Death Line (1972) | Mind the doors! – Gary Sherman’s grim but moving London Underground cannibal cult horror gets the HD remaster treatment
Fans of classic British horror need no introduction to director Gary Sherman’s London Underground-set cannibal film Death Line. Nearly 50 years on from its release on 12 October 1972 (in the UK), this oddly moving cult still packs a mighty punch, and features a standout turn from Donald Pleasence.
Previously available only on DVD and VHS (remember those?), Death Line (which got recut and renamed Raw Meat in the US) has been newly scanned to 2k resolution from the original 35mm camera negative for an exclusive UK Blu-ray release from Network – and it looks and sounds bloody fantastic! Finally time to ditch my second gen VHS!
Here’s my take on the exploitation cult, ‘But first were gonna get some tea… MARRRRSHAL!!!’
Following a visit to Soho’s strip joints, James Manfred, OBE (a sleazy James Cossins, from Fawlty Towers and Doctor Who fame) is attacked by a feral-looking bloke at Russell Square tube station. Finding him collapsed by a stairwell, university student Patricia (Patricia Gurney) and her American boyfriend Alex (David Ladd) alert a local police officer, but when they return to the scene – there’s no sign of the politician.
Assigned to investigate, Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasence), takes an instant dislike to the youngsters and continues to question them, then finds himself being warned off the case by a secretive MI5 handler (Christopher Lee). Meanwhile, the assailant (Hugh Armstrong) is revealed to be one of the last surviving members of a family of railway workers who became trapped underground after a cave-in in 1892, and resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. When his female companion dies, ‘The Man’ flies into a rage and kills three maintenance workers – then, when Patricia, finds herself alone on the tube at Holborn Station – he knocks her out and takes her back to his lair. Will she become his next meal – or does he just wants some company?
Writer/Director Gary Sherman has crafted a neat little fright film that belies its exploitation label, for at its dark heart lies a tragic class consciousness love story in which Armstrong brings great sympathy to the grotesque and violent cannibal, who resembles a destitute Jesus meets Rasputin, but with the shuffling gait of Boris Karloff’s drunken mute butler Morgan from James Whales’ Old Dark House. Despite his murderous impulses following the sad death of his partner, you can’t help but pity ‘The Man’ as he is credited in the film; and that’s compounded when he tries and fails to communicate with Patricia using the only words he knows: ‘Mind the doors!’.
Then there’s Donald Pleasence’s fantastic turn as the abrasive, tea-loving, hippie-hating Inspector Calhoun – who loves Queen and country, but despises his upper class MI5 superiors and even more so philandering politicians. He has some great scenes (particularly with Heather Stoney’s WPC Alice Marshall and Norman Rossington’s DS Rogers) and gets in some great lines like: ‘That’s handy, pop round and see if he’s a nutter!’ and ‘Get ur bloody hair cut!’. Alongside Alfred Marks’ Superintendent Bellaver in 1970’s Scream and Scream Again, Pleasence’s Calhoun most certainly gave rise to the sweary likes of John Thaws’ DI Jack Regan in TV’s The Sweeney a couple of years later. And boy, can he play drunk well!
Cinematographer Alex Thomson (who became Nicolas Roeg’s favourite camera operator) provides the stylishly grim imagery, making atmospheric use of the dark and dingy real life London Underground locations (the tunnel scenes were shot at Bishopsgate and the train sequences at Aldwych). So effective where these scenes that London Underground took offence to the subject matter and banned its advertising on any station platform! Meanwhile, Wil Mallone and Jeremy Rose’s rumbustious soundtrack is another highlight, perfectly capturing the sleazy vibe of Soho’s strip joints, while also chiming with the film’s sadder moments.
Keep an eye out for Keeping Up Appearances‘ Clive Swift as a detective and Christopher Lee (in just one scene, which he did as a favour for the film-makers and without a fee) as the suited and booted bureaucrat.
Network’s exclusive UK Blu-ray release, includes the following special features…
• Mind the Doors!: an engaging interview with actor Hugh Armstrong, talking about his life and career
• Theatrical Trailer
• Image Gallery
• PDF Material
• Collector’s booklet