Plenty of movies use the “storyteller” frame. One character, in one world, will begin a tale that transports us, the audience, to a different world. The Princess Bride is a prime example. However, very few (if any) movies make this transition between worlds actually matter to the plot, giving characters the ability to travel between the two and confirming both worlds to be fully “real.” Undergods does exactly that. In director Chino Moya’s grim entry into this year’s Fantasia Festival, the audience is transported between these two realities when one character begins telling a story of the other. However, that narrator is subject to being affected by what’s going on in the world of their story. It’s an ambitious way of filmmaking, but does an interesting framing device make for a good movie? Read on to find out.
Undergods begins in a land of post-apocalyptic waste, where disease goes unchecked and human bodies are sold for meat. Two corpse collectors drive through fog along a lonely road, swapping stories they encounter in their dreams. One of those stories is of a man harboring a stranger in his apartment, and we switch perspectives to spend time with that man. That man eventually encounters a father/daughter pair, also in his apartment building, who begin to share a story of a merchant that comes upon an incredible machine. Eventually, the merchant ends up seeking the creator of that machine, and winds up… in the world of the corpse truck drivers.
Still with me? Good, let’s move on from the plot.
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Though the idea of reality-swapping is exciting, Moya’s film paints quite a depressing picture. The stories it tells all feature very sad characters in dire predicaments, and the imagery of the movie itself is nothing less than bleak. This is where the movie gets off track. Though the direction, editing, and overall composition is good, the color palate of this film is so dreary and grey that the story began to feel monotonous. Yes, we were traveling between worlds, but everything looked so similar that it felt like we hadn’t moved at all. That’s not to say there aren’t some great shots in this movie, especially when the camera would linger on the large, abandoned apartment complexes of the post-apocalyptic world. It’s just that much of the other movie tried to capture that same haunted beauty, even in places where it wasn’t appropriate.
“The stories [Undergods] tells all feature very sad characters in dire predicaments, and the imagery of the movie itself is nothing less than bleak.”
When it comes to characters, Undergods does feature a pretty interesting cast. In particular is Eric Gordon as Hans, the aforementioned merchant. Hans is a complicated character; he has a great relationship with and genuine love for his daughter Maria (Tanya Reynolds), but is absolutely not a “good” character. Hans is a soulless businessman, the type that would rather steal a person’s work than hire them to do it. Then there’s Rachel, played by Kate Dickie, who is trapped in a loveless marriage after her first husband, Sam (Sam Louwyck) mysteriously disappeared fifteen years ago. When Sam mysteriously returns without the ability to speak, Rachel destroys her marriage and drives herself mad trying to “fix” him. Both Rachel and Hans characters could have had excellent stories, but (without spoiling too much) the film cuts them both off in quick, unfulfilling ways. Again, it seemed like darkness was shoehorned into their stories, rather than realized a natural conclusion to them.
There’s no rule that says a bleak movie is a bad one. In fact, very bleak movies like The Killing of a Sacred Deer prove that statement to be a lie. However, the bleakness in those movies is earned. They tell stories of grounded characters in grounded situations. The bleakness of the film is a side effect of portraying those characters and situations properly. Undergods, though its technical aspects are good and its concept is absolutely fascinating, does not earn its bleakness. Still, this movie deserves some credit for ambition. I can honestly not think of another movie that tries what it does in terms of storytelling. So while I won’t be returning to Undergods, I will keep an eye out for Chino Moya’s future work. The creativity he clearly possesses deserves attention.
Nightmare on Film Street is bringing you all the coverage of Fantasia Fest that we can fit onto the website, so make sure to check out our homepage to see what we’e got. I might recommend Stephanie Cole’s review of haunted family drama Sanzaru, Paul Le’s take on the hellish homecoming of The Dark and The Wicked, or Jonathan Dehaan’s thoughts on teen period spookshow The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw. If you’re attending the virtual festival, let us know which films have been your favorite on our Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook pages. And for all the best horror reviews online, keep lurking at Nightmare on Film Street.
Review: UNDERGODS (2020)
UNDERGODS, though its technical aspects are good and its concept is absolutely fascinating, does not earn its bleakness.