Despite having similar mythological origins, Vampires and Werewolves are behind one of the most iconic rivalries in media. There are countless books, movies and games that pit these legendary creatures against each other, and everyone has their own opinion on which is the superior monster (I’ve always been firmly on team Werewolf). Today, however, I’d like to explore one of the most iconic takes on this ancient feud by looking back on the insanely popular Underworld franchise and how it reshaped these myths for an ever-evolving audience.
The 2000s were a good time to be a fan of action-horror blockbusters, seeing the rise of R-rated franchises like Resident Evil and the Blade sequels. Knowing that audiences were hungry for more bloody thrills, it’s no surprise that Lakeshore Entertainment would end up investing in a gothic passion project by the unlikely trio of Len Wisemen, Kevin Grevioux and Danny McBride (yes, that Danny McBride). Proposing a complex mythology detailing an ongoing war between Vampires and “Lycans”, the trio wowed producers with their original pitch, and with a final draft completed by McBride, Underworld finally leapt off the page in 2003.
An international co-production, Underworld was a strange beast, combining the gothic thrills of classic vampire flicks with modern-day action and a gritty sci-fi twist. While the slick photography and exaggerated costumes made it clear that this was a case of style over substance, the surprisingly in-depth lore behind the screenplay wouldn’t have been out of place in a Role-Playing Game. This makes sense, as the producers were eventually sued by White Wolf Inc. due to the film’s similarities to their World of Darkness setting, though the case was ultimately settled out of court.
Regardless, even during that peculiar wave of leather-clad post-Matrix action flicks, Underworld managed to stand out by providing audiences with a fresh take on monster movies and a badass female protagonist. Kate Beckinsale was perfectly cast as the Lycan-hunting vampire Selene, torn between her loyalty to her masters and a newfound love interest in Michael Corvin, played by Scott Speedman. As viewers accompany Selene down the rabbit hole, the film jumps from one bloodthirsty action sequence to the next, always boasting remarkable practical effects and wirework.
Produced on a 22 million dollar budget, Underworld became an unexpected hit, ultimately raking in over 95 million at the box office. While critics weren’t crazy about it, audiences absolutely adored the classy aesthetics and kickass soundtrack (which features an incredible remix of David Bowie’s Bring Me the Disco King by Danny Lohner), not to mention Beckinsale’s memorable performance as a veteran Death-Dealer. Naturally, she would end up becoming one of the most badass leading ladies of the 2000s, rivaled only by RE‘s Milla Jovovich.
The rest of the cast is also impressive, with Bill Nighy gleefully chewing through scenery as the Elder Vampire Viktor and Michael Sheen leading the Lycan rebellion as Lucian (years before becoming a vampire in the Twilight franchise). Kevin Grevioux himself also makes an appearance as Raze, one of the film’s most memorable Lycans. Luckily for fans, despite a few gruesome character deaths, this wouldn’t be the last time that we’d see this curious ensemble on the big screen.
Having successfully jumpstarted a franchise, Wiseman and company soon returned to this world of ultraviolet bullets and rebelling Lycans with 2006’s Underworld: Evolution, a sequel that takes place almost immediately after the first film. While it’s an equally stylish endeavor, with Selene and Michael on the run from Elder Vampires as they uncover the secret origin of both Vampires and Lycans, the movie suffers from trying too hard to be bigger and more action-packed than its predecessor.
Even so, the convoluted script and bloated budget couldn’t keep Evolution from becoming yet another box office success. Critics still refused to warm up to the series, but general audiences appreciated the return to neo-gothic melodrama and balls-to-the-wall Vampire vs Werewolf action. While the film serves as a somewhat definitive conclusion to Michael and Selene’s story, its success meant that we would soon see another entry in the franchise with the 2009 prequel, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans.
Same monsters, new setting.
Patrick Tatopoulos‘ prequel suffers from having its main plot points spoiled by flashbacks in the previous films, but it’s still my favorite entry in the franchise, focusing on the origin of the conflict between enslaved Lycans and tyrannical Vampires in medieval Europe. While Beckinsale is appropriately absent from the prequel (except for a final zinger), both Michael Sheen and Bill Nighy reprise their roles from previous films and are clearly having a great time doing so. The timeline might not completely add up and the pacing is a little choppy, but the exaggerated action and fresh setting make this one of the most thoroughly entertaining films in the series.
The same can’t be said for 2012’s Underworld: Awakening, a movie that was meant to be Beckinsale’s long-awaited return to the franchise. It’s undoubtedly great to see Selene once again mowing down ferocious Lycans with specialized weaponry in a dystopic future (this time unaccompanied by Scott Speedman), but the film really drops the ball with some excessive CGI and low-effort backstory. There are still some legitimately thrilling set pieces as Selene attempts to protect her hybrid daughter from the clutches of an evil organization, but the sanitized atmosphere and decreased focus on practical monsters make this entry less interesting than the films that came before.
Despite even more negative reactions from critics, Awakening was successful enough to warrant another sequel in 2016 with Underworld: Blood Wars, the final film in the franchise. Unfortunately, this one is only marginally better than its predecessor, doubling down on questionable CGI and insanely convoluted mythology in order to tell a generic story. In this one, Selene is being hunted by surviving Vampire and Lycan clans who each need her for their own nefarious reasons. Like Awakening, Blood Wars features almost none of the original Underworld team behind the scenes, resulting in a loosely-fitting cap to a once-memorable franchise.
Like all the Underworld films before it, Blood Wars was financially successful, but it also proved that the series had run its course. Without the original creative team backing these productions, there was little reason to continue making them. It’s now been five years since Blood Wars, and despite rumors of the contrary, it seems unlikely that the Underworld franchise will be undergoing a resurrection anytime soon.
I can’t be the only one that misses these monster battles.
Looking back on these movies, it’s clear that they weren’t all masterpieces, but I’ll be the first to defend their commitment to style and gruesome action. Even when the scripts didn’t make much sense, a lot of effort was put into the look and feel of these films, as well as the choreography behind the memorable monster battles. The Underworld Lycans are some of the best practical Werewolves in media, and it’s a shame that later entries traded in the costumes and puppets for cheap CGI.
Beckinsale’s Selene was also a truly iconic character in her own right. While some fans viewed her as nothing more than a leather-clad sex symbol, her arc was a lot more complex than most folks seem to remember. Her feminine traits were never ignored in favor of traditional action hero tropes, but she also routinely showed up to save her confused love interest, a rare twist on the usual damsel in distress formula.
The Underworld franchise may have been a roller-coaster ride when it comes to quality, but I’ll always have fond memories of those fleeting glimpses into a world dominated by Vampiric intrigue and monstrous mutations. Revisiting these movies, I realized that it’s been a long time since audiences have been graced with stylized gothic action on the big screen, and with Resident Evil getting a fresh start in Johannes Roberts’ new film, I’d also love to see a return to the grimy streets of Underworld. After all, the Vampire vs Lycan war is far from over, and there will always be more dark stories to tell.