Recently, Lionsgate did a rare solid for horror fans, launching a line of Blu-rays from their Vestron library akin to Scream Factory/Severin releases, i.e. remastered films and loads of special features. The first wave included films like Chopping Mall, Waxwork, and Blood Diner, all of which had been previously mistreated on home video (including releases from Lionsgate itself) with full frame, VHS-quality transfers and/or bare-bones discs. Some weren't even given their own release at all, but were lumped in with others on budget packs, meaning if you wanted, say, CHUD II: Bud The Chud to complete your CHUD collection, you had to suffer the (further) indignity of owning Ghoulies III along with it. No one enjoys owning movies they don't like, and as Scream Factory and their ilk figured out long ago, just because these movies aren't the creme of the crop, that doesn't mean they exist without fans - fans who will pay upwards of 20 dollars for a respectable release.
Like many a horror fan, I was eager for some of these (I already gushed over Chopping Mall) while now having much interest in others (sorry, Waxwork fans, I'm not among you), but one thing they had in common is that I had seen them all at one point or another. Some as a kid (such as Parents, which also hits shelves today), others as an adult (Blood Diner blew my mind at my first viewing a few years back at the New Beverly), so my nostalgia levels varied. And yes, this is definitely a nostalgia-driven line - each disc kicks off with a lo-fi Vestron logo being upgraded by robots, a CGI animation that probably cost more than some of the movies they will be featuring. While the films ultimately speak for themselves, the thinking here is that the Vestron label itself, like Cannon and Full Moon, means something to fans of a particular age, bringing us back to those sleepover viewings and late-night HBO (or, OK, probably Cinemax) recordings that opened our eyes to a bigger world of horror than Freddy or Jason might ever show us.
But there was one title that had passed me by: Ken Russell's The Lair of the White Worm. I can't recall if it ever hit the cable stations I had, but even if it did I'm sure I would have skipped it, because the movie was already freaking me out thanks to the following Fangoria cover:
Naturally, anyone who has ever read anything I've written probably knows instantly why I owned this particular issue as a kid, but as much as I loved seeing my boy Myers on the cover, that top corner would unnerve me every time I looked at it. I doubt I ever even read the article, because that one little square picture was enough to know that I didn't want to see the movie, and it wouldn't surprise me if it gave me nightmares as a result of a late night perusal of the Halloween or Child's Play articles keeping it in my peripheral. Funnily enough, at this age I actually watched LA Law with my mom (why a 10-11 year old was into LA Law, I have no idea, but I was shocked as anyone when Rosalind went down the elevator shaft), and it wasn't until I finally watched the movie this week that I realized it was Amanda "CJ Lamb" Donohoe who gave me those chills, buried under the makeup, fangs, and contact lenses required to turn this beautiful woman into a freaky-ass vampire.
I also had a much bigger revelation - I was absolutely right not to watch the movie as a kid. Not because it would have scared me too much or anything, but I wouldn't have appreciated it at all the way I do now. I really liked it a lot, in fact, but only because I've had the 25 or so years since I first became aware of it to become a little wiser and appreciate the themes Russell was exploring. Young me judged a horror movie based on how many people got killed and how many times it made me yelp at a jump scare, and Lair doesn't really offer a lot of either. No, I probably would have hated it, and thought about it now the same way I feel about other movies I simply didn't "get" when seeing them too young. Hell I didn't even like Halloween all that much the first time I saw it due to it being slower than its sequels (I saw 4 first, and watched 1 and 2 together), so there's no way in hell I would have found much to enjoy about this. I've come around on Halloween and a couple others I saw once I was the proper viewing age, but there are just as many, if not more, I still think of as "bad movies" because all I have to go on is my uneducated opinion from when I was a kid.
Now, it's certainly fun to re-evaluate, but I loved seeing this movie completely fresh at the perfect time to do so. Not only have I gotten wiser in general, but I've also gotten more familiar with Ken Russell's work over the years (not a lot of it, sadly - just Gothic, The Devils, and Altered States), so part of my fun was the fact that this movie, about a vampire lady who worships a giant worm and occasionally straps on a giant phallus, was the most commercially-minded of his films I've seen. Of course, he was adapting Bram Stoker instead of Paddy Chayefsky or Aldous Huxley, so it's not a surprise that it's less cerebral and weighty as the other films I've seen (I'll see more, I promise - make suggestions as you see fit!), but it also felt like a straight-laced parody of a Hammer film, another thing that I wouldn't have appreciated when I was a kid who hadn't seen any of those. The movie takes place in England, the plot involves the discovery of an ancient evil and a lovely woman looking for her father, and every ten minutes someone stops to have a cup of tea - just like pretty much every other Hammer movie I've ever seen. If the script was set in the 19th century and was stripped of its more lurid elements, it could have easily been a '60s-era Hammer flick in the vein of Plague of the Zombies or The Reptile.
In fact like The Reptile it deals with snake bites, though it doesn't take long to realize that we're not dealing with mere garden serpents. That doesn't stop Russell from having fun with throwing snake-like imagery into the film whenever possible; Peter Capaldi (dressed like Doctor Who 25 years before actually becoming him) slurping pasta made from worms, a character tripping on some sort of tubing, etc. And yes, Russell doesn't pass up the opportunity to reference the ol' trouser snake, with a hilarious dream sequence where Hugh Grant dreams of two women starting to catfight as he works on a crossword puzzle, lifting his pen at an angle to simulate an erection (this DEFINITELY wouldn't have resonated with me as a kid - I now dub it the finest boner joke ever written by someone who isn't Jim Steinman). The aforementioned phalluses make several appearances, often in freaky-ass nightmare hallucinations that seem to be attempting to redefine the idea of sacrilege. Speaking of which, overall it's got nothing on The Devils when it comes to that sort of thing, but there's a throughline about Pagan vs. Christian beliefs and rituals that would make this film a fine double feature with Wicker Man (it's also pretty funny in spots, and has a music number to boot!).
Oh, no, you didn't read that wrong - Hugh Grant is the star of this film, about five years before his big breakthrough. He's apparently embarrassed about it now, though I don't know why - he's certainly made worse movies, and he got to play a major role for a venerated filmmaker very early in his career. He'd also get to slice an old lady in half, knock over some drums, and dance along with a worm puppet at a gala, so I don't know where he gets off feeling shame about it when he's out there promoting the likes of Did You Hear About The Morgans? or whatever the hell. But maybe he's just embarrassed that he's left out of the finale - while Capaldi rescues the girl and kills the giant worm monster (which was made out of a Volkswagen, apparently), Grant just leads some other guys into a cave and releases some gas, which doesn't even help all that much. But it's a clear demonstration of his charm and appeal as an actor; even at this early stage (and in a horror movie, something he'd never even come close to again) it's obvious he's destined for stardom, and it's yet another thing that made this "late" first viewing all the more enjoyable. What would have been "some guy" back then is now an early performance from a guy who'd entertain me in movies outside my usual genre (rom-coms and the like), allowing me to circle back and soak in his lone genre performance.
For those who DID see it back in the day and have been eagerly awaiting its release, you should be quite pleased with the package Lionsgate put together. We get two commentaries - one with Russell (ported from a Pioneer DVD released in the late '90s) and another with Russell's wife Lisi, who is joined by Matthew Melia, a film historian who actually has things to say about the movie, whereas Lisi mostly just agrees with him and marvels at this or that actor when they appear on-screen. As for Russell himself (who passed away in 2011), he's a complete delight, pointing out actors who annoyed him and offering hilariously dry observations here and there. He dips into "narrating the movie" mode sometimes, but it's a good track for the most part (the other one depends on how much you can stand Lisi, who sounds like The Yes Guy from The Simpsons more often than not). Then there are a few interviews with the FX guys, the editor (who tells a great story about how he got Russell to respect his job as editor), and actress Sammi Davis, who plays one of the heroines. It's a shame they couldn't get Donohoe or Capaldi (Grant would obviously turn it down if they even bothered to ask) since they got more "fun" stuff to do in the movie than Davis did, but it's still fun to hear her stories as well.
There are other things that would have flown over my head as a kid but made me laugh or at least smile really hard today (including a Citizen Kane reference that floored me), and during quieter moments in the movie I started wondering how many movies I inadvertently ruined for myself by seeing them too early. I remember my mom taking me to Raising Arizona when it came out, and I still don't know why - what seven-year-old could possibly enjoy that? (I assume she just wanted to see it herself and didn't feel like paying a babysitter for a movie she knew wouldn't have nudity or harsh swearing.) To this day I've never quite gotten the love for that one (to be fair, I am never as endeared by the Coens' comedies as I am their thrillers and dramas), and I can't help but wonder if I might warm to it had I seen it for the first time at the right age. Sure, there's always some fun in seeing something in a new way once you were older (best example: being old enough to get Venkman's "What a crime" line in Ghostbusters), but that works best for movies that merely think of audiences of all ages. Ken Russell didn't intend for kids to see The Lair of the White Worm, I would assume, and I'm glad I seemingly knew better then and waited until I was old enough to maximize my enjoyment.