Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Underworld (Great Britain, 1985)

Long before there was everyone's favorite hot-vampire-chick-vs.-the-world franchise that began in 2003 with Underworld (trailer), and more than a good half a century after Josef von Steinberg's silent proto-gangster flick Underworld (1927 / full film), there was Underworld, also known as Transmutations, nobody's favorite film and more terrible than proto-terrible. 
The feature-length directorial debut of George Pavlou, Underworld is the first of what was originally planned a series of horror film productions to be made with Clive Barker, the man everyone and their mother once thought was god's gift to modern horror, and who wrote his first feature-length screenplay for this movie — a movie he has since understandably disowned. Barker and Pavlou did one more joint production after Underworld, the horror-cinema underachiever that is Rawhead Rex (1986 / trailer), and then someone (Barker, one would assume) realized that the cooperation between the two wasn't exactly begetting good movies. Underworld, in any event, is a clusterfuck of fuck-ups, failing on so many levels that it can hardly be described as anything other than a waste of time.
French trailer to
To an extent, Underworld displays an oddly visible link to Barker's later and better horror movie, Nightbreed (1990 / trailer): both are misunderstood-monsters films, but whereas in Nightbreed the monsters become what they are by birth or bite or blood and live more or less in a cemetery, in Underworld the monsters become what they are due to a drug and live in the sewers. That is where the commonalities end, however: anything of positive note in Nightbreed — relatively decent acting, sympathetic characters, mesmerizing evil characters, intriguing storyline, scares and gore — is missing from Underworld.
But then, Underworld doesn't exactly feel like a horror movie, despite its misshapen transmutations and cheesy and cheap-feeling horror ending. No, it feels much more like a routine TV detective flick, one in which a stereotypical stock character, an asshole (hitman?) turned painter named Bain (the incredibly wooden Larry Lamb [of Blood: The Last Vampire (2009 / trailer)]), is hired by his hated ex-boss, crime lord Motherskille (character actor Steven Berkoff) to find Bain's former love-of-his-life, the high-class hooker Nicole (Nicola Cowper of Journey to the Center of the Earth [1988 / trailer]), who was kidnapped from her house of employment by some pretty buttfuck-ugly guys.
The bare bones of the tale, in any event, comes across very much like the literary equivalent of a paint-by-numbers set, and the resulting film is about as interesting and involving and ingenious as a paint-by-numbers painting. (About the only high-point of the movie, if only for the casting, is that the legendary Ingrid Pitt [21 Nov 1937 – 23 Nov 2010] shows up to play the bordello mother, Pepperdine.) Bain's investigations lead him to a typically mad scientist, Dr. Savary (Denholm Elliott [31 May 1922 – 6 Oct 1992]), and things sort of get worse from there...
Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Underworld is its truly 80s sheen: the entire opening scene, up to when Nicole gets kidnapped, looks amazingly like an MTV music video of the day, something that is subtly and particularly underscored by the soundtrack from the 80s synth-band Freur, a band once also known as "Elephant with a stick of Rhubarb". (There is, for example, a scene made interesting by the music, which picks up and alters a man's saying the name "Nicole" to underscore the actual transition.) Blue tints, fog and strobes, billowy dresses and headscarves, long dark trench coats, and sunglasses after dark — did we really find all that cool back then?
Before the band Freur went on to become the band Underworld,
they released one classic 80s song:

Nothing in the film has aged any better than the polyester plaids and blow-dry haircuts of the decade preceding it, the 70s. But although the unadulterated dated style does make the overall look somewhat fun to see nowadays, the textbook 80s style is not enough to carry the movie. Underworld is simply too sleep-inducing to be entertaining, and has no real positive aspects other than its intensely 80s style, Ingrid Pitt, and a young and unrecognizable and underused Miranda Richardson (of The House [2022] and Sleepy Hollow [1999 / trailer]) as the monsterfied Oriel. (We all start somewhere.)
A failure when it was released (rightfully so), Underworld has yet to find any subsequent popularity, and it is doubtful that it ever will. While it is indeed a bad film, it lacks any of the outsider or off-the-wall oddness that makes good bad films so enjoyable. (Although, to give credit where credit is due, Larry Lamb is so woodenly beyond wooden that he does achieve a perverse appeal, on a masochistic level. One really senses that he does not want to be in the movie.) Underworld is, above all, an inert and unexciting and predictable and uninvolving slab of cinematic failure, and definitely not worth seeking out.
George Pavlou tried his hand at horror again with the horror comedy Little Devils: The Birth (1993 / trailer), possibly hoping for a low-budget D2V franchise like those begun with Critters (1986 / trailer) or Munchies (1987 / trailer) or Ghoulies (1984 / trailer) or Hobgoblins (1988 / trailer) or even the "big" budget Gremlins (1984 / trailer) — but: Nope. Never happened.
As Underworld, of course, they released this classic:

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