Going Underground: ‘Death Line’ (1972) on Blu-Ray reviewed

❉ Pure entertainment at its morbidly violent best, with a style and sense of place that no other British horror film since then has managed to capture. Mind the doors…

“Donald Pleasence gives a cheeky tour de force of a performance as the working-class detective giving cheek to absolutely everybody who crosses his path, be they concerned witnesses, fellow police or sinister figures from the corridors of power ; “MI5 my arse! This is my manor!””

Physical media may be on the decline but for genre fans the Blu-ray format has been an embarrassment of riches. Classics, cult favourites and unearthed rarities pop up now on a near weekly basis in lovingly restored and extra packed editions introducing and re-introducing a vast swathe of films to audiences both old and new. One drawback, and this is a small one, is that digital re-mastering may present the film in a shiny and clean manner but this hi-def scrubbing often reveals aspects and details, particularly in horror and science fiction, of the make-up and special effects. A low-def television broadcast would often fuzz up the gore and blood causing the viewers stomach to turn, whereas Blu-ray often exposes the glue behind the false eyebrows or the exact shade of red paint used for the spilled blood rendering the effect exposed in all its trickery.

Death Line arrives on these shores in the shiny format beautifully remastered. At first it feels strange to see the film in a non-late-night BBC weekend screening in the nineteen eighties or nineties. Back then the analogue nature of TV broadcasting served the film well, presenting the grimy London atmosphere in all its smoggy, bloody glory as cannibalism reared its hungry head on the Underground. The smoggy, dusty aspect of the film has been digitally vanquished here now showing the film in a chillier light; no wonder Donald Pleasence’s Detective Calhoun is always blowing his nose in that massive hanky. The blood and guts strewn across the screen have also never looked better, disturbing and provoking a more visceral reaction in myself than I have ever experienced in watching this film through the years.

Gary Sherman made a fantastic debut here, not only directing but writing also. Relocating from the U.S. his outsiders eye frames London with its underground system and near antiquated police stations, just look at the roaring fireplace in Calhoun’s office, with a significant amount of style and sense of place that no other British horror film since then had managed to capture. (The film would also prove to be an influence on his fellow countryman John Landis when making An American Werewolf in London, admitting the influence on that film’s own subway section.) The introduction of “The Man” and his squalid home in a caved in section of the London Underground is a bravura piece of direction, the camera starting in close up on a dismembered bloody arm then zooming out taking in the missing, sleazy Minister of Defence James Manford and then revolves around his surroundings and situation. It is a shot that takes its time and, in that time, reveals a considerable amount of information and story not just of Manford’s plight but also that of the cannibalistic stalker The Man.

The Man, played by the late Hugh Armstrong, is one of horror cinemas most interesting and sympathetic monsters. I hesitate to call him a villain, he is more a generational victim of horrible circumstance. The lone descendant of rail workers who managed to survive since a cave in tunnelling the line in the nineteenth century, The Man is a sad, grunting figure near deformed by the amount of open weeping sores across his face, again the make-up still greatly impresses but this would all be for naught if it were not for the performance of Armstrong.

In a part that was originally offered to Marlon Brando, who pulled out due to his son’s illness at the time, Armstrong delivers one of the genre’s greatest performances; his one repeated line of dialogue “Mind the doors” repeated with a variety of tones and intonations in his desperate attempt to communicate with the outside world when he tries to make a connection in the only way he knows how is heart breaking and provides a haunting echo of hungry terror at the film’s climax.

Trying to figure out all the missing MP underground shenanigans is Donald Pleasence as Calhoun. Pleasence gives a cheeky tour de force of a performance as the working-class detective always stirring his tea with a dart and giving cheek to absolutely everybody who crosses his path, be they concerned witnesses, fellow police or sinister figures from the corridors of power who have their own interest in the missing person case; “MI5 my arse! This is my manor!” His delivery, sometimes droll, sometimes sarcastic, often both at the same time, was a harbinger of the tough talking no nonsense coppers that would come to dominate British screens in the likes of The Sweeney and The Professionals and continues to echo down through the years to this day. His small owlish frame manages to dominate the screen and leaves the viewer wanting more, particularly in further exploring his antagonistic relationship with Christopher Lee’s MI5 agent Villiers. Lee’s cameo role, a perfectly executed exercise in polite camp veiled with a sense of aloof intimidation also leaves the viewer wanting to see more of this immediately intriguing character and his relationship to Calhoun, his polar opposite not only in manner but size as well.

The film’s one weak spot is in the characters of students Alex, David Ladd, and his girlfriend Patricia, Sharon Gurney (Crucible Of Horror). They kick off the investigation strand of the plot but the script keeps finding ways to bring them back onscreen just to provide a damsel in distress angle for the film’s final act. The two characters suffer in comparison to every other character in the film with their bland backstory and relationship to each other, carrying none of the spark, energy or raw emotion of either Pleasence or Armstrong.

Everything else however is pure entertainment at its morbidly violent best. The film has never looked better and if you have yet to see it, and are interested in the genre then get on board. Just remember to MIND THE DOORS! MIND THE DOORS! MIND THE DOORS?

Special Features

  • Mind the Doors!: A one-off interview with the incredibly friendly Hugh Armstrong, who provides insights into his life and acting career, including his portrayal of ‘The Man’ in Death Line.
  • Limited edition, collectable booklet written by Laura Mayne
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Image Gallery
  • PDF Material

❉ Network presents ‘Death Line’, restored and remastered on Blu-ray 27th August. RRP £14.99.  Pre-order on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2P06NZs

❉ Iain MacLeod was raised on the North coast of Scotland on a steady diet of 2000AD and Moviedrome. Now living in Glasgow as a struggling screenwriter he still buys too many comics and blu-rays. Has never seen a ghost but heard two talking in his bedroom when he was 4.

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