A strange and evocative film, Undergods is a portmanteau fantasy horror with the seams sanded flat and then caulked in an attempt to hide the joins.
Even so, it falls into clearly discernible distinct chunks, which seemingly bear little relation to each other. First up, K and Z, a pair of post-apocalyptic dealers in humans, dead for meat, live as slaves. Then on to the story of a man whose life is invaded by a stranger, who is soon sleeping with his wife in his own home. Then on to a bedtime story told by a father to his daughter. The story itself comes next, of a “merchant” stealing a mysterious thin man’s invention and then winding up on a quest with his daughter’s no-good boyfriend to find the same thin man. The merchant and the boyfriend end up in the world of K and Z, somehow – a portal of some sort – and bad stuff befalls them, as you might expect in a realm of slavery and human meat. And then we’re on to the most conventional bit of all, an awkward man’s life falling apart after his wife’s 15-years-disappeared first husband returns, semi-catatonic but clearly with a hold on the affections of the wife.
What unites all these elements is that they’re all stories about underdogs. Not “every dog has his day” underdogs, but underdogs in their natural element. Any dog trying to have his day in Undergods is cruelly re-apprised of his status.
What a bizarre film, the debut by Spanish-born, London-domiciled comic-book writer, photographer and podcaster Chino Moya, who has somehow managed to persuade a reliably spicy group of actors to take part: Kate Dickie, Ned Dennehy, Géza Röhrig (who you might remember from the epically bleak Son of Saul) and Burn Gorman are the best known but the entire cast seem to have been chosen for their ability to access a frenzied dark side.
There is Estonian money involved in this UK co-production (Ridley Scott’s production outfit is involved too), and it’s been mostly shot in Estonia, where slabby Soviet-era architecture is well used to suggest post-apocalyptic decay. Moya’s concrete-coloured world is a bad dream, of Kafka’s paranoia and the Grimm brothers’ brutal worldview shot through with Derek Jarman’s decaying punk aesthetic. It’s Mittel Europ on the way down, the twilight of the gods, or dogs, as if the Soviets had taken over the entire continent after the Second World War and just let it go to shit.
There’s not much in the way of larks. None at all, in fact, unless you enjoy watching weak men getting their comeuppance, sometimes in a fingernails-down-the-blackboard way, like when, in the last segment, Dom (Adrian Rawlins) goes to the party of his boss (Burn Gorman), gets absolutely wasted and ends up singing My Way at full drunken bellow. “For what is a man, what has he got, if not himself…etc etc” How apt. No one in Undergods has done it their way.
Throughout this narratively oblique exercise in stygian atmospherics we’ve been cradled on a score (by Wojciech Golczewski) of lovingly used old-school synths, and watched visuals shot in the blue-tinged palette that post-apocalyptic films often deploy, though given an extra wipe of grime by DP David Raedeker.
A jaunty Europop song plays as the end titles come up, a mocking reference to the sort of closure that films generally offer but this one has deliberately withheld. Will Moya gambol in the same territory in his next film? Would this one give up some of its secrets if rewatched on recreational drugs? Would MDMA help?
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© Steve Morrissey 2021