★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
A micro-budget haunted murder mystery thriller with zombies!
Directed by John McLoughlin.
In the world of micro-budgets you don’t always get to do everything you want exactly when you want. Cast scheduling, production work, and just paying for things your movie needs can be a challenge when your pockets aren’t deep. However, when it’s a “labor of love,” as director John McLoughlin put it, you do what you have to and see it through.
McLoughlin is no stranger to making movies, but Underwood is his debut feature as both writer and director and I have to say I did find the story engaging. Maybe not staggeringly original, but it’s an enjoyable mystery told in a fun story-within-a-story way. That’s really all that matters to me story-wise: is it decent and well told? With this film I’d say, for the most part, yes.
The movie revolves around a famous author who spends some time in a quiet cabin in the country hoping the change of scenery will spark some ideas for her next book. Ideas are more than sparked as it turns out her cabin has a bit of a haunting problem and she gets swept up in a decades old murder mystery.
As with any micro-budget production, the acting is all over the place. That’s to be expected when a lot of your cast are probably volunteering their time. It can also be pretty entertaining in and of itself, to be honest, so I don’t hold it against the movie unless it’s utterly painful.
For our leading lady playing the role of famous mystery writer Samantha Rollins [Michelle McCurry; Playboy: The Ultimate Playmate Search (2003)] this was her first time acting in a feature film. While her acting may not be Oscar quality she is obviously very comfortable in front of the camera from her previous experience as a model. That kind of on-screen confidence makes it easy to forgive a mistake here or there.
The owner of the local general store, Al, is played by none other than grindhouse writer/director William Grefé. Through the 60s and into the late 70s Grefé directed all kinds of crazy things. Sure, he hasn’t been in front of the camera all that much, but he does a decent job and it was entertaining to see him.
As for the story-within-a-story part, first time actor Jillian Gizzi does well as the ill-fated new bride, Sarah, and we also get another chance to see Dennis Friebe ply his trade. You may remember him as Mitch from 2018’s A Brilliant Monster. As one of the (if not the) most experienced actors I felt Dennis was a bit underutilized in the beginning but, as Underwood rolled on, his screen time increased and brought some good emotion to the film.
The editing in Underwood could have used a bit more fine tuning. With pacing, some scenes hum along at a steady clip while others seem a bit overly long. We didn’t need to see quite so much of Samantha’s stroll through the forest, for example. Overall, though, the slow build up from the start to the Big Reveal at the end was enjoyable.
Additionally, the editing to get the story-within-a-story parts into place could have used a little more finesse. The transitions get much better as the movie progresses once they’re integrated into Samantha’s dreams. In the beginning, however, and with the first flashback in particular, the shift to the second story seems to come out of nowhere and is kind of a jolt.
Underwood‘s score fits it well and does what a score should. The rest of the sound work is inconsistent. I did get used to it, so it’s not a deal breaker, but it does get a bit wonky now and then. Some scenes are fine and sound great while others appear to have had their dialog tracks dubbed in sometime during post.
Is Underwood a masterpiece bound to be lifted up as the pinnacle of cinematic excellence? Of course not. The trials and tribulations that come with a micro-budget movie make that all but impossible. But, is it based on a good story? Does the cast look like they’re happy to be there? Does it have that hard-to-define quality ‘heart’? And, above all, is it entertaining?
For all of those, I’d have to say “yes”.
Underwood is currently available for streaming on Amazon and Vimeo.
Review by Robert Zilbauer.