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5 reasons to watch the bizarro bastard cousin of Dracula on Halloween

Contributed by
Oct 26, 2017

In this era of a perpetual holiday season, Halloween is no longer confined to October 31. It's a month-long affair now, so adherents of the spooky season start celebrating early by plotting out which scary flicks they'll watch during the lead-up to the big day itself.

It can be hard to keep things fresh year after year, though, even with a seemingly endless influx of horror flicks on streaming and On Demand services. Just how many zombies, creepy clowns and ghosts can you handle? And if you're tired of werewolves, reanimated science experiments, masked slashers and vampires, where can you turn next? Luckily, there's a hidden horror gem lurking out there that will quench a willing audience's thirst for something bizarre, scary, disturbing – and laugh-out-loud funny.

The Lair of the White Worm, a 1988 British horror-comedy from provocateur filmmaker Ken Russell, turns an over-the-top novel from Dracula author Bram Stoker into a contemporary psychosexual freak-out stuffed with ravenous serpents, lascivious noblewomen and damp, grey English country settings. A young archaeologist (Peter Capaldi; yes, that Peter Capaldi), digging in the yard of the young Trent sisters (Catherine Oxenberg and Sammi Davis) discovers the ancient skull of what appears to be a giant snake dating back to the era of Roman occupation in Britain. This seizes the attention of local blueblood Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), who may or may not be an immortal steward of the giant beast of the title. Also factoring into the plot is the young Lord James D'Ampton (Hugh Grant, just a few years before finding fame with Four Weddings and a Funeral), whose ancestor is reputed to have killed a large serpent centuries ago.

The setup is simple enough, but freaky things await. This isn't a stuffy, stiff-upper-lip examination of English class structures and national identity. Rather, it's more like an insane blend of Hammer's horror heyday and director Russell's eccentric, erotic tastes. "Ken was one of the most delightfully strange artists I’ve worked with," Donohoe said in a 2015 interview. "And you know, his body of work, is still more interesting, provocative and challenging than 90 percent of the movies made in the last three decades.

Here are five reasons why The Lair of the White Worm deserves to be a Halloween horror classic:

1. Dracula's Weirder Cousin

The film version of The Lair of the White Worm is crazy by any standard, but it needed some nutty source material to begin with. Like Shirley Jackson and H.P. Lovecraft, Bram Stoker is a writer immediately recognizable as a titan of horror. Yet Stoker didn't always produce critically lauded work, and his final novel, The Lair of the White Worm, published in 1911, the year before he died, inspired mixed reactions among the literati.

According to David J. Skal's 2016 biography of Stoker, Something in the Blood, the upper-crust Times Literary Supplement razzed the novel with gusto. "In attempting to exceed the supernatural horrors of Dracula, Mr. Stoker has in his latest book degenerated into something very like nonsense," Skal quotes the Times review as saying. Indeed, White Worm is a much weirder book than Dracula. Set in 1860, the plot focuses on a conflict in the English countryside involving a spooky noblewoman named Lady Arabella March who has a violent aversion to mongooses and houses a massive white serpent on her property. The novel is loaded with strange, overtly sexual imagery, and its gooey, explosive climax is enough to make Stephen King jealous.

2. Amanda Donohoe

When you browse for the movie on Amazon or On Demand services, it's the youthful visage of Hugh Grant that's used to sell the movie. And while Grant and Capaldi are the male leads, and ultimately the most famous actors to come out of The Lair of the White Worm, Amanda Donohoe walks ... or slithers ... away with the movie thanks to a turn that's scary, sexy and hilarious in equal measures.

The English actress went on to a variety of starring roles on stage and screen, including a Golden Globe award-winning performance on U.S. TV hit L.A. Law and a memorable supporting role in Jim Carrey romp Liar Liar, but the nefarious Lady Marsh in The Lair of the White Worm remains her signature role. Whether she's clad in tight leather or lingerie, slaying in countryside couture, or painted blue and sporting venomous snake fangs, Donohoe's presence gives the film its bite.

3. Something for Whovians

If you didn't know Peter Capaldi was in The Lair of the White Worm, you might not recognize him right away. The Scotsman plays Angus Flint, an archaeology student who makes the strange discovery which sets the plot in motion. While fans are used to the hilariously foul-mouthed government operative Capaldi played in The Thick of It and In the Loop, or, more recently, as a tough and fierce incarnation of the world's favorite Time Lord on Doctor Who, in this film he sports a mop of curly hair and a pair of glasses which mark him as a potential dupe or victim of Lady Sylvia's seductions.

Yet he turns out to be one of the most resourceful and heroic characters. He mainly plays straight man to Grant's wry Lord D'Ampton, but Capaldi has his moments, hinting at the rich acting future in front of him.

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Credit: Lionsgate

4. Deadly Funny

Lair of the White Worm would be effective if it were merely a straight-up horror film, but its mordant humor in the face of ancient, gnarly terrors is what makes it a cult classic. There's a moment where a young scout honking on his harmonica compels Donohoe's Lady Sylvia to matter-of-factly break into a slinky snake dance. Later, the future Doctor Who gets what may be the signature scene in the movie: an absurd amble through Lady Sylvia's estate in which Capaldi dons a kilt and plays the bagpipes to hypnotize the snakes and serpent people lurking on the grounds. As the suspense grows, so do the laughs.

5. Tripping on Horror

Director Ken Russell, who died at 84 in 2011, spent much of his filmmaking career provoking critics and audiences with gonzo, sex-charged and psychedelic movies rife with phantasmagoric imagery. Whether offending nearly everyone with his controversial, X-rated 1971 Catholic sex nightmare The Devils or indelibly warping the Who's rock opera Tommy with his 1975 film version, Russell scarred cinema history with his unhinged, horrific and demonically funny movies. The Lair of the White Worm is no exception, as Russell takes Stoker's weirdo final novel and infuses it with his fetishistic obsession with profane Catholic imagery and nightmarish sex. We would describe some of the gleefully wacked-out stuff that awaits you, but we're afraid that would spoil the surprise — and potentially violate some standards and practices.