Death Line is a slow-burn horror film with a great role from Donald Pleasance, but it ultimately does suffer from a lack of context for its subhuman character. Blue Underground has done a great job with this Blu-Ray, though, with an awesome transfer and some good special features.
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Excellent acting from Donald Pleasance
Great transfer with solid amount of special features
Often slow, with too little motivation for its antagonist
Death Line, also known as Raw Meat for American audiences, was released in 1972 as director Gary Sherman’s premiere film. Sherman would subsequently go on to direct Dead & Buried and the unfortunate Poltergeist III, but his debut featured a strange storyline about subterranean subway dwellers that was decidedly British and aided by a young Donald Pleasance chewing scenery at every turn. While Death Line is tortured by unnecessarily elongated scenes and endless amounts of dialogue, it also manages to infuse some humanity into its monstrous and diseased antagonist.
The film follows Pleasance as Inspector Calhoun, a grumpy tea-guzzling man who gets roped into investigating a series of disappearances at the Russell Square tube station when Alex (David Ladd) and Patricia (Sharon Gurney) report the death of an OBE member, only to find him missing later on. Calhoun and his partner Rogers (Norman Rossington) eventually uncover an entire subway station left to rot after a cave-in trapped a bunch of people down there; and those people not only lived, they repopulated until a plague wiped most of them out. Only The Man (Hugh Armstrong) is left alive, and he’s hungry for human flesh.
Death Line‘s idea – written by Ceri Jones from an original story by Sherman – is quite simple, and for the most part the film progresses naturally from the initial murder in the tube station to Calhoun’s involvement. Alex and Patricia are reoccurring characters only because they witnessed the events, and while Alex is notably meant to be an exaggerated American character displaced in a London setting, the couple isn’t truly the main focus of the film. Instead, Sherman centers on Pleasance’s character, often surly and offputting despite a sarcastic and wry wit that helps to shape the tone of the film.
Pleasance is the best part of Death Line, and he steals every scene. Even a very small appearance by Christopher Lee as MI5 agent Stratton-Villiers is overshadowed by the Inspector Calhoun character; Sherman gives Pleasance ample room in this over-the-top and comedic role, and he runs with it.
Death Line is lucky to have Pleasance, too, because the majority of the film is overloaded with dialogue and a tediously slow plot delivery. Sherman focuses far too much attention on a lackluster police investigation, one that reveals very little throughout the film. Alex and Patricia are really the ones figuring out most of the case – with Patricia’s eventual kidnapping in the tube the main crux of the climax – but their characters are too underutilized to really generate much suspense. Likewise, Sherman’s attempts to characterize The Man, the trapped tube-dweller, fall short; there’s not much emotional connection besides Armstrong’s grunts and groans after his lover dies, and Death Line simply doesn’t dig deep enough into the motivations of the man. His rape attempt at the end of the film doesn’t exactly heighten the viewer’s sympathies either.
Still, Sherman shows some creative muscle in his directorial debut. There’s an eight-minute unbroken shot of the Man’s lair, which – while interesting from a cinematic standpoint – actually does very little for the plot itself and plays out fair too long. Death Line‘s thematic ideas are a bit stronger; clearly Jones and Sherman want the audience to recognize the inhumanity of the film’s human characters, most notably Alex and the bureaucratic decisions that led to the Man’s imprisonment under London. While it’s a strong attempt, that cultural criticism is lessened because of the film’s slow and meandering plot.
Death Line is an interesting and sometimes visually complex film, but it suffers for its slow pacing despite a solid performance from most of its cast and, more specifically, Donald Pleasance. Interestingly, anyone hoping that Death Line mimics the American Raw Meat poster will be terribly disappointed; the film has almost nothing in common with the promised monsters and nudity. Sherman’s film doesn’t run off the tracks, but its appeal is questionable 45 years later.
Blue Underground has released Death Line in a double-disc Blu-Ray/DVD combo package, with a pullout essay booklet featuring an article about the film by Michael Gingold and a biography for Donald Pleasance.
The film itself gets a new 1080p transfer from a 2k master that looks great, with just a smattering of heavy grain in the early sequences because of the film’s blurred credit shots. Otherwise, once the film gets going the image quality stabilizes and features very little damage. The transfer reflects the film’s lower budget grittiness, but ultimately Blue Underground has done some excellent work with this transfer, with good lighting and contrast and healthy skin tones. Fans won’t be disappointed with this offering.
There’s only one audio offering, a DTS-HD MA 2.0 track. While this track is fine, I did feel that some of the dialogue sounded slightly muffled in comparison to the often jaunty soundtrack. This makes some of the heavier British accents difficult to distinguish. Other than that, I would imagine this a good representation of the original audio. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are also included.
Extra features include an audio commentary with Gary Sherman, producer Paul Maslansky, and assistant director Lewis More O’Ferrall. Sherman and executive producers Alan Ladd Jr. and Jay Kanter also participate in a short featurette, about 20 minutes in length, discussing the production behind Death Line, its funding, and their dissatisfaction with AIP’s distribution of the film as Raw Meat. The two other featurettes contain interviews with David Ladd and Hugh Armstrong discussing their work on the film (13 minutes and 16 minutes respectively).
Other extras include radio and TV spots, trailers for both releases of the film, and a still gallery. I have to say that I like the way Blue Underground has broken up the extras on the disc under different headings, an easy way to digest them.
As mentioned previously, there’s also a booklet with essays about the film as well as reversible cover art for Death Line and Raw Meat. This is a great release for the film provided viewers are interested in this rather slow British horror picture, but fans of the movie will most certainly want to pick this up.
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