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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.