HomeMoviesUnderworld (2003) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

Underworld (2003) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

If there was one thing that was going to tempt movie-goers into cinemas for some mid-budget vampire action in 2003, it was probably Bill Nighy as a vampire overlord. Or, was it the marketing campaign featuring a leather clad Kate Beckinsale? I’ll let you decide… The early noughties had already brought some decent vampire action, before we were subjected to the shimmering embarrassment to the genre that was the Twilight saga. We were also just a few short years away from seeing some proper kick-ass, sexy vampire action on the small screen with HBC’s excellent True Blood series. The vampire genre was starting to show some signs of a re-awakening, and films such as the fun but flawed Queen of the Damned from 2002 and, of course, the awesome Blade series, were leading the bloodsucking way.

Vampires have always been a popular form of escapism for audiences and they’re still massively popular now. There’s something timeless and fascinating about the mythical creatures and whether it’s a classic such as 1922’s Nosferatu, Tom Cruise wearing platforms in Interview with the Vampire, or the hilarious movie and TV show What We Do in the Shadows, people love them. The movie we’re focusing on in today’s video may not be the best vampire flick ever made, but it started a hugely popular franchise, plus a video game, Underworld: The Eternal War. So could the promise of some tight leather and a werewolf vs vampire skirmish be enough to warrant the hype? Let’s find out, here
on WTF happened to Underworld!

Vampires and werewolves, not swearwolves remember have been fighting for centuries in popular fiction. In fact, do some research and you’ll find their origins going all the way back to Slavic historical accounts of the bloodsuckers and hairy lycans. It wasn’t until Hollywood studios began to realize that pitting vampires and werewolves against each other would appeal to a wide audience. Universal Pictures’ Dracula from 1931, starring Bela Lugosi, and 1941’s The Wolf Man with Lon Chaney Jr. made the monsters enduring archetypes of mainstream horror. It wasn’t long then before Universal threw both the characters together on the big screen, admittedly without too much interaction, in House of Frankenstein from 1944 and its pseudo-sequel, 1955s House of Dracula. The first movie to actually feature some fangs on fur action was 1948’s horror comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Since then, of course, werewolves and vampires can’t help but getting it on in popular culture, so by the time Danny McBride wrote the screenplay for Underworld (watch it HERE), there was definitely a thirst, pun intended, for the sub-genre amongst audiences. Back in 2000, McBride (by the way, this McBride is not the comedy star who co-wrote the recent Halloween sequels) met first time director Len Wiseman through their agent, Nick Reed, and after their first attempt to collaborate faltered, it wasn’t long before they found a project to work on together. Actor Kevin Grevioux came up with the concept of Underworld and McBride and Wiseman stepped in to work on the script, with the plan to branch the series out into a trilogy.

Underworld (2003) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie? 2

Unfortunately for the production, controversy was on the moonlit horizon, as the film was the subject of a lawsuit from White Wolf, Inc. and Nancy A. Collins, who claimed that Underworld’s setting was too similar to the games, Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse, plus the Sonja Blue vampire novels. Ultimately, a judge granted White Wolf a hearing and after thrashing out the messy details, the lawsuit ended in a confidential settlement. With the film’s legal woes firmly in the rear-view-mirror, the production team went full steam ahead on casting the movie, and
with a cornucopia of S&M clad vampires and werewolves to throw into the mix, the audition process must have been a lot of fun.

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Prior to Underworld, Len Wiseman began his career as a property assistant on a number of Roland Emmerich movies, including Stargate, Independence Day, and 1998’s much maligned Godzilla. He directed ads for large clients such as Sony as well as music videos for the likes of Megadeth, Static-X and En Vouge, but Underworld was his debut feature in the hot seat. When it came to casting the movie, Wiseman would not only find his perfect Selene, but also his future ex-wife in Kate Beckinsale. Selene, the main protagonist of the movie, is a death dealer; an elite vampire assassin who hunts down the hairy Lycans in revenge for murdering her family. All while clad in that tight leather, and a coat that looks like it was stolen from the set of The Matrix. In fact, everyone looks pretty cool in the movie, but we’ll get onto the production values a little later in the episode.

The other main cast members consist of the aforementioned Bill Nighy as Viktor, the second most powerful of the vampire elders, Scott Speedman as a vampire / Lycan hybrid, and love interest of Selene, plus Michael Sheen as Lucian, the elder of the Lycans. We also get Shane Brolly as a vampire noble who plots to kill the elders plus other roles for the likes of Erwin Leder, Sophia Myles, Robbie Gee, Wentworth Miller and Kevin Grevioux. The main plot of the movie centers on Beckinsale’s Death Dealer Selene who begins to fall for Speedman’s Corvin, who is, rather unfortunately, being targeted by those pesky Lycans. When one of them finally mistakes him for a wolf-snack, Selene must decide whether to do her duty and kill him or go against her clan and save him. It’s quite the quandary…

The cast, production team and set up are all solid, so is the movie a fun entry in the bloodsucking, howling at the movie sub-genre? Well, yeah, | still think it holds up pretty well for what it is, flaws and all. The opening sequence of the movie sees Beckinsale’s Selene delivering an expositional voice over in that lovely pithy English accent, before
an extended action scene kicks in. It’s eleven minutes into the movie that we get any proper dialogue, when Michael Sheen’s super sexy Lycan Lucian, try saying that after a couple of ‘Tru Bloods’, makes a super sexy entrance.

underworld michael sheen
Underworld (2003) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie? 3

Not that it matters. Underworld wasn’t written with the Best Original Screenplay Oscar in mind. What we get is exactly what you’d expect from its marketing campaign and it delivers this for its slightly male skewed audience pretty well. There’s no pretty boy heartthrobs with great hair in this franchise, thankfully, and its wide appeal is perhaps due to the Romeo and Juliet with vampires and werewolves premise. The movie may have arrived long after Bela Lugosi and co, but it was still a few years prior to the genre being shimmered into that insufferable, if admittedly hugely profitable, teen romance with Miss Swan. After Selene delivers her opening VO, about a backstory that never really comes into play, it’s clear that the movie isn’t going to bother with nuanced character development.

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We therefore don’t really care about the innocent-turned-monster, Michael, or the many fake fang-wearing vamps looking for a werewolf scuffle. To be fair though, the movie stands alone as an action spectacle with dodgy CGI and set pieces that don’t add any real weight to the narrative, but are nonetheless a lot of fun to sit through if you’re looking for some daft escapism. It’s also perhaps quite noticeable that director Wiseman has more than just a soft spot for Beckinsale, with the actress given numerous glamor shots and close-ups to accentuate her good looks, while Scott Speedman is too busy getting hunted and attacked to look cute, like he did as ‘Ben’ in Felicity. What I like about the movie is the gothic splendor in which DOP Tony Pierce-Roberts lenses it. The script may be severely lacking and the VFX are shoddy at best, but it’s a great looking movie otherwise, with probably just enough bite and action to satiate most gothic gore-hounds.

Underworld premiered at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, California on September 15, 2003, and was released in the United States on September 19, by Sony Pictures Releasing. The movie was a surprise hit and grossed over $95 million dollars worldwide against a reported budget of $22 million. It had competition upon release
from Secondhand Lions, The Fighting Temptations and Cold Creek Manor. Other movies already in the marketplace at the time were Cabin Fever, Once Upon a Time in Mexico and Matchstick Men, so Underworld was a good example of successful counter programming.

Critically, the movie received generally negative reviews, which was probably to be expected, but Beckinsale’s performance, the gothic visuals, and the vampire and werewolf mythology were all mentioned favorably. Empire Magazine praised the movie’s visuals but bemoaned some of its casting choices, saying, ‘like its heroine, Underworld
looks fabulous but does everything wrong”. And adding that, “this is a film that insists characters are charismatic, mysterious, immortal and impressive, then casts Shane Brolly and Michael Sheen in the roles. Beckinsale hides behind her hairstyle and when Selene has the idea of waking up the Vampires’ Dracula figure leader, Bill Nighy looms
into the picture in desperate need of witty lines to go with his bizarre presence”. Amusingly, it was another aspect of the movie that piqued the curiosity of Entertainment Weekly, who said that, “by the end, I was starting to ponder questions like, If a vampire mates with a lycan-vamp hybrid, which parent will have to convert?”

Ultimately then, Underworld is far from a perfect movie but for this particular writer, that doesn’t matter. The visuals are great, the action is fun and the costume design is suitably eye-catching. Plus, it launched a hugely successful franchise that was not only profitable enough to keep going, but also kept the franchise firmly in the mainstream eye. More importantly though, as always YOUR opinion is what matters to us here at JoBlo so let us know your thoughts of Underworld in the comments section. Does it hold up all these years later or should it be staked through the heart? I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on this one, you wonderful gore-hounds. Thanks for watching!

A couple of the previous episodes of WTF Happened to This Horror Movie? can be seen below. To see more, head over to our JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!

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