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'Lair of the White Worm' : (R)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 11, 1988

Say what you will about Ken Russell, his films are usually bonkers. His latest, "Lair of the White Worm," will do nothing to alter his reputation as the champion of camp thrash, but at least it's a step or two -- if only short ones -- above such recent efforts as "Salome's Last Veil" and "Gothic."

Adapting Bram Stoker's deservedly obscure post-"Dracula" novel, Russell sets out to have his cake and beat it, too. It's hard to tell what's being played for laughs, because virtually everything draws them, even when it's obviously not supposed to. There's permanent duality in the Russell/Stoker universe -- Christian and pagan, violent and bucolic, earnest and decadent, real and surreal -- and if you have a hard time figuring it all out, don't worry. So did Russell, who, once again, seems to have overindulged in diabolic steroids.

The skeleton of the story:

In the English countryside, a large, unusually shaped prehistoric skull is uncovered by young Scotch archeologist Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi), the guest of two biblically named sisters, Eve and Mary Trent (the virginal Catherine Oxenberg and the experienced Sammi Davis). The excavation site is in the back yard of their Mercy Farm, and eventually it will turn out to have been built over an 800-year-old convent and a 1,600-year-old pagan settlement, both of which will figure in subsequent hallucinations. (It's important to remember these things, and any other scraps of information you can glean, because once he's rolling, Russell only occasionally pauses to offer some convoluted explication.)

That night, Flint and the Trents go to the annual celebration at sumptuous D'Ampton Hall. Seems Lord James D'Ampton's fabled ancestor slew a fabled community menace, the D'Ampton Worm, many fabled moons ago. The current Lord (Hugh Grant) is a handsome, petulant upper-class fop, but he'll soon be drawn into the kind of quartet Russell has emphasized from "Women in Love" right through "Gothic."

Not at the party, but soon to make an appearance: the mysterious Lady Sssssylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), a slightly lisping, wholly flamboyant summer neighbor given to picking up hitchhiking boy scouts and taking them home for dinner. "Do you have children?" someone asks her later, to which Lady Sylvia replies, with a smile, "Only when men aren't around." Lady Sylvia is hardly sly about her proclivities: She drops one-liners like Henny Youngman, lets her tongue flicker the way others' hearts flutter and parades her decadence openly (after a scout admires her Jaguar, she sniffs, "I change my cars as regularly as a snake sheds its skin").

Lady Sylvia's secret is that she's the keeper of the Lair of ye olde family worm, a distant cousin of the Loch Ness Monster who's been trapped underground all these years, surviving on an occasional diet of virgins. In the deserted countryside, Eve is the only available meal for the serpent, which Russell suggests is fair turnaround for that Garden of Eden incident. Once Lady Sylvia goes into action, the film is like a carousel running out of control, and the endless flood of visual and aural images/jokes/references and the frenetic conclusion leave no doubt that Ken Russell's in charge. (If there were any, it would be dispelled by the four hallucinatory sequences involving nuns, snakes, crucifixions, rape and the like.)

As often happens in a Russell film, one performance stands up and survives. In this case, it's Amanda Donohoe's. There's a bit of Glenda Jackson to Donohue, but warmer. Her Lady Sylvia is not a vampire, but a true vamp, given to quoting Oscar Wilde and "Citizen Kane" and, when the mood strikes, spitting venom and sprouting humongous fangs. She's also given to walking around without much in the way of clothes; those she has look ordered from an old Frederick's of Hollywood catalogue. Still, Donohoe's always interesting to watch, at her funniest when she's charmed out of an oversized basket and slithers out the door as an old 78 is played through speakers on the roof of Lord D'Ampton's estate.

Yes, it's that wacky -- also whacky, at times -- and you can't help thinking that much of "Lair of the White Worm" came off the top of Ken Russell's head. There's so much going on (we've barely touched the surface here) that "Lair" may be better served on video, where, like Russell himself, it can be more easily analyzed. His mind boggles.

Lair of the White Worm is rated R and contains nudity, profanity, sacrilege, gory effects and a bundle of unintentional laughs

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