Cannibal Navvies on the Tube: Death Line (1972)

Death Line aka Raw Meat (1972) UK Dir: Gary Sheerman
Donald Pleasance, Christopher Lee, Hugh Armstrong

Bleak and low key in the way only a budget horror film made in early 70’s London can be, Death Line is a wonderfully atmospheric little gem released at the fag end of the golden age of British horror that began in 1957 with Hammer Studio’s wonderfully lurid The Curse of Frankenstein, and which gradually petered out sometime in the mid 70’s.

In this depiction of England, swinging London and the summer of love are dead, replaced by smog, cynicism, and generational discord. The oil crisis, recession and punk rock await, and it’s fascinating watching this forty five year old movie and and thinking it now looks as ancient to modern eyes as the black and white Universal horror pictures did to me when I used to watch them as a kid.

Filmed mostly in and around Russell Street tube station, the film’s story centres on several mysterious disappearances that have occurred between that station and Holborn on London’s District line. While indulging in extra curricular activities in the red light district, top ranking civil servant James Manfred OBE(James Cossins) becomes the latest person to disappear. The local plod, led by Inspector Calhoun (a wonderfully terrier like Donald Pleasance) realise the disappearances are linked and begin investigating,aided by a student couple who were the last witnesses to see Manfred alive. It is discovered that the missing commuters have been attacked and eaten by a devolved inbred cannibal who it turns out, is the last surviving descendant of a group of labourers walled in alive after an accidental cave in during excavation work in 1892.

With a limited budget, the film makes the most of its gloomy and claustrophobic locations, and is prevented from going into a cliched madman on the loose tale by the injection of real pathos in Hugh Armstrong’s performance as ‘The Man’. Quite an achievement to evoke audience sympathy for a cannibalistic serial killer with only grunts and moans for dialogue.

Christopher Lee makes a cameo as an officious, passive aggressive intelligence officer, rubbing up against the earthy working class Calhoun (although Lee and Pleasance never share the screen owing to the two actors height differentials).

Already an established star, Pleasance would go on to horror icon status as Dr Sam Loomis in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), a role that Lee turned down and would later regret doing so. Director Sheerman went on to make the early 80’s curio Dead & Buried, which briefly made the BBFC’s banned list during the ‘video nasties’ furore, and the underwhelming Poltergeist III. Death Line remains superior to both, and also functions as a fascinating time capsule of 1970’s London.

Apparently one of director Edgar Wright’s favourites, at the time of writing Death Line is currently available to buy on DVD from Amazon. A worthwhile addition to any horror collection.

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