A.J.’s Big ’80s Horrorthon #25: “The Lair of the White Worm” (1988)

by A.J. Hakari


It’s unfortunate that Bram Stoker is something of a third-stringer when it comes to horror authors whose work is brought to film. Stephen King and Poe adaptations get the royal treatment, while Stoker’s name gets attached to more Shadowbuilders and Legend of the Mummys than those productions worthy of bearing the Dracula moniker. But if you’re going to drag the man’s literary terrors kicking and screaming to the cinema, then it helps to have a madman like Ken Russell in your corner. The recently-departed Russell sure cranked up the sex, sin, and all-around depravity for The Lair of the White Worm, whose out-there eye candy may skew silly but always grips you by the short ‘n’ curlies.

On the former site of an English convent, a strange discovery has been unearthed. Scottish archaeologist Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi) just finished digging up the fossilized skull of some unknown creature, which quickly piques the neighboring village’s interest. For centuries, a legend about a huge snake has been floating around, which James D’Ampton (Hugh Grant), a noble whose ancestor is said to have slain the beast, attributes to superstition. But it’s no joke to Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), a seemingly immortal seductress whose god is of a slithery sort and craves a nice virgin sacrifice or two to regain his power.

I’d bet that plenty of folks out there spent a lot of time trying to prove that The Lair of the White Worm is for real. It’s one of those movies, where you flip through the cable channels, catch a flash of a familiar face doing something funky, then can never find out what the thing is called for the life of you. So, yep, The Lair of the White Worm exists, and it’s as kooky as you remember. At its core is a new supernatural mythos culled from familiar ingredients, giving us a reptilian vampire cult whose figurehead is a massive creature that’d be comfy playing bridge with Cthulhu. Russell really runs with the risque imagery — which mostly consists of a nearly nude Donohoe slinking about in fangs and blue body paint — and keeps viewers on their toes in the process. On the downside, he also veers into unavoidably laughable territory when he tries merging all the weirdness with a traditional, monster-busting adventure story. It’s funny to see Capaldi warding off snakemen in full Scotsman attire (bagpipes and all), but the humor gets to a point of making us scratch our heads more than it lets us in on the joke.

The Lair of the White Worm has some naughty little thrills worth hitting up, due in great part to Donohoe putting on a perfectly predatory performance. The story’s various pieces just don’t fit together entirely well, and the AWFUL, music video-y hallucinations that like popping up unannounced yank you out of the atmosphere lickety split. I wouldn’t bestow on it as high an honor as Fangoria did when the magazine placed Donohoe’s mug on the cover of their “101 Best Horror Movies You’ve Never Seen” book, but let it not be said that White Worm has no clue how to exploit its WTF factor.