Underworld is a 1985 British film directed by George Pavlou and written by horror maestro Clive Barker. The film was actually one of the first scripts written by Barker, and was the first feature film directed by Pavlou, whose next film would be the more fondly remembered, but just as critically panned adaptation of Barker’s Rawhead Rex. Pavlou would later direct the 1993 Canadian horror flick Little Devils: The Birth, which received a limited DVD re-release (from Shivers Entertainment) in its home country in 2017.
Underworld did receive theatrical release in the U.K., but pretty much bombed. The film was picked up for US distribution by Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, who released it to theaters for one weekend, as was the standard for Empire releases during that era. However, the film did not hit home video in the US until 2 years later, in 1988. One can only assume that the film was shelved due to its lack of success, but resurfaced once Barker struck cinematic gold with Hellraiser in 1987.
For whatever reason, Band retitled the film to the somewhat less-generic sounding Transmutations for its US release, presumably to capitalize on the film’s more horrific elements. This is somewhat ironic as Barker has stated his displeasure with the finished film, claiming that most of his planned horrific elements were removed at the insistence of producers. It’s hard to find argument to Barker’s claims as the film is undoubtedly more of a fantasy-based affair, with only the minimalist of horrifying imagery.
Underworld opens to find a gang of masked thugs raiding a high-end brothel ran by Hammer goddess Ingrid Pitt (Countess Dracula, The Vampire Lovers). The miscreants all move like extras from Rod Stewart’s “Young Turks” video, had it used a consignment shop as it’s wardrobe department. This very well may have been intentional as the whole damned film is shot to look like an early 80’s music video, which explains why these hoodlums insist on jumping, twirling, and throwing “jazz hands” as they run.
Upon entering the building, one of the assailants injects a young prostitute named Nicole (Nicola Cowper – 1987’s Lionheart, BBC’s “Dangerfield“) with a sedative, knocking her out. The intruder absconds with the girl, while a large brute buys him time by fighting with the brothel’s security. During the fight, the attacker is revealed to be an almost animalistic freak of nature, growling and bearing his fangs, before also making his escape!
The scene relocates to a small, sunlit apartment, where we are introduced to a man named Roy Bain (Larry Lamb, who has had a long, successful career, but I’ll choose to point out his bit parts in Superman and Superman III) . While it’s never exactly said what Mr. Bain’s line of work is, you can tell from the Steven Bochco-esque moody jazzy number that plays during his introduction that he’s a man who gets things done. Granted, I’m not exactly sure what those “things” are. He too is soon visited by a couple of goons, albeit non-mutated ones, who advise him of the missing prostitute. It’s at this time that we learn of a past relationship between Bain and Nicole.
Bain’s former employer, a crooked business man named Mothersgill (Steven Berkoff, who is best remembered as either Victor Maitland in Beverly Hills Cop or Pedovsky in Rambo: First Blood Part II), requires Bain’s services to find and retrieve Nicole. Why Mothersgill wants the girl found isn’t made all too clear, but what is clear is that he and Roy also have a past, one that Roy clearly wished to leave far behind. Also quite clear are the large, caterpillar-like eyebrows adorning Nicole’s brow. This girl is one lazy weekend away from a full-blown unibrow!!
With a tip received from another young prostitute, Bain is set on the trail of a Dr. Savary (Denholm Elliott – Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Vault of Horror), who in addition to treating Nicole’s various ailments, has also been supplying the woman with a mysterious street drug, which Bain finds a vial of in her bedroom. It’s very quickly revealed that Savary is the one who abducted Nicole, and is keeping her under observation in a subterranean lair! Populating this lair is the small gang of mutants from the opening sequence, whom Savary uses to run his errands in exchange for supplying their drug habits.
In time, Bain tracks down Savary’s underground network, confronting the fanged freak from Nicole’s abduction just outside the tunnel entrance. The beast-man is killed in the fight, leaving the entrance pretty much unguarded. However, instead of actually entering this “underworld”, Bain first decides to pay another visit to Mothersgill for an ultimately pointless interrogation scene, highlighted by a leather-clad, whip-cracking dance sequence that is neither as edgy or erotic/homoerotic as the filmmakers clearly hoped.
Eventually, it’s disclosed that Savary was responsible for the creation of the drug, which grants the user superhuman abilities. However, it’s also highly addictive and has been known to mutate all of its users. All except Nicole, who has an immunity to the drug’s negative effects. Savary hopes to isolate the cause of Nicole’s immunity, believing that it will help him find a cure for the others. Truthfully, his more noble intentions are purely secondary as his deranged old ass is simply in love with the young woman.
Underworld culminates in a showdown between Bain, Savary, Mothersgill (and his men), and the mutants, with Nicole seemingly caught in the middle. The film’s score (which we will discuss a little later in this review) builds during these final scenes, and is arguably more action packed than the big shootout itself. The film finally ends in fairly nonsensical fashion, with most of the secondary characters dead and no real sense of resolution.
Thanks to poor directorial choices, a dull plot, and ill-advised studio interference, Underworld/Transmutations feels more like a collection of random moments than it does a truly cohesive story. Simply put, it’s a rather boring fantasy film that is heavily influenced by then recently exploded popularity of MTV and music videos. However, for its US release, Barker’s name (as well as explicit mention of Hellraiser) was plastered all over the press material to make it more marketable to horror fans. In these regards, it’s just false advertisement. It’s not a horror film.
It’s worth noting that all of the music featured in Underworld was composed and performed by the Welsh synthwave band, Freur. While some of the more ballad-type songs are painful to endure (in my opinion), the more upbeat instrument tracks were really quite intriguing and fit the film nicely. Fruer would later evolve into the influential electronic act Underworld, taking their name from this film. Sadly, this may be the only reason I would suggest watching the movie.
Rumors began circulating a couple years back (2019?) that Pavlou (thanks to the success of the 4K restoration of Rawhead Rex) was looking to begin work on an HD restoration for Underworld. There was also some rumor that Pavlou was looking to begin work on a sequel to the film, but personally, I’m not sure just how much stock I put into these stories.
All things considered, Underworld/Transmutations kinda sucks. I really just can’t find much positive to say about it. It might sound a little harsh telling people that there’s no justifiable reason to watch the film, but when the guy that wrote the damned script agrees, you can’t really be too wrong.
Underworld/Transmutations was never released to DVD, at least not in the US. There are a couple copies of the film available on Youtube, but all feature piss poor picture audio/video quality, and a few are notably edited.