I strongly suspect that Ken Russell may have occasionally dabbled in a few hallucinogenic substances in his youth. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some very creative people throughout history have used chemical enhancement to improve their craft. I say this about Ken Russell in particular though because I recently sat down and watched his 1988 film THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM.
Russel adapted a Bram Stoker story about a cult and its worship of a pagan snake god, and set it in modern day Scotland. Not wasting any time, the film opens with student archeologist Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi) discovering a strange animal skull along with a mosaic from an old Roman outpost and convent, all buried in the backyard of a bed & breakfast/farm run by two sisters, Mary & Eve Trent (Sammi Davis & Catherine Oxenberg respectively). Clumsy dialogue quickly establishes that they are running the B&B on the farm because their parents disappeared a year before while walking home from the pub. The only clue, their father’s pocket watch, was recently found in the nearby Stonerig Canyon, the legendary home of the region’s mythical monster, the D’Ampton Worm. The word “worm” isn’t used literally here; it comes from the old Germanic term for a snake or dragon.
Conveniently enough, the local land owner, Lord James D’Ampton (Hugh Grant in one of his early roles) holds a fall party that Angus attends with the sisters. The legend of the D’Ampton worm is played out in a musical number by a local Celtic rock band, complete with a large costume worm that Lord D’Ampton must slay in commemoration of his ancestor John D’Ampton’s defeat of the creature centuries before.
While all the celebrating is going on, Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe) moves into the mansion next door (aptly named Temple House). There is little pretence with her character as it is quickly revealed that she is a hybrid snake/vampire and worshipper of the ancient snake god Dionin. She learns of Angus’s discovery because it means she can now resurrect Dionin, the same creature slain by John D’Ampton centuries before.
Did I mention that I believe Ken Russell is on drugs? Well with the ground work for the story laid out, Russell weaves his strange tale, filled with flashbacks and past life regression that reveal Roman snake worshipping centurions raping and killing nuns in the convent, a large white snake puppet chewing on Jesus on the cross, and odd dream sequences that involve Donohoe and Davis cat fighting over giving Hugh Grant a drink on an airplane. There’s snake charming, poison sucking, ritual killings, and you learn the origin of the game chutes and ladders – hint: the film is about a snake cult after all.
Despite the poor dialogue and somewhat wooden acting by Davis and Oxenberg, THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM is still an entertaining film. Hugh Grant is fun to watch in his role as a pompous “noble” who has to fill his ancestor’s monster slaying shoes while uttering lines of dialogue like “Let me know if you find any chastity belts, the maids are constantly getting pregnant.” Donohoe’s performance is also worth noting as she plays her seductive femme fatale snake priestess role both skillfully and remarkably unclothed for most of the film. Donohoe even rises out of an oversized snake charmer’s basket at one point, writhing in a convincingly snake like fashion.
Russell’s story is not for everyone as some of the flashbacks are brutal, disturbing, and possibly religiously offensive as they show Dionin and his followers trying to exert their supposed superiority over the “Christian God”. However, if you can get past that, the film is clever and it has enough twists and surprises to keep it interesting. So if you’re in the mood to see what an acid trip in a snake farm might be like, check out Ken Russell’s LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM, be warned though, the film you may forget, but you’ll be humming that damn D’Ampton worm song for weeks after you see the film.