Netherworld (1992): Family Ties

Matty sinks his teeth into a compelling Full Moon chiller from one of B-horror’s most overlooked auteurs.

Flawed but fascinating, the Charles Band-produced NETHERWORLD is almost a greatest hits package from director David Schmoeller. One of ol’ Charlie’s most frequently used talents, several images hark back to Schmoeller and the Full Moon boss’ earlier collaborations, Tourist Trap (1979) and the sorely underrated theological creeper Catacombs (1988) (the masks worn by the netherworld dwellers appear patterned after Slausen’s mannequins, and the black eyes of Denise Gentile’s supernatural temptress invoke the possessed look of Laura Schaefer, respectively); and the heart of this bayou-based shocker — how absentee father Noah Thornton, a role inhabited by Robert Samson, the star of Schmoeller’s weird sci-fi/horror/road movie The Arrival (1991), has chased eternal life at the expense of those around him — echoes the idea at the centre of the helmer’s most famous Band flick, Puppet Master (1989).

Formally announced in the same slate as Demonic Toys (1992), Seedpeople (1992), Trancers III (1992), and Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge (1991), Netherworld had kicked around the Band vault for a while. Originally it was going to be made in Rome during the B-movie maven’s Empire days with another Band stalwart, Ted Nicolaou (TerrorVision (1986)), calling ‘action’. When the project was resurrected and retooled at Full Moon, Schmoeller was handed its reins in the wake of ‘Whispers & Shadows’; an erotic thriller he was gearing up to tackle for the company before Band, already wary that it didn’t fit with the brand he was building, pulled the plug. 

Lensed in Louisiana between 29th May and 27th June 1991, Netherworld was shot in the Pelican State at the same time as Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) and Mark Frost’s Storyville (1992), and benefits immensely from some excellent location work. Extremely atmospheric, Schmoeller couples the place’s inherently eerie and exotic air with his own deft ability to fashion a mood rich with dread. Here, though, Schmoeller’s usual strain of chilly melancholia is juxtaposed with the stifling humidity of the swampland. Netherworld is less a plunge into an ice bath a la Crawlspace (1986) and Catacombs, more a clammy and restless fever dream — the kind of strange, reality-splintering vision you get during a fractured sleep on a hot summer’s evening. 

While tonally and visually terrific, Netherworld struggles narratively. Credited to his ‘Billy Chicago’ pseudonym [1], Schmoeller’s script is stricken with a flabby midsection and thinly written characters. It’s never to the outright detriment of the film, but such missteps undercut the emotional resonance Schmoeller is clearly striving for — particularly as the director has since said that the dynamic between Samson and his on-screen son, Michael Bendetti (a bland lead), was inspired by his own relationship, or lack thereof, with his estranged father [2]. Still, Schmoeller’s distaste for Band’s initial suggestion that Netherworld be about voodoo does result in an imaginative bit of compromise. Wanting to avoid the usual voodoo clichés, Schmoeller elected to design a completely new religious practice and rooted the film’s horror in a death-defeating cult of bird people (who, of course, hold the key to the titular oblivion). Again, it’s not entirely successful and at once convoluted and vague; but the mythology Schmoeller sketches is novel and esoteric enough to pass muster as solid plot footing.

Further bolstered by a striking score from Bon Jovi’s David Bryan and synth hero Larry Fast, and a smattering of conceptually good — if not especially well executed — FX by Mark Shostrom (the ghoulish flying hand owes an obvious debt to the make-up wiz’s superlative creations on Don Coscarelli’s thematically similar rumination on life, death and family ties, Phantasm II (1988)), Netherworld was released on U.S. video on 6th February 1992.

USA ● 1992 ● Horror ● 84mins

Michael Bendetti, Denise Gentile, Robert Samson ● Dir. David Schmoeller Wri. David Schmoeller (as ‘Billy Chicago’), story by David Schmoeller (as ‘Billy Chicago’) and Charles Band

[1] A poorly kept secret: Schmoeller himself cameos as a bartender called ‘Billy C.’ in the film.
[2] As detailed in It Came From the Video Aisle!: Inside Charles Band’s Full Moon Entertainment Studio by Dave Jay, William S. Wilson, Torsten Dewi, and — wahey! — me and Dave Wain.

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