Death Line review
Death Line, also known as Raw Meat for American audiences, was released in 1972 as director Gary Sherman’s premiere film. Sherman would subsequently go on to direct Dead & Buried and the unfortunate Poltergeist III, but his debut featured a strange storyline about subterranean subway dwellers that was decidedly British and aided by a young Donald Pleasance chewing scenery at every turn. While Death Line is tortured by unnecessarily elongated scenes and endless amounts of dialogue, it also manages to infuse some humanity into its monstrous and diseased antagonist.
The film follows Pleasance as Inspector Calhoun, a grumpy tea-guzzling man who gets roped into investigating a series of disappearances at the Russell Square tube station when Alex (David Ladd) and Patricia (Sharon Gurney) report the death of an OBE member, only to find him missing later on. Calhoun and his partner Rogers (Norman Rossington) eventually uncover an entire subway station left to rot after a cave-in trapped a bunch of people down there; and those people not only lived, they repopulated until a plague wiped most of them out. Only The Man (Hugh Armstrong) is left alive, and he’s hungry for human flesh.
Death Line‘s idea – written by Ceri Jones from an original story by Sherman – is quite simple, and for the most part the film progresses naturally from the initial murder in the tube station to Calhoun’s involvement. Alex and Patricia are reoccurring characters only because they witnessed the events, and while Alex is notably meant to be an exaggerated American character displaced in a London setting, the couple isn’t truly the main focus of the film. Instead, Sherman centers on Pleasance’s character, often surly and offputting despite a sarcastic and wry wit that helps to shape the tone of the film.
Pleasance is the best part of Death Line, and he steals every scene. Even a very small appearance by Christopher Lee as MI5 agent Stratton-Villiers is overshadowed by the Inspector Calhoun character; Sherman gives Pleasance ample room in this over-the-top and comedic role, and he runs with it.
Death Line is lucky to have Pleasance, too, because the majority of the film is overloaded with dialogue and a tediously slow plot delivery. Sherman focuses far too much attention on a lackluster police investigation, one that reveals very little throughout the film. Alex and Patricia are really the ones figuring out most of the case – with Patricia’s eventual kidnapping in the tube the main crux of the climax – but their characters are too underutilized to really generate much suspense. Likewise, Sherman’s attempts to characterize The Man, the trapped tube-dweller, fall short; there’s not much emotional connection besides Armstrong’s grunts and groans after his lover dies, and Death Line simply doesn’t dig deep enough into the motivations of the man. His rape attempt at the end of the film doesn’t exactly heighten the viewer’s sympathies either.
Still, Sherman shows some creative muscle in his directorial debut. There’s an eight-minute unbroken shot of the Man’s lair, which – while interesting from a cinematic standpoint – actually does very little for the plot itself and plays out fair too long. Death Line‘s thematic ideas are a bit stronger; clearly Jones and Sherman want the audience to recognize the inhumanity of the film’s human characters, most notably Alex and the bureaucratic decisions that led to the Man’s imprisonment under London. While it’s a strong attempt, that cultural criticism is lessened because of the film’s slow and meandering plot.
Death Line is an interesting and sometimes visually complex film, but it suffers for its slow pacing despite a solid performance from most of its cast and, more specifically, Donald Pleasance. Interestingly, anyone hoping that Death Line mimics the American Raw Meat poster will be terribly disappointed; the film has almost nothing in common with the promised monsters and nudity. Sherman’s film doesn’t run off the tracks, but its appeal is questionable 45 years later.
Click next for the Blu-Ray review.