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Death Line [Blu-ray]
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Donald Pleasence gives a memorable performance as an idiosyncratic police inspector hot on the trail of a nest of inbred subterranean cannibals in this notoriously violent arthouse slasher movie from the early 1970s. A long-time cult favourite, Death Line features stylishly grim imagery from Oscar-nominated cinematographer Alex Thomson and a rumbustuously sleazy soundtrack from Wil Mallone and Jeremy Rose. Transferred from original film elements it is presented here as a brand-new High Definition restoration in its original theatrical aspect ratio.
When a philandering politician goes missing on the Underground, the subsequent police investigation uncovers a terrifying secret kept hidden since the 1800s. Who or what is turning the Underground tunnels into a Death Line..?
 Mind the Doors!: an interview with Hugh Armstrong
 Limited edition, collectable booklet written by Laura Mayne
 Theatrical Trailer
 Image Gallery
 PDF Material
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As the jazzy opening credits music rolls we witness a rather ministerial looking, bowler hat wearing gentleman (UK TV favourite James Cousins) attempting to proposition a lady of the night on Russell Square underground station. Getting a rebuttal for his cheek in the form of a swift knee to the crown jewels the prostitute totters into the night leaving the man alone on the platform to be attacked by a wheezing unseen assailant. Later a young couple, American student Alex (David Ladd son of Alan) and his pretty English girlfriend Patricia (Sharon Gurney) find the poor fellow collapsed on the stairs. Worried he may be be ill or worse still dead the pair find the nearest Bobby only to find he has disappeared on their return. Alex is promptly asked to meet the rather aloof tea sipping tweed wearing Inspector Calhoun (the wonderful Donald Pleasance), a bumbling Scotland Yard detective who seems to spend more time rubbing up witnesses the wrong way and having lock-ins in his local boozer than doing any actual police work. Bigoted and old fashioned in his ways Calhoun at first doesn't believe the cocky, young long haired American almost treating him as a suspect but has to make an about turn when it is revealed that the missing man is actually a prominent politician complete with an OBE and an assortment of distinguished friends and not the type of chap to be found comatose on the stairs of a seedy underground station.
Delving deeper into the case Calhoun and his partner Detective Sergeant Rogers (Norman Rossington) arise the suspicions of MI5 officials and in particular Stratton Villiers (the legendary Christopher Lee in a small and rather pointless role) who was a friend of the missing VIP and who doesn't take too kindly to the pair snooping around his absent pal's swish London apartment. Unfortunately as Calhoun and Rogers continually bark up the wrong tree, failing miserably to see what is happening right before their eyes on the line between Russell Square and Holborn Stations more people go missing from the platform including Alex's girlfriend Patricia promoting all involved to explore the surrounding tunnels where they make a terrifying discovery of a secret kept hidden since the Victorian era.
I first became aware of Death Line when it aired on late night UK TV in the mid 1980's and despite the rather flawed nature of the film this dark tale of missing persons and cannibalistic ghouls in a forgotten corner of the London Underground remained with me despite not seeing it again until MGM released their American DVD edition in 2003. Regardless of my nostalgic love for Gary Sherman's debut feature there is no doubting that Death Line is an oddly paced movie with a handful of elements that fail to gel. The most obvious problem is how Donald Pleasence's Calhoun character is portrayed which kind of depicts the Scotland Yard inspector as an almost comedic presence which doesn't sit right for the tone of the film coming across as both awkward and distracting. Don't get me wrong Pleasence is a fantastic actor with a two hundred plus filmography and I adored him as Dr.Loomis in Halloween, Professor John McGregor in Dario Argento's Phenomena and even Isaac Q. Cumber in Soldier Blue but his dry witted Inspector with his couldn't care less attitude just doesn't work here despite a number of genuinely laugh out loud moments. The remainder of the cast are fine with various faces that'll be familiar to UK viewers although it is a shame that top billed Christopher Lee is given so little screen time in what amounts to nothing more than a cameo. Regardless of the limitations outlined above Death Line features a wonderful early 70's Brit horror atmosphere meaning you can almost smell the dirt and grime of the London Underground complex whilst the story which was used to similar effect in the 2003 picture "Creep" does at least try to inject something a little different in what could have been little more than a standard police procedural picture. The movie is also for the most part rather nicely shot with the finalé in the maze like tunnels looking especially claustrophobic thanks to some interesting lighting and camera angles and the gore scenes although limited are genuinely nasty whether it be a vicious attack on a group of underground workers, the grizzly make-up on the cannibal killer or the larder of maggot infested, half decomposed bodies in his lair. Something of a minor classic in the eyes of cult horror and exploitation fans, Gary Sherman's Death Line has it's shortcomings but still manages to evoke a certain sense of foreboding especially during it's climatic moments whilst the setting alone makes this definitely worth a look if you favour early 70's British horror.
Blue Underground go back to the original camera negative for their new 2K scan of Gary Sherman's Death Line and the results are uniformly excellent. Presented in an AVC encoded MPEG 4 1080p transfer and framed at the correct widescreen aspect ratio 1.85:1, from the opening scene onwards this appears very organic and filmic with impressive clarity whilst still maintaining it's early 70's charm. There is a wonderful range of nuanced detail and textures on display here and image depth in particular is very convincing. Busy interiors reveal a wealth of fine object details from the cluttered student apparel in Alex's digs through to the ornate furnishings of the missing VIPs London apartment whilst background particulars in the numerous tube station scenes were also superb meaning the period posters that adorned the walls were visibly up for inspection. Most importantly for such a dark movie contrast and black levels are exemplary with nothing in the way of distracting crush whilst shadow delineation is particularly noteworthy revealing intricacies in the dank underground tunnels and the cannibal's lair that were impossible to appreciate on the old DVD edition. Now the famous 360° tracking shot easily picks out every scrap of rotting flesh, crawling maggot and scurrying rodent so much so you can almost taste and smell the feculence of the squalid environment. The colour palette for the most part is intentionally muted with lots of greys and browns present but when called upon explodes with intense luminosity from the gaudy neon of the red light district during the opening credits, the well saturated blood reds and the shockingly bright yellow of Patricia's kinky boots whilst skin tones are consistent and natural throughout. This new 2K restoration also handles the 35mm grain structure impeccably and thankfully compression is nigh on perfect. The image is also notably clean with nothing in the way of age related damage to disrupt your viewing experience making this one of Blue Underground's best releases of recent years.
To further assist the superb visuals Blue Underground grace Death Line with an uncompressed 16bit DTS HD MA mix of the film's original mono peaking at around 1.7mbps. For the record it is worth noting that the rear of the sleeve erroneously states that this is a 1.0 channel recording when in actual fact it is a dual mono 2.0 mix. I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by this lossless track which despite the rather low-fi vibe actually contained some unexpected range and verve. Dialogue was always clean, clear and free from distortion with character voices exhibiting a wonderful natural timbre whilst foley effects were as realistic as the antiquated recording techniques would allow. Environmental sounds too were excellent especially during the quieter moments in the cannibal lair complete with dripping water and squeaking rodents and the kitchy jazzy score sounded rich and resonant with some unforeseen depth. As with the picture this was extremely clean and mercifully free from any age related damage.
Someone at Blue Underground must really love Gary Sherman's Death Line as this little known feature has been given the royal treatment in the extras department too. First up is a brand new feature length audio commentary with director Gary Sherman, producer Paul Maslansky and assistant director Lewis More O'Farrall. This is a lively and entertaining chat track with the three participants providing plenty of insight from how the film was originally conceived through to production memories and anecdotes. They also speak very highly of Donald Pleasance and relate how other cast members were eager to join due to his involvement. They also talk at length about the infamous tracking shot in the cannibal lair and how difficult the scene with Christopher Lee and Donald Pleasance was to shoot down to the massive height difference between the two.
Next up is "Tales From The Tube" which is a nearly 20 minute long discussion again with director Gary Sherman who is joined this time by Executive Producers Jay Kanter and Alan Ladd Jnr who provide information on everything from how the movie was financed and the problems encountered distributing this in the US through to casting, shooting and special effects.
Star David Ladd and producer Paul Maslansky sit down for a chat next in the 12 minute piece "From The Depths" with Ladd talking about his experience working on the film and how he prepared himself for the role of Alex.
Finally is "Mind The Doors" which is a 15 minute interview with star Hugh Armstrong who portrayed the cannibal man in Death Line. Mr. Armstrong relates his story of how he got into acting after leaving the army and that he researched how his character would behave by watching the movement of apes at the local zoo.
To round things off there are a selection of trailers for the picture with both the Death Line and Raw Meat titles, two minutes worth of radio spots and the obligatory photo gallery.
This collector's edition also contains an insert booklet featuring Michael Gringold's essay "Mind The Doors: Going Down With Death Line" plus a bio of star Donald Pleasance written by Christopher Gullo. Blue Underground also provide a reversible sleeve with the rather extravagant American poster art for Raw Meat to the rear.
Gary Sherman would go on to direct and produce a great assortment of cult movies including the Rutger Hauer actioneer "Wanted: Dead Or Alive", "Poltergeist III" and the video nasty favourite "Dead And Buried". Death Line was though his first and despite being ever so slightly flawed remains an interesting debut work from the American director that has become a personal favourite of mine over the years. Blue Underground's Collector's Edition Blu ray a welcome upgrade over any of the older DVD releases featuring a fantastic 2K scan from the original camera negative and an exclusive selection of brand new extras which provide some much needed backstory to the production history of this underrated and rarely seen movie. Very highly recommended.
This movie is in the style of later Hammer/Amicus/Tygon output and has some familiar Horror Actors in Donald Pleasence and Christopher Lee (in a brief cameo). The plot revolves around a disastrous Underground Tunnel collapse in the late Victorian era, it's cover-up and consequences in early 70's London.
Without giving too much of the plot away, a top Civil servant goes missing after leaving a sex club in Soho which leads to a Police investigation which seems to be hindered by another Government department.
Pleasence and Norman Rossington make a fine double act as Scotland yard Inspector Calhoun and his sidekick D.S. Rogers who are at first reluctant to believe the initial report. Pleasence provides a performance filled with comedic flair and sardonic intent and his scenes with Rossington, especially in the drunken pub incident, are almost a forerunner to Dudley Moore's "Derek and Clive" persona!
Since it's first release this film has gained a fantastic reputation and has recently been described as one of Britain's 10 most important horror films.
Donald Pleasence's performance of an Inspector makes the film really come alive and adds a touch of humour - some of his lines made me laugh out loud.
The premises itself - cannibals hiding in disused underground tunnels and coming out to take commuters for lunch, was an original idea at the time.
The modern film Creep used the idea less effectively.
For its time, this is a dark, gritty, dirty and violent flick - they type that makes you feel like you need a bath after viewing.
Despite the fact that notions of horror and brutality have evolved over the last 40 years, the film still packs a punch. Pleasence's comedy interludes are a welcome relief from the horror as the film is perfectly paced.
One thing to note, Christopher Lee (while very good) is only in the movie for one scene, so stating that he "stars" in it is a little misleading.
Frankly, I didn't know what to expect and wasn't expecting much, but - a superior British movie of its time, far outpacing Hammer or AIP in the same period.
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