Dead Souls

I watched Undergods (2021).

We start with a dishevelled figure in the mist, and then we see the titles in a font and colour appropriate to a Pan paperback or heavy metal album sleeve of 1978. The soundtrack affects the synthpop style of a few years later.

We are in a desolate landscape of brutalist structures. Two scavengers in a wrecked old van scout around picking up apparently dead bodies off the roads.

This is an anthology film of several loosely-plotted short tales, threaded together as dreams-within-dreams or stories-of-stories. We start off as one of our scavengers mentions he has been having recurring visions of a ghost in a sparsely-decorated room. His mate also mentioned he dreamt of being in the back of the lorry, which is the massive tip-off that this is either Hell or Limbo and these collectors are tasked with gathering the lost and damned.

The first story, including the ghostly man, is a sub-par sub-Ballardian work about a couple in a new apartment block who are nice to a stranger who claims to have locked himself out of his upstairs flat… but he can’t be who he claims to be… someone is having hallucinations… and so predictably to a violent climax.

The thread is then picked up by a witness of the climax, who goes off to tell his daughter a very long bedtime story. This turns into a very detailed saga of an old businessman stealing an idea from a rather wild-looking inventor who wants him to back its development. The businessman has no scruples about cheating the inventor, but he declares he has great love for his daughter, whom we see ostentatiously reading Tales Of Hoffmann.

The businessman and the daughter’s latest boyfriend are lured into a trap and then find themselves in the land of the scavengers, where they are soon thrown into the van. They are traded into some sort of workhouse where zombie-like inmates toil mechanically. One of the inmates is told he has won the lottery to be released to freedom.

We have a break to an apparently new world of a shiny modern factory, presided over by a sharp and ruthless young-ish manager.

But the connection is that the man released from the workhouse will spontaneously reappear in the life of one of the workers at this factory, having gone missing many years earlier and now completely silent and zombie-like. We do finally get back to the scavengers wrapping up the conclusion, and if you look again it is possible (though not conclusive) that the body they put in the van at the start was that of the man released back to life in the third section.

Although I liked some of the visuals I was struck by how tired and cliched much of this material is. This could have been made for Channel 4 35 years ago and a script might well have existed for it back then. Tim The Manager is not coded as a “yuppie” because mobile phones and other tech ceased to be indicators long ago, but he is in the lineage of similar characters such as Neil Stuke in the film of Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (2000) and Jochen Horst in The Cement Garden (1993) and various figures in High-Rise (2016), all of which play the game of having an uncertain position in time; the first avowedly grabby “Thatcherite” character on film was Nikolas Grace in Sleepwalker (1984) but he also played the boss of Channel 23 in the Max Headroom TV Movie a year later, which was set in a world much like the Hell we see in this film. Other overused devices: anachronistic technology (mechanical typewriters, dial-faced telephones), art-deco design and Central European locations to evoke an apparently alternative 20th century where the history is unstatedly different. Constant in all this seems to be a desire to be “Kafkaesque” without appreciating the humour and wonder that occurs in his stories, which aren’t all set in penal colonies. Maybe the imitators simply haven’t read them, or they only saw that Channel 4 series Ten Great Writers, which had Tim Roth acting out bits from The Trial and it was all resolutely grim and serious.

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