The early 1970s were a golden age for unusual, sleazy urban horror films in Britain. From Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972) to Douglas Hickox’s Theatre of Blood (1973), Robert Fuest’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) to Amicus Studios’ array of portmanteau films, London in particular proved to be a deadly and horrific place – a city filled with salacious sadists. One of the strongest films to emerge out of this unusual trend was undoubtedly Gary Sherman’s Death Line (1972), a film that revels in the grimy atmospherics of central London.
Sometimes going under the title of Raw Meat, Sherman’s film follows Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasence) as he tries to solve an increasing number of missing person cases revolving around Russell Square tube station. When two students, Alex (David Ladd) and Patricia (Sharon Gurney), find a dead man in the station, whose body then quickly disappears, Calhoun is confounded, especially as the man was a top MP whose fate brings the attention of the secret service in the form of Stratton-Villiers (Christopher lee). But what has all of this to do with the tube station and strange murmurings regarding a group of workers who became trapped there during its construction many years earlier?
Sherman’s film is explicitly concerned with its London locations. Focusing on only a handful of places around the centre of the capital gives the film a local, claustrophobic atmosphere, one that only builds as the grim reality of the narrative unfolds.
Here are the key locations from Death Line as they stand today.
The strip clubs
Sherman pulls no punches in showing the sleazy nature of central London in the early 1970s. From the film’s opening titles, we see the neon lights of grimy Soho doorways as James Manfred OBE (James Cossins) trawls the strip clubs. Though Sherman is creatively abstract with a number of these shots, one of the clubs clearly shown is at 46 Old Compton Street. Today, the building is an office space.
The tube station at the heart of the mystery is framed throughout as Russell Square, though the film in fact uses several others (as we will see). However, Sherman does link the underground shots of his film with the real outer exterior of the station several times: for example, in this final shot from the opening sequence. The station is a little busier today, but its quaint red-tiled walls, designed by Leslie Green, still thankfully remain.
We see fragments of Patricia and Alex’s life throughout the film, whether trawling bookshops or generally taking advantage of London’s cultural opportunities. In one instance, we see them returning from a night out at the theatre. What we see is actually the side-entrance of the Battersea Arts Centre and, though slightly less grand today, it’s certainly still recognisable.
Sherman shows us a closer view of the entrance, when its exterior was painted a bright white. Today it’s a dark grey.
Patricia and Alex live in an enviably bohemian pad near Euston. We see the flat mostly from the inside, but when Patricia goes missing, Alex quickly leaves the building to find her. Sherman shows us that the building used is Grafton Mansions, a block of flats on Duke’s Road in Bloomsbury. We first see it as we follow Alex running down the stairwell.
As Alex leaves, we see the name of the flats, which is still there today, though the building has had a lick of paint in the intervening years.
The majority of the action underground is split between two locations. The cannibals’ lair, which it’s implied is further down the line, was in fact shot in Shoreditch at the Bishopsgate Goods Marshalling Yard. However, with the area around that now taken up by the Powerleague football pitches, and access not possible, I opted to visit the other unusual location: the now closed Aldwych tube station.
The station was closed in 1994, though it was mostly only open before then during peak hours, which explains why it was so popular with many filmmakers. It was a notoriously quiet station, even when open.
Today the station is only open to the public for the occasional guided tour organised by Hidden London and Transport for London. It’s in remarkably good condition, and many of the shots of the film show it exactly as it remains now. This includes the station’s famed wooden lifts, which were still working at the time of filming.
Although Sherman was one of the first to make use of the spooky station, its remarkable condition has made it an increasingly popular location, particularly in period television drama. The station can be seen in everything from the modern series of Sherlock to the music video for The Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter’.
Visits to the abandoned station can be organised through the London Transport Museum website. It can make for a spooky trip, however, especially for viewers who will inevitably recall the echo of Death Line’s troglodyte cannibals: “Mind the doors!”