Back in 1972, British horror was still very much stuck in the dying world of Hammer, Amicus and the gothic traditions – though of course, there were plenty of films that pointed the way to a grittier, more contemporary future for the genre, even from the two companies themselves (Hammer’s Straight On Till Morning and Amicus’ What Became of Jack and Jill had both offered unsettling views of psychosis a year earlier). But if a single film symbolically signalled the death of the old and the birth of the new, then it was Gary Sherman’s Death Line, which popped out of nowhere to become a box office sensation and a media cause celebre with its dark humour, shocking gore and bleak view of humanity.
After all, cannibalism was a touchy subject back then, especially when the cannibal in question is the last surviving member of a family of railway workers, abandoned to die during a cave in while the London Underground was being built. Unable to communicate in words beyond “MIND THE DOORS”, the Man (Hugh Armstrong) pics off late night travellers, including an MP returning home from a night slumming in Soho. When Patricia Wilson (Sharon Gurney) and her American boyfriend Alex (David Ladd) stumble upon him and inform the police, the world-weary Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasance) starts an investigation that leads to the corridors of power, who prefer to keep the cave-in a secret even now. Meanwhile, through a series of coincidences and a touch of private investigation, Patricia is captured by The Man…
Death Line is now so beloved of fans of British horror that it feels churlish to suggest that the film might not be quite as good as it made out to be, and I do so with a number of provisos – this is a punchy shocker that has a deliciously seedy atmosphere, some genuinely shocking moments of horror and a central ‘monster’ who, thanks to a powerful performance by Armstrong, actually becomes a tragic, sympathetic figure as the film goes on. His poignant cries of “MIND THE DOORS” manage to deliver more emotion than a raft of dialogue ever could, and the gradual discovery that the killer is in fact a victim as much as a monster is well handled. Apparently, Marlon Brando was originally signed on to play the role, a mind-boggling idea… but it’s hard to imagine anyone bettering Armstrong’s portrayal.
American director Sherman portrays a sleazy early 1970s London in a way that a British native probably couldn’t, bringing a jaundiced eye to what was an alien world for him. The opening scenes, with James Cossins as the politician trawling the sex shops, strip clubs and flesh pots of Soho before making an entitled pass at a woman who may or may not be a prostitute on the tube platform , while the discordant electro-rock score bumps up the grittiness of the whole thing is one of the great openings in Seventies British cinema – immediately, you know that this won’t be a cosy experience.
Pleasence gives a suitably cynical and humorous performance, though his occasional comic gurning seems a touch out-of-place, and he gets to share a strange scene with Christopher Lee, who allegedly signed on for a day’s work so that he could work with Pleasence. It’s an odd scene because the two of them don’t appear in the same shot together until the very end of the scene – they could have been shot on different days, quite frankly. As a chance to have the two actors working together, this is something of a wasted opportunity, and the fact that it was allegedly done this way because of the height difference between the two is rather pathetic – given that Lee is playing a stern authority figure who effortlessly out-ranks the cop might have been even more effectively portrayed had Lee literally loomed over Pleasence.
This is a minor quibble, though. the real problems that the film has are a pair of insipid youthful leads – Gurney is not awful, though her character is a bit whiney, but Ladd has no personality at all, other than to seem a bit of a dick. The fact that we have to spend so much time with them does the movie no favours. But the real problem – the real reason that the film does not feel quite as great as it should be – is that the low-budget didn’t seem to stretch to decent sound recording. I’ve seen this film a few times, and had been willing to put the poor quality sound down to bad prints. But this is a blu-ray, and I still had to keep cranking up the volume just to understand what people were saying.
In the grand scheme of things, this is a very minor issue. I am aware of that. it does, however, adversely affect the impact of the movie in my opinion. You might be more forgiving. In any case, sound problems aside, Death Line is unquestionably a powerful film, and one that – despite a rather leisurely pace than some modern audiences might struggle with – still packs quite a punch today. The use of the deserted tube stations is handled well, creating a sense of impending horror and offering a very contemporary stage for the shocking events, while The Man’s lair remains one of horror cinema’s most unsettling locales, and the gruesome imagery that it contains is no less powerful now than it was when the film first outraged film critics. Death Line might not be the masterpiece that some have suggested, but it’s certainly one of the most intriguing films to emerge from the British horror scene in the 1970s, and this new release is long overdue.