Color, 1974, 87 mins. 20 secs.
Directed by Gary Sherman
Starring Donald Pleasence, Norman Rossington, David Ladd, Sharon Gurney, Hugh Armstrong, June Turner, Clive Swift
Blue Underground (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD), MGM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC), Network (DVD) (UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1 / 1.66:1) (16:9)
Though it doesn't tend to pop up on lists of impressive debut films, horror or otherwise, there aren't many genre freshman efforts of the '70s that can quite compare with Death Line, shown in drastically altered form in U.S. theaters by AIP as Raw Meat. American director Gary Sherman (who went on to helm Dead and Buried, Lisa, Vice Squad, Wanted: Dead or Alive, and the troubled Poltergeist III) managed to mount a very atmospheric and memorably macabre tale of urban violence and unease that exploited the inherent creepiness and danger of underground city transportation.
When a businessman prowling London's red light district late at night ends up attacked in the Russell Square tube station, a young couple getting off of the last train, Alex (Ladd) and Tricia (Gurney), try to come to his aid. It turns out the victim was a bit more prominent than expected, and soon vinegar-tongued Inspector Calhoun (Pleasence) is on hand to try to unravel the mystery of what's lurking in the depths of the earth when the trains stop running at night... and occasionally howling, "Mind the doors." As it turns out, the threat is tied to an 1892 tunnel collapse by a quickly bankrupt company that left several male and female workers for dead. Now the legacy of that tragedy is thriving within the walls and posing a threat to the population at large, with Alex and Tricia soon to find out first hand how horrible and yet pitiable the attacker really is.
Though conceived and marketed as a commercial horror film for the masses with potential for double feature play, Death Line is much more ambitious and striking than it has any right to be thanks to some eye-popping camerawork, including some nifty transitions between above and blow ground. One lengthy tracking shot early in the film revealing the predator's lair and his sad secret is still a killer, and the whole film has a dark, dank atmosphere that really gets under your skin. Lone American actor Ladd (son of Alan and brother of producer Alan Ladd Jr.) has some pretty forced line deliveries at times, especially when he's supposed to be angry, but everyone else is terrific with Pleasence in particular having a ball as one of the more irascible English policemen in cinema history. The film isn't quite as gory as you might expect, but it definitely wallows in the grotesque at times with plenty of half-eaten corpses and a little pre-Texas Chainsaw meathook hanging for good measure. Much of the film's impact can be attributed to the powerful, very physical performance by Hugh Armstrong (who doesn't even get a name); he only has one repeated line of dialogue, but his vocalizing and nonverbal movements are enough to make a major impact.
A film far more often spoken of than actually seen for over a decade following its theatrical run, Death Line first started circulating in the horror fan circuit in gray market copies of the rare Japanese VHS release (which oddly censored a single memorable bit of profanity from Pleasence). Other VHS editions popped up here and there, but it didn't earn an American video release of any kind until MGM issued a DVD in 2003 sporting the original uncensored cut of the film (despite still bearing the Raw Meat title card) and the theatrical trailer, in a slightly windowboxed 16x9 transfer. An HD version subsequently popped up on MGM HD, looking like a solid upgrade from the same source but featuring some obvious noise filtering applied to make it suitable for broadcast (a common practice for the channel).
In 2017, Blue Underground gave the film its Blu-ray debut as a dual-format release (including a DVD as a second disc) with a fresh 2K scan sporting the original Death Line title. Anyone familiar with this film knows how grainy and dark it can be, and thankfully that look has been maintained here with the original grain kept intact and not smudged away at all. Colors are extremely vivid at times (especially the opening credits with those multi-colored lights) and dull and brownish when required, while the darker scenes exhibit more detail than before without being overly brightened. The DTS-HD MA English mono audio sounds robust and can be played with optional English SDH, French, or Spanish subtitles. There's also an option to play the film with an audio commentary with Sherman, producer Paul Maslansky, and assistant director Lewis More O'Ferrall, moderated by David Gregory. It's a very candid and often funny track that starts off talking about their displeasure with the reedited ("butchered") AIP version sold out from under them, then covers how they managed to sneak around London city regulators by submitting a doctored spy script instead of this one to shoot in one key station, the joys of working with Pleasence, Armstrong's relentless commitment on set to staying in character, and the connections to everything from Monty Python to Frenzy. On the featurettes side, Sherman returns and is joined by executive producers Jay Kanter and Alan Ladd Jr. for "Tales from the Tube" (18m51s), which starts off with an expanded version of a Jonathan Demme anecdote heard in the commentary and goes through some of the ins and outs of the film's production, including an attempt to wrangle in Marlon Brando! "From the Depths" (12m41s) features David Ladd and Maslansky having a cozy chat about the Ladd family connection that was instrumental in getting the film made, the ice-cold shooting conditions, the intimidating challenge of acting opposite Pleasence, and lots more. Finally, Armstrong gets his turn in "Mind the Doors!" (15m36s), recalling how his segued from an ill-advised stint in the military to acting which led to theater, this film, and subsequent projects including How to Get Ahead in Advertising and lots of British TV. Also included are both the Death Line and Raw Meat trailers, a trio of U.S. TV spots, two radio spots, and a 110-image gallery of extensive posters and stills including the ballyhoo-crammed American pressbook and some pretty wild double features and international designs. The reversible art features designs for both titles, and an enclosed booklet features a new rundown of the film's production history by Michael Gingold and a Pleasence bio by Christopher Gullo.
MGM DVD Frame Grabs
Reviewed on June 6, 2017.