A few thoughts on Death Line (1972), a great British film directed by an American, Gary Sherman. The Establishment, handily represented by six foot five Christopher Lee in a bowler hat, has been looking down on us all since the dawn of time. The ancestors of Lee’s Stratton-Villiers made a purely financial decision to leave navvies buried in a cave-in to rot, forcing them to turn to cannibalism. Now, an incident on the London Underground (the tube), insists that we look beneath the streets, even below the usual tunnels, to pay attention to human creatures who have become both monstrous and invisible.
‘What a way to live,’ concludes the appalled Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasence). The Man (Hugh Armstrong) is the most pathetic of monsters – a throwback to caveman savagery, like his contemporaries, the WWI draft-dodger of The Beast in the Cellar (1970) and the castaway lighthouse-keepers of Tower of Evil (1972) … but also the sort of filthy, matted vagrant Londoners walk past every day, like the immortal tramp of The Asphyx (1972) or the Pinterian derelict Pleasence plays in The Caretaker (1963). In the BluRay transfer, his weeping boils are especially repellent.
If the exuberant burst of ‘swinging London’ cinema found in Richard Lester’s films and the pop-art musicals of the 1960s showed a surface, then Death Line joins a group of horror, crime and sex films picking away at the scabs of the city … going back to the Soho stranglers, stabbers and electrocutioners of Cover Girl Killer (1959), Peeping Tom (1960) and Strip Tease Murder (1961) … extending to the disco Frankenstein conspiracy of Scream and Scream Again (1967) – also with Christopher Lee as the civil servant behind it all – and the psychopathic men-children of Haunted House of Horror (1968), Twisted Nerve (1968) and Straight On Till Morning (1972) the geriatric monsters preying on jaded with-it youth in The Sorcerers (1967) and Night After Night After Night (1969), and the necktie murderer set loose on one last Hitchcock ripper hunt in Frenzy (1971). These are all London films – you could stage a depressing walking tour of what’s left of their locations: not the red-bus tourist spots, but the alleys, clip joints, tube stations, nicks, markets, riverbanks and walk-up flats. Any of these films would make a fine co-feature with the classic ‘disappearing city’ documentary The London Nobody Knows (1969). Death Line opens with a jazzy, neon-lit traipse through Soho sleaze – with a splendid, finger-snapping theme tune – but it’s about horrors that lie a little to the North, beyond the British Museum and beneath Russell Square Station. Twice I have seen Sherman’s film on big (ish) screens, at the Gothique Film Society in Holborn Library and for a Miskatonic Institute lecture at the Horse Hospital, and audiences have found their nearest tube home leaves from the platform where James Manfred OBE (James Cossins) is snatched by the Man.
The policeman’s lot in horror is not a happy one. For a start, look at the reviews … or the audience appreciation graphs. It’s generally felt that even a stone classic like Franju’s Les jeux sans visage (1959) slows to a halt when it cuts away from the shocking mad science and the surreal masked waif to the conventional Paris flics mulling over the disappearance. How many horror movies are stuck with plodders in trenchcoats laboriously putting together clues to catch up with mysteries the audience has long since solved? The hard-drinking, rude-to-everybody, tea-obsessed Calhoun – who appeared before John Thaw’s Inspector Regan seemed to claim the archetype on The Sweeney – doesn’t really do much to solve the case of the disappearing OBE, since he spends most of the film gleefully harassing a long-haired witness he takes a dislike to, but the film doesn’t trudge when it cuts away from the ghoul’s supremely hideous underground lair back to Calhoun and his sidekick (Norman Rossington) pottering about in the environs of Holborn Police Station. At a stretch, there’s a parallel between the scenes in which the Man howls ‘mind the doors’ and wanders about in the dark and the grim night out as Calhoun gets pissed off duty and starts ranting about ‘the Queen, God bless her!’ Two desperate, lost souls – above and below ground – lashing out in a grief and pain they only have meaningless, borrowed words to express. It’s one of the prolific Pleasence’s great film characterisations and – as is still not quite realised – one of the great horror movie characters of a decade packed with standouts. Pleasence is good as Dr Loomis in Halloween … but he is great as Inspector Calhoun.
Kim Newman is a novelist, critic and broadcaster. His fiction includes Anno Dracula, Life’s Lottery and The Man from the Diogenes Club. His non-fiction includes Nightmare Movies, Horror: 100 Best Books and BFI Classics studies of Cat People and Doctor Who. He is a contributing editor to Sight & Sound and Empire.