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.
Ken Russell’s name remains a byword for excess, and few who see The Devils, Tommy or Crimes of Passion are likely to argue. But his desire to shock audiences was only part of his repertoire, and the skills he developed as a film-maker for the BBC’s Omnibus documentary series are exemplified by this untypically retrained biopic of composer Gustav Mahler. Played in stern fashion by Robert Powell, Mahler’s life is explored in flashback structure, with emphasis on religion and family. There’s also a strong pictorial sense of landscape; Russell often complained about the lack of countryside in British films, with the Lake District making a picturesque background. Sure, there’s an Oliver Reed cameo and an anachronistic dream sequence featuring Nazis, but Russell keeps the bit between his teeth and delivers an austere, dignified picture of musical genius that, shorn of any of the sensationalism Russell was regularly criticised for, almost no-one saw in 1975.
The ash-clouded summer that Mary Shelley spent at Lake Geneva has been the subject of several films; Ken Russell’s 1986 phantasmagoria is probably the least authentic, but arguably the most imaginative. The late Natasha Richardson is Mary to Julian Sands’ Shelley, with Gabriel Bryne as a cane-toting Lord Byron and Timothy Spall dealing out the laudanum as the wayward Dr Polidori. Russell clearly enjoys having some potent hallucinatory imagery to get his teeth into, and Gothic features demonic imps and nipples that morph into eyes amongst the smorgasbord of strangeness. Russell doesn’t shy away from the sexual aspect either; it’s a wonder any literature was produced at all by these eccentric, hedonistic characters. Dexter Fletcher also features.
A third outing for Michael Caine’s supermarket-shopping spy Harry Palmer, Ken Russell’s 1967 thriller takes him away from the kitchen sink dramas of The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin and moves the action to a Bond-level extravagance. John McGrath adapts from Len Deighton’s book, and Russell brings his customary imagination to what is, for him, a fairly conventional narrative. Billion Dollar Brain’s notions of ‘super-computers’ are deliciously retro, and seeing Harry Palmer well out of his depth has a certain charm, as do the muscular images of General Midwinter (Ed Begley) commanding his army of trucks as they drive across the ice-floes in a neat reference to Eisenstein.
The absorbing questioning of television, media and business ethics in Paddy Chayefsky’s acerbic Network provide little hint of the mind-blowing antics of his follow up, Altered States, directed in his US debut by Ken Russell. William Hurt stars as the scientist using a sensory depravation tank and some prime peyote to experiment in regression. That he unleashes a monster is no surprise, but Russell’s film is much more cerebral that the lurid visuals suggest, zooming in with relish on a hallucination of a nine-eyed goat. There’s down to earth support from Charles Haid (Renko in Hill Street Blues) and the always entertaining presence of Bob Balaban, but Hurt fills out his lead character with convincing zeal and doubt, anchoring the film’s serious intent. Any films that sets up the question of discovering a final truth, and then answering it, risks derision, but Altered States stimulates both the mind and the intellect, although not always at the same time.
Ken Russell’s notorious film was cut, denounced and ridiculed on release, but has gained considerably in reputation despite being seen in butchered cuts. In hindsight, and without listing the catalogue of scenes deemed offensive at the time, it’s a serious minded adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon and John Whiting’s play The Devils with Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave on top form as the priest and the nun set against each other by an inquisition into the behaviour of nuns in 17th century nuns. Seen with the missing Rape of Christ sequence restored, and you may have to cobble this edit together yourself, it’s a moving depiction of the corrupt nature of power, one that the film applies rigorously to Catholicism, but which has a wider and more potent meaning if audiences can see beyond the sensationalism. The Derek Jarman sets in themselves are extraordinary.