I love movies made in the 70s and 80s that show off the seedier sides of their cities. The Warriors, An American Werewolf in London, Basket Case. These all show a gritty, neon-lit version of either New York or London. The cities become menacing characters themselves.
Death Line shows off a beautiful, yet sick side of 1970s London. Everything here is so brown and sad, yet beautiful: and I love it.
It was a Twitter thread about favourite Donald Pleasance roles that pointed me towards this film. And really, Pleasances absolutely steals every scene he’s in as the cynical Inspector Calhoun.
One day, Calhoun gets assigned the case of a missing gentleman, an OBE last seen at Russell Square tube station. The couple to last have seen him were students Patricia and Alex. The couple had found the man unconscious on the platform steps. When they returned with help, they discovered the body missing.
Calhoun suspects the young couple of trying to rob the man and brings them in for questioning (in Alex’s case, repeatedly). During his investigation, Calhoun learns the urban legend about a group of people who were trapped in the underground during its construction. The people trapped supposedly survived, the descendants living there still.
Low and behold: they still do live. And they love human flesh.
As Calhoun continues his investigation, Alex and Patricia get separated on the underground one night. Patricia immediately gets kidnapped by the last-remaining cannibal. It’s up to Alex to save her (well, and eventually the police).
This movie is bleak – very much a contemporary Swaney Bean story. There’s nothing pretty about it – you get some nice, lingering shots of chewed-on finger bones. The design for the cannibal character is pretty nauseating to look at. I know because I tried eating dinner while watching this.
I did find certain finer details unclear to me. So I found parts of the story disappointing. But I blame it on the quality of the video. I watched Death Line on the Plex streaming app. And I’m starting to think there’s a major issue with the app. Otherwise, I seem to only be watching movies that have the worst sound mixing ever. It was difficult to hear what was going on at times, and subtitles weren’t an option. I’d certainly watch this again with a treatment that is more kind.
The underground scenes were all filmed in Aldwych station. As long as I’ve lived here, it’s been closed. But it was a working station at the time of filming. It’s a rather creepy station to walk by these days, all gated up and graffitied. The station is the perfect place for cannibals to live.
But really, we’re all here to watch Pleasance chew the scenery. He even has a short (and maybe pointless?) scene with Christopher Lee, who plays an MI5 agent. He gives the movie a lift of comedy to stop the story from feeling one-note. He was truly one of the great, and this is definitely one of his great roles.