Underworld aka Transmutations (1985)
Dir. George Pavlou
Written by Clive Barker, James Caplin
Starring Larry Lamb, Denholm Elliot, Steven Berkoff, Nicola Cowper, Ingrid Pitt, Art Malik, Sean Chapman, Miranda Richardson
Let me sing you a familiar tune: Look! It’s this ultra-obscure horror movie with a great cast, written by one of horror’s acknowledged modern luminaries, featuring some kind of crazy plot about a drug that mutates you based on your dreams! I wonder why it’s not better known? There’s no WAY that’s not great!
Guess what kiddies. There is a way. But hey, at least the nagging possibility that it was somehow an unfairly forgotten gem won’t haunt me anymore, because at great expense and with some difficulty, I acquired this rightfully forgotten early 80’s horror dud which marks the fairly inauspicious screenwriting debut for Clive Barker (The HELLRAISER series, CLIVE BARKER’S BOOK OF BLOOD). Guess what, it ain’t that great. It’s not a total disaster, but it’s plenty bad, and, more damningly, pretty dull. But to justify the expense of finding out exactly why this one was so immediately and thoroughly scrubbed from the culture’s collective memory, I’m going to have to delve into it a little.
Things start off with some promise -- there’s some handsome, expressionistically lit 80’s cinematography (plenty of that nice blue haze they loved back then) and a compelling tone of freaky mystery. We open with some weirdos in an opulent London brothel being attacked by a gang of crazy ninja monster freaks, who carry off the comatose 80’s-fabulous Nicole (Nicola Cowper, DREAMCHILD, LIONHEART), a perfectly adequate setup for a bizarre mystery. Nicole is apparently some kind of completely irresistible siren of beauty, which we know because multiple characters discuss it as well as from a heartfelt algorithm-composed synth ballad that croons over her prone form.* That’s a hard claim to reconcile with what we’re seeing, inasmuch as she’s so aggressively 80’s fabulous that she resembles Gozer from GHOSTBUSTERS, but with less charisma. A lot of the movie looks suspiciously like it was shot on the Total Eclipse of the Heart video set, so maybe it’s just a vibe thing, otherwise I don’t know what to tell ya.
Nevertheless, shifty crimelord Hugo Motherskille (Stephen Berkoff, THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS [medical student, uncredited], A CLOCKWORK ORANGE) wants her back, so he drags this guy Roy (Larry Lamb… uh, BLOOD, THE LAST VAMPIRE?) out of retirement to go looks for her. He correctly guesses that Roy will eventually for no reason happen to be standing nearby to a pothole and see the mutants go in, which would be easy to criticize as an unfeasible and asinine plan except that, hey, it works. Motherskille --who halfheartedly claims to not be a villain, despite the fact that his name is literally Motherskille-- has a good reason to suspect that Roy can get the job done, though, because he knows that Roy is the fucking baddest mother this side of Chris Pratt in Jurassic World, at least in terms of how devoted the script is to telling us that he’s awesome. This is always a bad sign, particularly when we get to see the questionable way he goes about setting up his so-called investigation. Everyone keeps insisting that Roy is the best, but boy, if this really is the best, it’s hard to see how society functions at all. As you begin to get more and more annoyed about Roy’s somnambulistic monotone and his ineffectual detective work, you’ll also start to notice that people in this movie say his name a lot. Which will either begin to exponentially infuriate you, or, if you’re taking a drink every time they do, will save your moviegoing experience (but also possibly kill you, so plan accordingly).
As Roy begins to unravel the mystery, the few hints of genuine intrigue the beginning managed to conjure quickly fade, as it becomes increasingly obvious that the answers (to the extent that the nonsensical plot even delivers answers) are surprisingly uninteresting and straightforward. Seems there is some kind of drug being manufactured by Dr. Savary (Denholm Elliot, TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER, THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD, and, uh, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC I guess) which does… something with dreams (?) and then turns you into a mutant drug addict. Only Nicole is immune from its mutating effects, for reasons which might be interesting if the movie ever got around to explaining them. Everyone wants a piece of Nicole so they can figure out what the deal is, although it’s kinda unclear what the drug does anyway or why it’s such a big deal to everyone. It’s kinda cool that the mutants here (spoilers?) actually turn out to be the good guys, kinda prefiguring the structure of Barker’s later, better NIGHTBREED, but the villains here aren’t as good and neither are the monsters. The makeup design looks like shit -- you gotta either go cooler or grosser; just lumpy ain’t getting the job done, especially since we never really learn much about any of them. Gradually the whole conflict kind of runs out of steam and goes nowhere, ending in an indifferently staged gunfight, which is something tantamount to an unforgivable failure of imagination considering this is a Clive Barker film.
Despite having Denholm Elliott, Steven Berkoff, Art Malik, Ingrid Pitt, Sean Chapman (uncle Frank from Hellraiser!) and even a little Miranda Richardson, things get less interesting with every minute of screentime. You want to like this one, but it just doesn’t give you a lot of ammo to defend it. It’s too uneventful, sometimes to the point that it seems deliberately anticlimactic. At one point both our hero and the villain are injected with the supposedly deadly transmuting drug. And guess what -- absolutely nothing happens, and no one ever mentions it again! They don’t even seem to get high! Far too much time is spent on the gradually deflating mystery narrative, and once it finally gets where it’s going, none of the interesting possibilities are really touched on, it just turns into a small-scale gang fight between gangsters and monsters (but the monsters don’t have special powers or anything, just guns). Clive Barker has apparently stated that this film was one of the reasons he directed HELLRAISER himself (which turned out to be a great decision), but shit, it’s hard to imagine how this could ever have worked to begin with, unless they completely changed the screenplay -- which may well have been the case, considering the interesting hints that there was originally something about, I dunno, dream zombies or something? If there ever was anything interesting, though, it didn't make it to the final version. It’s not the absolute worst Clive Barker adaptation (BOOK OF BLOOD is easily duller and uglier; at least this one is nicely lit) but it may well be the most disappointing. But hey, at least it ultimately led us to HELLRAISER. Whenever you’re experimenting with really new ideas, you gotta expect a few unfortunate Transmutations along the way.
*The film's music was produced by synthpop group Freur, which later evolved into the band Underworld (apparently they named themselves after this film! Well, at least someone was a fan). They suck, but at least they give the whole enterprise a little personality and energy. They’re also on the soundtrack for LET ME IN, so good for them, coming up in the world.
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