The Lair of the White Worm (1988)

The Lair of the White Worm first published by

“Let’s have some of that tea, Mary,” requests Lord James D’Ampton (Hugh Grant), after their search of a pothole for a corpse (whether human or monster) has yielded “nothing more sophisticated than batshit”. It’s a description which might apply equally to The Lair of the White Worm itself – for Ken Russell’s camp-tastic horror romp defines batshit cinema, with in-your-face crazy everywhere on screen, and any subtlety hidden in the dark.

The response of Mary Trent (Sammi Davis) to James’ request for tea – “It’s for later” – involves an unconscious sexual pun (fellator) that is only accentuated by the Derbyshire lass’ accent. Rife with such saucy innuendo and double entendres, Russell’s screenplay exposes the erotic underpinnings to life in Little Britain, as a phallic snake keeps raising its head in an otherwise idyllic Eden (complete with its very own Eve). For, flush with the success of his previous feature Gothic (1986), Russell turned to an obscure 1911 novel written by that master of Gothic, Dracula‘s Bram Stoker, and freely adapted it into a pulpish playground for all his own personal obsessions (sacrilegious imagery, joyous smut, weaponised dildoes…).

The plot pits James, Mary, Mary’s sister Eve (Catherine Oxenberg), and visiting Scots archaeologist Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi) against seductive Lady Sylvia Morris (the gamely vampish Amanda Donohoe) and the reemergent, monstrous ‘D’Ampton Worm’ (modelled on the legendary Lambton Worm) that Sylvia venerates, protects and feeds – yet as James tells Angus early in the film, “You mustn’t take the word ‘worm’ too literally.” Accordingly, Russell teases out all the snake’s more metaphorical aspects, from Biblical Satan to suppressed phallic desire.

If events unfold in a Christian community of innocents, where adolescent males are both literally and metaphorically boy scouts, and where unmarried but nubile Eve can spend the whole night with James without losing her virginity, then temptress Sylvia brings the missing kink with her fetish clothing, ritualistic strap-ons and pansexual voracity. Even her name’s initials, SM, encode the transgressive sexual play with which she infects her environment. Meanwhile, if James’ family has a tradition of St George-like dragon-slaying, then Sylvia and her snake embody a cyclical return of the repressed – a free-loving Pagan response to Christian restraint, and an untrammelled id buried beneath British ego.

The Lair of the White Worm begins with Angus unearthing a prodigious skull in the garden of the Trent sisters’ Bed-and-Breakfast where he is staying, built over a former convent which was in turn built over a Roman site which preserved an ancient local snake cult. Like Angus, the film is disinterring conflicting layers of British history and identity – think of it like The Wicker Man (1973) or Penda’s Fen (1974), only with added bawdy puns, sexy imagery, and a mongoose hidden up its sporran.

Summary: More pantomime than horror, Ken Russell’s unsurprisingly outrageous romp exposes conflicting substrates of British identity

© Anton Bitel