Hear Us Out

Hear Us Out: Underworld Is the Most Underrated Action-Horror Franchise

On the 15th anniversary of Underworld: Evolution, we break down why the franchise's campy atmosphere, nu-metal aesthetic, and earnest self-seriousness actually work in its favor.

by | January 20, 2021 | Comments

The huge success of The Matrix spawned a number of films with similar aesthetics: shiny, black leather wardrobes, lots of slow-motion, and action scenes that mixed martial arts with gunfighting. Take all of that and combine it with Blade, and you’ll see a path leading to one of the best action-horror franchises we’ve got — Underworld.

This original franchise chronicles the centuries-long secret war between vampires and werewolves, and while none of its five entries impressed critics — the highest-rated film is the first, at just 31% on the Tomatometer — there is more to it than meets the eye. Sure, it’s full of campy B-movie silliness, but it’s so devoted to its concept and its complex mythology that you can’t help but be enthralled by it. Plus, it gave us Kate Beckinsale as one of the most badass heroines of the 2000s. For the 15th anniversary of the franchise’s second entry, Underworld: Evolution, we’re throwing on our best black leather jacket and cranking up the nu-metal as we revisit why Underworld is the most underrated action-horror franchise.


It Takes Its Surprisingly Complex Mythology Seriously

Kate Beckinsale in Underworld: Evolution

(Photo by (c)Screen Gems courtesy Everett Collection)

A franchise about vampires fighting werewolves — otherwise known as “Lycans” — admittedly sounds silly, and it could have remained nothing more than that. But the Underworld franchise’s biggest strength is that it builds a big and complex mythology that it treats absolutely seriously. Because this is not a franchise about a single vampire or werewolf, but whole communities of them, we see how their weaknesses inform their way of life. The vampire covens’ castles have automatic sealing gates outside every window to prevent sunlight from entering. Rise of the Lycans, the third film in the series and a sequel, depicts captured Lycans who are forced to wear collars adorned with silver spikes to prevent them from transforming. We also see a fantastic escalation and evolution of weaponry being used by both sides, from more traditional artifacts like silver swords to UV bullets and grenades filled with liquid silver.

Though not necessarily groundbreaking, the Underworld franchise also introduces new concepts into both the vampire and werewolf mythos. In Evolution, we learn that the first generation of werewolves was not able to return to human form, making them generally more feral. On the vampire side, gone is the need for human blood (any blood is sufficient — even that of other vampires), but we learn that blood carries memory; one can see a another’s entire life flash before their eyes by ingesting some of their blood.

Each film doubles down on the mythology of the previous one while adding a new layer, and one could easily imagine a cinematic Underworld universe with spin-off material recounting the creation of the other covens or the first and second immortal purges of Awakening.


Its Supporting Cast Elevates the Silliness

If the franchise itself taking its mythology seriously helps bring you into its world, then hiring classy stage actors to elevate the sillier aspects of the story makes it feel like you’re watching a Shakespearean horror epic. This starts with Kate Beckinsale herself. Before she was the leather-clad Death Dealer Selene, the Oxford-trained actress played Hero in Much Ado About Nothing and had appeared in several West End productions.

Then there’s the villains. The moment Bill Nighy shows up in heavy makeup as the evil vampire overlord Viktor, curls his lip, and starts talking about the Lycans, you’re fully committed to this franchise. Nighy’s serious yet over-the-top performance is like watching him play Titus Andronicus one minute and Macbeth the next. His rapport with Michael Sheen’s slave-turned-freedom fighter-turned-villain Lucian was so great to watch that they made an entire prequel just to give Sheen a Spartacus speech to deliver to an army of Lycans.

Evolution brings in former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company (Sir!) Derek Jacobi to play the first immortal man, Alexander Corvinus, and he similarly plays his role as if he were in a tragic stage play rather than a action-horror movie. Just listen to the somber way he speaks about how much it pains him that the war his two sons have begun has lasted for centuries, and that he can’t bring himself to kill one of them to end it all. The latter two movies of the franchise also introduce two Game of Thrones veterans: Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister) plays a vampire noble who loves his son and gets to do some badass sword-fighting, while Tobias Menzies (Edmure Tully) plays Lucian’s successor as the leader of the Lycans, boasting a commanding presence and a rather enviable hairstyle. It’s a simple yet very effective way to make the villains memorable and the conflict more compelling.


It Features Great Use Of Practical Effects

One of the biggest cinematic crimes in history is the decline of practical makeup and costume design in werewolf movies — something that extends to many other genres across the industry. But Underworld knows that there’s no beating a practical werewolf suit.

The design of the eight-foot-tall beasts that walk on two legs with grey skin, massive necks, and elongated heads are some of the most impressive werewolves in decades, and they are unique enough to be recognized among the crowd of movie werewolves. These Lycans have less fur compared to most other interpretations, with rather Mohawk-like manes that accentuate the beasts’ imposing musculature. Though they are meant to be doglike, the Lycans also possess some feline characteristics, which was the intention from the beginning, to give the Lycans a sense of agility.

The use of practical suits with yak fur and animatronic legs and faces, as well as the extensive wirework, make the action scenes hit harder and the gore feel more real. Sure, there is still a lot of CGI in the franchise, especially in the latter films, but it’s always a thrill to see a huge, practical Lycan chase Selene before she puts them down.


It Feels Like A Nu-Metal Music Video

Though it initially drew comparisons to The Matrix, the Underworld franchise quickly carved out its own gothic look that made the franchise instantly recognizable.

Its use of moonlight and shadow in the cinematography, its excess of black leather, and its use of elaborate sets and European castles make Underworld feel like you’re stepping into an early-200os Hot Topic store or a late-1990s nu-metal concert. Central to this aesthetic is Kate Beckinsale herself, who first pops on screen in a trench coat, perched in the rain like a gargoyle surveying the streets of Budapest with enough gothic glamour to create an iconic look for the franchise at large. We’re not saying the style is for everyone, but it’s difficult to deny the role it’s played as the signature look for the series; not every franchise can say the same.


It Knows How To Reinvent Itself

Every long-lasting franchise, at some point, has to evolve or die. The recent Fast & Furious movies have little in common with the very first film in the franchise, for example. Though Underworld hasn’t exactly turned into a Mission: Impossible-style spy thriller, it has still managed to change and adapt over time, providing different and exciting experiences for the audience with every entry.

After the first film ends with a change in the status quo for Selene and the worlds of both vampires and Lycans, the second entry dives deeper into the mythology by introducing us to the first of both species. Their look is unlike anything in the first movie, offering a proper winged nosferatu and a feral werewolf straight from a classic Universal monster movie. The third film goes full Romeo and Juliet by returning to the past, making tragic heroes of the Lycans, and trading UV bullets for swords.

Even the more maligned Awakening still offers something new, as it jumps forward in time to a dystopian future in which the Lycans are even bigger and more terrifying. Lastly, Blood Wars feels like a response to the rise in popularity of Game of Thrones, as it explores even more political intrigue and features an epic fantasy-heavy third act that’s basically an Arthurian myth mixed with the triumphant climax of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Seriously, there’s an army of pale, silver-haired vampires brandishing swords in the middle of a gunfight, and it rules.


Underworld: Evolution was released in theaters on December 17, 2010.

On an Apple device? Follow Rotten Tomatoes on Apple News.

Tag Cloud

venice Tomatazos Travel Channel Fox News Martial Arts Ovation international Toys Winter TV popular historical drama Ghostbusters cancelled television Neflix south america 2018 prank E! Mary Tyler Moore cartoon HBO Max Rocky ViacomCBS action-comedy japanese 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards based on movie serial killer Chernobyl Superheroe Set visit binge Apple 2020 scary zombie miniseries docuseries President Western genre australia dramedy new star wars movies NYCC politics VH1 news Marvel Television worst movies TV Land GLAAD Watching Series spider-verse Television Critics Association 1990s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt war nature Columbia Pictures PlayStation Amazon book adaptation summer TV zero dark thirty Dark Horse Comics Mudbound singing competition TIFF 2017 legend Women's History Month composers free movies Esquire GIFs SDCC Masterpiece Star Wars Nickelodeon FOX golden globes canceled Tubi trailers History dexter Captain marvel movies werewolf dceu heist movie dreamworks The Walking Dead Best Actor spinoff CW Seed APB Black History Month adventure award winner emmy awards comic books ABC Signature mob AMC Plus summer preview Kids & Family quibi reviews toy story halloween tv vampires debate PaleyFest Paramount Plus 2016 blaxploitation Cannes latino Action technology DC Comics Netflix Freeform Crunchyroll dogs archives Awards Tour Universal Pictures cinemax summer TV preview strong female leads Super Bowl dark fast and furious Song of Ice and Fire FX live event 71st Emmy Awards Rom-Com See It Skip It asian-american slasher A&E Animation Lucasfilm twilight films rom-coms Infographic ghosts Hulu Classic Film satire name the review batman aapi indie ID sequels VOD Netflix Christmas movies Stephen King IFC Films football Hear Us Out telelvision Avengers Ellie Kemper 2015 DC streaming service political drama NBC james bond crime thriller 2021 rt labs superhero Musical American Society of Cinematographers MCU Fargo godzilla 93rd Oscars Exclusive Video black stoner ABC Family Apple TV Plus 4/20 Turner The Witch Biopics mutant finale Valentine's Day Awards SundanceTV USA Heroines TV One SXSW Election Arrowverse Emmys Hallmark ESPN Creative Arts Emmys El Rey HBO Go cars pirates of the caribbean elevated horror theme song Superheroes Premiere Dates FXX Nat Geo boxoffice Spectrum Originals Year in Review spanish language romance BBC One BET Awards hispanic heritage month FX on Hulu sports TCA romantic comedy Best Picture chucky posters trophy new york slashers First Reviews Lionsgate Country psychological thriller stand-up comedy what to watch Mindy Kaling japan know your critic streaming MGM Tags: Comedy 94th Oscars Holiday Hollywood Foreign Press Association documentary jamie lee curtis Fantasy SXSW 2022 RT History NBA Comics on TV Sundance Now Oscars TCA 2017 cancelled TV shows PBS festival unscripted critic resources versus Nominations rotten movies we love 2019 X-Men worst HFPA renewed TV shows anthology young adult Disney Channel Instagram Live DC Universe Mary poppins Sci-Fi 24 frames First Look directors superman obi wan mockumentary Trailer Pop kaiju canceled TV shows MTV christmas movies all-time Emmy Nominations green book police drama reboot Calendar TCA Awards spy thriller leaderboard comic book movie king arthur Anna Paquin nbcuniversal Photos Thanksgiving Holidays CBS All Access black comedy South by Southwest Film Festival OWN rotten scorecard Amazon Studios thriller screen actors guild Music Video Games facebook TLC Legendary Polls and Games obituary YouTube Red foreign animated Pet Sematary Mary Poppins Returns Reality Competition adenture cooking cancelled 99% Film Schedule VICE The Academy ratings crime drama child's play RT21 scene in color Rocketman high school Binge Guide supernatural Marvel series kong king kong biopic indiana jones a nightmare on elm street halloween TBS royal family LGBTQ crime classics CBS dc A24 Cartoon Network Bravo mission: impossible Alien hispanic LGBT Best Director Fox Searchlight Amazon Prime Video critics crossover Pixar screenings festivals jurassic park gangster marvel comics Box Office Star Trek Syfy psycho robots streamig Tokyo Olympics TV renewals remakes hist Elton John Comedy diversity Sneak Peek Marvel Studios blockbuster cults spain die hard feel good The Arrangement anime Focus Features Epix Sundance TV Spring TV Drama art house Turner Classic Movies Disney+ Disney Plus BBC Discovery Channel DGA BBC America medical drama Marathons saw San Diego Comic-Con toronto disaster BAFTA science fiction women Family TV zombies italian teaser 007 sequel OneApp aliens fresh TCA Winter 2020 Pride Month boxing Amazon Prime Crackle concert revenge Academy Awards independent period drama comedies GoT Walt Disney Pictures Food Network Teen lord of the rings ITV Endgame Countdown 72 Emmy Awards Comic-Con@Home 2021 justice league Prime Video comiccon hidden camera Chilling Adventures of Sabrina best Acorn TV Paramount Network Quiz documentaries Fall TV Comic Book richard e. Grant Warner Bros. TCM game of thrones social media olympics 20th Century Fox CNN Writers Guild of America parents live action book Lifetime Christmas movies stop motion joker laika Certified Fresh YA kids target natural history Logo WGN BET Pacific Islander IFC Disney streaming service sitcom Lifetime Peacock comic book movies hollywood Film Festival TruTV travel Sundance docudrama Podcast Sony Pictures 90s Vudu Trophy Talk Apple TV+ Paramount vs. breaking bad WarnerMedia Brie Larson Shudder dragons Baby Yoda true crime Broadway spanish Universal game show Reality MSNBC Adult Swim 21st Century Fox Disney Plus comics Christmas franchise 79th Golden Globes Awards Television Academy new zealand Mystery Image Comics broadcast casting Paramount Pictures Best and Worst doctor who Tumblr Horror tv talk 45 deadpool universal monsters CMT streaming movies Wes Anderson Best Actress New York Comic Con Tarantino Musicals Winners Shondaland marvel cinematic universe The CW Showtime adaptation discovery Starz Grammys 73rd Emmy Awards transformers HBO YouTube Rock Oscar Spike harry potter sopranos suspense razzies biography DirecTV Cosplay comic cats Comedy Central mcc Interview basketball Pirates wonder woman Hallmark Christmas movies Pop TV video on demand cancelled TV series criterion nfl children's TV video Funimation golden globe awards The Walt Disney Company TV movies rt archives Trivia spider-man scary movies YouTube Premium Disney Opinion Extras television Summer monster movies The Purge blockbusters cops Britbox E3 movie talk show rt labs critics edition USA Network french Character Guide witnail TNT National Geographic sag awards space Black Mirror Red Carpet ABC IMDb TV AMC