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

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