Death Line 1973
Deathline is a true classic, the kind of film that stays with you long after the final credits have rolled, and an entertaining 90 minutes, too. What more could you want from a movie? It's very true that there are few others on this website that fill all those criteria, although a number come close.
Deathline's success is due to a number of factors, not least of which is Donald Pleasance's truly unique performance. The man towers like a collossus above the proceedings, by turns likeable, nasty and bizarre. His Inspector Calhoun is a true one-off, and it's a shame we never saw him again. In the pantheon of crusty old policemen (see just about every other contemporary Brit horror for more details) he is the master.
Deathline is also very violent (the spade in the head segment), extremely nasty (just about any scene featuring "the man"), funny (take another bow, Mr Pleasance), frightening, touching and off-the-wall (the two minute pointless inclusion of Christopher Lee for no good reason other than he was around that day). There's even some spectacular camerawork on display (take a trip with the special effects men as they seamlessly move from the underground charnel house to the bustling Underground station above).
The film starts with some truly bonkers funky music accompanying a bowler hatted pervert's tour of the fleshpots of Soho. He makes his way down to Russell Square tube station, where he immediately gets kicked in the knackers by a non-too-receptive lady. Just when he thinks things can't get any worse, he gets approached by something else...
The first words we hear are "mind the doors", a phrase which is going to echo through the rest of the film, with devastating results.
The perv (who turns out to be James Manfred OBE) is found collapsed on the stairs by swinging young couple Alex and Trisha, but while they go to get help, he disappears.
Enter Inspector Calhoun, who immediately unleashes a barrage of pithy comments at anyone who happens to be within range.
On the state of his cuppa: "Tea bags?! And I've been blaming the Indians..."
On James Manfred OBE: "He's some big shit... shot at the Ministry of Defence."
On another disappearance: "Grocer from Kilburn... look him up." / "Missing persons?" / "No - Who's Who. Twit."
Just to keep the plot moving on, we then get a totally spurious history lesson on Russell Square tube station by Clive "Keeping Up Appearances" Swift, who explains that in 1892 a tunnel collapsed, sealing off a group of workers who were never dug out due to budgetary constraints. This revelation is followed by the famous tracking shot, when, accompanied by the sound of dripping water and heartbeats, we move through a charnel house, past a dodgy-looking man grieving over a dying woman, and backwards along a corridor, the drips turning into the sound of phantom workers, which are cut short by the sound of the roof collapsing. There's silence as the camera comes to rest on the rubble created by the collapse, and then moves on, upwards towards the tube station. Truly brilliant.
But before we have time to give a loud cheer, we're back with the grieving man (long hair and beard, terrible skin problem, known only in the credits as "The Man"), who slices open James Manfred OBE's throat to get some blood to feed the dying woman (yak). So that's the end of him, then.
Meanwhile, Inspector Calhoun and his sidekick Det Sgt Rogers (played by the equally on-form Norman Rossington) are round at Manfred's house, investigating his disappearance, which leads to more brilliant badinage, Calhoun wondering "Anything worth nicking?" and calling Manfred a "suspicious bastard" for locking his drawers. On seeing Manfred's wardrobe, Calhoun comments "I've never paid more than 20 nicker for a suit in my life." to which Rogers drily replies: "There are some who'd say you've been robbed, Inspector."
Cue Christopher Lee's remarkably highly billed two minute cameo as Stratton-Villiers of MI5, who warns Pleasance not to continue with his investigations and "go back to planting pot on people" before disappearing, never to be seen or heard from again. Bizarre.
As the woman in the underground dies, "The Man", howling with grief, picks up a spade. That can't be good, because looking at the state of his underground lair, burying people doesn't seem very high on his list of priorities (it's scattered with half-eaten corpses in various states of decomposition). And we're right to worry, because it's not long at all before an interesting discussion about ham and eggs between three blokes on a dark Underground platform is cut short by the old "spade in the head of the first bloke, broken spade handle through the guts of the second, serious pounding for the third" routine.
A quick investigation of the crime scene reveals some extra blood ("The Man's"), which is not only anaemic but carries The Plague. As Inspector Calhoun and Det Sgt Rogers go off to the pub to "get pissed" for no reason other than it leads to more sparkling dialoge, Trisha gets jumped on the Underground platform and carted off to The Man's lair, where there'll be gory hi-jinks a plenty.
To give a plot resume of Deathline (even a witty one like mine) doesn't really do the film justice. As with most art, the beauty is in the little things - Calhoun and Rogers' interplay, Trisha commenting that she doesn't want to see The French Connection because it's "too violent", the remarkably disgusting scenes in The Man's lair (everything is covered in grime and gore, even the oil lamp he carries).
Despite having little plot to speak of, verything about the film is brilliant, but it has to be seen to be appreciated. Even the ending mixes uncompromising brutality with a strange pathos. There are no winners in Deathline, only survivors. If there is one film any fan of British horror should see, this is it.
Last updated: February 22, 2010