Undergods review – nightmare visions of a familiar world

The Spanish film-maker Chino Moya, who directed the colourfully Orwellian music video for St Vincent’s Digital Witness, makes his feature debut with this eye-catching, Twilight Zone-style anthology of future-tense tales. Laced with a graveside humour reminiscent of the old EC comics (Moya’s multidisciplinary credits include the graphic novel Flat Filters), it’s a collection of grimly satirical snapshots, fitting together like the misshapen pieces of a Chinese puzzle ball to create a dyspeptic, dystopian portrait of our past, present and future.

In a bleak European underworld, a pair of corpse collectors, K (Johann Myers) and Z (Géza Röhrig), prowl the streets, picking up the dead. Around them are the remnants of a once-grand civilisation, the aftermath of some apocalyptic collapse. As they work, they spin nightmarish tales of other worlds, leading us into a fluid maze of cautionary tales.

In the first, with clear echoes of JG Ballard’s High-Rise, fractured couple Ron (Michael Gould) and Ruth (Hayley Carmichael) are the first tenants in a faceless new apartment building (“a housing revolution”), unsettled by a neighbour who arrives at their door, claiming to have locked himself out of his 11th-storey flat. In the second, which unfolds as a bedtime story tinged by ETA Hoffmann’s The Sandman, greedy, mistrustful merchant Hans (Eric Godon) double-crosses an eccentric foreigner (Jan Bijvoet), only to find that his daughter, Maria (Tanya Reynolds), has been abducted. In the third and most striking episode, the lives of middle-rung company drone Dominic (Adrian Rawlins) and his malcontent wife, Rachel (Kate Dickie), are turned on their heads when Rachel’s former partner Sam (Sam Louwyck) reappears after 15 years – with catastrophic consequences.

Raised in Madrid and now resident in London, Moya describes his feature debut (which is co-produced by Blade Runner director Ridley Scott’s company) as inhabiting a “limbo where stories and characters move between 20th-century failed utopian empires and 21st-century, low-cost, Ikea nightmares”. Throughout, we watch bourgeois family units descending into some kind of feral hell, their disparate stories tumbling into each other in disorienting fashion. Crucially, each of these descents is triggered by a crisis within – or breakdown of – a central white male character (no wonder a drunken rendition of My Way looms large), suggesting that what we are witnessing is not merely the unravelling of “civilisation”, but of the patriarchy that created it.

The subtext may not be subtle, but what Moya’s film lacks in nuance it makes up for in terms of ambition. These are tales of little men played out upon an epic canvas, thanks to designers Marketa Korinková and Elo Soode and cinematographer David Raedeker. What gives Undergods bite, however, is the strength of the performances. As our ghoulish guides, Röhrig and Myers inject an element of jet-black Shakespearean comedy. Having recently excelled as the fearsome Paudi in Calm With Horses, Ned Dennehy casts another impressively threatening shadow as smiling interloper Harry (“I’m here to help”), while Burn Gorman brings lashings of corporate slime to the final tale.

But it’s the magnificent Dickie who steals the show, with a performance that modulates brilliantly between humour, pathos and horror, keeping the audience on their toes. One moment she’s a pill-popping carer, nurturing her child; the next, she’s a DIY new-age guru, tending to her lost love; then she discovers her “inner voice” with a fixed smile that eerily recalls Jennifer Ehle’s demonic leer in the final act of Saint Maud.

Pulsing, 1980s-inflected synth sounds mingle with a paranoid sound design, capturing the future-retro vibes of a Kafkaesque world that seems, at times, uncomfortably close to home.

  • Undergods is in cinemas and on digital platforms from 17 May