Death Line (1972) [31 Days of British Horror Review]

Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January and the “31 Days of British Horror” in March , Jules is at it again in May, treating us to the continuation of his chronological run through the classic era of British Horror, from the late ’50s to the end of the ’70s, with one review every day for the entire month.

You can check out the rest of our “31 Days of British Horror” by CLICKING HERE.

Starring: Donald Pleasance, Hugh Armstrong, Sharon Gurney, David Ladd, Christopher Lee
Director: Gary Sherman

There are few films that summed up quite so succinctly the changing face of British horror at the time than Death Line.

Set in a modern-day London that was just about still swinging, it’s a bleak, nasty and frequently harrowing film. It’s one that is sorely lacking in heroes or even hope. It’s one that is so soul-crushingly relentless in fact, that it’s often a struggle to get through.

A clear response to the new template of gritty realism and social awareness brought in by the likes of George A.Romero, Death Line (or Raw Meat if you’re American) drew a very British line in the sand between it and what had come before.

After alerting the authorities to an unconscious and near-dead man in a London tube station, university students Patricia (Sharon Gurney) and Alex (David Ladd) find themselves under suspicion when his body disappears.

While investigating the case, Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasance) learns some of the history of the London Underground, in particular the Victorian railway workers who built the tunnels under the worst conditions, to the extent that a group of 12 men and women were left abandoned after a collapse in 1892.

What nobody realises is that group not only survived, but continued to live in the disused tunnels under London, a lost cannibal tribe who prey on the unwary travellers on the city’s tube network.

Now, with his woman’s sudden death, only one of them remains, making him even more dangerous, as he is now fuelled not just by madness, but grief and the desire to find himself a new mate…

Ooh, this isn’t a fun watch at all. Right from the off, it feels claustrophobic and intense, like a nightmare you just can’t wake up from.

There’s two big factors in just how powerful Death Line is and the biggest one is the atmosphere director Gary Sherman conjures. His London is a hostile, unforgiving place at the best of times, ugly and cold, where even the people who are meant to keep you safe care more about getting a lock-in at the local boozer than solving crimes. Looking at you here, Pleasance.

Once we go underground though, that’s when we really venture into Hell.

That first long, close up tracking shot of The Man’s lair, scored by a pulsing heartbeat, gradually revealing partially eaten corpses and our first sight of him, a whimpering, gibbering wreck, inconsolable as his partner dies in front of him…brrr.

Our revulsion and horror is immediately turned on its head though, with the revelation of the grim backstory, making us instantly sympathetic to his plight, but no less disgusted and repelled for all that.

The other factor is Hugh Armstrong’s remarkable performance as The Man. On the surface he’s a horribly violent, inbred and insane cannibal, the very definition of a human monster, but Armstrong imbues him with such pain and tragedy that you can’t help empathising with him. Apart from the famous “mind the doors!” line, he can barely speak, other than the odd grunt or whine, so it’s a masterclass in physical acting we’re seeing here, particularly in the scene with him trying to comfort his dying mate, which is probably the most disturbing yet affecting in the whole film.

Hugh Armstrong was second choice after Marlon Brando pulled out of the role. This sounds even more far-fetched than a lost tribe of cannibals living in the underground tunnels of London, but it is indeed supposedly true. Bizarre. I can’t see him doing any better than what we ended up with, though. Armstrong is wonderful here.

Meanwhile, the rest of the cast are almost entirely strong in the supporting roles. Pleasance feels very real, playing a believably shabby copper; honest and often funny, but not particularly insightful and prone to extreme drunkenness, while Christoper Lee beams in for a brief cameo as Stratton-Villiers, a stuffy MI5 agent.

The main pairing of the students are the least interesting thing about the film, or rather David Ladd is. He’s poor, very very poor in fact, so it’s no surprise he went on to produce films instead of act in them. Fortunately Sharon Gurney is much better and really emphasises the horror of her situation waking up in The Man’s lair with some convincing hysteria.

Death Line isn’t what you would call an enjoyable film, it’s not one you’d fire in for a random viewing. It’s too effective for that. It’s a film that sets out to disturb and upset you, but in a way that you can’t help but feel for the thing that’s upsetting you the most.

It’s probably not for everyone, but it’s a little mini masterpiece all the same.

“Mind the doors!”

Rating: 5/5.

JULESAVThe Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy

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