In fact, he’d been recommended to me as an author worth following, so a few decades back I’d picked up a short story collection and gave it a whirl. Contained within were one dark yarn after another with protagonists and antagonists often meshed in some bloody tale that involved one dark turn after another. Some of the stuff felt a bit mildly exploitative but not so much that the developments felt fast or cheap, and a good deal of what I read showed a level of inspiration not often seen in the written word. While I wasn’t quite won over (Horror stuff in film and in print rarely frightens me), I did find that the storyteller had some dynamic ideas trapped within his prose, so I kept my eyes peeled for more. It was about at this time that someone recommended I check out a few feature films for which he had delivered the scripts.
Now, I don’t pick on Horror authors even though their tomes may not exactly go bump in my night, if you catch my drift. Horror on the cerebral level – as opposed to being crafted visually in films and television – are two fundamentally different beasts that require different techniques; and what I find truly scary in my mind may not always translate well into images with characters in costumes backed up by ample technical effects. I’ve made observations in the past about how I think Stephen King adaptations suffer for much of the same reason – what chills me while reading in the dark isn’t the same as when I’m sitting with popcorn in a movie theater – so I’m going to preface my thoughts on Underworld (1985) the exact same way: all of this may’ve worked in prose, but so far as I can tell there’s a good bit that’s been lost – if not downright sacrificed – in translation.
As a result, I found far too much of Underworld underwhelming.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“When high class hooker Nicole is kidnapped from her brothel, rich businessman Hugo Motherskille hires her ex-love Roy Bain to find her.”
Argh. In short? Well, Underworld’s a bit of a mess.
So let me explain …
I knew of Underworld under its other released name, Transmutations. (I’m uncertain as to just where and which countries it played under that name – either theatrically or with video release – but I’ve seen it referenced under that name far more than I have Underworld.) In fact, I’d seen it before – I believe it was on home video in the early 1990’s, but I could be amiss on the date – and I remember even watching a few sequences of it twice, mostly because I didn’t quite understand it. You see, there’s a great deal of world-building that has to take place in any picture in order for an audience to fully accept the people, the place, and the premise; and, sadly, that doesn’t quite happen effectively here. Granted, the script from Clive Barker and James Caplin strongly suggests some of the necessary details, but without greater specificity I found it a bit too murky for its own good.
Roy Bain (played by Larry Lamb) is a bit of a professional layout or errand boy … well, that’s only so far as I can tell in the film’s set-up. There are some allusions to the fact that he’s supposed to be a private detective – a hard-boiled gumshoe in the vein of Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, or Lew Archer – but, sadly (again), there’s very little evidence of that life on the screen. When the film opens, in fact, the impression given is that Bain is out of the business, smitten with far more personal pursuits like painting or artwork or some other effete hobby. Still, the affection for a pretty face is enough to pull any deadbeat off his couch; and Bain is enticed by criminal heavyweight Motherskille (Steven Berkoff) to go back on the job.
Now, just what transpires from here is where Underworld feels more than a bit undercooked.
Through exposition, we’re educated to the fact that Bain’s former squeeze, Nicole (Nicola Cowper), is tied up in some shady medical dealings tied to Dr. Savary (Denholm Elliott). Apparently, the good/bad doctor has taken it upon himself to get into the drug trade with an elixir that not only addicts its users but also transforms/mutates them into … well … into creatures, each and every one of them disfigured in curiouser and curiouser ways. I’ve read that these genetic changes were supposed to be somehow aligned to their respective fears, wishes, dreams, etc., but I didn’t quite see how this translated into the story as presented. (Suffice it to say, I found little to no logic for this emerging sub-class of the general population, but what do I know? I’m just a critic!) Nicole is apparently immune to the drug’s side effects, and so she becomes the hope for a cure for those who’ve been most heavily afflicted. As she’s apparently also the mistress to Savary, the script makes her both a source and a cure for the drug. How they were going to cure themselves never emerges, but that’s chump change in the world of hard-boiled drama, don’t you know?
Truthfully, there just isn’t enough foundation for the film to stand up under its own ideas. In appearances alone, these drug users and abusers seem to develop outward conditions that tie in with some internal mechanisms, be they fears, desires, or something more. Some grow lumps, sores, and stalks, while others manifest strength, speed, fangs, or even glowing eyes. Yet, the how and why for these differences never quite gets shaped up in a manner wherein the audience can capably follow along. Think of it as a kind of shorthand that was shared with the players and makers but was insufficiently scaled for the viewers to be ‘in the know,’ and I think you’ll agree.
In fact, I posit up as an argument that Barker and Caplin (separately or collectively) have a fondness, say, for a certain old Film Noir that needn’t be named. (FYI: this is pure speculation on my part, so just roll with the punches.) Maybe they like this old flick so much that – in a form of paying homage to it – one or the other decided they’d give it a thematic updating along with adding some of the appendages and accoutrements to make it a bit more Fantasy, a bit more fantastical, a bit more imaginative. Well, the grit and grime that go hand-in-hand with Noir may not thrive as easily in the realms of the Fantastic precisely because anything is possible over there … and, in territories so uniquely delineated by the black and white of human behaviors, the fanciful just doesn’t work. This homage, then, feels a bit more like gar-bage … and I think all involved deserved a bit better than that.
Underworld (aka Transmutations) (1985) was produced by Limehouse Productions, Green Man Productions, and Alpine. DVD distribution (for this particular release) has been coordinated by the fine folks at Kino Lorber. As for the technical specifications? While I’m no trained video expert, I found the sights-and-sounds to what’s been advertised as an all-new HDR/Dolby Vision Master from a 4K scan of the 35mm original camera negative to be quite good; yes, there are a few sequences of grain here-and-there, but I found nothing to distract from the overall presentation of the story. Lastly, if you’re looking for special features? The disc boasts two cuts of the project along with some archival behind-the-scenes footage, some of its produced artwork and designs, along with an audio commentary by director Pavlou and author Stephen Thrower. It’s a good collection for those who like this sort of thing.
Alas, only mildly recommended.
Perhaps diehard fans of Clive Barker (I’ve been told that there are plenty) might find more to love in this neo-noir Underworld. Purists who follow the scribe’s output might see the trimmings of ideas he’s explored to greater effect elsewhere, but as a one-off? As an entirely independent intellectual property? Sigh. There’s just no narrative substance in here that I could easily wrap my head around to the point wherein I knew and trust that what developed made perfect sense. It’s a dark and murky journey … and I’ve absolutely no idea why it had to unfold as it did in the big finish. I felt like there was more to this story, and still – in this packaging – I’ve no desire to know more.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Kino Lorber provided me with a complimentary 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray collection of Clive Barker’s Underworld by request for the expressed purpose of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.