Even if a an independent horror filmmaker doesn’t have enough of a budget to cast Mel Gibson or pay for CGI robot samurais, they can always fall back on creative camera work, a well-paced script, gratuitous gore, strong acting, or sublime nudity, all of which are fairly inexpensive ingredients that—when added in the correct proportions—make any independent horror film decidedly better. Writer/director Matt Cade’s debut film, UNDERBELLY, has enough of these ingredients to please some critics (including our own BC, who recently posted a positive review), but I was left feeling empty and unsatisfied.
Henry and his pregnant wife drive through Texas on their way to Miami, where Henry is going to promote his new novel. They pull over so that Henry can step out of the car and smoke a cigarette, and suddenly, his wife vanishes: she’s standing next to a fenced field one second, and she’s all PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK the next. Henry begins a laborious search through the nearby town, intent on finding his missing spouse, and he calls his agent, Keith Sweet, for assistance.
Meanwhile, the Haynes Gang—a group of violent sex fiends who recently escaped from the joint—begin wreaking their own brand of havoc on the small Texas town, abducting and harassing the employees at a local donut shop. While tormenting the fat shop owner in the bathroom, the young Haynes sister, Sweet Lily, sees a blue light in the sink drain, her eyes turn all foggy, and she disappears, just like Henry’s spouse.
Much of the movie zig-zags between the two storylines: Henry trying to find his pregnant wife, and the Haynes Gang stirring up shit in town and half-heartedly trying to find Sweet Lily. Strangely, Toby, the leader of the Haynes Gang, breaks into the occasional song and dance routine, and soon watching UNDERBELLY became as unbearably suspenseful as watching an Elvis flick: I was never sure when the characters were going to suddenly stop talking, turn and look at me, and start belting out showtunes, and the tension was mind blowing.
The two story lines don’t converge and twist as much as they just wander aimlessly and then coincidentally bump into each other. The script isn’t awful, but several lines (“Grab your umbrellas, boys! Daddy just had a brain storm!”) made me wince, and it’s paced like MEET JOE BLACK or LOST HIGHWAY, with baggy silences hanging in the air after each line of dialogue.
Cade seems to be straining for originality, while simultaneously borrowing from a fair amount of other films. The Haynes Gang is strongly reminiscent of the Firefly gang in THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, there’s a scene in a candle-lit house with a couple of topless chicks wearing black cloth sacks on their heads that screams EYES WIDE SHUT, and he even references the “Samara rising from the well” scene from THE RING. At the very least, I guess you could say it’s easy to recognize Cade’s influences.
UNDERBELLY is ambitious in regards to its unconventional plot and overall ambiguity, but the pacing was glacial, at best, and nothing much ever seemed to HAPPEN. It’s received a handful of positive reviews at other horror sites, so it obviously worked for some people, and if it ever gets a distribution deal, I wonder how it would fare in the bloody-disgusting forums. In any case, I recognize and respect the limitations of low-budget filmmaking, and where some will invariably succeed, some will bore me to catatonia, and unfortunately, UNDERBELLY falls into the latter category.