Starting in 2009, and thanks to the patience/support of the legendary Phil Blankenship, I was blessed with the opportunity to host recurring "Horror Movie A Day" midnight screenings at the New Beverly Cinema here in Los Angeles, which ran for a few years until Quentin took full control of the programming and such "guest" diversions went the way of the dodo. My goal was to show the sort of films that shaped my love of horror as an adolescent, many of which I never got to see on 35mm (such as Shocker, which was the first one we did), as well as films I discovered through my HMAD journey that I wanted to introduce to new fans in turn. It was easy enough to find the former types - over the years I got to show things like Child's Play and its first sequel (CP3 being the very first R rated horror movie I got to see theatrically), Scream, and Terror Train, as well as a number of sequels to the big franchises, including Jason Takes Manhattan, of which I seem to be the loudest defender.
However, prints for those other types were a bit more elusive. I'm not saying this to brag, but if I hadn't already seen it when I started Horror Movie A Day, it was probably obscure (sometimes for a reason, i.e. Cathy's Curse) and thus tracking down a print would likely be more trouble than it was worth, if one could even be found at all. Luckily, one of those rare exceptions was for Death Line, which I had seen under its US title of Raw Meat in the first year of HMAD (ten years ago this month, in fact) and showed it with Phil in May of 2010. If I had to settle for one "discovery" to get to show, it... well, it would have been Cathy's Curse*, but Raw Meat would have been a damn close second; even though I saw it early on, few of those "I never heard of this movie before and now I love it" entries held a candle to Gary Sherman's 1972 debut. When it came time to put my book together in 2014, I had to jog my memory for a lot of the titles that ended up included in it, re-reading my own reviews to remember if I liked them or not, but I needed no such reminder for this simple but effective tale of an underground cannibal who gets away with murder because his victims aren't important to the people in charge . Even though I had only seen the film twice a number of moments stuck out in my head as if I just watched it the day before, and it was a frequent suggestion whenever someone would ask for a recommendation of something they likely hadn't seen yet.
And that's why I had no problem breaking my usual rule about paying more than twenty dollars for a Blu-ray when Blue Underground restored the film and released it on proper special edition disc a few weeks back, as I had been wanting to revisit the film anyway and all I had was the barebones MGM DVD. I'm not in the habit of upgrading my DVDs to high-def, partly for financial reasons and partly because a lack of free time prevents me from ever re-watching the movie anyway, so those rare exceptions have to be justified. Hearing Sherman rave about the new transfer in Rue Morgue (and also in an interview with our own Jacob Knight) sold me, plus new bonus features made the cost a lot easier to swallow**, and I wasted little time in watching the disc after it arrived in the mail. Even though it had been years (I don't think I watched it again since that screening in 2010) I quickly remembered why I loved the movie so much: for a movie about cannibalism and class divides, it's pretty damn funny.
Most of that humor is courtesy of Donald Pleasence, who was probably the reason I rented the movie in the first place. As much as I love him as Dr. Loomis, I've seen precious few of his 140 or so other movies, and treat each one that I come across (horror or otherwise) as a sort of rare treat, in the hopes that I'll be seeing "new" performances until I die. And while I'm sure there are better examples, I personally have never seen him as FUNNY as he is in this movie, as Inspector Calhoun, who is determined to solve the case as long as it doesn't impede on his tea drinking time (or booze drinking time, during the nighttime scenes). He's kind of a weary, slightly unhinged blue-collar type guy, at his most animated when he has a chance to put some young asshole in his place, though he also bellows at his secretary ("Mar-SHALLL!!!") when he needs tea or... well that's pretty much all he ever asks her for. His tea obsession comes up in nearly every scene; he stirs it with a dart, sighs at the use of tea bags instead of the proper kind, and even fixes himself a cup the instant he wakes up. But he's fond of booze as well; in the film's most delirious excursion, he drunkenly pleas with a bartender to stay open later so that he and his partner can continue drinking, framing it as a public service of some sort. It is pure joy to watch him onscreen in these scenes, the same kind you feel watching an actor like John C. Reilly effortlessly clown his way through a Will Ferrell vehicle, and if the movie has one fault it's that he never really gets to engage in any of the action.
And by action I refer to the scenes with the cannibal, simply referred to as "The Man" in the credits. Hugh Armstrong plays the tragic monster, in a role that was once set to go to Marlon Brando (!), who was a friend of the producers and wanted to do a makeup role, but was forced to drop out when his son got sick (he got his wish to do a makeup role in another movie that year though. Probably worked out better for him in the long run). Armstrong only has one line of dialogue ("Mind the doors!") that he repeats over and over, but part of what's great about the script is that this would-be comedic running gag is actually quite tragic, as it's the only thing he's ever heard due to spending his entire life in the bowels of London's subway system ("Mind the doors" being the warning for passengers exiting/entering the train). According to the backstory that we learn relatively early (right before an epic seven-minute tracking shot that makes the Blu worthwhile on its own, since it's impossible to see on the murky DVD), some workers were trapped in the tunnels nearly one hundred years earlier, but survived and became cannibalistic when no one bothered to rescue them. The Man and his wife/sister are the last of their kind, and when she dies he begins making more journeys into the public areas to not only find food but also a potential new mate. So he's not evil in the traditional way, he simply doesn't know any other way of life, and it's downright heartbreaking watching him try to communicate with the only three words he can speak, drawing easily parallels to Frankenstein's Monster in the process.
Because the filmmakers wanted to keep him sympathetic, this means the movie isn't wall to wall kills. In fact there are very few at all, one in the opening and another attack scene about halfway through where he takes on a few workers. But while the pace occasionally languishes, I don't think the film as a whole suffers from it. If they're not focusing on The Man and his exploits, we're usually just watching Pleasence do his thing, so the movie is consistently entertaining. Plus Donald's part of the story is genuinely interesting, as Calhoun is at first dismissive of the case since the people who have disappeared are transients and the like, or fellow blue-collar workers who wouldn't be missed, and only takes an active interest when he's insulted by one of his superiors from MI5, played by Christopher Lee in a one-scene cameo that was added to the film for the sole purpose of letting Lee have a scene with Pleasence (he was a friend of the producer and practically begged him to be in it - for scale pay! - just so he could work with the actor, provided he didn't have to wear fangs). So Pleasence is sort of stuck in the middle of wanting to solve the case just to piss off Lee's character, but also not wanting to waste his time trying to find people no one missed anyway, which is an interesting angle for what would ordinarily be a hero. Sherman is quick to note the film's depiction of the class struggle and how it has kept the film relevant today (he's no fan of our current President, that's for sure), and at times you almost wish he had gone even further with it, as some of Pleasence's inner turmoil is a bit lost due to the fact that the scenes are so damn funny.
The other lead is an American student named Alex (David Ladd), who is at university and living with his local girlfriend Patricia (the lovely Sharon Gurney, sporting a mullet and pulling it off). They're the ones who find the first victim and alert the authorities, and it's really only coincidence that they remain involved, when they're accidentally separated on the tube one night and The Man kidnaps her, presumably to have her take his wife's place since he doesn't eat her. Alex is the one who handles all the hero stuff in the third act, mounting a rescue while Pleasence drinks, and as mentioned it's a shame he's not involved in this section. The characters do not get along very well (Calhoun is suspicious of David's intentions) so it would have been great fun to see them team up for a rescue mission (especially if Calhoun was still drunk), but alas David goes solo. And he's kind of an asshole throughout the movie so you're almost kind of rooting for the more sympathetic cannibal, but the climax still works thanks to Sherman's direction and the terrific subterranean production design.
For a film that's relatively obscure (its spotty home video release history didn't help), it's been "paid homage to" (being diplomatic in at least one case) a few times over the years, most notably in Christopher Smith's 2004 film Creep, which is pretty much the same thing sans the police involvement, focusing entirely on Franka Potente who is trapped in the subway after the last train leaves and stumbles across a mutated cannibal. There was also the abysmal Stag Night, which may have just been copying Creep (so homage by proxy?), once again trapping heroes in a subway tunnel with cannibals - don't any of these guys ever learn to eat discarded food in the trash bins, or even pigeons? (To be fair, The Man does settle for rat on occasion.) But on this recent watch I also noticed The Man's repeated moans of "Mind the doors" occasionally become more muddled, not unlike how "Hold the door" became "Hodor" - could that equally tragic "gag" have been inspired by Death Line? And the plot is different, but the killer in Antropophagus bears more than a passing resemblance to our guy here.
But that could all be coincidence. While it was a hit in the UK (it was actually released as the bottom half of a double bill, but folks were skipping the first movie and eventually it got a solo release) it faltered here under the Raw Meat title (with a cut version to boot), and today when it makes a list it's usually like "Best '70s horror you haven't seen!" kind of stuff instead of merely "Best '70s Horror", period. Guillermo Del Toro has sung its praises, and Blue Underground's Blu should help spread the word a bit, but it (as of this writing anyway) isn't available on Netflix or Amazon Prime, which is pretty much the only way to convince people to watch anything these days. Ideally it'd come to Shudder where it would be spotlighted instead of being lost in the shuffle like so many gems on those other services (including Sherman's equally good followup, Dead & Buried, which perfectly describes its placement on Prime, as they don't even include the cover art), but at least I can vouch that the disc is worth the cost if what I've described sounds up your alley. And if I ever get to program screenings again, you can bet your subway pass that it'll be on my wish list - it's too good a movie not to share.
* Phil more or less took care of that for me a couple years later, giving me a personal shoutout when he tracked down a print and included it in an all night marathon of unannounced titles.
** I know twenty dollars isn't a lot, but it adds up, and I have very bad spending problems that will likely rear their ugly head until I die. Setting these rather arbitrary rules for myself has been a big help in curbing the habit and keeping me from buying nonsense I'll probably never get around to watching anyway.