LairWhiteWorm

My Bloody Easter Basket: Appreciating Lair of the White Worm

lotww

It’s Eastertide, so I’m thinking about human sacrifice. Feeding monsters virgins is for primitives and pagans. We Westerners are above all that. Except we’re not.

Human sacrifice centers Christian identity. Forget the Jesus-loves-you sentimentality churches retail to smooth their theological edges. At bottom, Easter is about filicide. God murdered his only son (incarnated for that purpose) to save people from the hellfire God himself prescribed (because Eve talked to the wrong snake). Of course, everything’s cocaine and cream cakes because God’s sacrifice saves the world and Jesus comes back to life. So it’s human sacrifice, but with a Hollywood ending.

Yet, “human kind/[c]annot bear very much reality[,]” so we’ve turned Easter into egg hunts and Peter Cottontail. Easter reminds us that God kills. A lot: the Great Flood (so much for that beta test), the Midianites (except for female virgins kept as war spoils), Passover (which somehow reminds me of this), and finally Jesus (sort of). Maybe it’s marketing for kids. Try explaining to a child that God murder/suicide loves you. Or maybe it’s because dying for something is what we pay other people to do.

A good tonic to all this holiday self-deception is Ken Russell‘s sly horror-comedy The Lair of the White Worm (1988). Based upon Bram Stoker’s novel, Lair concerns a row among neighbors in the English countryside originating in early Christianity’s battle against a pagan snake deity. The neighbors: Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi, the current Dr. Who), an archaeology student researching ancient Roman influence in the area, Mary and Eve Trent (Sammi Davis and Catherine Oxenberg), sisters living in the boarding house where he stays, James D’Ampton (Hugh Grant), the local lord who owns the land, and Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe in possibly her greatest role), a temptress vampire snake rivaling Thulsa Doom and Lord Voldemort as cinema’s premier serpent villain.

ladysylviaspitsAngus discovers a giant skull in his rooming house’s yard. It accompanies an ancient mosaic depicting snake entangling a cross. Ancient folklore holds that the local lord once slew a giant worm/snake terrorizing the area. The modern locals wrongly dismiss the story as fable; the skull belongs to the long-vanquished pagan snake god Dionan. The boarding house stands where ancient Christians attempted to erect a convent upon Dionan’s temple.

Upon discovering the skull, Lady Sylvia elects to resurrect Dionan through human sacrifice. (The obvious lesson here:  Beware the rich temptress next door; she’ll feed you to her snake.) She kidnaps and seduces a local boy scout (only to drown him in her magnificent marble bath); makes the local constable her vampire minion; and kidnaps Eve to be Dionan’s virgin repast. But Angus and Lord D’Ampton intercede, foiling the resurrection (Angus sports a kilt while playing snake-seducing bagpipes), rescuing Eve, and making Lady Sylvia Dionan’s last meal (at least for now).

As I observed in my prior two columns (this being the third of a demented triptych), the best horror films disturb our moral reality. Lair does so both by offending Christian sensibilities (portraying Roman soldiers gang-raping nuns while Dionan besieges a crucified Christ) and by showing us human sacrifice without yummy lies.

Lady Sylvia is the anti-Easter Bunny. She’s “the glamour of evil” ladysylviaCatholics reject at baptism, lethal and irresistible like Fatima Blush (or Fiona Volpe), and eloquently contemptuous of Christian virtue: “Fancy praying to a god who was nailed to a wooden cross, who locked up his brides in a convent. Did they really enjoy themselves, hmm? Poor little virgins masturbating in the dark and then in penance for their sins indulging in flagellation till their bodies wept tears of blood. Captive virgins, hmm, in the hands of an impotent god. Dionan will have none of that, Eve.” Even knowing she mates to kill, you, like a hapless male spider, go for it anyway. Who can resist a topless Amanda Donohoe tonguing a bloody phallus?

And there’s no having Milady’s sacrifices both ways. As she tells the boy scout she intends to feed to Dionan: “Now, if you’re sitting comfortably, I shall tell you why you must not be afraid to die. To die so that the god may live is a privilege, Kevin, and if you know anything at all about history, you will know that human sacrifice is as old as Dionan himself, whose every death is a rebirth into a god ever mightier!”  Christianity teaches that self-sacrifice always benefits you, if not now then in the afterlife. Being Dionan’s dinner only benefits Dionan. If anybody needs egg hunts and Peter Cottontail, it’s him.

Like Return of the Living Dead, Re-Animator, and Lord of Illusions, Lair confirms our moral intuitions while pornographically spiting them. Christ prevails. The pagans are vanquished (mostly). We learn not to play with other gods, even if (or especially because) doing so brings nearer the uncomfortable truths we construct anti-Christ Easter Bunnies to hide.  We can return, however titillated, to having Jesus and eating him, too.

James Harberson

I used to be a criminal defense lawyer. Now I write comedy and horror screenplays.