Wednesday, March 24, 2010

UNDERWORLD (a.k.a. Transmutations) (1985)

In 1985, Stephen King wrote, "I have seen the future of horror, his name is Clive Barker." This quote announced the British writer’s arrival on America’s shores with The Books of Blood fiction collection and his novel The Damnation Game. Raw, weird and visceral, Barker’s prose elevated his gruesome stories above “splatterpunk” and the gore-hungry public quickly established him as a literary giant for dark fiction. His horror wasn’t guts and gore for the sake of it, though, and always had an underlying thematic purpose for the bloodshed. His recurring theme was corruption of the spirit and body via either sex or religion (or both), and he favored the notion that there were alternate worlds co-existing with our own that themselves were seductive doorways into things better left unknown.

The following year saw the first screen adaptation of one of his stories, Rawhead Rex. Barker wrote the script and director George Pavlou handled the directing duties. The result was an uneven but not altogether unsatisfying story about the physical and philosophical results of a carnivorous pagan god rampaging through Ireland. The movie wasn’t a commercial success and developed a loyal cult following.

There was another film, shot previous to Rawhead Rex but not released until afterward called Underworld. It got a few issues’ worth of build up through Fangoria then came and went without much fanfare. Because of his experience on these two movies, Barker decided to take up the directorial reins himself on the seminal film Hellraiser, making horror movie history and launching a franchise that has fascinated and frustrated fans for twenty-five years. But what of Underworld?

Barely released in the United States as Transmutations (in a clumsy reference to alchemy), Underworld started as an original story by Barker which was then distilled into an uninspired script by James Caplin. It started off with promise. A high class hooker named Nicole is kidnapped from her brothel by a group of strange, bedraggled people who keep the shadows. A businessman named Hugo Motherskille (played by Beverly Hills Cop villain Steven Berkoff) tracks down Nicole’s former lover, a painter named Roy Bain (Larry Lamb), to find her. Starting with Nicole’s madam, Pepperdine (the underused Ingrid Pitt), Bain learns that Nicole had an active social life outside of prostitution and his investigation leads him further to Dr. Savary (Denholm Elliott, appearing sans shame). Dr. Savary is responsible for a strange drug that causes euphoria and physical mutation. The addicts transformed by the drug have moved underground, waiting for a cure for their condition. Nicole has proven to be immune to the drug and may be the catalyst for a vaccine. And it’s there that Bain finds himself smack dab in the middle of a little Mexican standoff. Blood is shed. Guns are fired. Miranda Richardson pops up here and there. Things end badly.

On the surface (ironically), Underworld sounds like a fascinating little horror-thriller, a hard-boiled monster movie. But the execution is clumsy from start to finish. Bain merely meanders from one leather bar to the other seeking out people who may have known Nicole or her associates, while Elliott plays hide and seek (as well as meet and greet) with the mutants. Pavlou displays either keen disinterest in the material or a lack of directorial talent. Even the usually fine (or at least animated) Elliott is stiff and forced in each scene he’s in. Lamb’s Bain is dull, the mutants are barely glimpsed for the first hour and when they finally do emerge from the shadows, their make-up is uninspired. They’re simply lumpy variations of The Elephant Man. Compare this film to the inventive Nightbreed years later and you’ll see just how blah Underworld’s design really is.

The parallels between Underworld and Nightbreed end there, by the way. There’s no explicit moral gray area at work here. Everyone but Bain is apparently a bad guy and there’s little attempt to empathize with the addicted underworlders. There’s no attempt to make them interesting or even stand out from one another. By the final showdown, there are simply two groups wielding guns. You can’t care which side wins or even if Bain succeeds in his mission. There’s not emotional hook to hang your hat on. Certainly there’s none of Barker’s otherworldly mysticism at work in the story. Human excess creating angry mutations has been explored more cleverly before and since (the gleefully gory Accion Mutante comes to mind) and the idea of a drug that destroys inside and out was actually handled much better and with superior make-up in J.R. Bookwalter’s Ozone.

Sluggishly paced and shot in cramped rooms and dark alleys, Underworld just doesn’t succeed to do much at all. Little of Barker’s creativity is able to bubble up from the lackluster soup. It’s not very surprising that this and Rawhead Rex inspired him to turn to filmmaking himself. That he ran into problems on his own productions is neither here nor there. At least the one making the mistakes on the outset was the creator himself. And for whatever the studios did to Hellraiser, Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions, at least you can point to those movies and see the Clive Barker inside.

Underworld/Transmutations received a VHS release here and a DVD release in the UK. Both sources are out of print and that isn’t really something to mourn in this situation. If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Barker fan, you can’t be blamed for wanting to sate your curiosity to hunt this down. As usual, the argument applies: you’ve seen worse. I’m not saying it’s a train wreck…because that would be implying that something actually happens.

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