Psychotronic Ketchup: The Ups and Downs of Title-ation
If you type the title Raw Meat into the Internet Movie Database, you get five immediate options, known otherwise as "exact matches," to your inquiry. The first, the entry for the actual movie for which I was at the site to gather information (I will get to in just a short moment). But the four following entries, three of which were appended by a (V) which generally stands for "straight to video," were for gay porn flicks. At first I considered the option that perhaps the movie I was looking up, without my being aware of it, had been remade at some point in the 35+ years following its release. But, after clicking on each of the next four entries, and scanning the all-male casts and the genre types, it didn't take long to surmise that if indeed the original Raw Meat had been remade, it surely only did so with a drastic change of plot, and also perhaps with an incredible amount of product placement from Astro-Glide.
Sometimes, despite how we are told ceaselessly since childhood not to judge things this way (even if your "betters" hardly ever practice it themselves), one cannot help but to occasionally let the title of a film influence your decision whether or not to watch it. And I am no stranger to this myself. You see, I put off watching this film for years, simply because of the title Raw Meat.
Anyone who knows me is well aware that there is little from which I shy away as regards the film industry. My circle of friends know full well that I will watch just about anything, from the sappiest romance to the clunkiest action film to the grossest of gross-out comedies, simply so I can have an opinion on it. This even extends to the book world, and before I wish to either discuss logically (or as more often happens, render insufficient) someone else's glorification of a certain author, I will dive into the writer's works for a brief period myself to educate myself on their style. Back to movies, I have always lived by the maxim that I will see any movie at least once, though naturally, due to personal preferences and much like any person, I do happen to prefer some genres over others.
One of these, almost absurdly, is the horror genre. As you might know already from reading this website, I will endure even the most vile piece of dreck as long as it falls into this category. And while I prefer mood, implication, and subtlety over more brazen effects such as a veritable rainstorm of arterial spray, outrageous gore can be a most handy weapon in the filmmaker's arsenal when employed judiciously, or if the film is designed to be brought to cartoonish levels of blood and guts. So, I am not a prude by even the loosest definition of that abhorrent term.
And yet, I have avoided Raw Meat for the past three decades, even while having numerous chances to view it. Perhaps it is merely what the name itself connotes in my mind, and I take the ever rougher style of that particular period of films into account -- the Texas Chainsaw-Last House on the Left and early (good) Argento era -- and even though I am well-versed in those films and know that gore is really not the endgame in any of them, my brain Frankenstein's together a film that I am not quite sure I can endure. I imagine a film featuring the worst sort of ravenous butchery. I picture a slaughterhouse setting or rendering plant, naturally there exists some hidden form of cannibalism, and I create a sordid range of scenarios in which a butcher of this type could place his fellow human beings/victims. Those two simple words themselves -- "raw" and "meat" -- (and this goes far back before the day I had ever considered their manipulation into sexual terms) denote a certain nausea to one that constantly struggles himself with even eating beef (and cannot cook it on his own because of this) -- and I know that I do not want to sit through ninety minutes of that on my even most melancholy and sociopathic day. Thus, owing to my own queasiness, and without having even an ounce of evidence to the contrary, I have passed up a series of chances to see the filmic Raw Meat.
But now my ongoing Psychotronic Ketchup project demands its viewing, and I also now have a compatriot in the office whom my fellows and I delight in calling "Raw Meat" as a pet name. Apparently, I can avoid it not a moment longer. I rented the film late last year from Netflix twice, only to have it arrive snapped in twain the first time, and cracked, and therefore unplayable, the second. I flirted with just buying it outright (it's a relatively cheap buy), but then decided I should go rent it at a local store instead. But then it showed up on Turner Classic Movies' Underground show this weekend, under its original UK title Death Line. My chance had arrived. The change of name, too, allowed me to quash those oddly nauseous images briefly out of my head and watch the film undeterred.
Yes, there is a horrible creature that lives in the London Underground, and yes, he is a cannibal. There are frequent gushings of blood, and some nasty closeups of the creature's cauliflowered ear, which gets punctured a couple of times and spews out some disgusting pus to good effect. Numerous body parts are scattered about the creature's lair, and there is an impaling here and a shovel into the head there. It's the stuff that normally draws me to these films in the first place, and here I was avoiding it all this time, simply because I found its American name unpalatable for obscure and deeply contentious personal reasons. If it had been released here in the States as merely Death Line, I would have looked at the box and said "Oh, lookie! Some horrible fiend or fiends are killing people in the train tunnels! I've have just got to check this out!" Instead, they release it as Raw Meat, and I lump it into the pile of flicks that may be entertaining in some aspect but for which I have yet to find time, like Luther the Geek or Street Trash, because the titles do nothing but evoke a mood of "Geez, I just do not want to deal with that right now..."
Let me be the first to say that while this film is no missing genre classic, it is such a near miss as to be devastating once you reach its climax. In fact, it's that rare near miss in which one can point out exactly what would have elevated it to classic status: about twenty more minutes involving Inspector Calhoun, portrayed delightfully by the often misused Donald Pleasance, and also including what appears to be his nemesis, an MI-5 agent played with a biting, mysterious air in one single scene by that other oft misused horror giant, the great Christopher Lee. Pleasance is such a joyful, rambling nuisance as an Inspector of Missing Persons in this film, flinging non sequiturs and sneaky logic alike at his foes, suspects and friends -- at times, there almost seems to be a bit of Clouseau lurking within him, and other times, Holmes himself -- that I felt Pleasance is wasted tremendously in the film's later sections, where he disappears nearly until its resolution.
Lee is so compelling in his lone scene, in which he springs unannounced upon Pleasance and sidelines the good inspector with some underhanded higher government interference in the case, that it's a shame of the first order that they don't meet up later in the film. Their scene is thick with the implication that this pair has many clashes ahead of them, and I wonder if perhaps another film was intended by the studio as a follow-up, building on this relationship. Of course, I also wonder if the director really didn't know what he had here, and the feeling only arrives due to some playful sparring between Lee and Pleasance that really isn't in the script at all.
All of the elements are there, but it never quite fully gels. Shot on location in London around the Russell Square Tube Station, the atmosphere with the locals and the pubs is cozy enough to make the desolation of the pitch black tunnel scenes seem a world away, even if it is only a hundred feet below the surface. Director Sherman and his camera crew were obviously in love with the perspective shots of the tunnel archways, though they use this effect perhaps once too often in the end. The idea of Victorian tunnel workers getting trapped below ground and having to resort to cannibalism, and then surviving to create new generations of underground murderers is arrived at a little too easily for my taste, even if the idea is really sort of tossed off as a side-note. I wish there had been more investigation into the idea, especially on Pleasance's part, but all he really does is torture the male protagonist over and over with ridiculous questions, instead of doing the detective work. It's a filmmaking cheat, and it damages the film as a result.
Me? I'm in love with the leading lady. Sharon Gurney, an actress of little consequence overall in the film world, is extremely fetching, even if her period hairstyle makes her look like the guitarist from an all-female cover band of the Bay City Rollers. (Come to think of it, most of the actual Bay City Rollers looked like they belonged to an all-female cover band of the Bay City Rollers. Well, except for Derek...) Norman Rossington, as Pleasance's stolid sidekick Sergeant Rogers, does his best to get his job done under the onslaught of his boss' barbs, and still manages to convey some sense of amusement at the whole enterprise. I just wish David Ladd were in on the joke, as he seems stifled at times in his nothing role as Gurney's American boyfriend. I also wonder what the hell Hugh Armstrong, as the mutant underground cannibal, is yelling all the time. Armstrong is fine in the role, especially in the realm of physical menace, but because I didn't have subtitles with my viewing, I am left wondering if anything he screeches is actually meant to be of any importance to his character. (Perhaps it is for this reason that I will purchase the DVD, though I am sure the subtitle will read "unrecognizable yelling.")
Overall, the film is so close to being terrific, that I am tempted to give it a "good" rating (a "6" on my scale), but ultimately, it disappoints. Pleasance enthralls, and Lee is intriguing, but their limited presence only points out where this film went wrong in the production process. It breaks my heart to give it only a middle-of-the-pack "5", because I do want my friends that are horror fans to check it out. If you are a horror fan, even if you are not my friend, I do stress that you should see this, if only to know what might have been (or to see how these things were handled in the pre-CGI days, and especially before Hollywood does finally remake it). You will still have a good, basic scary time in what is such a near miss of a horror classic. But so much more could have been pounded out of Raw Meat.
Which brings me back to the title problem. Really, the surprise regarding the IMDB title search is that there aren't more videos on the list with Raw Meat in the phrasing. You'd think Raw Meat would be a natural for a whole series of gay porn flicks, and it really wouldn't shock me to discover that it was the case. After all, IMDB doesn't have every porn title on it, and really, I can't figure out why the other Raw Meat titles (and some other equally hardcore fare that came up as "near matches") are on IMDB in the first place. Deep Throat, The Erotic Adventures of Candy or Insatiable I understand... those "landmarks" of porn actually garnered theatrical releases, and I don't dispute the fact that on rare occasions, releases with hardcore content can be considered "films" in the same breath with, say, The Searchers. Certainly, there is a place for them in the discussion of the history of cinema, no matter if a certain close-minded proportion of our society would prefer not to see it that way. And it doesn't bother me in the least that they appear on IMDB.
But Ramon Is Packin' Meat 2?
So, what's in a title? Depends on how you're sitting, I guess...