Underworld (1985) Retrospective

Dr. Savary (Elliott), a sinister biochemist, has created a subhuman species that dwells in London’s underground. Addicted to Savary’s mind-expanding drug, his creations suffer from grotesque disfigurements. The victims’ only hope for an antidote lies in kidnapping Nicole (Cowper), a high-class prostitute. Rich businessman Hugo Motherskille hires her ex love Roy Bain to find her. Investigating the disappearance, he eventually finds traces that lead to Dr. Savary, who has produced a strange white powder that’s coveted by a race of deformed human beings who live in the underworld in the sewers below the city.

A graduate of the London International Film School, Pavlou is not strictly speaking, a newcomer to films, having produced and directed several shorts and commercials in addition to a brief stint as second-unit director on the British-based episodes of Hart to Hart. George Pavlou has long wanted to work on a project with Clive Barker. When he finally asked the young writer if he had any ideas for a film, Barker gave it some thought and wrote down a few pages of treatment that finally developed into the script for Underworld. “It comes from a love of film noir,” says Barker. “A love of good monsters, a love of thrillers generally. I’ve always wanted to see a shootout between mobsters and monsters.”


“Clive wrote this especially for me as a film project, and right from the start we paid great attention to the visual aspects. I told him, as he was preparing to write the screenplay, to think of highly stylized films like Chinatown, because I really wanted to creatively control all the elements. We would like to go much further with some aspects, such as the costumes and make ups, but the budget and schedule are too restrictive in that respect. Still, I think we are achieving something different here.

Underworld is a co-production between two companies: Limehouse Pictures and Green Man Productions. The project was initially developed by the latter, headed by Kevin Attew and Don Hawkins, who have considerable experience in the video field, though their main emphasis has been on longer video documentaries, the most notable of which are Japan-Oil on Canvas, an hour-long record of the rock group made shortly before they disbanded, and Track Record, an in-concert film about Joan Armatrading. Attew and Hawkins have only recently moved into feature film production-Underworld is their third-and music constitutes an important element, mixing strongly with the visuals.

Sometime later, during a discussion in a pub, Pavlou showed the treatment to producer Don Hawkins. A sometimes-actor, Hawkins had already made two features, After Darkness and Funeral Party, but felt this genre was an area of film that had until then passed him by. His initial reaction to Barker’s outline was complete confusion: “I couldn’t really make head or tail of it,” says Hawkins. “So I gave it to Kevin who came in next morning and said, ‘This is wonderful, we’ve got to do Hawkins and his partner Kevin Attew were so impressed with the treatment that they went back to Barker and asked what else he had. He showed them the galleys for the Books of Blood and the producers optioned five more stories, with a possible further six to follow.


“It’s a fantasy-thriller rather than an out-and out horror film, with elements from our favorite movies.” Hawkins elaborates, “in Underworld you’ll find elements of Joe Dante, Spielberg, Italian cinema-especially Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Inferno-and Cronenberg. The lighting, for example, is very Argento influenced. Syd McCartney, the director of photography, knows those films, and knows what I like, and has been doing a great job.”

“Because of the speed with which we did it,” says Hawkins, “the film started to dictate its own style. It was also to do with the fact that we didn’t have much money to spend.” Pavlou is a great admirer of the visual styles of directors Dario Argento and Brian De Palma, and even though he was restricted by the very tight shooting schedule and lack of money, he decided to give Underworld a distinctive, stylized look. Barker is particularly pleased with this highly visual approach: “It has a timeless feel; hopefully it is going to have a strange, removed-from-reality quality to it. I’m delighted by what I’ve seen on the screen.”


With preparation time swiftly running out, the producers had to assemble their cast before the shooting script was completed. “We were incredibly lucky with the cast,” admits Don Hawkins. Award-winning character actor Denholm Elliott stars as the demented Dr. Savary, creator of the deadly drug. Elliott decided to keep away from the stereotyped image of the mad scientist and instead he brings to the role the cold terror of a sinister English gentleman. One of the things that attracted the busy actor to the project was the story’s anti-drug message, a theme that Clive Barker’s script openly develops: “This drug seems to be the answer to every criminal mastermind’s dream,” reveals the author, “except it has unfortunate side effects … It’s an anti-drug movie in that sense.”

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Don Hawkins believes that the performers readily accepted their roles because they had always wanted to appear in a genre film such as Under world. “We’ve got remarkable actors playing the underworlders,” he says. “Some of them have very little to say-Miranda Richardson, for example; Philip Davies, Paul Brown … Gary Olson doesn’t have a word but he gives the most magnificent performance he’s like Sir Laurence Olivier playing a mad dog!”

I wouldn’t specifically describe Underworld as a horror film,” says Don Hankins, one of the project’s producers, “as its action elements derive more from the hard-boiled thrillers of Dashiell Hammett, like Red Harvest. It’s a curious combination of Bogart thriller with tantasy, plus several shocks that should have people jumping out of their seats.

Underworld was shot on location around London in the city’s Docklands redevelopment area. For the scenes in Pepperdine’s elegant mansion, art director Len Huntinford recreated the splendor of Lord Nelson’s fading 17th Century home overlooking the River Thames. The underworld sets here at Limehouse Studios, designed by Len Huntingford, utilize these disparate elements in an exciting, unique blend. Each section of the studio is taken up by a different set and they are all highly convincing. When visiting, say, Pinewood or Elstree, for example, you are soon reminded that you are in a film studio. Not so at Limehouse, however. It is cold, dark and damp, the Studio space resembling an underground hangar. This pervasive atmosphere makes for an underlying sense of claustrophobia that immeasurably aids the set-ups.

Clive Barker
Clive Barker

“I finished the screenplay; they said it needed tits and car chases. I did one rewrite, then they took it off me and they wrote in tits and car chases. There were seven of my lines left.” – Clive Barker

SPECIAL EFFECTS/Peter Litten of Coast-to-Coast Productions
With nine characters requiring extensive makeup and prosthetic appliances, Peter Litten had his hands full. “John Humphreys and I supervised the work. Another four to six artists assisted, ” explains Litten. Each actor took two hours to get ready. Consequently, we were very busy throughout the six-week schedule. We had about eight weeks of pre production. The designs for the char. acters’ mutations were based on special skin diseases such as leprosy and elephantiasis, modified to inject a stronger fantasy element.

Monsterland_08_1986-03_donimo_0058 (1)

“Initially. George Pavlou Underworld’s director came to us with a selection of artwork depicting some of his ideas. But they were very weird and would have taken far too long to do. They were great, quite fascinating, but not really practical. There was one illustration of a man with a bonsai tree growing out of his face. It looked great on paper, but it would have been too unbelievable on screen. You must start with an element of realism because audiences will only relate to something with a basis in reality. Even so, we had to soften and change some diseases we used as inspiration since they’re often totally revolting in real life, and the audience would be overwhelmed with disgust and would have had problems sympathizing with the characters, who aren’t villains.”


While the filming progressed smoothly. Peter Litten was worrying about how he was going to create what Barker describes as the movie’s “one hell of a slam-bang ending!” In the climactic scene, she was to transform Denholm Elliott-who played the mysterious doctor-into first a human hamburger, bloody and raw as she makes him rip off his face, then a human porcupine as large hypodermic needles burst forth from his body. Litten and John Humphreys created a full animatronic body with remote controlled head, assisted with the foam by Chris Tucker.

Litten had to show the complicated transformation that overcomes Savary during the picture’s horrific climax. This involved three makeup stages, two models and an animatronic head for the closeup work. “We’ve had a very limited time to get the transformation at the end together,” says Litten, who had only half a day to film the spectacular metamorphosis. “We’ve had to simplify it along the way. There were originally two transformations in the story but it would have been impossible to complete them, given the film’s tight schedule.”

As it turned out, the sequence worked perfectly, with the crew applauding Denholm Elliott’s tortured cries of pain. For closeup shots of the transmuted Dr. Savary, the actor’s son stood in for his father, his smaller head and similar bone-structure fitting snugly into the animated skull.

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The final, time-consuming result was highly effective and quite disturbing. In fact, the producers considered it too disturbing for the rating they wanted in Britain. The ending was subsequently reshot, substituting a Scanners-style finish with Elliott’s eyeballs exploding and his body bursting into flame.

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Directed by
George Pavlou

Produced by
Kevin Attew
Don Hawkins

Denholm Elliott – Dr. Savary
Steven Berkoff – Hugo Motherskille
Larry Lamb – Roy Bain
Nicola Cowper – Nicole
Irina Brook – Bianca
Art Malik – Fluke
Brian Croucher – Darling
Ingrid Pitt – Pepperdine

Music by

Makeup Department
Jeanette Freeman…key hair stylist
Peter Litton …prosthetics makeup
Vivien Placks …chief makeup

Nexus Magazine#04
Daily Grindhouse

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