Raw Meat aka Death Line(1972)
Dir. Gary Sherman
Starring Donald Pleasance, David Ladd, also Christopher Lee has one scene
RAW MEAT is the second part of my C.H.U.L. (Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Lads) double feature about Mutant Cannibals in the London Underground tunnel system. The first one, 2005’s CREEP, was competent but not particularly interesting and I can’t say I had particularly high hopes for this one other than the reliable pleasure of watching Donald Pleasance solve things.
Turns out I was wrong, though, this is a pretty good –if decidedly strange—entry into this subgenre. It’s a unique and surprisingly assured horror/thriller thing which takes an interesting idea and goes nowhere you’d expect with it.
Here’s the skinny: some sleazy rich prick with a bowler is carousing the strip clubs of the region and heads down into the subway to pick up/sexually assault a prostitute. Something goes wrong, though, and two college kids leaving the station find his unconscious body on the subway stairs. The boyfriend, a sardonic New York native played by noted Alan Ladd son David Ladd, thinks this is no big deal (“We step over these guys in New York!” He says, exasperated by his bleeding-heart girlfriend’s desire to get involved) but his cute British gal talks him into returning with the authorities. Thing is, though, when they get back the body’s gone.
When the sleazeball doesn’t show up the next day, it gets reported to Inspector Calhoun, a marvelous asshole gleefully portrayed by Pleasance. English is a second language to Calhoun; his native tongue is sarcasm, which in his mouth blooms into a breathless dance of impishly cutting poetry. He’s a working class schlub who gets no respect and affords none to anyone else, dragging the kids into his office and rather indelicately badgering them (for a crime we know they’re completely innocent of). Turns out old bowler was a big-shot wealthy MI5 guy, and suddenly people at the station start remembering, oh yeah, haven’t a bunch of people gone missing down there? Calhoun suspects it’s a government cover-up for some sort of shady secret agent business, but of course we know better. When a minor character offhandedly tells a story about a bunch of workers trapped in a closed station in the 1800s, and speculates that perhaps some of them could have survived by eating the flesh of their departed colleagues… well, we know where this is going.
The odd thing is, it doesn’t go anywhere for a long time. We follow the two college kids as they go about their life and wonder what the fuck that was all about (the gal inexplicably expresses her interest in purchasing a book on Poltergeists, which is an odd enough detail in itself but particularly odd since director Gary Sherman would one day go on to helm the pretty-good POLTERGEIST III), and meanwhile Calhoun is trying to investigate bowler-guy’s murder by following his connections to the seedier side of British High Society (which of course we know will be a dead end). At the dead man’s house, he encounters Christopher Lee as a fellow MI5er who may be the only man who can give Calhoun a run for his money in the withering caustic assholery department. Lee warns Calhoun off the case, tells him to drop it and not get involved where he doesn’t belong. In any other movie, this and the poltergeist thing would be red herrings, intended to throw you off the trail. But here, we’ve already seen the killer, we know where he lives and why he’s doing what he’s doing. Why is this stuff in here?
So for the whole middle of the movie, we get three parallel threads: the college kids being a couple, Calhoun struggling to investigate something we know is wrong, and then the killer himself, whom we get to know rather intimately.
Seems that Mr. Raw Meat is the last survivor of generations of workers trapped in the abandoned underground station, where they have gradually succumbed to a lifestyle of nonverbal cannibalism. His wife, the last of his companions, has just died of a deforming disease which also afflicts him. Turns out he grabbed that bowler asshole in a futile effort to try and cure his wife with a little fresh blood. This whole scenario is revealed in the film’s masterstroke, a stunning, confidently patient long tracking shot which gradually explores the cannibal’s gristly meat storage room, and then the whole environment inside the abandoned station, past literal catacombs of previous generations of CHUCs, a collapsed tunnel with human skeletons buried in the rubble, down the long, creepy tunnels, and up to the crack in the sky where our killer has learned to venture into the outside world for fresh meat.
The shot easily lasts for an uninterrupted five minutes, and is completely silent save for the echoing drips of water which cast a fiendish anxiety over the proceedings. It’s a masterful bit of cinema which eloquently visually communicates to us everything we need to know about the scenario. The film doesn’t gets that good again, but most films never get that good, so who are we to complain?
The odd thing about this whole setup is that the murderous cannibal comes across quite sympathetically. We first meet him in his inarticulate emotional agony over the loss of his wife, and it’s hard not to empathize with him as the last lonely survivor of a tragedy which somehow dragged on nearly 200 years. It’s pretty easy to understand what he’s doing and why he doesn’t know any better.
Anyway, eventually all three story strands meet up in a predictable but rather classily constructed way. It builds some nice tension but also makes good use of the pathos its build for its antagonist. Nothing too stunning, admittedly, but a nicely orchestrated conclusion which gets a lot of mileage from the long setup (and especially the audience’s intimate knowledge of the layout of the cannibal’s lair).
And that's about all I would have thought about it, had I not happened to linger for a brief moment over the Netflix plot description (frequently my nemesis, as you may recall) which concludes with this sentence:
"a cult classic notable for its allegorical depth, atmospheric intensity -- and stomach-turning gore."
Allegorical depth? What the fuck are they.... oooohhhhh . . . dear god, they're right. I would never have thought about it, but the concept of these forgotten laborers trapped underground eating their own to eke by and drawing any attention from the authorities only when they affect some rich guy with connections has a lot to do with the class politics which are lurking just below the surface of the film.
If you remember your history or have watched the excellent Sex Pistols Doc THE FILTH AND THE FURY, you'll recall that England was an economic basket case during the 70s, a wasteland of prospectless malaise and cultural tensions. There's a reason Calhoun is such an asshole to everyone -- he, like most of his working class ilk, is just looking out for himself and trying to maintain a little dignity in the face of life's constant barrage of demeaning reminders of how bad off he is. Seen in this light, the otherwise inexplicable Christopher Lee scene is actually key to understanding what's going on here. The rich are part of a separate world, as distinct from Pleasance and the college kids as their own world is from our CHUC antagonist. No matter what he does, he'll never be part of that world (Lee smugly even refuses to let him investigate, happier to have it go unsolved than to have this cretin explore the separate life of the upper class). He can imitate them, even imagine himself to be a powerful man in his own little kingdom, but they're living in a world beyond his understanding and experience which he can only parrot -- the same way Mr. CHUC meaninglessly parrots a distorted version of the station platform instructions (his creepy phonetic rendering of “Mind the Doors!”).
There may be something, too, to the fact that Ladd’s character is an American not as sensitive to class distinctions as his British counterparts. He hardly even notices the fallen man at the beginning, but his girlfriend does. Not because they don’t have drunks in England, but –and this is my read of the subtext, mind you -- because this guy is obviously a social better who seems so horribly out of place passed out in a subway that it upsets her enormously. So while Calhoun is chasing his tail following all the wrong leads, only the American can actually cut through the bullshit, figure out what the fuck is going on and save the day. The detective, the cannibal, and the American are all figures who are venturing out of their usual environment and entering areas they can’t possibly fully understand – but the American lacks the baggage of hundreds of years of British class history (nicely symbolized by the cannibal’s 200-year exile from the surface) and as such is the only one who knows better than to get involved.
I should note that I was surprised by the quality of this picture, but I wouldn’t have been had I recognized the name of director Gary Sherman. RAW MEAT was apparently called the “Most Significant Debut of the Year” by the British Film Institute. His next film, nearly a decade later (1981), was the superb and equally unusual DEAD & BURIED. Looks like I’ll have to take a look at the rest of his filmography.