If you’re going to make a horror film in the city, London’s the city to pick. Lovingly sculpted by a generation of congenitally morbid Victorians into a maze of Gothically pointy spires and dark alleys, augmented in more recent times by forbidding concrete castles which terrify in an entirely different way, it’s a ready-made film set no Hollywood designer could possibly beat. You don’t have to go back to the nineteenth century world of pea-soupers and sinister tailcoated predators. That Victorian unease is there in the present, just under your feet, as Death Line amply demonstrates.
The premise: Russell Square tube station is playing host to a series of gruesome murders (including a show stopping spade-through-head) uncovered by a token boring young couple (the man played with rainforest-strength woodenness by David Ladd, son of cowboy shortarse Alan and, more pertinently, brother of the film’s producer Alan Jr.) when they find respectable civil servant James Cossins face down on the stairs. This same station was the scene of a disaster in Victorian times, when the roof collapsed on a group of tunnel workers, trapping them underground. Could these two tragedies be linked? Well, it wouldn’t be much of a film if they weren’t, and fortunately they are – in a marvellously inventive way.
In a ten minute tracking shot that would be called ‘bravura’ if it turned up in a big, grown-up arthouse flick, the source of the mayhem is revealed. To nothing more than a constant dripping noise, some ghostly echoes of the trapped workers and the odd sinister oboe stab, the wretched nest-cum-larder of the last two survivors of the tube disaster is slowly revealed as they huddle together amongst the corpses of their prey for inarticulate comfort. It’s an eerie, gruesome, funny (the only dialogue is a repeatedly mumbled ‘mind the doors’) and ultimately, as ‘The Man’ tearfully realises his partner in entombment is dying, oddly touching scene.
In stark contrast to this silent catacomb is the office of the main detective on the case, Inspector Calhoun, as played to the hilt by Donald Pleasence. Verbose, sarcastic and sporting a nasal sneer to make Ken Livingstone resemble Brian Blessed, Pleasence hits the ground running with a load of unimpressed backchat aimed at David Ladd, punctuated by the odd joyless wisecrack, grumpy old man-ism (‘Get yer hair cut!’) and howl against the minor irritations of modern coppering – paperwork and teabags, mostly. (‘Teabags? And I’ve been blaming the Indians!’) So intensive is all this, Pleasence comes over at first like some forgotten music hall turn finally given his star vehicle and furiously making up for verbal lost time.
But there’s more to it than that, and as the bodies mount up along with pressure from a supercilious MI5 man (Christopher Lee, turning in a fine day’s work with a brief cameo played entirely down the nose), Calhoun looks less like a bluff cartoon know-all and more like an increasingly knackered copper desperately trying to get the job done. A fantastic scene in which Pleasence, along with his dogged sergeant played by the reliable Norman Rossington, get sloshed in a pub to alleviate the pain of the case, demonstrates this depth to perfection. As Rossington mans the pinball table, Pleasence harangues the time-calling publican with a stream of consciousness rant that veers from music hall comedy drunk turn to very real (and frightening) rage and back again, often within the same garbled sentence. It’s an astonishing performance that would shame most critically acclaimed classic films, never mind a low budget British horror.
Two worlds, then, but with more linking them than at first seems. The police station and various other London locations are all old Victorian spaces (the shoot is a hundred per cent location work), all echoey drabness, encroaching damp and gloss paint peeling off unplastered brickwork – a much more real ‘70s London than the pile carpets and chrome tables of many a contemporary horror film. There’s a bit of socialism at work here, too – very rare for a horror film. The theory that the underground bosses didn’t try to rescue the trapped workers purely for cost-cutting reasons parallels with Calhoun’s defiant refusal to bow down to the upper class civil servants who would tell him what to do ‘on my patch’.
It’s a film packed with witty dialogue and directed with bags of visual flair (the opening titles, with Cossins prowling amongst the blurred neon lights of Soho, as the electronic soundtrack burbles sinisterly in the background, is a budget-beating masterpiece in itself), so it’s something of a surprise that neither director nor writer did much else. Gary Sherman (previous creative peak – that New Seekers Coke ad) went on to helm a few of the less rotten video nasties and little else, while writer Ceri Jones, art director Dennis Gordon-Orr and composer Will Malone similarly failed to set the world on fire with their demonstrably considerable talents. It’s not so much a shame as a downright mystery. You don’t think someone could be bumping them off?