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Death Line aka Raw Meat (Gary Sherman, 1972, 87 min.)

Counterfactuals are fun, especially when it comes to thinking about movies that don’t quite work. Armchair rewriters can discuss different choices the filmmakers could have made well into the night, and I know of friendships cemented by shared (or unshared) recommendations for what should have happened. It’s even more fun when you’re dealing with a film like the unfortunately titled-in-the-US Raw Meat (even its original British title, Death Line, could have used some work). It’s a low-budget chiller about a scary thing that grabs unsuspecting Londoners who tarry too long on tube platforms, essentially an urban legend about all the horrible possibilities of those miles and miles of tunnels, used and unused, that snake beneath our feet in most large cities.

Writer/director Gary Sherman made a very conscious choice about the structure, deciding against what could have been a moderately terrifying exercise in “gotcha!” moments into what amounts to the first (or only?) ethnographic urban legend horror film, far more interested in the scary thing that’s grabbing people than in the disposable scares that result when it does its grabbing. I’d say that I didn’t want to give away what it is, but Sherman’s unique structure gives it away in the first scene, and another purely expository early scene tells us what it’s doing there, so I’m going to go ahead and follow his lead. Eighty-odd years ago, a work crew digging a tunnel somewhere in the vicinity of the British Library station was trapped by a cave-in. Their employer couldn’t afford to dig them out, so he left them there to die. But they didn’t die: they didn’t exactly thrive, but since there were both male and female diggers, plenty of fresh water, and the flesh of their less fortunate coworkers to eat, they managed to survive. When that food ran out, they started grabbing the occasional tube rider and eating him.

Still and all, it’s an urban legend, and any enjoyment of it has to proceed from that understanding. A moment’s analysis in the cold light of day reveals it to be an impossible crock of horse manure, and I suspect that viewers less willing to suspend disbelief won’t make it much past the first half-hour without scoffing their way into active dislike of Sherman’s little opus. If they could get out to find food, why didn’t they just escape? How have they lost their grasp of English in such a short time? How is The Man (Hugh Armstrong) so strong, since his diet isn’t exactly filled with nutrients? And on and on. But Raw Meat entices you to dispose of such cynicism; indeed, it encourages you to feel sorry for the poor guy who’s the last of his kind, who lacks the communication skills to express his grief in any way but offing city employees. Late in the film, after he’s kidnapped the only female character with more than two lines (Sharon Gurney), there’s a genuinely moving scene where he tries to win her over, offering up the only English he knows (I won’t spoil that delicious surprise) to reach out across the barrier of decades of isolation. It’s almost heartbreaking.

Even beyond its uniqueness and its surprising heart, Raw Meat has plenty to recommend it, and most of it is named Donald Pleasance, who delivers one of the oddest, funniest performances in the history of horror films. I’m ranking him up with Ernest Thesiger’s campy mad scientist in Bride of Frankenstein, I love him so much in this film. Shovel-chinned character actor Norman Rossington, as his straight man, just adds to the pleasure of his act, and together they’re more than enough to wipe out the stench of David Ladd’s wooden performance as what passes for the male lead. (And Christopher Lee has a surprising, effective, and minuscule cameo.) Sherman hasn’t equaled the minor but undeniable appeal of this, his first feature, although his slow-building zombie mystery Dead & Buried had its charms.