Monday, 17 November 2014

Down on the Tube Station at Midnight

I’ve been writing this blog for over three years now, and lately I have pondered over the cinema genres that I may have neglected to cover.  Here in Britain we hosted the Hammer Studios, which in the latter half of the twentieth century turned out a string of well known horror films.  These films are held in high esteem by a great number of people – so why have I never got around to writing about one?  It’s perhaps because few of these films are grounded in any kind of reality.  When I think Hammer, I think of Christopher Lee in a Transylvanian castle; or improbable monsters in misty forests. Not a lot for the History Usherette to get at there, unfortunately.

If you were to ask me which was my favourite horror film, it would not be one produced by Hammer.  It bears some of the hallmarks of one of their productions – 1970s technicolour goriness which doesn’t spare the blood.  Christopher Lee is even in it, albeit briefly in a pointless cameo role. I might have at one point assumed that it was one of theirs.  The film that I’m referring to is called ‘Death Line’ (1972).  It stars Donald Pleasance as a rather odd policeman who is investigating a series of mysterious happenings at Russell Square tube station in central London. A high profile man disappears; then a multiple murder is discovered and meanwhile an American student and his girlfriend become embroiled in the case, culminating in her disappearance.  We find out that the culprit is the descendant of some Victorian workers who were trapped in a tunnel collapse and then abandoned to their fate by an unscrupulous construction company. They survived by eating human flesh –their own people at first – but the final remaining descendant is now on the prowl for fresh meat.  Anyone who has ever seen the film will be nodding and smiling at my description– once seen it is never forgotten. This is mainly because the underground creature can only say one phrase of English – “Mind the doors” – and his use of it is both uproariously funny and deeply disturbing.  I’m not sure that it was meant to be so funny; but there are many people who have watched this in a state of intoxication and then spent the rest of the night shouting out the chilling catchphrase while chuckling gleefully.

The premise behind the film is, I suppose, not impossible yet not at all likely. This potentially makes a good horror film – something horrible that could happen but never has happened and never will. That element of potential reality makes the horror more piquant.  Also, its setting in a tube station really adds to this potential reality. Not only does it utilise a setting that is familiar to thousands of commuters, it plays on an iconic imagery which is familiar to millions.  A lot of people love the idea of the London Underground (probably mainly those who don’t have to use it every morning). The red and blue roundels are all over the lucrative tourist industry – I have a keyring and a fridge magnet myself. Mind you, I have those because they tell me to ‘Mind the Gap’ which reminds me of ‘Death Line’ and makes me smile. So part of the draw of the film is seeing how stations looked back in 1972 when they retained more of their original features than they do today. The tiling, the dark and winding corridors and the criss-cross metal doors are atmospheric. Russell Square station (although it was actually the now disused Aldwych that was used for filming) is almost another character in the film.  Best of all, one of the abandoned stations is depicted.  People are fascinated by these sealed up tombs of underground history – books have been written and photographs shared all over the place which pick over the obsolete parts of the network. The mock up of a closed Museum station is eerie in itself, without our cannibal traipsing through it howling in despair.

 At time of writing, it seems that there will also soon be another historical element to the film.  Much of the action takes place after the last tube train has gone through for the night and the station is closing.  Plans are afoot to bring in 24 hour working on the underground.  Perhaps we will soon look back on this wistfully, remembering when we had to run to catch the last train.  Remembering a time when things actually stopped for a bit and people got some rest.

I get the feeling that the writer and director of ‘Death Line’ really knew what they were doing. They produced a horror classic which is low-key enough to make you think that you have really made a discovery when you watch it.  But, I wonder, is Pleasance the star – or is it Russell Square station?

Matinee Musings by the History Usherette

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Following on from the popular blog The History Usherette, this is a collection of five extended essays on cinematic and historical themes. None of this material has been previously published on the blog. 
1. A Favourite Pastime looks at how the popular British leisure pursuit of gambling on the horses is reflected in British cinema. From George Formby in 'Come on George' to Sid James in 'Carry on at Your Convenience' there was enormous change to be tracked by the filmakers. 
2. Carry on NHS looks the three Carry On films - one from each decade from the 1950s to the 1970s to find out how our perceptions of our favourite bit of the welfare state changed. 
3. Tunnel of Time looks at railways on film from 'Oh! Mr Porter' in the 1930s to 'Carry on Loving' in 1970. 
4. Let George Win It muses on how George Formby shows us how the psychology of the British was affected by World War Two. 
5. Films With Spirit looks at three post-war films and how they reflect our changing attitudes to the spirit world.

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