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

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