The Lair of the White Worm was Bram Stoker’s final novel, a relatively unfinished piece of literature from the mastermind behind Dracula. Because of its late release and a strange abridgment, it is also often known as Bram Stoker’s worst works. So it stands to reason that Ken Russell, director of esteemed films like Tommy and The Devils, would decide that it’s the perfect book for an adaptation. In a way that’s a joke, but it’s also a testament to Russell’s penchant for oddity, especially in the trance-like scenes in this film about a pagan snake-god named Dionin who, after years trapped under a rock slide, has resurfaced thanks to an ancient worshiper bent on sacrificing a new virgin to her master.
Russell’s screenplay uses a lot of the same setup as Stoker’s novel, but he branches out in a different overall direction for this film adaptation. Scottish archaeologist Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi) unearths a large skull from the bedrock beneath an Irish homestead, largely related to the D’Ampton Worm mythology of the area; he pairs up with Irishman Lord James D’Ampton (Hugh Grant) to investigate disappearances in the vicinity of mysterious Lady Sylvia Marsh’s (Amanda Donohoe) residence, eventually uncovering Sylvia’s snake vampirism and cult devotion to raising the D’Ampton Worm from its slumber.
The Lair of the White Worm is undoubtedly cheesy, and it uses a lot of the same contextual techniques as Tales from the Crypt often employed in its neo-noir horror episodes. Russell relies on the exaggerated sultriness of Sylvia, with Donohoe chewing up every scene thanks to musical cues and an overall devotion to the hammy nature of the character. It also infuses comedy and lighthearted tones into an overall darker plot about Catholicism versus paganism, never truly fitting into a horror mindset.
Instead, Russell stuffs in a lot of strange sequences, including an Irish punk dance-along, multiple hazy dream sequences, and nun rape akin to his work on The Devils. None of this is what one would consider Stoker-influenced, but at the same time it’s probably the best adaptation of The Lair of the White Worm that one could expect: playing up the inherently goofy nature of a giant snake-worm living underneath an Irish village, the film succeeds in crafting a fun romp out of a lot of disparate ideas.
While Donohoe certainly leads the film with her rampant sexuality and iconic blue body paint, Grant is no slouch either. At first promoting a fairly snobbish demeanor, the film explores his change to a more tolerant, auspicious person. Russell even works in a subtext about Irish and Scottish relations, ultimately resulting in Flint and D’Ampton’s unlikely friendship during the conclusion.
While most won’t find The Lair of the White Worm a particularly memorable experience, horror fans and cult film lovers will quickly see the appeal: this is truly a fun and intentionally campy movie, with all of the offerings of a good EC Comics story combined with over-the-top effects and Donohoe’s dedication to sexy exaggeration. The snake vampirism does add a few scares as well, particularly with some good editing work during a tense dark scene between Mary (Sammi Davis) and her mother; though I wouldn’t characterize the special effects as particularly good (and in fact they can be rather sloppy when it comes to continuity), the human snake makeup is effective. The Lair of the White Worm is worth a look, if only to see the source of Hugh Grant’s cinematic embarrassment.