A Ride On The Death Line
Carriages, Cannibals & Corrupt Capitalism! Johnny Restall takes a ride through the Tube's tunnels of terror with 1972's Death Line....
The first thing that hits you is the sense of sleaze, morbid and queasy. A gloriously squelchy Moog synth line prowls around your ears, accompanied by rickety, rambunctious drums. The blurred image on-screen slowly slides into focus to reveal a well-to-do bowler-hatted man (James Cossins) staring at the S&M books in a sex shop window. Drunken strings and a seedy-sounding organ join the melee as the upper-class ‘gentleman’ indulges in an enthusiastic tour of the strip clubs of pre-gentrification Soho, before making his fateful way down into the depths of Russell Square tube station.
The opening credits of Death Line (UK, Gary Sherman, 1972) neatly crystallise several of the film’s implicit themes, aided by the redolent score by Jeremy Rose and Wil Malone. Exploitation of the vulnerable; the deceptiveness of appearances; corruption and decay, buried beneath a respectable surface veneer. For a low-budget horror film ostensibly about a cannibal living in the London Underground, it has plenty of subtext to sink your teeth into.
After his obnoxious advances on a lone sex worker fail (‘God knows if you’re worth it – fortunately I can afford to find out’), the man is left alone on the platform as something unseen approaches him…His unconscious body is found shortly afterwards by students Alex (David Ladd) and Patricia (Sharon Gurney). His wallet identifies him as James Manfred OBE, but by the time the couple return with a policeman, he has disappeared.
The next morning, the case is brought to the attention of the sarcastic, doggedly working-class Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasence). He links the incident to several previous unexplained disappearances at Russell Square, and a grisly web of historical tragedy, corporate greed, neglect, and cannibalism is slowly unearthed.
Pleasence seems to have a ball playing Calhoun, creating a memorably abrupt, unsettling, and often bitingly funny character. Dressed in a shapeless hat and drab suit, constantly blowing his nose into an incongruously large handkerchief, he goes through the film haranguing everybody in sight about everything from teabags to the common market to their taste in art, in cahoots with his smirking subordinate Rogers (Norman Rossington). Like a more aggressive, less professional relation of Peter Falk’s crumpled Columbo, the character is a uniquely brusque lead, with just a hint of vulnerability suggested by the brief glimpse of his home life (alone but for his beloved pot of tea).
The script by Ceri Jones makes several pointed references to the fact that it takes the disappearance of an OBE before a serious investigation begins. Calhoun contemptuously describes Manfred as ‘some big shit, er, shot at the Ministry of Defence or Home Office or something.’ In contrast, the previous victim was a grocer from Kilburn, and consequently of little official interest. The inference is clear: while it is quite acceptable for commoners to become missing persons, it is a different matter when they belong to the upper echelons of the establishment. Indeed, both Patricia and Calhoun are faintly incredulous that such an exalted personage should have been using public transport in the first place – unaware of the decidedly disreputable way Manfred had actually spent his final evening.
In a sharply humorous touch, one of the last establishments we see Manfred visit during the credits bills itself as ‘The Queen’s Exclusive Striptease’, cheekily and explicitly linking his corruption with the very apex of the class he represents. Further suggestions of this link arise when Calhoun flippantly identifies himself as ‘Princess Anne’ to Manfred’s secretary and later in the Inspector’s drunken comments about her Majesty ‘flogging her pretty guts out’ for the Empire.
Ironically, Manfred’s ‘importance’ almost hinders the investigation into his own disappearance. His government links bring Calhoun into conflict with MI5, represented by the pompous, condescending Stratton-Villiers (Christopher Lee in a brief but wonderful cameo). Their confrontation is a delicious battle along both class and departmental lines, Stratton-Villiers parrying Calhoun’s insolent wit with menacing, smug scorn (‘What a droll fellow you are…Mind you don’t become a missing person yourself’). Both actors seem to relish the exchanges, and it is a shame that they have only one scene together.
The animosity is not solely confined to the police and MI5; everybody in the film seems to be in conflict with each other. Alex and Patricia argue over what to do when they find Manfred, even briefly breaking up over the incident. American Alex, perhaps tellingly a student of International Economics, is reluctant to get involved, claiming that ‘in New York, you walk over these guys.’ The more sensitive Patricia insists that they help, and remains deeply troubled by the situation even after the body disappears. The officials they report their story to are suspicious and hostile; the lift attendant is more interested in the protocols of his job than a dying man, and the policeman dismisses them as ‘troublemakers’. Calhoun taunts Alex about protest marches and getting his hair cut, though his wild grin suggests that he at least has more self-awareness than Arthur Kennedy’s Inspector in the near-contemporary The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue (Spain/Italy, Jorge Grau, 1974), which shares certain thematic concerns of corrupt authority and social conflict with Death Line.
Depressingly, many of the issues touched on by the film nearly 50 years ago remain bitterly relevant today. Social injustice; protest and generational conflict; poverty and neglect; a class-bound, complacent England, struggling with both its international and internal relationships. At the very bottom of the troubled pecking order depicted in Death Line lies the character of The Man (Hugh Armstrong).
The Man is introduced via a remarkable, agonisingly slow tracking shot, prowling around his dank underground lair for almost five minutes, unbroken. Accompanied by the sound of dripping water and a building rhythmic pulse, cinematographer Alex Thomson lovingly documents every sad, grisly inch of the sordid space. We move from rats gnawing rotting flesh to the corpse of the missing Manfred, across to human bodies hung on the walls like a charnel house larder. Finally, the camera finds The Man himself, riven with grief at the side of his dying partner, pitifully tender in spite of the butchery around him. It is an astonishing, deeply uncomfortable sequence, a triumph of truly horrific gore and claustrophobic set design mixed with an overwhelming sense of sadness and squalor.
They are the last descendants of an unfortunate group of Victorian underground workers, trapped by a cave-in during the excavation of the tunnels and left to rot when the company they worked for went bankrupt. Isolated, living in sub-human conditions, they have resorted to cannibalism (hence the disappearance of unwary travellers such as Manfred). In some ways, their plight seems a despairing cousin to Hammer’s Plague Of The Zombies (UK, John Gilling, 1966). Both involve exploited workers trapped underground in dangerous conditions by their social superiors. However, this time there is no benevolent patrician hero to set the world to rights – just small cynical men like Calhoun, who can only arrive too late and cast a jaded eye over a society they cannot change. Like Hammer’s zombies, The Man cannot better his situation himself. He may inadvertently strike back by claiming an OBE as his victim, but this does not gain him any sympathetic assistance; it simply intensifies his sufferings, without changing anything in the wider world.
The US poster describes The Man and his ancestors as ‘the raw meat of the human race’; while sensationalistic, it is a fair summary of their enforced degradation and primitive state. Less accurately, the trailer labels him as ‘a sinister evil’, and this is not a true representation of his character. He is monstrous and physically repugnant with his matted hair, constant drool, and pustulant boils, but he is clearly depicted as a victim. Armstrong is terrific in the role, finding humanity and even a warped dignity to the character. His desolation at the passing of his fellow survivor is wrenching, gently decorating her body with trinkets after placing it in the makeshift mausoleum housing his other deceased relatives, the cannibals apparently not ‘eating their own’. Unable to speak coherent English, his only lines are ‘mind the doors!’, presumably the only sentence he has heard regularly enough to learn (and indeed these words open and close the film itself). Sometimes a plea, sometimes a threat, he repeats the phrase in varying tones of voice as he tries desperately to communicate his rage, sorrow and loneliness. Yet inevitably his clumsy, violently misjudged attempts to reach out are doomed to failure, even with the gentle Patricia.
Despite its relatively universal themes and recognisable setting, Death Line has never crossed over from cult status to become a mainstream concern in the way of similarly distinctive contemporaries such as The Wicker Man (UK, Robin Hardy, 1973). It has not been without influence in genre circles, however. Its Underground setting and sleazy underbelly seem to have provided some of the inspiration for the Tube and cinema attacks in An American Werewolf In London (US/UK, John Landis, 1981), and Creep (UK/Germany, Christopher Smith, 2004) develops from a broadly similar idea, albeit in a far less political and idiosyncratic direction.
Ultimately, Death Line’s position is perhaps unsurprising; aside from Patricia, the most sympathetic character is The Man, and he is a murderous, plague-ridden cannibal. The film is unrelentingly bleak despite its humour, with a funk of corruption, gore, and decay that remains pungent. The pacing is perhaps a little uneven, and it definitely benefits from repeat viewings – although I love its melancholy now, I was distinctly underwhelmed by the downbeat anti-climactic conclusion on my first watch. Like many cult movies, you may either acquire its taste and embrace it warts and all, or you may not. I would definitely recommend at least trying to join its ride through the forgotten gothic vaults of the London Underground. Just remember to mind the doors…