the heart of Europe's busiest metropolis.


death line review

Sherman does however have an understanding of British society's class conflict, with the police only springing into action when a titled politician becomes the latest victim of the mysterious underground killer. Pleasence's Calhoun represents the working class, mocking the lifestyle of the victim while he searches his house, helping himself to the dead man's scotch. It's while conducting this search that he encounters a shady government agent (a cameoing Christopher Lee) who warns him off any further investigation. This brings out the anti-authoritarian in Calhoun, who plunges himself deeper into the case just to spite the powers that be. Oddly, the aforementioned scene never features Lee and Pleasence in the same frame. Some have suggested it's because of the height difference between the two actors, but my guess is that Lee's lines were shot on a day when Pleasence wasn't available, as illustrating the height difference would have nicely accentuated the film's subtext of class dominance.

A far cry from the solemn characters he's best known for playing in the horror genre, Pleasence's Calhoun offers the actor a rare chance to show off his more comic side, and he's genuinely hilarious as he runs roughshod over everyone he encounters. Calhoun seems to have a grudge against every social group imaginable - the upper class, the young, Americans - and isn't backwards about letting anyone know it. He takes particular relish in winding up the stiff student Alex - "Get your haircut!" he shouts as the young man leaves his office, before breaking out in a knowing smile. In one scene, Calhoun can be seen filling out the football pools while half listening to orders from a superior over the phone. Death Line boasts one of the finest examples of screen drunk acting late on when Calhoun and Rogers decide to relieve the stress of the investigation with a late night trip to the pub, which turns messy when the landlord attempts to turf them out at closing time. Pleasence's sozzled performance will have you doubled over with laughter.


death line review

Death Line is famous for a lengthy unbroken tracking shot which begins by panning around the gruesome underground lair of the cannibal before travelling down a tunnel and out to the part of the Tube frequented by an unknowing London public. Previous prints of Sherman's film were so dark that the full effect of this sequence was lost, but on Network's blu you can now take in the true horror of the cannibal's cavern, lined with the bloody remains of his victims in a piece of production design that's every bit as revolting as the interior of the house in Tobe Hooper's Texas Chain Saw Massacre. You may not want to watch this one on a full stomach.
Extras:

Interview with actor Hugh Armstrong; trailer; image gallery; booklet with an essay by Laura Mayne.


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