Updated: Oct 23, 2020
The following essay was published in the accompanying booklet to the 2018 Network on Air release of Death Line on Blu-ray. The film is streaming via Network on Air as part of Kim Newman's Nightmare Night In from 4pm on October 23 2020.
Death Line is a favourite among horror fans but is less well-known among the uninitiated. According to Marcelle Perks, this is testimony to the way that critics and distributors have historically ‘mishandled our [British] Gothic heritage’. Robin Wood, one of the few British critics with something good to say about Death Line, noted that in general the critical response to the film upon its release was ‘insensitive in the extreme’. Wood was perhaps referencing reviews like that by Cecil Watson of the Daily Mail, who wondered how 'such a sick and sick-making film came to be made’ (in his own review Wood had called Death Line ‘the most horrible horror film ever’, although this sentiment was expressed in tones of admiration rather than disgust).
For decades critics simply did not understand British horror, and the resulting ignominy has left many a brilliant film languishing near the base of the canonical pyramid of national cinema. In the case of Death Line this seems particularly unfair. Gary Sherman’s film is a harrowing, brilliantly shot and genuinely terrifying example of the genre but it’s also so much more than that; this is a richly detailed, highly engaging film which develops complex themes about class, corporate irresponsibility, modernity and alienation. And cannibalism.
When two students, Alex (David Ladd) and Patricia (Sharon Gurney) exit the last train to Russell Square they find a man (James Cossins) lying on the stairs of the station, apparently drunk. This is not an unusual occurrence, although the man is a very high-class drunk: he is well-dressed and his card reads ‘James Manfred, O.B.E.’ Patricia insists on informing a police officer despite Alex’s emphatic reluctance, but when the officer arrives at the scene Manfred is gone. Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasence) is called to investigate and finds that Manfred is one of a handful of people who have recently gone missing from Russell Square station.
In a seemingly unrelated aside, during the investigation veteran Inspector Richardson (Clive Swift) tells Calhoun and his partner Detective Rogers about a cave-in that took place during the building of Russell Square station in the 1890s, in which a number of workers were trapped underground apparently left to rot. As Calhoun investigates further, he is warned away by the pompous intelligence office Stratton-Villiers (Christopher Lee), and this causes the fiercely working class inspector to double down in his efforts. Meanwhile, in the bowels of Russell Square station, a plague-infected man (here known only as ‘The Man’) grieves for his beloved partner who has died in childbirth. He is the last of several generations of the original cave-in victims, and the grief of losing his only companion threatens to drive him to despair…
Made in Britain, Born in the USA.
Peter Hutchings notes that ‘Death Line’s main achievement lies in its refusal to reject or be repulsed by the ‘monstrous’. But as unapologetically gruesome as the film may be, it was inspired by some even more horrifying legends. In his depiction of ‘The Man’ and his deceased family of cannibals, Gary Sherman was inspired by the Scottish folklore myth of the Highwayman Sawney Bean, the head of the medieval cave-dwelling clan that supposedly captured, dismembered and ate passing travellers. Whether intentional or not, the story also recalls the fateful Donner expedition, led by a band of American pioneers who set out for California in 1846 and fell victim to a series of mishaps that left them no choice but to resort to cannibalism to survive.
Combined British and American cultural influences run through Death Line like the writing in a stick of Blackpool rock. On the production side the film is British (it was produced by British companies and shot in London) although it was directed by the Chicago-based Gary Sherman and stars an American actor, David Ladd. Death Line draws from British history and culture, but in tone it is closer to something like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) than it is to the British gothic tradition. In this, Death Line was part of a trend in 70s British horror: Hutchings argues that financial difficulties in the industry in this decade led to a slew of low budget horrors which drew on the ‘central metaphors’ of American cinema, films like Frightmare (Pete Walker, 1974) and Prey (Norman J. Warren, 1977).
Gary Sherman was a relatively untried director, but he landed in London at a time when British horror was attracting young men with limited experience and excellent ideas, and with Death Line Sherman was following the example of directors like Michael Reeves (Witchfinder General, 1968), Peter Sykes (Demons of the Mind, 1972) and Peter Sasdy (Hands of the Ripper, 1971). Variety called the film a ‘sleeper hit’ on its first release in London, which seems kindly euphemistic. It was more aggressively marketed in the United States, where it was sold under the more evocative title Raw Meat and successively billed with James Kelley and Andrea Bianchi’s Night Hair Child (1971) and Ivan Reitman’s Cannibal Girls (1973). Though the exact box office figures are unavailable, it is likely that Death Line was slightly more successful in the US, a market which has always been, on the whole, far more receptive to low-budget genre product.
‘I’ll be in this movie, if I don’t have to wear teeth.’
According to Gary Sherman, Christopher Lee was having dinner at producer Paul Maslansky’s flat when he read the script for Death Line and said ‘I’ll be in this movie, if I don’t have to wear teeth’. This was not the only reason, however; he was very keen to do a film with Donald Pleasence, and as such he was willing to accept a considerably smaller fee than he could command at that time as one of the most successful leading men in horror.
Sherman had always had Donald Pleasence in mind when he wrote the script, and for his part, Pleasence was taken by juxtaposition of the horror and the comedy of the Inspector role (he rarely got to do comedy) and enthusiastically accepted. Marlon Brando agreed to play ‘The Man’ (he had just finished filming another British horror film, The Nightcomers, also produced by Alan Ladd Jr.) but after his son became ill prior to filming he dropped out and was replaced by Hugh Armstong (Prudence and the Pill [Fielder Cook, 1968], How to Get Ahead in Advertising [Bruce Robinson, 1989]).
Donald Pleasence’s performance is a delight to behold. As Calhoun he is sarcastic, acerbic and by turns lackadaisical and bursting with energy. He can go from deadpan gurn to manic grin in less than 0.5 seconds. This is unnerving, and this is absolutely his intention; he knows how to bait and manipulate in order to extract information. The pompous Villiers (played by Lee) is an interesting counterpoint to Calhoun’s tough, earthy, working-class persona and an effective goad to his motivations. David Ladd’s performance is slightly less polished, however, and this is a point on which critic Roger Ebert lingered in his review of the film, noting the contrast between Ladd’s ‘painfully inept’ performance and Donald’s Pleasence’s ‘fully formed, believable character’.
Hugh Armstrong’s ‘The Man’ also deserves a special mention here. As the lonely grief-stricken monster, ‘The Man’ embodies the emotional (as opposed to visceral) horror of the film, and his grief is played with such realism that as the camera lingers on his pain we begin to feel uncomfortable, almost as though we are intruding in an intimate, sacred space. He also impresses on us his frustration and his desire to be understood rather than reviled, which makes his attempts to communicate with Patricia using what little language he has gleaned from tube announcements (‘Mind the doors!’) all more poignant. He may be no Boris Karloff, but Armstrong’s ability to inject a level of emotional depth into a mostly mute character who communicates mainly by grunting is nothing short of remarkable.
Myths and Monsters
Credit for this must also go to Sherman and cinematographer Alex Thompson. We are introduced to ‘The Man’ via a six-minute tracking shot which, in its almost painful slowness, takes in every tiny detail of the monster’s underground lair: furniture, debris, decorations, jewellery, severed limbs. As Robin Wood notes in his review for Monthly Film Bulletin, ‘The core of the film is contained in that shot… The circular movement of the camera in a constricted space … creates the claustrophobia of this appalling world, both prison-cell and womb.’
The extended sequence of ‘The Man’ grieving and the sentimentality of his behaviour (he decorates the corpse of his wife with trinkets) has the effect of making the cannibals seem sympathetic. They do not eat their own, and they engage in ritualistic mourning when loved ones die. In essence, grief is what separates cannibal from monster in Death Line. ‘The Man’ may be physically repulsive and he may ooze corruption from every pore, but like Frankenstein’s monster, the pain and trauma he suffers ultimately holds up a mirror to an uncaring contemporary society. In Death Line, it is the numbness of feeling brought on by the disconnectedness of modern living which is monstrous.
As a low budget cannibal horror film that draws on American sensibilities, Death Line seems a far cry from the Victorian gothic horrors of a few years before. In fact, the film is a slice of pure Victoriana, but it is more informed by 19th century society and culture than by sumptuous costumes and set design. Victorian fiction was obsessed with contradictions, such as man’s capability for good and evil (Jekyll and Hyde) and the physically monstrous as a representation of our basest fears (Frankenstein) and these are themes that Sherman attempts to explore in Death Line.
The juxtaposition between upper class and lower class in the film also recalls the downtrodden Morlocks and the pampered Eloi of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (see also the lesser known The Sleeper Awakes). In Victorian England such fiction played on general anxieties about the human cost of industrialisation and the logical consequences of unchecked capitalism. The danger was that the rich would get richer, while the workers would suffer and become so downtrodden that they would become subhuman, literally relegated to live underground.
Death Line's raw, visceral and unflinching take on the monstrous leads us on an exploration of grief, modernity and corporate irresponsibility. It is not difficult to see why the film has become an underground (excuse the pun) classic of British cinema.
 Marcelle Perks, ‘A Descent into the Underworld: Death Line’, in British Horror Cinema, ed. by Steve Chibnall and Julian Petley, (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 145.  Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 40 n. 46 (January 1973), p. 6.  Marcelle Perks in British Horror Cinema, pp. 145-146.  Peter Hutchings, ‘The British Horror Film: An Investigation of British Horror Production in its National Context’, (University of East Anglia: unpublished doctoral thesis, 1989), p. 393.  Hutchings, ‘The British Horror Film’, p. 313.  Death Line was marketed in the US with more emphasis on ‘guts and gore’ as a selling point. However, the suggestion for ‘exploitation’ in Raw Meat’s press book – that posters for the film be placed in the windows of Butcher’s shops – was possibly a step too far.  Read the full interview at http://www.comingsoon.net/horror/features/840773-how-marlon-brando-was-almost-the-monster-in-death-line#8pM3ElZmwLVjk74w.99  See https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/raw-meat-1973 for Ebert’s full review.  Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 40 n. 46 (January 1973), p. 6.  Peter Hutchings argues along similar lines, further analysing how the ‘monster’ cast out from society functions in Death Line as a redemptive force. For more details see his brilliant Hammer and Beyond: the British Horror Film (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993).