DEATH LINE ****
Directed by Gary Sherman. Starring Donald Pleasence, Norman Rossington, David Ladd, Christopher Lee, Hugh Armstrong, Sharon Gurney, James Cossins, Clive Swift. Horror, UK/USA, 88 mins, cert 18.
Released in the UK on Blu-ray by Network on 27th August 2018.
After going through a purple patch in the 1960s British horror movies suddenly started to look a little dated, or even a little quaint, in the wake of American drive-in hits such as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT but there were still one or two titles produced that were able to compete with the more brutal US releases. With THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE still two years off, 1972s DEATH LINE (a.k.a. RAW MEAT) could well be seen as a forerunner to the cannibal genre that Tobe Hooper's movie spearheaded, along with Wes Craven's THE HILLS HAVE EYES which came along a few years later and probably has more in common with DEATH LINE as both are fairly gory and have underlying themes of class difference.
The basic story is that there is a series of murders and disappearances around Russell Square tube station in London. After civil servant James Manfred, OBE (James Cossins - BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB) is reported missing, Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasence - HALLOWEEN) and Detective Sergeant Rogers (Norman Rossington - A HARD DAY'S NIGHT) are on the case, and when the woman who reported Manfred missing is kidnapped at a nearby station Calhoun makes a grim discovery about who could be responsible.
And if ever there were a Top Ten list of great horror movie detectives then Inspector Calhoun would certainly be somewhere near the top as Donald Pleasence brings the character to life with one of the quirkiest performances you are ever likely to see in an otherwise serious and often downbeat horror movie. The mad-eyed glee on his face as Calhoun speaks in almost stream of consciousness soundbites is hilarious and his dialogue is as mad as his performance - 'Pop round and see if he's a nutter" he orders Rogers at one point when discussing a suspect - and must have been ad-libbed as you can’t imagine somebody sitting down and writing it all out. But for all of his supposed offbeat behaviour you always firmly believe that Calhoun is fully on the case, as it were, and his style is a Columbo-esque rouse to try and annoy people into revealing more than they want to.
Apart from Donald Pleasence’s barking performance, what really sets DEATH LINE aside from what Hammer and Amicus were doing at the time is the mean-spirited nature of the gore and violence that the killer – credited as ‘The Man’ and played by Hugh Armstrong (THE BEASTMASTER) – dishes out. As well as the decaying bodies he has piling up in his underground lair there are a few kills that push the boundaries of what was normally seen in British horror movies at the time, the most notable being one poor character getting his head split open with a shovel and another getting a broom handle pushed through his torso, prompting one forensic scientist to comment on the strength of whoever did it. And in proper Leatherface style The Man is certainly a brute but also with a soft(ish) centre, as we find out when he kidnaps Patricia (Sharon Gurney – CRUCUBLE OF HORROR), who reported Manfred missing, but instead of killing and eating her he just seems to want to want a companion.
On its own, DEATH LINE is really a three-star movie despite Donald Pleasence's brilliance, a wonderfully catchy ‘70s theme tune, an Argento-style tracking shot that goes on for a few minutes and tells you all you need to know about the killer, and the eerie atmosphere that comes from filming in deserted tube stations. The pacing is a little off and the scenes that don’t feature Donald Pleasence do seem to slow up the momentum, and even though Christopher Lee is also present he only appears in one scene in what is little more than a cameo, his upper class MI5 agent clashing with the working class Calhoun in what could have been a fantastically antagonistic battle of wits had he appeared in the film more. Nevertheless, Network's presentation of the film is excellent, with the picture looking immaculate and offering up a clarity that brings out the grisly details of the killer's lair that wasn't all that visible on previous releases. Extras come in the form of a theatrical trailer, stills gallery and a fun archive interview with late actor Hugh Armstrong but for overall entertainment value this polished release of DEATH LINE is one that is worthy of sitting in any horror collection and will hopefully draw some attention to a film that should be namechecked a bit more often than it is, if only to show that Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven didn’t do it first.
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