Reviewed by Johnny Butane
Starring Mark Reeb, Fritz Beer, John Mense, Joe Abercrombie
Directed by Matt A. Cade (interview)
When I first heard from Matt Cade, director of Underbelly, it seemed like just another e-mail from an indie filmmaker wanting us to talk about their movie. A dime a dozen these days, but something about Cade’s e-mail got me curious. What, exactly, made Underbelly so special?
The answer, from Cade’s perspective, was covered in the first story I did on Underbelly. The answer, from my perspective having now watched it twice (something more or less unheard of with any indie films these days) follows…
The film starts as a girl is driving home to see her parents, chatting on the phone about her troubles with a friend, and getting pulled over. No one gets out of the car as she obliges, so she calls up the State Troopers to verify it really is a cop. When she finds out it’s not and tries to get away, the car simply will not move anywhere, having been chained to the other car when she wasn’t paying attention.
Right here you’d expect a monster or a slasher or maybe even a ghost to show up and wreak havoc but no … instead she sees something. Something that terrifies her beyond rationality. The scene ends with her bathed in blue light, screaming.
Then we meet our first lead, Henry Rose, an author on the way to a trade show with his pregnant wife. They pull over to the side of the road to stretch their legs, and when Henry turns around, she’s gone. They’re in the middle of nowhere so abduction is not a possibility. At lest not by conventional means. No, she’s just … gone.
He freaks and heads to the nearest town, which is so small and backwater they don’t even have their own police force. At the local bar he meets the other characters we’ll spend the film with; Toby, Terry, Sweet Lily and Eugene, aka Mishap. They’ve just rolled into town for their own reasons; nothing nearly as noble as searching for a loved one. They’re there for money. Henry and Toby have a tense encounter, which Henry is lucky to get away from, as we soon see what this group is capable of when they’re bored.
Pretty soon Sweet Lily has vanished, as well, drawn to a blue light just like the first girl. Her family, as we later learn the boys are, don’t seem terribly concerned with her sudden disappearance, even taking the time to break into song now and then.
Whoa, what? Yes, they break into song. The first time it happens is pretty bizarre, the second time even more so. It comes out of nowhere and in all honesty doesn’t make a lot of sense, but then there’s not much about Underbelly that does. The whole movie just seems … “off” is the best way I can put it.
It’s hard for anyone to come up with something original in this day and age, so it’s weird for me to write this, but … I have to say it, Underbelly just might be the most original indie film I’ve seen in a long time. It’s not perfect by any means, indeed it’s ripe with first-time feature issues, but it shows a filmmaking and storytelling skill that is far outside what we consider the “norm”. From the sound design (a character in and of itself) to the camerawork to the choice of casting, Underbelly is not a film I’ll be forgetting about anytime soon.
So, what of those issues? First, Underbelly is far too long. There are some scenes that could’ve easily been trimmed in half or, as with the mini golf scene in which the family is out having a goofy good time, eradicated all together. There is a steadily building sense of dread and despair throughout, which is unfortunately circumvented by some of these overlong scenes. The pacing is nowhere near what you see in pretty much anything these days, which for me is a refreshing change, but to speed it up a little bit probably wouldn’t hurt anything.
The acting is solid throughout with some minor exceptions; it’s far better than I expected which is really all that matters. Beer especially, as the psychotically loveable Toby, does a great job with what he’s given be it massacring or pounding out a dance number with a fire axe. Yeah, like I said, this is weird movie, folks.
I can say this; Underbelly is not a film for everyone. I showed it to a friend of mine recently; a friend who normally latches on to the strange and unusual, and he just didn’t know what to make of it. Hence the second viewing I needed. If the pacing were picked up and some editing issues fixed, along with the exorcism of a scene or two, I’m sure it’d make this even more effective.
Cade’s a director to keep an eye on, that’s for damn sure. He’s got a very strange sensibility that I’m sure could deliver some great headfuck horror down the road if given the right resources. I’ll be interested to see where Underbelly goes from here and how others react to it but one things for sure; I’m a fan.
4 out of 5
Discuss Underbelly in the Dread Central forums!