70s Rewind: DEATH LINE, People Are Hungry Underground

Donald Pleasance stars in a grungy and gritty tale of going underground, directed by Gary Sherman and now streaming on The Criterion Channel.

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70s Rewind: DEATH LINE, People Are Hungry Underground

I say, old boy, what's that you're eating?

Death Line (aka Rough Meat) (1972)
Now available to stream on The Criterion Collection .

Donald Pleasance chews the scenery, early and often, in a horrifying British drama by American filmmaker Gary Sherman, in which two distinctly different worlds exist.

Living in the everyday world that is common to most ordinary people, Inspector Calhoun (Pleasance) rules over his police bureau in London with an iron hand, constantly barking orders at his subordinates, who have come to accept his stern demeanor, especially since he rarely bites. When a crime is committed, no matter the victim, he is committed to bringing the wrongdoer to justice, no matter what it takes.

Living in the underground world that is shrouded in secrecy are desperate, uncivilized people, who will do anything to survive. Theirs is a day-to-day existence, driven by primal needs. They are never satisfied with their lot in life, because they don't even know what that means.

The two worlds collide occasionally, though the ordinary world believes that theirs is the only one that matters and so have never deigned to investigate what lies beneath.

Inspector Calhoun, however, is a bulldog who never sleeps well and always demands answers. One morning, he hears a report about a missing man, James Manfred, O.B.E., which means, in Calhoun's world, that he is important to people who can give Calhoun trouble if the police cannot locate him promptly.

Calhoun promptly orders that his men bring in the two university students who claimed that they encountered the man on an underground platform the night before and immediately begins grilling the young American Alex Campbell (David Ladd), soon enough moving on to Alex's British girlfriend (Sharon Gurney), neither of whom are able to supply much actionable information.

Meanwhile, underground, we see long, lingering shots awash in subdued earth tones and somber quiet, interrupted only occasionally by wails and moaning, as the hellish landscape eventually encompasses all manner of disturbing and distressing shapes of pain and punishment.

In his first feature-length narrative film, after helming television advertisements and documentaries, director Gary Sherman showed an impressive ability to compare and contrast the two worlds that are followed on screen. (After a delay of some nine years, Sherman made the assured horror drama Dead & Buried, following that with a string of consistently personal genre offerings.)

Up above, the world is bustling with activity. Things may be hectic, yet they seem fairly normal, which is reflected in the measurably brighter daytime settings, framed to emphasize the normality of life, and mostly filled with people and objects.

Down below, though, the shots tend to start on the horizontal plane before twisting and ducking and turning to enter smaller, tighter spaces. It feels cluttered, claustrophobic, and confining. Naturally, this has a huge influence on those who dwell there, as well as any who come in contact with the inhabitants.

The push and pull of the narrative and the contrasting dynamics of the two worlds depicted slowly begin to consume any objectivity; somehow, they are, simultaneously, compelling and repulsing, leaving me to grab on to the abrasive Inspector Calhoun, whose piercing quest for a solution punches through obstacles with a devil-may-care attitude.

I would not want to visit such a place again, which may give the unwary some idea as to why Death Line -- cut by American International Pictures and released as Raw Meat some months after its original British release -- stubbornly lays claim to a dedicated following among film buffs.

70s Rewind covers international and indie genre films and TV shows that are available on legal home video formats and/or streaming services.

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Donald PleasanceGary ShermanThe Criterion ChannelUK

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