Director: Gary Sherman
Screenplay: Ceri Jones
Based on an Original Story by: Gary Sherman
Starring: Donald Pleasence, Norman Rossington, David Ladd, Sharon Gurney, Hugh Armstrong, Christopher Lee
Country: UK, USA
Running Time: 87 min
BBFC Certificate: 18
They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and the same goes for some films and their posters, PR campaigns or titles. Death Line is a perfect case in point. With a name like that (not to mention its US title of Raw Meat) and a lurid original poster campaign (click here to see the particularly misleading US poster – https://uk.movieposter.com/poster/MPW-121357/Raw_Meat.html), you’d expect trashy, throwaway, horror nonsense. You would however, be quite wrong. Yes, it is a gory cannibal film on the surface, but the film doesn’t play out as you think it might and there’s more to it than meets the eye.
This synopsis probably won’t do it any favours though; Alex (David Ladd) and Patricia (Sharon Gurney) are a couple of students riding the tube in London late one night. They come across a man passed out on the floor. Alex thinks he’s just drunk, but Patricia is worried about him so gets Alex to tell an officer about it. When they go back to the spot he’s gone. The incident is reported anyway as the couple had checked the man’s ID and it turns out he was an important government minister, James Manfred, OBE (James Cossins). The police inspector put in charge of investigating the matter is Calhoun (Donald Pleasence) who doesn’t think much of it until he realises other people have gone missing around that station and soon after another couple of men are killed there.
The audience learn quite early on what’s causing these deaths and disappearances. Back in the 1800s, when the tube tunnels were first dug out, a group of workers were trapped in one underground encampment. The company paying for that area of work went bust and no attempt was made to save the souls down there. However, it turned out they managed to survive on underground water sources and by eating the flesh of those who did perish. This community managed to live in the tunnels for several generations and, with their numbers dwindling, had to start feeding off the overground dwellers when they had chance to grab them.
The police don’t cotton onto this until close to the end of the film, but Patricia finds out first hand when she’s grabbed from the station one night by the last surviving cannibal, known only in the credits as ‘The Man’ (Hugh Armstrong). Alex and the police try to find her before it’s too late.
You’ll likely still think this sounds like a load of trashy nonsense and yes, some elements are a bit far fetched and daft, but director Gary Sherman and writer Ceri Jones take the material and craft something surprisingly intelligent and at times quite beautifully made.
One way it stands out is in how the cannibals are portrayed. Taking a leaf out of Mary Shelley’s depiction of Frankenstein’s monster, Sherman and Jones humanise ‘The Man’ from the offset. The first time we meet him he’s caring for his dying pregnant ‘wife’ (June Turner). Despite the audience also being ‘treated’ to plenty of blood and gore in this sequence, we do genuinely feel compassion for the couple, even when the man tries to feed Manfred’s blood to his partner.
This sequence also makes it clear that Sherman is no lazy director-for-hire as he introduces us to the cannibals in an incredibly complicated long shot that starts in close up on some bloody remains, moves across further victims, comes out of this ‘meat locker’ to show us the cannibal couple and the remains of their ancestors, before venturing down the nearby tube tunnel (where a hidden cut probably lies, but the shot is still incredible). This one epic take fills us in on everything we need to know about the cause of the disappearances without any dialogue. OK, so a slightly clunky chunk of dialogue in the police station cues this shot up and helps explain what we’re about to see, but it’s still a great way to visually show us the situation without too much exposition.
Another key reason the film stands out is in its subtext. The whole film plays out as a metaphor for the British class system. Numerous pairings and conflicts in the film demonstrate divides in the country, from Calhoun’s snide comments about the students, to Alex’s initial dismissal of Manfred lying on the tube steps, to the brief appearance of Christopher Lee as an MI5 agent talking down to Calhoun’s working class police inspector. Most prominent in delivering the film’s statement about prejudice between the classes though comes in the depiction of the cannibals. They clearly represent the lowest, forgotten classes, the homeless, sick and destitute. They’re treated like monsters when they’re finally discovered, even when ‘The Man’ tries to reach out as best he can with his limited vocabulary (he only knows how to say ‘mind the doors’ – a line that’s well used to elicit both fear and poignancy).
Also bringing the film to another level are a couple of the actors. Calhoun’s scenes might occasionally be classed as filler, but Pleasence delivers a hugely enjoyable performance as the sarcastic inspector and hams it up without pushing things too far. He gives the otherwise grim film a great levity. Armstrong also impresses as ‘The Man’. Again he maybe veers into OTT territory, but he really goes for it in this tough, very physical role. The scene after his wife dies when he breaks down (in another long take) is very powerful and in general he does a good job of making the hideous looking character sympathetic.
Overall then, it’s a refreshingly unique and finely crafted take on a potentially trashy and ludicrous concept. The director isn’t overly concerned with scaring the audience, although there’s some grisly gore on display and a couple of shocks. Instead, like all the best horror films, he uses the concept as a metaphor for something completely different. With an interesting and artful style too, it’s a hidden horror gem that’s well worth digging up.
Death Line is being re-released on 27th August by Network on Blu-Ray in the UK, as part of their ‘The British Film’ collection. The picture and audio quality are both first rate.
There are a few special features included:
- Mind the Doors!: an interview with Hugh Armstrong
– Limited edition, collectable booklet written by Laura Mayne
– Theatrical Trailer
– Image Gallery
– PDF Material
It’s not a great amount of material, but the Armstrong interview is enjoyable as the actor reminisces about the shoot.