When a prominent politician disappears overnight in a London subway station, Scotland Yard’s inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasance) starts his investigation with questioning eyewitness couple Alex (David Ladd) and Patricia (Sharon Gurney). With more mutilated bodies popping up, they soon realize that the answer they’re looking for lies deep underneath the streets of London.
Estimating a film at its true value has all to do with when you see it and how many (preferably similarly themed) films you have seen up until that point of evaluation. I first saw this film (possibly the cut version, bearing the original ‘Death Line’ title, as shown on cable by the BBC) in my very early teens, and all I remembered of it for a long time was that it was foul, dark, gritty and… rather slow. But it did leave an impression that stayed with me all these years. Couldn’t even pinpoint it, really, up until I finally rewatched the film in 2008 (the ‘Raw Meat’ titled version, as released on DVD in the USA). Afterwards, I could still say that it’s those four things. Additionally, I could also state that it really is a well-accomplished, genuine ’70s shocker. With Offscreen Film Festival including the film in this year’s program, I decided a revisit was due and the short conclusion would be that my favorable opinion still stands. ‘Raw Meat’ deserved a wider recognition, and over the last 10 years or so, it has gotten it. Thanks to a DVD release, online exposure and now even a theatrical screening in Brussels as part of Offscreen’s ‘British Cult Cinema‘ module.
The first thing to point out, is how I prefer the ‘Death Line’ title over ‘Raw Meat’. It’s cooler, for one thing. But if you take the seedy jazz score that opens the film, then suddenly slap the ‘Raw Meat’ title on a blurry shot and proceed to show a sequence where a stiff British upper class lad is visiting peep shows and looking at nude girls on posters… I mean, one might get a very wrong impression of the kind of film you’re about to watch. So make no mistake, this is a horror film. Not even a sleazy one. It just gets a bit shocking every now and then.
For those days ‘Death Line’ was a pretty damn good, tight little shocker. And as a vintage effort, it still stands as such to this very day. We’ve got a straightforward story with no nonsense to it, a capable cast and a good ending that proves sometimes a film doesn’t even need a drum-rolling climax to end it on the right note. And the most surprising thing is that the screenplay has a few moments where it takes the time to learn us a bit about the psychology and emotions of our cannibalistic brute (yes, the culprit is a cannibalistic human underground dweller). It tricks you into feeling sorry for him, but witnessing his brutal acts conflicts severely with this emotion. A nice touch, that didn’t even take up that much of the movie’s running time. And the screenplay doesn’t even forget that it did that (making you feel something for the villain), as near the end Sharon Gurney‘s character says one little thing that reminds you of all this. She understood it too.
Speaking of Ms. Gurney: she has a nice screen presence. Whatever happened to her? As an actress, you cannot fail to notice that she’s got what it takes. And then she stopped acting in 1974? Did the cannibal get her after all? Nevermind. About the cannibal: yes, there’s only one. Well, sort of. Back in the days, ‘Raw Meat’ got a bit falsely advertised, so it seems. Both the initial poster art and trailer make it out as if there is a tribe of cannibals living underground. Sure, at one point there must have been an inbreeding family of maniac meat munchers living underneath those abandoned metro lines, but the film only introduces us to the last of their descendants, at the point where the rest of them have died, ridden with diseases. Driving the last survivor out of his lair not only in search for food, but for a new mate as well.
The film nevertheless delivers more than enough on foul cannibalistically flavored scenery. Don’t expect a splatter fest, but ‘Death Line’ does show us some things which, for instance, ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (1974) never really did (the first long, slowly swooping camera movement we get through the cannibal’s lair creepingly shows us some utmost grizzly, juicy set pieces right away). The gory make-up effects, sparsely sprinkled throughout the film, were pretty well handled for that time and even one jump-scare still gets me every time. But the real star of the show, is the legendary Donald Pleasance. He plays the tea-devouring inspector Calhoun, investigating the many disappearances and annoying pretty much everybody in the area. He’s straight-forward, sarcastic, obnoxiously funny and the way he delivers his lines should have you chuckling throughout the film. Christopher Lee has a fun cameo as a Military intelligence agent and Pleasance just seems to love pulling his leg in that scene. Still, this isn’t a comedy.
Also of note here, is director/writer Gary Sherman. After capably directing ‘Raw Meat’, it got a little quite surrounding him. But the ’80s saw his return as a director, helming notable genre efforts like the chilling Dan O’Bannon scripted ‘Dead & Burried’ (1981), the Wings Hauser crazy fest ‘Vice Squad’ (1982) and the über-cool Rutger Hauer actioner ‘Wanted: Dead Or Alive’ (1986). Not bad, Mr. Sherman. Not bad at all. Allegedly, Guillermo del Toro once got the idea to remake this film. Clearly that never happened. But fans of Christopher Smith‘s ‘Creep’ (2004) should really go ahead and check out ‘Raw Meat’ to see what Smith‘s film could have looked like when it would have been made 30 years earlier.
Trailer on YouTube.