Just what is it about underground tunnels and cannibals? It seems like you can’t go two steps in an underground tunnel without bumping into some kind of cannibal, whether mutated or otherwise. I even wrote a novel about a cannibal in an underground tunnel. These two things just seem to go together.
Raw Meat is a British film from 1973 that engages in the underground cannibal sub-genre of horror filmmaking. It’s a fairly obscure offering, so I would not be surprised if you’ve never heard of it. I’ll admit I didn’t know the thing existed until it showed on Turner Classic Movies during one of their infrequent indulgences in exploitation fare. Given that it’s considered a “classic” by no one, you’re right in thinking Raw Meat isn’t particularly good, but I will give it credit for holding my attention for 87 minutes, even when not much was happening onscreen.
As you might expect, given that introduction, Raw Meat is all about uncovering the dark secrets that lurk beneath the city streets. In this case it’s the city of London in all of its seedy, early-’70s glory. In keeping with the grindhouse nature of the picture, Raw Meat is grimy and somewhat cheap-looking, but if you’re used to watching this kind of movie you won’t bat an eyelash.
Leading the quite small cast (got to keep that budget down) is perennial B-movie favorite Donald Pleasence. He plays a police inspector named Calhoun, a somewhat eccentric, but not altogether unpleasant investigator of the familiar sort. Pleasence is easily the very best thing about Raw Meat and indeed he was the primary reason I watched the movie in the first place. He is well used by the film, giving the proceedings a touch of cheeky humor, but also much-needed gravitas when things turn slightly silly. Prolific British character actor Norman Rossington plays Rogers, Calhoun’s long-suffering partner and regular drinking companion and the two of them are great together. Some of the best scenes in the movie take place in Calhoun and Rogers’ dinky little office, hassling the secretary about the teabags she uses for their tea.
But this movie is about cannibals, so cannibals we get. Raw Meat wastes precisely zero time getting to the, er, meat of the story, namely that the London Underground is haunted by flesh-eaters. The very first moment of the picture introduces us to our first victim, a suit-and-hat-wearing classic British civil servant type who gets clocked in the skull and then spirited away. Though this does not happen before an American student and his British girlfriend encounter the victim, unconscious and bleeding, on the platform steps. Before they can bring a bobby back to the scene, the man is gone. Of course he will be eaten.
There’s no actual mystery to the cannibalistic proceedings so I’m not spoiling anything there. Only the details are important, though I must say that the origin story of the cannibals is… not great. I’m also not spoiling anything when I tell you there are no cannibals, but instead one cannibal survivor who struggles to keep on with his subterranean lifestyle after his wife/mate dies of some unspecified causes. All of this is relayed to you within a minute of the cannibal’s introduction, as the movie has no time to waste.
Well, that’s not exactly true. Because there’s not much of a whodunit to work our way through, we are treated to Calhoun and Rogers muddling through various investigatory scenes that lead precisely nowhere. This labyrinth of dead ends does lead us to a tiny moment with horror legend Christopher Lee. I don’t know if this is the only time Pleasence and Lee worked together on a movie, and honestly I’m not exactly sure they worked together on this one, as during the scene they share the camera shows one man or the other, but not both in the same shot.
Lee’s character is some kind of high-muckity-muck in the British government and we are led to believe that the existence of the cannibals has been covered up somehow, but this does not pay off in any way. In fact, nothing pays off at all until the aforementioned American student and his British girlfriend stumble into the path of the cannibal once again, spurring the plot on for the last 15 or so minutes and rendering up a highly unsatisfactory resolution.
I’m not sure exactly what I expected of Raw Meat, really. This is pure exploitation fare and it aspires to be absolutely nothing else. Donald Pleasence may give a charming performance, but it’s only a cover for what is a slight role with barely any substance to it. Pleasence’s Calhoun isn’t even given a moment to shine as an investigator. As I mentioned above, he’s essentially wandering through the narrative picking up odd clues that he never precisely puts together — though he does have something of an idea by the time the film actually ends — and never gets to be a hero in the conventional mold. Sherlock Holmes this is not, though now that I think of it an underground mutant-cannibal story featuring Sherlock Holmes might be quite a lot of fun.
Director Gary Sherman, working from an original story he created, also made Poltergeist III some years later and with Raw Meat he demonstrated his ability to make a buck (or pound) go a long way. The movie is not exactly a revelation on the directing front, but there are some nice moments. The introduction of the cannibal is one of the more signature bits of the picture, as nothing but dripping water accompanies a verrrrrrrry slow pan around of the cannibal’s lair, complete with dead civil servant’s body, before coming to rest on the cannibal himself. It’s arty in a way the rest of the movie is not and as a result it sticks out.
Does Raw Meat reach the heights of other underground cannibal movies? Admittedly this is not a high bar to clear, but the answer is: not really. I watched Raw Meat and I didn’t check my watch during it, so that’s something, but I can’t imagine seeking the movie out for repeat viewings, no matter how appealing Donald Pleasence is in it. So take that for whatever it’s worth.