With a screenplay penned by an
otherwise obscure advertising copywriter named Ceri Jones (adapted from an
original story by director Gary Sherman), the premise of Death Line is rather simple.Late night travelers on London’s famed underground tubes have been
disappearing with alarming regularity from the Russell Square Tube
Station.Two young, unmarried collegians,
Alex Campbell (David Ladd) and Patricia Wilson (Sharon Gurney), unwittingly get
themselves entangled into the mystery when they find an unconscious, well-dressed
fop lying comatose on the lower steps of the station.They alert a wary and hesitant policeman to
investigate, but the slumped body – whose wallet had earlier identified the
body as Sir James Manfred, O.B.E. - is suddenly nowhere to be found.
We soon learn that Manfred (James
Cossins) is merely the latest delicacy in the supper plans of a gruesome character
billed only as “The Man.” Even putting
his cannibalistic appetite aside, “The Man” (Hugh Armstrong) still cuts a
pretty morbid figure. Filthy, ragged,
and with skin tone that’s both beyond the pale and ravaged with festering sores
(think of the iconic and disheveled – but still healthier appearing - figure that
graces the cover of Jethro Tull’s seminal Aqualung
LP), this mostly mute subterranean has – somewhat reluctantly - become the last
surviving offspring of a band of tunnel dwellers.
There’s a back story here,
of course. It seems that during the
construction of the South London tube in 1892, there was an unfortunate cave-in
that entombed a team of construction workers. The company contracted to build that particular section of this nineteenth
century subway went immediately into bankruptcy, coldheartedly making no
attempt to rescue those (apparently) mixed-sex workers trapped in the dank and
rat infested arc-shaped tunnels.
This was unfortunate as some
of those abandoned not only managed to survive, but to reproduce and flourish
(more or less) by eating the flesh of their less fortunate comrades. It’s never adequately explained why in the
eighty years between the tunnel collapse of 1892 and the film’s current date of
1972, the youngest and last surviving of the mining offspring has lost all of
their language skills aside from a grunting, guttural mimic of the rail line’s oft-repeated
conductor’s phrase “Mind the Doors.” Likewise, it’s never explained why – while searching out potential
future meals on the underground platforms - the “trapped” tunnelers simply didn’t
walk up the stairwells and out into the sunshine. Of course, if they had, there
would be no drama. Certainly romancing University
students Campbell and Wilson wouldn’t have been begrudgingly dragged into the
on-going police investigation – much in the manner of Fred and Daphne from the
old Scooby Doo cartoon series. To some degree it hardly matters. They’re
window dressing. British actor Donald
Pleasence is the true star of this vehicle, bringing more than a dollop of
churlish intensity to his blue collar character, Inspector Calhoun. Pleasence is a decidedly old-school policeman,
a cantankerous, prudish sort who continually badgers his secretary for cups of
tea. He also relishes belittling and
sneering at young Campbell and his generation’s immoral lifestyles, live-in
girlfriends, and hippie mindset. He’s
particularly disdainful of privileged middle-class kids dabbling in the
political protest movements of the day.
To be fair, Calhoun shows
little regard for the more well-heeled citizens of Britain either, tossing more
than a few cynical barbs at the newly deceased snob James Manfred, O.B.E. He also possesses an almost pathological
antipathy toward M.I.5. He views the
organization not as an ally but more as a smug, self-important competitor in his
street level fight against crime.
Though horror film icon
Christopher Lee gets a feature billing in Death
Line, his role is relatively small and the single scene he does appear in does
little to move the narrative forward. Producer Paul Maslansky had previously worked with Lee on a number of
films (including the very atmospheric and spooky black and white chiller Castle of the Living Dead). It was through Maslansky that Lee was cast as
Pleasence’s smirking antagonist, the condescending and derby-topped
Stratton-Villiers of M.I.5.
Though the two actors would
only share a single scene together – oddly, the pair would only share the
briefest of moments seen together on the big screen – Maslansky recalled Lee gladly
accepting the small role if only to work with Pleasence, an actor he much
admired. The young American actor, David
Ladd, was also duly impressed by Pleasence, describing him as the consummate
“actor’s actor.” He found working
alongside him somewhat “intimidating.” Ladd is the younger brother of Oscar-winning producer Alan Ladd, Jr.,
and was certainly no leading man in Britain. He had previously worked mostly in the U.S. as a child actor. Though Ladd’s role of Alex Campbell was
originally purposed for a British actor, the producers thought having an
American in the part might make the film an easier sell in the States.
Since no U.S. companies seemed interested investing in the grim production, the Rank Organisation stepped in and floated the most significant part of the film’s budget of 83,000 GBP. Maslansky recalled the film was shot on a tight twenty day schedule, suggesting an almost strict Hitchcockian-type adherence to the written scenario: “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” The underground sequences of this otherwise low-budget production are atmospherically murky: dark tunnels dripping water from their sloped corridors, armies of rats, burning oil lamps, tool sheds, the rumbling of underground trains, and rooms stuffed with rotting corpses and skeletons.
Producer Maslansky recalled the dank, low light tunnel shooting to be the most challenging. The crew was subjected to near-freezing temperatures in the cavernous tunnels and they were surrounded disturbingly by an army of rats, both real and prosthetic. Though the movie lights cut through some of the darkness, the heat from the lamps also caused the rotting layers of decaying meat doubling as human corpses to become even more odiferous and gag-inducing.
The rotting meat wasn’t the only thing that stank. There would be future disappointment for director Sherman and the producers as well. Following a private preview screening of the film, legendary Paramount Pictures president Frank Yablans found Death Line so chilling and well mounted that he told Sherman he desperately wanted the film. But before Yablans could get green light consent from Paramount’s top brass, second-stringer Samuel Z. Arkoff swooped in and gobbled up the rights for American-International. This, in effect, condemned the morbid film as drive-in fare. It was Arkoff who chose to change the British title Death Line to the far more lurid and exploitative Raw Meat when the film made its U.S. debut.
Released on a bare bones DVD in 2003 by MGM Home Entertainment – under its garish U.S. title Raw Meat - Blue Underground’s Blu Ray/DVD two disc combo set blows this earlier issue out of the water. The set features no fewer than three - not to be missed - supplemental features. The first, Tales from the Tube, features a round robin discussion and reminiscences courtesy of Director Gary Sherman and Executive Producers Jay Kanter and Alan Ladd Jr. The second, From The Depths, features interviews with actor David Ladd and Producer Paul Maslansky, while the final supplement, Mind The Doors, features an interview with primary ghoul Hugh Armstrong. There is also an audio commentary track with Sherman, Ladd, producer Paul Maslansky and Assistant Director Lewis More O'Ferrall. Rounding off the special features, there are both the British and U.S. trailers, television and radio spots, a poster and still gallery and a twenty-page “Collectible” booklet featuring notes by Michael Gingold and Christopher Gullo.