Full Moon Features: The Underworld series, Part One

Craig J. Clark — Mar. 7th 2012

He’s a life-saving surgeon, she’s a death-dealing vampire — can the two of them get along? That’s the big question posed by 2003’s Underworld. (Actually, that’s not strictly true. The real question the filmmakers probably posed was “Hey, wouldn’t it be really cool if we made a movie where vampires and werewolves fought each other with guns while there was a Romeo and Juliet thing going on?”) I gave Underworld a wide berth when it was first released nearly a decade ago, largely because the trailers I saw were chock full of CGI werewolves (my favorite kind, don’tcha know), but I finally gave in and watched it a few years later just so I could get it under my belt. (This is how I wind up watching a lot of crappy werewolf movies, and I do mean a lot.)

I realize I may be in the minority around these parts, but I’m just not that big on the Underworld franchise, which I feel squanders a theoretically unsquanderable premise by getting bogged down in its monochromatic visual palate, humorless characters, and the convoluted mythology that original director Len Wiseman cooked up with screenwriter Danny McBride and actor Kevin Grevioux. (For the record, I have a similar problem with both the UK and North American editions of Being Human, which have their moments, to be sure, but are never allowed to be as fun as a show about a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost living under the same roof should be.)

If the first Underworld movie accomplished nothing else, it introduced the world to Kate Beckinsale’s vampiric, gun-toting, catsuit-wearing Death Dealer (which is their fancy term for werewolf-killer), who becomes attached to human Scott Speedman even after he’s been bitten by a Lycan and thus fated to become one at the next full moon. The next full moon, incidentally, just so happens to coincide with The Awakening, when the vampire elite is gathering to bring one of their elders out of hibernation. In the meantime, the vampires lounge about in their mansion acting all decadent while the werewolves skulk around their underground lair playing Fight Club. When you get right down to it, the vampire/werewolf war is a class struggle on par with the Autobots vs. the Decepticons — just don’t expect me to watch Transformers anytime soon to back that up.

Anyway, I haven’t gotten to the plot yet and there sure is a lot of it. In addition to The Awakening, there’s a lot of intrigue surrounding the collusion between the leaders of the two factions, which Beckinsdale attempts to bring to light by waking vampire elder Bill Nighy a century ahead of schedule. And it turns out Speedman is the key to bridging the gap between the two races, but some people would rather see that not happen, hence all the gun battles and people throwing each other around in decrepit subterranean chambers. One has to wonder, though, whether the decision to allow the vampires in the film to be seen in mirrors was made so the filmmakers could stage the final epic battle in a large pool of water without having to worry about erasing the vampires’ reflections. Oh, yes. And what tactical advantage is there to the werewolves charging their enemies sideways on the walls? Did the filmmakers go with that simply because it looked cool? My guess would be a resounding yes.

Well, enough people got suckered into seeing the first Underworld that a sequel was inevitable, and 2006’s Underworld: Evolution was the result. The question was, had the Underworld series evolved in the intervening years? Ehh, yes and no. After a prologue set in 1202 A.D. (in which we find out that all vampires and werewolves are descended from twin brothers who were bitten by a bat and a wolf, respectively), we return to modern day where professional ass-kicker Beckinsale is on the run after having killed elder Nighy, with vampire/werewolf hybrid Speedman trotting along beside her. He’s still new to the whole “needing blood to survive” game, but there’s little time to dwell on that with supervampire Marcus (Tony Curran), who was awakened at the end of the first film, on the loose.

Once again directed by Len Wiseman from a screenplay by Danny McBride, Evolution ups the gore factor somewhat and, like the first film, shows a disappointing predilection for characters shooting each other with heavy weaponry (except, of course, for the prologue, where the vampires ride in on horseback and hack and slash at their hairy foes with swords and axes). There’s also an emphasis on cutting-edge technology, particularly in the scenes with Sir Derek Jacobi as an immortal who has been cleaning up the messes left by his progeny over the centuries. One thing that’s thankfully kept to a minimum, though, is the posturing that marred much of the dialogue in the first film, where it seemed like every other scene somebody was ordering somebody else to “Leave us.” Alas, that would return to a degree in the prequel, which expands a five-minute flashback from the first film to feature length, but that’s a story that will have to keep for another month.

  • yeah I find myself agreeing with much of what is said above. When it came out I was willing to give it a go, after all the whole werewolves vs. vampires marketing seemed to make it worthy of watching. Who wouldn’t want to see two titans of gothic horror go at it. Then came the realization that most of the action in the proposed war had come and gone and apparently the vampires had won (or at least gotten comfortable enough in the war to spend time lounging around in mansions.)

    I guess looking back this was the start of the “let’s make werewolves (vampires too)”  into something cool and hip, but not really staying with the source mythos. I know let’s start tinkering with things and make the mythos as we go, by the seat of our pants, or completely rewrite it (I am looking at your Ms. Myers).

    On a side note I recently got into it with a person on a forum that thought the whole story between Rise of the Lycans and the first film could warrant it’s own film. I immediately told the person, we already KNOW the story. We know the out come and the cause, there’s NOTHING interesting in Craven’s back stabbing nor in the fall of the Lycans. I just got so disenfranchise by the whole movie series that when the last one came out it was the first werewolf movie beyond the Twilight series that I did not go and see. I was not about to fall for the whole werewolves vs. vampires marketing campaign again.

  • Conversely, Awakening was the first Underworld film that I did see in theaters (largely in preparation for this series). I’ll have plenty to say about that when the time comes.

  • Viergacht

    The most I can say for the series is that the werewolves looked fairly decent, aside from the weirdly boxy shape of the snouts, and the CSI zoom-in transformation was an interesting idea.

  • Garwulf24

    What werewolf movies do you like that aren’t comedies or tongue=in-cheek in some way? Other than the big two (AWIL and Howling), you rarely have much nice to say about werewolf movies. That and the fact that this is the first update to the site in a straight month begs the question, how much of a werewolf fan are you, really?

  • I like plenty of werewolf movies and certainly plan on writing about more of them. In the coming months you can look forward to positive appraisals of The Curse of the Werewolf, The Company of Wolves, Dog Soldiers and others. (And you also seem to be forgetting about December’s in-depth article about 1941’s The Wolf Man, which I wouldn’t exactly call a comedy or tongue-in-cheek.)

    As for the lack of updates, I can’t help you there because my sole contributions to this site are these monthly film reviews. (There’s a reason why they’re call “Full Moon Features.”) If Andrew hasn’t posted any other news, maybe it’s because he hasn’t found any news to post about. I’m sure something will come along, and it will probably be sooner rather than later.

  • Garwulf24

    Ah, my mistake, i didn’t see that it was a different person doing the full moon features. the main guy only ever seems to like the cheesiest most b-movie werewolf films. (btw, company of wolves is my fave werewolf movie, and highly underrated, so i’m looking forward to that feature.)

  • Spot on commentary.  You highlight all the reasons I roll my eyes at Underworld… except one:  the hybrid.  When my friends and I saw Underworld 1 long ago (on opening night too!) we were really excited to see the cool werewolf/vampire hybrid but instead of seeing the most bad-ass monster ever, we saw some wimpy thing that looked like a half-finished Nightcrawler from X-Men.

    This combined with the ugly color palette, the dull seriousness, and Kevin Grevioux’s voice (people LAUGHED when he spoke) made for a poor film.  BUT I still went and saw the sequels because I wanted to see more werewolves!  No, I don’t know what I was thinking either.  I haven’t seen UW4 yet, however.  I think I can wait for the weekend show on the FX channel in two years.

  • As “the main guy”, I can confirm that I love cheesy b-movie werewolf flicks because THAT’S BASICALLY ALL THERE IS.

  • dudewolf

    That’s Kevin Grevioux’s real voice