Our review of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere: 15th Anniversary Edition, published November 11th, 2011, is also available.
Descend into the shadows of London Below.
Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere is an exotic journey into a fantastic netherworld of London typical of Gaiman's literary and graphic work. With wildly clever ideas, a stellar soundtrack by Brian Eno, and complete with typically bad BBC video production values, this has cult classic written all over it.
Rarely seen outside of its initial BBC broadcast, this DVD is a cult treat, but an acquired taste—it is campy, deliciously erratic, confusing, and very, very strange, with some of the corniest special effects you will ever see. However, if terribly poor production values and made-for-BBC video quality give you the screaming heebie-jeebies, then you must look elsewhere for your entertainment.
Facts of the Case
Richard Mayhew is a regular guy, even a boring sort of chap. He collects troll dolls, he has a waspish fiancée, he has a boring job, and he lives in London. One day, he finds a bloody girl on the streets, in a crumpled heap. Everybody else seems to be ignoring her, so he does the only thing he can do—he takes her home, cleans her up, and tends her wounds.
The next morning, he no longer exists. His apartment is being sold, nobody at his work recognizes him, and his fiancée has no idea who he is. He walks down the street, but nobody meets his eyes. He cannot even hail a taxi.
Suddenly, he is thrust into a world below, an alternate London existing subterraneous beneath the real London, populated by the homeless, bizarre demons and monsters and magic and mystery. Richard Mayhew is now a denizen of London Below, and with Door, the girl he rescued, he embarks upon a dark and mysterious journey. Included on this DVD are the original six broadcast episodes of the miniseries.
This is a very sharp story about the shocking ability of Londoners (and all people in big cities) to simply ignore one another, and especially ignore the downtrodden, as if a giant blind spot prevented everyone from seeing each other. Turning this observation literal, and placing a protagonist inside a surreal fantasy world beneath the streets of London, Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere is far too clever for its own good at times.
Like any good cult BBC miniseries, the show's ambition far exceeds its scope, especially in the budget department. The story is full of such small, inside jokes about the city of London itself, and if you have been fortunate enough to experience the joys of London in person, the jokes are a lot funnier. For example, in London Below, crossing the Knightsbridge constitutes a horrifying journey through a desolate wasteland full of monsters and horrors unimaginable. The joke, of course, being that the real Knightsbridge neighborhood in London is one of the most upscale and posh locales in the entire city, and home to Harrods department store.
The film has the insatiable affect of motivating the viewer to seek out the novel and devour it absolutely, which is a testament to the quality of the story and the idea expressed therein, but speaks poorly to the quality of the film itself, does it not? The most fatal words for any adaptation, of course, are, "The book is better." Not having read the book, I cannot say, but public opinion certainly suggests as much—that being said, however, I definitely will be reading this book sometime in the future.
Shot on video (a condition imposed by BBC), Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere has a terribly kitschy feel akin to other BBC television miniseries, and is absolutely impossible to date visually—it could have been shot last week, it could have been shot fifteen years ago, and it would appear to be the same quality as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy BBC miniseries, or an episode of Dr. Who. Gaiman himself apparently was very displeased with the final look of the show, and on the commentary, explains that the video was supposed to go through a film filter, simulating the appearance of film. So, as a result, while shooting the miniseries, they set up the shoots as if actually recording with real film, using harsh and aggressive lighting techniques. However, for some reason (and Gaiman does not elaborate), the show never went through the special film filtering. The results are…unpleasant. Gaiman calls it, "a little bit unconvincing at times," which is an awfully nice way of putting it. The visual quality swings rapidly from reasonable levels of contrast, modestly respectable black levels, and sharp levels of contrast all the way to blurred masses of gray, with jumbled black levels and terrible, terrible graininess. The colors likewise are very reflective of whatever harsh lighting has been used at the time. The lighting is so garish, so aggressive, that it actually takes on a surrealist absurdity. Simple shadowy corridors explode with vibrant blasts of purples and reds and greens, all which would come across marvelously subtle and ambient if recorded on film. On video, however, it looks like a Christmas flood lamps are duct taped to the floor of every indoor location shot. And this, all the while having the trademark BBC video quality of looking like everything was recorded through sixteen feet of fog, with bright lights shining directly behind everybody, giving everything onscreen an odd, smoky, indistinct haloing effect.
I am deeply conflicted over the visual quality of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere on DVD. Making the arbitrary decision as to where a good DVD transfer starts, and a terribly poor source material begins, becomes almost impossible under these extreme visual conditions. The transfer from video to DVD has resulted in an extremely detailed presentation of some terrible effects and visual elements that look extremely poor on such a format.
The show was broadcast on television, and then recorded onto VHS in the homes of obsessive fans, and like a good cult classic, the show got "better" looking the more times it was copied onto VHS and passed along, over and over. Even Gaiman himself, on the commentary, comments that VHS softened the garish look of the show quite nicely, and seeing it on DVD only highlights all the initial problems with the show.
So, ultimately, the DVD both looks very good, and quite terrible all at the same time (I've never seen anything quite like it, to be honest). And while the final visual score is definitely held accountable based on the original visual quality of the show presented on DVD, the score does reflect a higher curve than originally intended. These marks are awarded to it solely based on the excellent technical transfer of a bad original source, which shows no signs of edging, spots, or other funny digital imperfections. And hey—that is always a good thing.
Here's hoping you understood all that. I'm not sure I did.
The sound is a mixed bag; quite excellent at times, considering the level of production, but often the audio becomes cluttered with ambient noises, strange hissings, and other peculiarities indicative of a low-budget shoot. When it is good, it is very, very good, and when it is bad…well, you get the idea. The dialogue and the sound effects are often ghastly at times, marred with ambient noises, wind, static, and various other imperfections. However, the Brian Eno soundtrack is quite a stellar one. Ethereal and wonderfully atmospheric and fantastical, it is a fantastic electronic ambient soundtrack, and adds depth and credibility to the film when it begins to drown in the dark depths of its low budget roots.
The commentary is factually interesting, and it is clear that Gaiman himself was part of the production every step of the way. In the standard lethargic and sycophantic tone of delivery that all directors and writers deliver their DVD commentary tracks, Gaiman walks through many technical details of the shooting, issues numerous personal complaints about the film quality, praises certain actors and actresses for doing marvelous jobs, and makes other such nitpicking observations. The only other extra feature is the inclusion of a vintage interview with Neil Gaiman from the BBC, which is a nice touch, and sure to delight all literary fans of the man.
Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere is entertaining and enjoyable and pushes all the right buttons, even if all those buttons are terribly garish and ugly and have lousy production values held together by duct tape.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The ideas enclosed in the Neverwhere world, the stories so diverse and all expansive, that a small BBC miniseries could never hope to accurately re-create its world. A budget in the hundreds of millions could still not possibly translate it properly to the screen, a painful realization that Gaiman himself laments on the commentary.
At times, the story is too rushed, too compressed, and without the literary backup, one occasionally feels lost. I say again, also—these are the best of the BBC cult production values, and if that is not your thing, then nothing could actually be worse than watching this. If it is your thing, be prepared for campy entertainment abound. The whole nine yards: terrible audio, stark video goodness, hammy acting, and jaw-droppingly bad special effects. And boy, do you ever start to wish they used that film filter. I shall never understand how video can actually look this bad. Yikes.
This is such a difficult DVD to pass verdict on. There is no doubt that Gaiman is an amazingly clever author, whose wild ideas and sardonic wit always manage to supercede whatever story he is telling at any given time. In Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, he has crafted a fantastic story indeed. But, the production values are so conflicting and cultish and kitschy and frankly, extraordinarily complex to pass a normal judgment on.
The scales of justice do not really take into account the wonderfully campy tradition of bad video BBC productions, when rating video quality, for example. Bad vide is just bad video. Justice is blind, you see, and that's a good thing, because boy, does video ever look bad.
It really depends on whether you like the campy, BBC-esque, shot-on-video look in your films. Now, as a campy, BBC-esque, shot-on-video production, Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere is quite an excellent one, but compared to any other made-for-television work (especially North American ones), the awful video, corny acting, laughable special effects and pitiful budget make it look like absolute garbage.
The acting, likewise, ranges from quite competent in an over-the-top corny sort of way, to quite terrible in an over-the-top corny sot of way. Where you draw the line is up to you.
Like a terribly wonderful episode of Dr. Who, Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere embodies all the wonderfully terrible qualities of BBC productions—shot on video, appallingly small budgets, terrible actors, and so on. And yet, it is exactly the kind of thing that people will trade sixth-generation VHS copies on eBay for sixteen years after its initial broadcast. This is a cult film in every sense of the word, and an amazingly ambitious one at that. It is clever and enjoyable and quite a good DVD—just know what you are getting into.
The court orders that the defendant be relocated into the custody of the United Kingdom, where hopefully, a more sympathetic jury can be located.
Also, I am nervous about hitting my gavel, because I just saw Night Court, and I do not want my desk to fall apart when I hit it.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Writer Neil Gaiman
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