The fourth book in the Midnight Movie Monographs series to be released was devoted to Gary Sherman's DEATH LINE (1972), known in its 1973 US release under the more aggressive title of RAW MEAT. Made on a compact budget, the script - about the discovery of a pathetic yet monstrous family of subterranean survivors who have, through cannibalism, managed to survive their abandonment after an age-old disaster in the history of the British railway system - managed to attract actors like Donald Pleasence and, making a memorable one-day cameo, Christopher Lee. Thanks to some respectful attention in the fan press, it was immediately recognized as what was then known as a horror "sleeper," one of those films that sometimes arrived without fanfare and awoke people to a promising new voice in fantastic cinema. Choosing this film for his exploration was Sean Hogan, a director/screenwriter/producer best-known for FUTURE SHOCK: THE STORY OF 2000 A.D., LITTLE DEATHS, THE DEVIL'S BUSINESS, and LIE STILL. He's currently adapting Kier-La Janisse's autobiographical film study HOUSE OF PSYCHOTIC WOMEN as a program for television, but he stole some time to answer some questions about his time on DEATH LINE...
Writing an entire book about a single film is a tall commitment. What is it about DEATH LINE/RAW MEAT that got that commitment from you?
At the time, I wasn't entirely sure! I mention in the book that, when Neil Snowdon approached me about writing something for the Midnight Movie Monographs series, he sent over a proposed list of films he was personally keen to see covered (although he made it clear he was open to other suggestions). I checked the list and when I saw DEATH LINE on there, I immediately and totally instinctively decided that would be the film I wrote about, despite the fact that there are other films that spring more readily to mind when I'm asked about my particular genre favourites.
I suppose it was partly the fact that it seemed relatively fresh territory; I knew the film had some high profile fans, but equally it seemed as if it hadn't quite got its proper due critically. And yet, for me, it was a film that seemed to get more and more interesting as I revisited it over the years. I make the point in the book that it feels very much a part of the American New Wave of horror in terms of its concerns and overall approach; that's a period of genre cinema I connect very strongly to, and yet many of those films have already been discussed pretty thoroughly. Not only was this not the case with DEATH LINE, but its very 'Englishness' (whether from an outsider perspective or otherwise) made it something I felt more qualified to explore.
And then of course, there was Donald Pleasence's performance as Inspector Calhoun, which struck me as a landmark role, and unlike anything else I could think of in the genre. What I didn't know at the time was that Calhoun would end up being my way into the book itself...
I suppose I should firstly make it clear exactly what the book is: while there are supplementary sections of more conventional critical commentary and interview, the bulk of it is largely comprised of diary entries from Inspector Calhoun's private journal; that is, written by me in the (distinctive!) voice of the character. These entries span the narrative of the film and beyond; they try and explore DEATH LINE itself, but from the inside, while also taking some of the dangling plot threads and spinning them into a wider narrative that tries to remain faithful to the film's themes of power, exploitation and corruption.
In doing this, I did weave in metafictional aspects and elements from other works that I felt related to DEATH LINE in some way; Harold Pinter's THE CARETAKER was obviously one (partly due to it being another seminal Pleasence role, but also because I felt as though Calhoun was a very Pinterish character, and that quite possibly it was largely Pleasence who was responsible for making him that way). Other works such as FRENZY and THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE crept in there as well. So there is a fair amount of material relating to other films, but those films are seen as part of the landscape Calhoun's story is unfolding against.
There is some discussion of other films as well; as I said above, I do try and look at it within the context of the American New Wave, and certainly there was some slightly rueful conversation between Gary Sherman and I on how DEATH LINE relates to other notable cannibal-themed films of the same period!
Yes, it should be noted that yours is the first book in the series to have been written with the involvement of the film's director. Do you recall your first viewing of the film? Did you know at that time that it was going to be important to you?
I do, but it was on late night television as a kid, so certainly I had very little idea then that it was going to end up being important to me. Doubtless the political/satirical aspects were probably lost on me at a young age, as well as the finer points of Pleasence's performance, but I do remember being struck by the fact that the so-called monster was a sympathetic, even tragic figure. As I said, it was a film that grew for me over the years; it was probably quite some time before I saw it again after that childhood viewing, and I do remember finally watching it when of an age to properly appreciate what it and Pleasence were doing; it was something of a revelation to say the least. I definitely recall being wowed by the extended take around the Man's lair, which struck me as displaying a level of directorial craft you don't often find in genre B-movies of the period.
Is there something about yourself, personally, that you feel made DEATH LINE a particularly meaningful picture?
I'm not sure. I suppose that, as I returned to it over the years, I found more and more in it that chimed with my own developing ideas of how I wanted to approach horror; the attention to character, the political subtext, the willingness to avoid a simple black-and-white, Good vs Evil perspective. So it was definitely something that grew with me. Weirdly, I never felt as though I wanted to make particularly 'English' films, but the ones I've directed seem to have turned out that way regardless (certainly that's how people seemed to view them), so possibly the fact that DEATH LINE utilises the same approach as a lot of the US New Wave films, but does so within an English context, makes it resonate more with me.
In addition to writing non-fiction, you are also an original creator - you write and direct your own material. Aside from the fact that you have taken a novelistic approach to writing this book, in some ways, is there a place where DEATH LINE and your own creative work meet - a place where we might recognize shared concerns or perhaps an influence?
To some extent, yes - the episode I made for the portmanteau film LITTLE DEATHS is pretty explicitly about the same thing: the forgotten/ignored underclass rising up to devour the oppressive ruling class. I seem to remember remarking in an interview at the time that DEATH LINE probably had something to do with that. And there are certainly other scripts I'm currently trying to make that attempt to use the genre for sociopolitical ends in much the same way that Gary Sherman did.
This question also made me think about the book as part of a continuing line in my own work, and I realised that in looking at Calhoun through the lens of Pleasence's role in THE CARETAKER, I was yet again roping Pinter into my own stuff. The last film I directed, THE DEVIL'S BUSINESS, is basically a horror cover version of THE DUMB WAITER, and I cast Susan Engel, who appeared in the first ever production of Pinter's first play THE ROOM, in my first film LIE STILL. So his work has also always been a strong influence. Not that this has anything to do with DEATH LINE per se, but the Pinteresque elements I find in it are obviously one reason why I respond to it so strongly!
Clearly, in adapting Calhoun as a character or narrator, you are giving voice to a personal attachment to his character, and the film itself by extension - but do you also discuss the film in your own autobiographical terms? When I was writing my own book for the series, this was something Neil Snowdon urged me to do.
I don't really think so, not as I understand it. I don't think I would or could ever write something like Kier-La Janisse's HOUSE OF PSYCHOTIC WOMEN, which I admire a lot (and actually adapted into a TV pilot screenplay), but which seems to take autobiographical criticism about as far as it can go. All I can say is that, because I chose to come at the film from the inside, and tried to extend some of the themes and issues it addresses in my own particular metafictional fashion, there is undoubtedly a certain sense of pessimism and political anger that I share with DEATH LINE, and which does make the book a very personal work, if not traditionally autobiographical.
Over the years, has the film been properly appreciated, in your opinion?
On the whole I'd say no, although that may now be starting to change somewhat, especially after the release of the remastered Blu-ray. My feeling is that it was a film slightly out of time and place; it has much more in common with the US films of the period than those being made in the UK, but was never given its due as a New Wave genre film because of being set in England, and being so thoroughly English to boot - I can't imagine what US audiences would have made of the character of Calhoun. (The hamfisted RAW MEAT edit can't have done the film's US reputation any good either.) Similarly, it feels more downbeat, more political and more graphically violent than most of what was being produced in the UK at the time (Michael Reeves' work being an obvious exception). So I feel as though it fell between two stools somewhat and was not properly recognised for years. I think it probably did develop a cult reputation in the UK after a while (there were a number of lesser-known horror films that a lot of people from my generation can excitedly remember stumbling across on late night television), but certainly up until quite recently it was still a film I could recommend to a lot of people that they weren't at all previously aware of.
When DEATH LINE came out here in the States as RAW MEAT, I remember CINEFANTASTIQUE gave it a rave review, which put it on my radar early on. In those days when someone new came along affiliated with a terrific horror film, we fans took their names to heart and expected great things from them - people like David Cronenberg, Jeff Lieberman, and even Oliver Stone. While the director of this film, Gary Sherman, has continued to work within the horror and fantasy genres, he hasn’t acquired the reputation of being an auteur, though he has actually generated a lot of his own work as a writer. Do you see him as an auteur? Does DEATH LINE share concerns expressed in his other work?
From what I understand, it seems to be one of those familiar cases where an independent filmmaker struggles to maintain their voice once they begin working within the system. I didn't really discuss his other films with Gary, but I know a lot of what he wanted DEAD & BURIED to be was removed by the studio - the balance of black comedy and horror he achieved in DEATH LINE was very distinctive, but I think they balked at him trying to do the same thing there (just as Sam Arkoff did when he cut DEATH LINE down into RAW MEAT). I do think you can see him in VICE SQUAD - the same leftist sympathy he shows for the exploited Man in DEATH LINE is extended to the women working on the street in that film. And obviously POLTERGEIST 3 was just an unworkable situation on so many levels.
Yes. VICE SQUAD is pretty terrific.
I guess for me, he never quite achieved the heights of DEATH LINE again - it was one of those lightning in a bottle moments, but circumstances meant it could never entirely be repeated, although there's plenty to admire in some of the other films. From speaking to Gary, I know how strongly he feels about a lot of political matters, which does seem to me to translate into much of the work. Many of the other horror directors of his generation that are usually recognised as auteurs have plenty of work that seems fairly impersonal - compare THE DARK HALF to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, or INVADERS FROM MARS to THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE - so I think someone who makes a film as identifiably, eccentrically personal as DEATH LINE does deserve the same consideration, even if he couldn't always preserve that voice on larger productions.
Are there any ways in which you think your regard for the film has been affected by the adventure of writing about it at length?
Really, it just made me appreciate it all the more. I had to postpone the writing of the book for a year because of some difficult personal circumstances, and I spent a lot of time that year wondering exactly what I was eventually going to write and if I even still wanted to write it. When I finally hit upon the approach I wanted to take, I knew that I would have to not so much analyse the film as inhabit it. And while Inspector Calhoun might not exactly be the most savoury role to inhabit, writing in that voice was hugely enjoyable. It just felt very freeing, and inspiring, and exactly what I needed to do after everything that had happened, and so I have to give credit to the character that Gary and Donald Pleasance and Ceri Jones created, because it all started with them. It also made me consider the film as a whole from different perspectives, to understand new things about it, to realise what had worked as intended and what perhaps was not quite intended but still ended up working, and ultimately just to appreciate what a remarkable film it is. Which I suppose brings us full circle to your first question - I didn't quite know why I wanted to write about it when I first took the commission, but in writing the book I certainly found out.
DEATH LINE by Sean Hogan can be found for sale here.
(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.