The Lair of the White Worm (1988) Retrospective

Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi) is a Scottish archaeology student excavating the site of a convent at the Derbyshire bed and breakfast run by the Trent sisters, Mary (Sammi Davis) and Eve (Catherine Oxenberg). He unearths an unusual skull which appears to be that of a large snake. Angus believes it may be connected to the local legend of the d’Ampton ‘worm’, a mythical snake-like creature from ages past said to have been slain in Stonerich Cavern by John d’Ampton, the ancestor of current Lord of the Manor, James d’Ampton (Hugh Grant).

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When a pocket watch is discovered in Stonerich Cavern, James comes to believe that the d’Ampton worm may be more than a legend. The watch belonged to the Trent sisters’ father, who disappeared a year earlier near Temple House, the stately home of the beautiful and seductive Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe).

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The enigmatic Lady Sylvia is in fact an immortal priestess to the ancient snake god, Dionin. As James correctly predicted, the giant snake roams the caves which connect Temple House with Stonerich Cavern. Lady Sylvia steals the skull and abducts Eve Trent, intending to offer her as the latest in a long line of sacrifices to her snake-god. Before Lady Sylvia can execute her evil plan, Angus and James rescue Eve and destroy both Lady Sylvia and the giant snake. However, Lady Sylvia bites Angus before she dies, and Angus finds himself cursed to carry on the vampiric, snake-like condition.

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Fourteen years after Dracula was published and one year before his death from Bright’s disease in 1912, Bram Stoker wrote his last novel The Lair of the White Worm (in the U.S. it first appeared as The Garden of Evil). Although the story was well received at the time, the novel is now considered contrived, muddled and unrepresentative of Stoker’s work.

Ravaged by his crippling illness, Stoker fought to make sense out of the age-old idea contained in English literature and legend that giant serpents, or ‘worms, once troubled the land. Trading on myth and folklore, his story concerns one of the monsters that had secreted itself for thousands of years in a deep well over which, in ancient times, a temple had been built, and later, on the temple ruins, a country manor. Stoker’s White Worm was able to project itself in the form of a woman, Lady Arabella, from whose path all common snakes fled as she scoured the land for sacrificial victims.

Years ago Russell had written a script for a proposed DRACULA film but at the time the marketplace was glutted with vampire-themed movies. “Vestron read it, liked it and they wanted me to do it,” said Russell. “But it was an expensive undertaking and there were too many similar projects around. Although! took a new look at the basic story, I kept it pretty faithful to the Stoker original. Then someone happened to mention that Stoker’s last novel was worth reading. I honestly didn’t know he had written anything apart from Dracula. When I read The Lair of the White Worm I thought this is something new it was the old Dracula story in a sense, but instead of bats and a man doing the biting it was worms and an attractive woman. This new twist to an old subject excited me. It wasn’t set in Transylvania either but deepest Staffordshire which hasn’t been seen too much in horror films and it had a particularly English quality about it.”


“Stoker obviously based the story on fact and drew on folk songs, the Loch Ness monster and dragons,” said Russell of the novel’s inspiration. “Even the river running through Staffordshire is serpentine and houses caves where a worm might live. There was a Roman settlement around the same area and archaeological findings unearthed coins bearing a crucifix entwined with a serpent, signifying the mix of Christianity and Pagan serpent worship by Druids.

“This factual background was the starting point for Stoker’s ideas in the book,” continued Russell. “He took the premise that a giant creature had been trapped by a landslide and it had to be fed. So there had to be a priestess as in all Pagan religions and it was her job to keep the worm happy with sacrificial virgins. There aren’t that many around these days but she does her best by picking up a boy scout or two until she finds a nice English miss who is almost sacrificed but is saved by the two heroes. One is an ancestor of the knight who killed the first worm/dragon and the other is a Scottish lad who follows the trail of pagan signs.”

Russell admitted that Lair of the White Worm is Stoker’s worst book. “I didn’t know that when I started reading it,” he said. “I admit I was disappointed by it but then I’d never read his other works apart from Dracula which is a masterpiece, so I think I was expecting something similar. Actually it’s written by someone who had a good idea in his head but didn’t have the capacity to put it on paper. He made a lot of mistakes, one being the priestess switching on a light which in 1860, when the story is set, is before it was invented. Narrative wise it was a terrible mess with two very odd villains in conflict. I selected the best bits and leaned heavily on folk songs like ‘The Lompton Worm for extra detailing. I updated it to a contemporary setting mainly because I’m tired of doing these heavy Victorian Gothic pieces. I feel I’ve added a more believable realism by making sure it’s done straight. My script is basically a detective story a clued-up audience can follow and participate in.”

“”I’ve basically taken the spine of the novel and used that as the film’s backbone, and that is the snake worshipping cult,” Russell discloses. “Stoker created a rather ineffectual villain; it’s the villainess who interested me more, the priestess who caters to the dietary needs of the worm. The worm really is the character that steals the show. And as with the Loch Ness monster, which my cameraman says he’s actually seen, there is the assumption that a land-based creature of this sort could still exist under the right conditions—which in the story is this huge cavern called Thor’s Cave in Derbyshire, located next to a snake-like river. That, and the fact that when you cut a worm in two it doesn’t die, compose the main ingredients of the story, which had more credibility if set in modern times. Also, I based the characters on interesting people I know in the wilds where I live in the Lake District.”


Lair of the White Worm is set in a small Derbyshire village and opens with the annual party given by the lord of the local manor, a descendant of the lord who, according to the local folk song, slew the dragon that held the villagers in terror. Part of the proceedings involves a performance of the traditional pantomime depicting the battle between the lord, and monster. On hand at the celebration is a young Scottish archaeologist exploring the area for fossils and ancient artifacts. While digging. he discovers a strange skull. Could there be a connection between the bone and the disappearance of the parents of the two girls who live at the old farm, now a guest house, on the manor house grounds? Your guess is as good as ours. The rest of the story involves tracing the couple, identifying the skull, the continuance of the pagan snake cult and the existence of the worm. “As the characters delve into the mystery, they unearth a can of worms,” Russell remarks with a sarcastic smile. “A very large can of worms, indeed.”

Russell found researching the project a stimulating process that provided him with several ideas which dovetailed nicely into the narrative to give the film a rich texture that spans the centuries. “I located the farm on the site of an old convent, which in turn was built on the foundations of a Roman villa,” he explains. “There, physically, you have the thematic layers of paganism and Christianity, the conflict of religion, of darkness and light, which to me was a rich tapestry to weave around the central story.” This also allowed the director to incorporate the material within a dream sequence and a number of hallucinations caused by the worm’s venom.

Hallucination Sequences
When asked if he was returning to the sacrilegious thrust of films like The Devils (1971) Russell grinned. “Well, I always think I’m surging ever forward!” he said. “The basis of Dracula was Vlad the Impaler who threw his victims onto wooden stakes outside his castle windows. I simply took that on board and figured if you had a wooden stake with a metal forked tongue it could be useful symbolically. Also Stoker made the conflict in his novel between Christianity and Paganism.

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The farm where all the action takes place was a convent built on the ruins of a temple devoted to snake worship. It was all there, I didn’t drag it in purposely. Isn’t it inevitable I would use the metaphors of snakes against crosses? Anyway the actresses ali read the script and couldn’t wait to be impaled.”

All the hallucination sequences were shot on video. That way they only took a few days as opposed to months on end like my unfortunate experiences on Altered States. You can build up the opticals layer by layer and see if they work immediately. You can be far more precise, and video is easily transferable back to film. Using this method I had a rough cut of the entire film after a week. I’m used to shorter schedules now, without a large crew slowing me down, and that tempo of filmmaking, one I thrived on in my early BBC days, has been thanks to Vestron.

This religious conflict gives rise to one of Lair’s most startling images: Christ on the cross with a huge serpent twisting around his body, the creature squeezing blood from his wounds. This is bound to offend the Moral Majority and freak out the Catholic Film Board (who have condemned most of Russell’s other films), but he is not bothered by the thought and defends the sequence through historical precedent. “That image comes from a Roman coin, which is why I decided to utilize it in the film,” he protests. “There’s no stronger symbol than that to embody the struggle between the two beliefs. In this case, it appears Christ has won, but,” he adds with a chuckle, “there’s always a possibility of The Resurrection of the White Worm, I suppose.

“Anyway, you have to remember that in olden times, the serpent was not an image of evil,” he continues emphatically, “which is how it’s associated today. It was an image of good, a sign of healing. You only have to look at the badge of the British Army Medical Corps to see that; it uses a similar motif to the Roman coin. The serpent in the Garden of Eden wasn’t evil, all he was saying was, ‘Look, you don’t have to shiver all night long, there’s something called clothing.’ He was just indexing the possibilities. Well, we listened, didn’t we?

“As far as potential controversy is concerned, I don’t know. I never try to predict things, because when I do, I’m wrong,” Russell shrugs. “The image of the snake can be upsetting, and certainly upsets me, so it may disturb people. There are plenty of them in the movie.”

Amanda Donahoe has made two films with Ken Russell, the second is an adaptation of The Rainbow by DH Lawrence, but it is Lair of the White Worm which she remembers with most affection. “It was much more fun. There were times when the crew just wouldn’t stop laughing, especially the boy in the bath stuff, which is one of the classic scenes in film history.’

Amanda Donahoe was able to choose what she wore – or did not wear – in the movie’s finale. ‘I wanted her to look like some kind of demented Amazonian tribeswoman.

“The costume designer and I went away and developed this make-up and G-string together and I said, ‘Ken, look, if I feel really stupid in this thing, I’m not going to be able to do it. I will not have the confidence to stand there and be the high priestess if I feel ludicrous.’ He said, ‘No, I understand that. Go away and develop something which you feel good with. I tried all this stuff on, and got a little carried away. It was good and I could get away with it without feeling like a complete prat.

Would she have done that provocative ending to the film if Ken Russell had not been the director? Without a moment’s hesitation, she says: ‘No! Absolutely and definitely, no! I think that because I am who I am, and I think that the reason Ken asked me to work with him was because he could see that I was a fairly brave actor: Castaway proved that. Ken needs actors to input, he needs you to develop his original idea into something that’s real and comfortable for the individual. ‘He gave me an enormous amount of freedom, without which I would have been too intimidated to do half the stuff I did. Because he just literally wound me up and let me go I could be excessive.


Did anyone on the set of LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM actually read the original Stoker text?
Amanda Donohoe: I’m not sure if they did or not but I know that I did not read the Stoker novel and well, let’s face it, it was a Ken Russell film so it really didn’t matter! (Laughs)

I’m absolutely in love with the film, but I don’t know of many others who are as devoted to it as I am. Am I wrong?
Amanda Donohoe: Well, I think it depends which kind of a movie fan you talk to. Apparently it’s heavily downloaded on in the UK as are clips of me as Lady Sylvia on ‘You Tube’.

Was Ken as charmingly bizarre to work with as his words and his work would lead us to believe?
Amanda Donohoe: Oh yes! Absolutely Ken was one of the most delightfully strange artists I’ve worked with. And you know, his body of work, is still more interesting, provocative and challenging than 90% of the movies made in the last three decades. As are Roeg’s in my humble opinion…

Why wasn’t there a sequel to LAIR? I remember hearing something about the possibility…
Amanda Donohoe: There was talk, years ago, of a sequel, but I wanted to move on. And I think Hugh Grant was a little too busy with other things by then!

Your dedication to socialism and your sexuality have always been a strong part of your public identity. But have any of the edgier scenes you’ve done in these early works – like the gleefully perverse hallucinations in LAIR, the frequent nudity in CASTAWAY, ever put you in a position where you’re called to defend your devout, equally well publicized, feminist stance?
Amanda Donohoe: It’s true that I was breaking taboos in those days but it seems that nothing is shocking to the public anymore, least of all extreme violence as entertainment, which saddens me. I’m rather pleased though, that sex and sexuality in general are so much more accepted and talked about. As far as defending my work from a feminist point of view, feminism, in its purest sense, means, quite simply, that one supports the concept of the equality of the sexes; “An extended recognition of the claims (equal rights) of women” as defined by the Oxford Concise Dictionary. This has nothing to do with nudity in art, or cinema. It is a political point of view and a strong personal belief that is thankfully now, enshrined by law.

Lair of the White Worm was shot on location and at Shepperton Film Studios in England over a sevenweek period from mid-February to mid-April this year. It was, according to Russell, a difficult, demanding time. “Special effects take forever to do, and we had to schedule things in such a way so that we didn’t lose any time. Sometimes we’d have two crews shooting simultaneously on different soundstages: One was shooting on the shrine set with Catherine Oxenberg about to be sacrificed to the worm, while on the other, we were filming a convent of nuns about to be raped by a legion of centurions. Never a dull moment.”

“I entered a three picture deal with Vestron because, in exchange for creative control, they gave me $1,000,000 for each. It was a case of “Don’t ask too many questions, don’t make too many demands for 600 on-set colour slides or three translations of the script, and I’ll deliver the goods.’ Only a company like Vestron would agree to that, and they made it terribly easy, although Lair did eventually end up costing $1,300,000.


To those who aspire to the role of film director, the shooting process seems all glamour and excitement, yet the reality is far from the fantasy, as Russell passionately points out. “Nothing went smoothly at all,” he frowns. “It was a very difficult picture to do-but then, all films are difficult one way or another. Films aren’t fun to make; I’d like to squash that idea once and for all. Thinking up the ideas is a tremendous experience, that’s the easy part. Getting them from paper onto the screen is bloody hard work. Having to shoot something of this nature on a low budget is an absolute nightmare. If I’d had a Spielbergian budget, I wouldn’t be here talking to you. I’d still be shooting. Bigger budgets don’t necessarily make for better films. Lair, however, would be a much more unusual story if there’d been more money.”

Although the filmmaker states nothing on the project was trouble free, he declines to go into detail. As far as Russell is concerned, there was only one major disaster during shooting. “Catherine Oxenberg lost her hand warmer in the cave,” he deadpans. “This was a terrible ordeal for the girl.” He refuses to say more, allowing your reporter’s imagination to visualize the actress wailing melodramatically over the loss of her muff.

This tangential anecdote serves as a good example of Russell’s dry humor, a facet of his personality that surfaces frequently throughout the interview. In fact, Russell considers all his films comedies. Lair is no exception. “Audiences don’t realize my films are comedies until the last line has been delivered, and even then, most people don’t appear to get the joke,” he notes. “I would like to state that I actively encourage the audience to laugh along with White Worm.” Whether anyone does remains to be seen when the film is released this month.

As far as the horror genre is concerned, Russell is interested, though not a serious aficionado. He keeps abreast of what’s going on. “I seldom go to the cinema these days, since audiences frequently annoy me. The last film I saw was Blue Velvet,” he recalls. “I ended up with the last man in London with an Afro hairstyle sitting in front of me, so I only saw part of the movie. I prefer watching films on video. I can rerun the best parts. I got one of the biggest buzzes I’ve had in years when I watched Raising Arizona a few days ago. It was a delight and an education to rerun the chase scene.”

On the strength of his hyper adrenalated film Gothic, which turned the night Mary Shelley had the inspiration for Frankenstein into an hysterical vision of great British literary figures out of their
heads, the mind boggles as to what exactly Russell expects to do with the Lord of Vampires. Whatever his plans, he’s not saying. Any attempt at probing further is curtailed by the sudden appearance of a publicist, who informs us we’ve run out of time.


“I do things subconsciously,” Russell concludes. “I don’t analyze too heavily. Horror is universal, and we all have this stuff inside us. I have a horror of snakes, am absolutely petrified by them. They have a psychological grip on us that makes them hard to ignore. In that sense, I hope audiences will find Lair an interesting, unsettling experience.”

“I don’t think I’m returning to the sacrilegious thrust of The Devils, as I always think I’m forever surging forward. The basis of Dracula was Vlad the Impaler, who threw his victims onto wooden stakes outside his castle windows. I simply took that on board and figured if you had a wooden stake with a metal forked tongue it could be used symbolically. Stoker made the conflict in his novel between Christianity and Paganism, as the farm where the action takes place is built on the ruins of a temple devoted to snake worship. It was all there; I didn’t drag it in purposely. Isn’t it inevitable I would use the metaphors of snakes against crosses? “Gothic was my entry into the horror genre, even though all my work has contained certain generic elements. I will definitely satisfy a wider public with Lair as it is a horror film – albeit with tongue in-cheek aspects. One of my favorite pastimes is keeping audiences guessing whether I’m being serious or not, and this film fits the bill perfectly. I always start out thinking I’m going to make a pastoral film, but the darker side eventually creeps in. I didn’t have to scratch the surface very deeply here. All my films are very moral – or immoral, depending on your point of view – and Lair continues that philosophy.

Ken Russell

Dan Ireland
William J. Quigley
Ken Russell
Ronaldo Vasconcellos

Ken Russell

Based on
The Lair of the White Worm
Bram Stoker

Hugh Grant as Lord James D’Ampton
Amanda Donohoe as Lady Sylvia Marsh
Catherine Oxenberg as Eve Trent
Peter Capaldi as Angus Flint
Sammi Davis as Mary Trent
Stratford Johns as Peters

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