Thursday, May 27, 2010

RAW MEAT (aka DEATH LINE) (1972)

Like many travelers, a good deal of my first visit to London was spent underground in the Tube Stations. One of the most efficient mass transit systems in the world, the London Underground rail subway has 250 miles (400 km for the rest of you) of track running between 270 or so stations. In my experience, most of that is under construction, requiring a commuter to acquire the skills of a military general to navigate the correct transferring from one line to another in order to get to your destination. Getting off at Piccadilly Circus, for instance, in order to transfer twice more to reach Westminster Abbey, traveling through endless tunnels, visiting endless platforms, minding endless gaps, sometimes without encountering a single Brit, it’s easy to see why the Underground would inspire a movie like Raw Meat

Also known as Death Line, Raw Meat is what I like to call a “charming little cannibal movie” that takes place almost entirely in the London Tube. A popular urban legend concerning the Tube’s initial construction in the 1850s proposes that a cave-in trapped a group of both male and female workers. The company financing this end of construction went bankrupt and, without the funds to rescue the workers, left them to die. Of course, this being horror movie territory, the workers did not die, but survived in the collapsed section of tunnel, breeding amongst themselves and scrounging for food where they could, primarily subsisting on rats. And, also of course, each other. This horrible existence resulted in a Sawney Beane-style tribe of Victorian-era C.H.U.D.s who would, eventually, claw their way through the walls and stalk the platforms late at night in search of tasty commuters. (Don’t think this idea wasn’t rife in my head the later it got in our return to our hotel in Limehouse.)

In Raw Meat, a well-to-do gent in a homburg haunts ‘70s era London clip joints and strip parlours, paying for an enormous good time. After propositioning a woman he mistakes as a prostitute, he is attacked by (the cameraman) an unseen assailant and left to die on the stairs. An American student and his Brit bird girlfriend stumble upon the dying man. Being from New York, Alex’s instincts tell him to step over the obvious drunk and go about his business, but Patricia urges him to look in the man’s wallet for a diabetic card. They learn that he’s James Manfred, Officer of the Realm (OBE), so his drunken state on the stairs is, at that point in history, a peculiarity. But after convincing a policeman to check on him, the well-to-do not-drunkard has vanished.

Well, we can’t have O.B.E.’s going missing, now can we? This brings Inspector Calhoun and Detective Sergeant Rogers into the mix. Already quite plagued by a cold and a policewoman who insists on serving his tea in bag form, a missing upper-class geezer is all Calhoun needs, but it jogs his memory: other people have been reported missing from Russell Square Station, including a grocer from Kilburn not two weeks ago! At first, he suspects that the arrogant Alex is somehow at fault, but the investigation leads back to the OBE’s flat in London, where they discover a hidden room with a hidden camera. Likewise, they’re discovered by Stratton-Villiers, MI5, who tells them that James Manfred, OBE, is no longer their concern.

“Fuck you,” says Calhoun.

“Beyond even your notable working class virility,” says Stratton-Villiers, MI5.
Not one to be told one’s place, Calhoun resumes the investigation, which entails, for the most part, harassing Alex and Patricia. Meanwhile, the last of the Exceedingly-Lower Class, distraught over the death of his mate and their unborn child, feeds from the remains of James Manfred, OBE, and returns to the platforms to find a suitable replacement companion for the presentation of his bloodline.

Zooming by at a quick 87 minutes, Raw Meat manages to deliver chills, nausea and belly-laughs, sometimes all three at once, and is an exceptionally quirky little horror movie. Granted, we’ve since been fed variations of this story before, usually in a decidedly urban setting—The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, The Hills Have Eyes 2, The Hills Have Eyes 3: The Eyes Are Hillier—but that doesn’t take away from Raw Meat’s enduring effectiveness. At the time of its initial release, a three-minute unbroken 360-degree shot establishing “The Man”’s larder of corpses in varying degrees of decay sent many patrons running for the doors. And for 1972, a shot of The Man slitting Manfred’s throat so the mate can drink was reportedly too much for “proper” filmgoers, and this was after it was heavily edited by the BFC. (Raw Meat wouldn’t be seen in its uncut form until its official release in 2006.)

Apart from some genuine brutality and gruesome imagery, the primary delight of Raw Meat are the performances of Donald Pleasance and Norman Rossington as Calhoun and Rogers. As Calhoun, Pleasance is clearly having the time of his life, expertly utilizing the most effective weapon of the British police: sarcasm. He’s ornery, callous, cynical and positively delightful to watch. Rossington keeps up his end of the repartee as well as the frequently amused and long-suffering Rogers. (While the cameo by Christopher Lee as Stratton-Villiers is amusing, it only gives the viewer a jolt of delighted recognition. Any other actor in the role would have encouraged the editors to slice out the scene to preserve the pace.) It’s this bitter sense of humor courtesy of the coppers keeping the movie from sliding into the deep despair of those living below.

It isn’t too much of a stretch to posit that class warfare is an underlying and obvious theme of director Gary Sherman’s script. The investigation into missing persons doesn’t even start until a titled twit vanishes, and it’s up to the students to lead the working class to those living below even Fagin and his ragamuffins. For his part, Sherman treats his cannibals with as much dignity and sympathy as he can. The scene of The Man mourning his mate’s death is extremely touching, and our empathy is tweaked further when a blow to the head causes more damage than it should have, thanks to his inherited vitamin deficiency and, we learn, suffering of a form of bubonic plague. His attempts to communicate with Patricia at the end consist of the only English words he knows, variations of “Mind the Doors”, announced by the conductor of every train, at every stop, for more than a hundred years.

While the Dennis Gordon-Orr does a smashing job with the set design on the film’s limited budget, Alex Thompson’s use of shadow in near-darkness (cheating where there’s no other choice—how else can you explain a stark shadow cast upon a wall in supposed pitch-blackness?) is remarkable. Particularly striking is a scene between The Man and a trio of rail workers that takes place only in the beams and slashes of their flashlights. What Sherman doesn’t show is also notable. A second long, unbroken tracking shot leading from the lair and down the collapsed tunnel gives us the history that the dialogue hinted at: via sound effects and ambiance, we experience the Victorian-era mine workers just before, during and just after the cave in, with a pitiful ghostly whimper for help coming over the soundtrack just as we’re shown a skeletal hand trapped beneath a pile of rock. Aural memory has rarely been utilized so well in a movie before or since and it’s simply chilling.

Following Raw Meat, Sherman went on to direct the wonderful Dead & Buried, with a terrific Dan O’Bannon script—another sardonic movie about life and death and mostly death. Dead & Buried, in turn, lead to a number of ill-advised productions (Vice Squad, Wanted Dead or Alive) and the movie that nearly killed his career—Poltergeist III. Due to Heather O’Roarke’s untimely death a few weeks before the end of principal photography, Sherman was forced to film the rewritten ending with a body double, which resulted in not only an uncomfortable release, but a critically-disastrous one as well). After the stress of this production Sherman reportedly retreated to the relative comfort of directing and producing movies of the week. In 2000, Raw Meat / Death Line was chosen by a panel of British critics as one of "The Ten Most Important British Horror Films of the 20th Century". Take that BFC!

So before your visit to London, may I recommend picking up the official DVD of Raw Meat, criminally devoid of extras? If nothing else, it’ll remind you not to miss the last train.

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