Mapping London’s subterranean nightmares
‘The point of cinematic geography is that it is made up’
(Charlotte Brunsdon, London in Cinema)
‘A film, like a topographic projection, can be understood as an image that locates and patterns the imagination of its spectators. When it takes hold, a film encourages its public to think of the world in concert with its own articulation of space’
(Tom Conley, Cartographic Cinema)
I focus here on two films that use underground London as their theme: Death Line released in 1972; and Creep, a loose remake of Death Line, released in early 2005. Films that employ the underground, particularly spaces of travel such as the London Underground, create a distinct geographical world that has a close affinity with cinema itself: space is abolished on the London Underground and ‘turned into time, the time it takes for the tube to pass through the dark tunnels to the illuminated, but spatially abstract platforms of the stations.’ Yet, the cinematic underground uses this absence of panorama to make the space more immanent – it becomes a space in which something is going to happen. Indeed, the films I explore also turn the banal experience of the Underground – that of everyday travel – into a more spatially and temporally complex one, in which the spaces of the Underground return as spaces of horror. If these films, as films, abolish space and replace it by time, they also reinstate, imaginatively, a spatial experience of the Underground that is usually absent in the city.
In post-War British cinema, the London Underground has only featured sporadically. Both Death Line and Creep have their origins in the expansive horror genre, but, within its specific use of London’s underground spaces, one that goes against the grain of the traditional British horror subjects: vampires, ghosts, and haunted houses. When Death Line was released in 1972, British horror was still dominated by the Hammer production company, with its countless Draculas and gratuitous female nudity, and the film poster drew on this as a means of publicity (1), however misleading this was.
In fact, Death Line, the debut film of the American director Gary Sherman, used defiantly ordinary early-1970s locations in an area around Russell Square tube station. The basic premise of the film is that a forgotten people exist within the Underground network. These are cannibalistic survivors of an underground disaster. In 1892, the City and South London Railway were digging a new line when the tunnel collapsed, the company abandoning the injured workers in the collapsed tunnel after they went bankrupt. Only two survivors are left – the hideously disfigured couple known only as ‘The Man’ and ‘The Woman’. The Woman dies while the Man hunts for ‘raw meat’ (the American title of the film) late at night on the platforms of nearby stations at Russell Square and Holborn. The rest of the film is played out as a dark satire on the British class system: a VIP goes missing at the beginning of the film, drawing in a young student couple, Alex and Patricia; while two working-class policemen investigate the missing man. Patricia is eventually abducted by the Man, intended to replace his dead wife, while Alex descends into the tunnels to rescue her before finally fatally injuring the Man.
Creep (2) offers a similar narrative: a single woman, Kate, falls asleep on the platform of Charing Cross underground station late at night, then takes the last train and enters a fearsome underground labyrinth carved out by a viscous killer, also hideously deformed. Through a protracted series of chase sequences (3), punctuated by extremely bloody murders, she eventually kills the monster and re-emerges in the early hours to the same platform on which she began her journey. There is social comment in Creep, especially in its inclusion of two homeless characters as unseen victims; but the monster here is much more powerful than that in Death Line, striking without reason, living in a self-made environment that straddles the above and below ground worlds, and whose murderous impulse is seen as the consequence of a childhood trauma become monstrous in adulthood. Creep is the deformed result of a genetic experiment, doomed to live hidden from London’s normal world above ground. His revenge is only vaguely understood and, although, like the Man in Death Line, he is a social victim, but nevertheless remains as monstrous because we cannot empathise with his plight.
Some of the narrative differences between the films can be drawn out using time maps: here are ones that I made of both films (click on the images to enlarge them).
4 Death Line timeline
5 Creep timeline
In these maps, time runs down the page in the wide bar, divided into 10-minutes section, and also divided into white sections (above-ground spaces) and cross-hatched sections (below-ground spaces). Location changes are indicated to the left of this wide bar. To the right of the bar, different-coloured thin lines represent the ‘screen time’ of the seven leading characters in both films. The major difference seen clearly in these timelines is the comparative amount of time spent underground in these films: bar a short sequence at a party and a street scene, all of Creep is set underground; while Death Line switches between above- and below-ground locations throughout the film until the final 20 minutes, which take place entirely underground. In addition, as seen in the coloured lines, the narrative of Death Line almost entirely revolves around character couples: Alex and Patricia, Inspector Calquorn and sergeant Rodgers, and the Man and the Woman; while Creep has a more fractured narrative of appearance and disappearance centred around the almost continuous screen presence of the lone female, Kate. In Death Line there are several direct cuts between one couple – Alex and Patricia, and another – the Man and the Woman, suggesting that a more direct comparison is being made between these two couples. In fact, as the timeline clearly shows, relationships between couples form the key strategy of the film’s narrative, which serves to heighten both our sympathy and disgust for the monstrous couple below ground. The very disconnection of couples in Creep perhaps reflects the alienation of 21st century London, where singleness and ambition dominate social life both above and below ground. Finally, in Death Line there is a distinct change in tempo in the scenes filmed above and below ground: above ground is characterised by a realist mode, the temporal unfolding dictated by character interaction; while below ground, time unfolds much more slowly with long tracking shots and indistinct lighting. In contrast, Creep maintains a hurried ‘documentary’ pace throughout, with often-shaky camerawork in the extended chase sequences. Only in the very depths of the underworld made by Creep does the camera remain static – the place where he has complete control over his surroundings.
Time-based maps like those I made for these two films obliterate spatial representation – in effect reducing the films to plans that look remarkably similar to the iconic London Underground map, with its coloured lines and lack of geographic specificity. This abstract space, comprising only movement in time, might correspond to our everyday experience of travelling underground but, in both films, this absence of spatial representation is turned on its head in their knitting together of both real and imagined underground spaces. These are perhaps best understood using others types of map, namely the plan and the section, more usually associated with the representation of buildings or other ‘static’ spaces. Removing the variable of time, we can map the spaces of these films in which the narrative is played out. However, unlike similar representations of buildings, the meaning of these spaces cannot be separated from time – and in fact, arguably all representations of ‘space’ cannot be thus separated even if they invariably are so in conventional map representations.
6 Death Line plan
The underground spaces in Death Line are relatively straightforward (6). Between Russell Square and Holborn tube stations, on the Piccadilly Line, is the hidden space of the abandoned line and platform. The platform is named ‘Museum’ and refers to one of the Underground’s 40 or so ‘lost’ stations, British Museum (7), opened in 1900 between Holborn and Tottenham Court road stations on the Central Line. It closed in 1933 and has remained so ever since.
7. 1913 Underground map
The use of this station in the film is topographically accurate, as the station is indeed situated between Russell Square and Holborn as it is in the film. However, the actual station used for filming is Aldwych, another abandoned station that was the terminus of a small stretch of line from Holborn to the Strand. The film obviously draws on the notion of a ‘lost’ underground that is like a ‘rabbit warren’, as is directly referred to in the film. Yet, from the plan of the film’s underground spaces (6), it is apparent that the spaces are more straightforward: a bit of abandoned line, a station, tunnels and the underground lair inhabited by the cannibals. Yet, this ‘closed’ space, with only one apparent entry and exit point, and coupled with the long tracking shots used in the film, contribute to a sense of claustrophobic closedness: this underground is more tomb than rabbit warren. As seen in the schematic section (8), spatial complexity, both horizontally and vertically, is more apparent in the relationship between the above-ground locations, from the ground-level shops, bookshop, café, pub and theatre, to the various vertical levels of Calqourn’s house, Alex’s attic flat and the Police station in the upper level of a tall building.
8. Death Line section
9. Creep plan
Creep’s underground spaces (9) conform much closer to the rabbit-warren description, also used in the film itself, with its labyrinthine quality. Starting at Charing Cross on the now abandoned Jubilee line platform, the film moves to another deeper level platform at Charing Cross, which is actually Aldwych platform, through tunnels to connect with the sewer system, which is both above and below the underground railway; to a long room full of boxes (actually Camden deep level tube shelter), and then a series of rooms in which Creep carries out his monstrous operations, to another ‘lost’ platform (Aldwych again but set up differently), and then finally back to Charing Cross. There are innumerable entry and exit points into Creep’s underground world, from both the sewers and the tube, ones that in the end can only be understood by the monster himself. The abandoned station is named ‘Down Street’ in the film: like ‘Museum’ in Death Line, this refers to an actual ‘lost’ station that lies between Hyde Park Corner and Green Park – Dover Street on the 1913 map (7) – which is again topographically accurate within the film itself. As seen in the sectional view (10), the spatial complexity of the film lies entirely underground, with its many horizontal and vertical movements between the spaces.
10. Creep section
The maps I have made for these two films give visual confirmation of existing commentary on them. The constricted underground spaces of Death Line are a metaphor for the perceived stasis of the British class system and a fear of the results of such a lack of social mobility – the workers returning as monsters feeding on those above them. When the film was made Britain was experiencing its most sustained period of industrial unrest since the 1920s and this influenced the way in which the film’s spaces play out: movement above ground; stasis below ground. Thirty years later, Creep articulates the very opposite of this: a fear of too much mobility, or rather of a promiscuous mobility in the city by dark forces that transgress social boundaries, particularly the twin forces of globalisation and international terrorism, which in the months leading up the 7 July 2005, was very much centred on the London Underground. In this version of underground London social invisibility leads to indiscriminate violence, the loss of identity and personal trauma. As David Pike has observed, when the underground features in an imaginative context, it does so in the light of some fear in the world above: this is true none more so than in horror films, which do this explicitly and often exploitatively in is the case in Creep. It’s impossible to imagine a film like Creep being released after 7 July 2005, when those fears were actually realised.
There’s much more to be said about this, and also about the relationship between mapping and film, particularly further research on how to integrate maps of time and space to produce a narrative map. Yet, I think that mapping filmic space is a useful tool in conjunction with conventional filmic analysis. It sheds light on the differing ways in which underground spaces articulate, in their narrative use of urban space, very different kinds of social commentary in the metropolis.