The One and Only Lair Of the White Worm

Well, you know, curious cult films that lay way off the beaten path are right up this site's alley.  And you see I've been writing about a whole bunch of Ken Russell films.  Plus, I've been covering almost the entire Vestron line.  So was there ever any doubt that we'd be looking at the new, 2017 special edition blu-ray release of The Lair Of the White Worm?  I really love that Vestron isn't just going for the most obvious, franchise titles first, and instead creating a really diverse line-up of creative and interesting films.  And nothing says diverse, creative and interesting like Lair Of the White Worm.

Update 2/7/20: Just adding the 2003 Artisan DVD to the comparisons, no big deal.
Oh man, this film gets better every time I see it.  I mean, seeing it in HD for the first time might be part of it, but I really think it's my appreciation of the material that keeps rising the most.  Lair is a smart, trippy experience where Russell films the abridged and altered version of Bram Stoker's final, delirious novel, and of course lays his own layers of eccentric sensibilities on top of that.  I've seen (and okay, even taken part in) online arguments over whether this should be categorized as a comedy rather than a horror movie.  I mean, if you're calling it a comedy, you're not wrong.  Certainly, there's plenty of intentional wit (when the cop radios for back up and the voice over the radio responds, "I can't; you've got the car!") and campy humor to be enjoyed, and Ken even tosses the terms "satire" and "spoof" around in his audio commentary; but if you force the film to only play through that lens, I think you're missing something.  At it's heart, it's a "straight" horror film that's not afraid of its absurd roots and proud to indulge some wild divergences.
And apart from bringing the film to modern times, this is a more faithful adaptation than you might think.  Certainly, Russell adds a lot, like the crazy dream sequence, and there are a few scenes, like the worm rising over the forest, that you just know Russell would've loved to include but Vestron's budget wouldn't allow.  But instead of moping over what isn't here, let's celebrate everything that is.  This is a great cast, including an early role for Hugh Grant, who's better in this than he is in a lot of his later work.  Peter Capaldi makes a strong male lead decades before he'd become Doctor Who himself.  And Amanda Donohoe, who would go on to do one more film with Russell and then spend years as a regular cast member on LA Law, is the ultimate vamp.  The worm itself looks a fair bit dodgy, and the actual pit is a pure throwback to drive-in cinema; but the rest of the effects are great, from the super huge vampire fangs, an incredible, gruesome bisection scene and of course the wonderfully ambitious, video composite hallucination sequences.  It's also got some great locations, costumes and set design, plus one of the all-time great horror movie theme songs.
For the longest time, the counter-intuitive rule with this film was the oldest DVD was the best.  Pioneer/ Artisan released this as a nice, anamorphic widescreen special edition DVD way back in 1999, with an audio commentary and everything.  Unfortunately, when that went out of print, Artisan replaced it with a blander, no frills DVD in 2003, and that's been the official US release until, finally, now.  Vestron has just released a 2017, loaded Collectors Series blu-ray to render everything else here and abroad obsolete.
1) 1999 Pioneer DVD; 2) 2003 Artisan DVD; 3) 2017 Vestron BD.
The DVDs offer identical, slightly matted 1.82:1 transfers, while the blu open it up to 1.78:1.  But you'll notice not just the expected slivers of additional picture along the top and bottom, but also along the sides, particularly the right.  Colors are also warmer and more vivid and lines edges are a lot clearer and more natural.  We don't really discover much more detail, though the finer points are smudgier and softer on the DVD, which the blu certainly smartens up.  And we can easily make out the fine grain throughout, which suggests we're seeing pretty much all there ever was to see.  It could be a little more consistent; I'm not saying there isn't more potential for higher res improvement, but there's no doubt that what we have here is an attractive HD image that pulls way ahead of the old DVD.

Audio-wise, Vestron gives us the same stereo 2.0 mix as the DVDs, but now it's in DTS-HD, and for the first time ever, they've given Lair (optional English) subtitles.
Now, the original Pioneer DVD was a special edition, primarily by virtue of having a terrific audio commentary by Ken Russell.  Now Russell always did good commentary tracks, but here he's adopted a bit of a performative element in conjunction with the tone of the film, which is highly entertaining.  But don't get me wrong, it's not him being self indulgent and silly; it's a highly informative track that gives legitimate answers to the questions viewers of this film would have.  But he definitely adds some flavorful character as well.  Besides that, there's the trailer, some text-screen filmographies, and a nice insert.

The Artisan DVD, on the other hand, has been completely stripped bear, not even the trailer.
Hi, Ken!
But Vestron, as we've come to know by now, plays to win.  Working again with Red Shirt Pictures, who are really the top of the line guys in special features these days, Vestron starts out by yes, thankfully importing the original Ken Russell commentary.  Then they've created a new, second audio commentary with Lisi Russell, Ken's widow, and film historian Matthew Melia.  It's a pretty strong commentary, too, although Melia has an annoying habit of telling us what Russell said in his commentary (thanks, we just listened to it)... it would've been a lot better if he chose a magazine article or just about any other source in the world to quote Russell from.  Also, I'd suggest making a drinking game out of all the times Lisi exclaims "YES!" to something Matthew says, but I'd be liable for the fatalities.  But those quibbles aside, it is an engaging commentary that does provide some new insight as well.
And there's plenty more.  Several of the effects artists are interviewed to tell their boisterous anecdotes of working on this film at a young age in a nearly half-hour featurette.  Editor Peter Davies and actress Sammi Davis also get to share their personal experiences in two separate on-camera interviews.  And we get to hear from producer Dan Ireland for a quick episode of Trailers From Hell (oh good; Vestron is working with them now?  Let's hope to see them appear on more discs in future then).  The trailer's also here ("hang onto your asp!"), as well as a stills gallery; and as always, this disc comes in an attractive, glossy slipcover.
Can you tell I recommend this film?  I haven't been too subtle, have I?  Like a lot of Lions Gate catalog titles, this has been locked up for far too long, and getting this in an HD special edition has been long-awaited.  And it's turned out maybe even more satisfying that I expected, as my appreciation for this film continues to rise. Now bring us Warlock 1 & 2, Rawhead Rex, Nightwish, Eyes of Fire, Beyond Re-Animator, Alligator, Sundown: the Vampire In Retreat, Gothic, Metamorphosis: The Alien Factor, and all the other awesome titles you've got!

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