Skip to content

[Guest Post] In Praise of Snake Vampire Cultist Ladies

2013 December 3

One thing to be aware of when watching any of Ken Russell’s films is that you will spend at least three quarters of the running time saying to yourself, ‘What THE HELL am I watching.’

Mr Russell’s The Lair of the White Worm (1988) is so bizarre that… well, let’s just take a look at the notes I made the last time I watched it:

‘How do you spot a snake vampire cultist lady? She’ll be playing snakes and ladders. In thigh high boots.’

‘Gratuitous historically inaccurate nun torture.’

‘Where IS Peter Capaldi keeping that mongoose?’

Lair_of_the_white_wormVery loosely based on Bram Stoker’s original story, the film takes an olde worlde horror setup and adds a fantastic lady monster (Lady Sylvia Marsh, as played by Amanda Donohoe – a saucy aristocratic predator who thinks white three corner hats are casual wear) and a high pile of hallucinatory WTF.

(Unfortunately, Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm is not a great read. It’s got potential – Lovecraftian horrors stirring beneath the English countryside – but it’s clunky as hell. And contains so much sexism and racism that it reads like an unsubtle parody of a Victorian horror tale.)

Peter Capaldi plays Angus, an archaeology student who finds the skull of some kind of monster in the garden of a B&B in Derbyshire. The B&B is run by two sisters – Eve and Mary (Catherine Oxenberg and Sammi Davis. Note the unsubtle choice of names) whose mother has disappeared in mysterious circumstances.

Then Lord D’Ampton (Hugh Grant) invites them to his ancestral hall for an 80s folk/rock party, where he re-enacts the legendary tale of an ancestor of his, who killed a giant worm (guess what colour it was.) that was terrorising the village some centuries previously.

(The beast that his ancestor had the squabble with was the D’Ampton Worm. As in the Lambton Worm. Both Stoker’s and Russell’s version of ‘White Worm’ take place in Derbyshire and not Durham. There were a lot of worm monsters about in the olden days, apparently.)

LairWormThis gets Angus wondering – could his new-found skull have something to do with the one in the tale? Lord D’Ampton is foppishly sceptical. And then Lady Sylvia slinks into view. And spits venom on a crucifix. I haven’t seen Downton Abbey for ages, but I’m pretty sure that her TV namesake is not in the habit of doing such things.

What follows is an unsettling campfest. Lady Sylvia does some horrible things (that poor boy scout) but she’s also horribly fascinating. I don’t know if she was meant to be a satire on the ‘sexy sex ladies who are EVIIILL’ trope or an unsubtle parody of 80s decadence (see Kate Beaton’s marvellous Dracula cartoon for a nice pisstake of how this trope came up in Stoker’s most famous tale). But either way Ms Donohue looks to be really enjoying herself.

Eve and Mary are sketchily drawn characters – it transpires that Eve is a virgin, which makes her sacrifice fodder for the great big worm beast living under Sylvia’s mansion (paging Doctor Freud). Lord D’Ampton has some rude dreams and tries to fix things with his super posh man skillz. Eventually, Angus has to face vamped up Sylvia alone. Yep, Peter Capaldi is the Final Girl.

He does a bit of snake charming with a kilt and a set of bagpipes. And a mongoose. If anyone’s concerned that Doctor Who-loving kids might come across Malcolm Tucker’s epic swears by accident online, wait until they get a load of this.

Lair of the White Worm is basically awesome trash. Or it’s trash cinema French kissing arthouse cinema down a dingy alleyway. And sometimes that’s what you want.

  • Emily McQuade lives in North London. She enjoys finding weird old films on YouTube and watching other weird old films at the BFI. When not thinking about films, she enjoys books, gigs and making up elaborate conspiracy theories involving squirrels. She can also be found on Twitter: @missmcq.
3 Responses leave one →
  1. December 3, 2013

    If I may make a small correction, The Lair of the White Worm is a short novel rather than a short story. In this age of ebooks, the distinction is important to make. Picking up a printed copy, it’s immediately obvious how long the story is. But, starting to read it in an ebook compilation, such as this the reader should be pre-warned that the tosh won’t be finished in ten or twenty pages.

    I generally avoid Ken Russell films, but I was sufficiently intrigued by what you say to check The Lair of the White Worm’s availability on DVD. (I was also encouraged by the fact that you also reviewed Daughters of Darkness, a film I recently watched partly because of your Bad Rep review. You didn’t lead me astray with Daughters of Darkness — thank you for that.)

    Seemingly, the only DVD of The Lair of the White Worm is German. (But the German subtitles are removable, an Amazon reviewer is helpful enough to tell me.) The German title, as well as I can read it on screen, is Der Biss Der Schlangen Frau. My German isn’t good enough to translate that apart from the final word, which is “woman” not “worm”.

    • Miranda permalink*
      December 3, 2013

      Thanks, Pet! You’re quite right. I think the root of us thinking of it as a short may be that (quoth Wiki) “in 1925, it was republished in a highly abridged and rewritten form. Over a hundred pages were removed, the rewritten book having only twenty-eight chapters instead of the original forty. The final eleven chapters were cut down to only five, leading some critics to complain that the ending was abrupt and inconsistent”. So still not a short story, but interestingly, it got truncated into a half-the-original-size novella (maybe? Or just a shorter novel than before…?) at one point!

      Glad you enjoyed Daughters of Darkness!

      • December 5, 2013

        I think that the abridgment removed about a third of the book — cutting it from a 300-ish page novel to 200-ish. I could be more precise if I still owned my paperback copy, but that left my possession long ago.

        Daughters of Darkness is a very fine film, and her post on the subject shows Ms McQuade to be a person of exceptional perspicacity. On that basis, I’ve ordered the German DVD of The Lair of the White Worm. This is not, as I previously stated, the only DVD — there is also a Region 1 version. But I’ve had very little luck with multi-region players, so I discounted that.

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS