The decline and fall of Ken Russell would make a film in itself; once the enfant terrible of British cinema, he ended up making films in his nursing home. The Lair of the White Worm is a very strange late entry from the end of his peak; the 80’s saw him venture across the pond of the excellent Altered States and the oddball Crimes of Passion; returning to Blighty saw him head back to the literary path with Frankenstein creation story Gothic and this adaptation of Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm. Both film have enough baroque imagery to qualify as horror films, although the sight of Peter Capaldi pacifying the giant worm with his bagpipes is likely to create sleepless nights with mirth. Capaldi’s Angus Flint is one of a ground of excavators who come across a giant skull on an archaeological dig; could the mysterious Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), who seduces boy scouts in her spare time, know anything about the giant worm it suggests? And does Lord James D’Ampton (Hugh Grant) realise that his family have a history of slaying giant beasts? Russell’s use of chroma-key effects to create weird hallucinogenic montages of Bacchanalian tableau is hit or miss, but the cast all seem game for a ludicrous adventure that’s part Dr Who, part Nigel Kneale, and mainly Ken Russell, having fun with the production design by finding worms, snakes and all kinds of visual motifs for his story. The Lair of the White Worm was less than popular on release, but it’s gained a deserved cult following; the star names involved should draw a crowd to streaming services, and even if they don’t want to remember this film, it’s use of classic British mythology gives it a unique, decadent tone.
Francis Ford Coppola scored a significant hit with his baroque version of Bram Stoker’s classic vampire tale, helped by a wonderfully over-the-top performance by Gary Oldman. Whether under an immense powdered wig or strutting around England in a top hat and shades, Oldman exudes menace while providing plenty of off-beat comedy. While the rest of the cast are somewhat mismatched in acting styles; Keanu Reeves is a stiff Jonathan Harker and his British accent has been the subject of much merriment, as has Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing. But Coppola pulls together a rich and sumptuous production design, from the shadow-play opening to the various silent movie in-camera tricks to capture the supernatural action. Winona Ryder looks great as Mina, and the romantic link between her and The Count is cleverly set up in a prologue that establishes their thwarted history. It’s more Coppola than Stoker, but with the likes of Tom Waits and Monica Bellucci in support, the result is consistently exciting to watch.