Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Underworld Trilogy (Screen Gems, 2003, 2006, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Underworld, not the 1927 Josef von Sternberg silent that marked the first true gangster picture (there’d been plenty of movies about crime before but none on the peculiar mixture of criminal enterprise and above-ground business that sprang up to provide alcoholic beverages to Americans during Prohibition) but a 2003 special-effects extravaganza starring Kate Beckinsale as Celine, a member of a “Death-Dealer” squadron of vampires devoted to the extermination of “Lycans” (werewolves to you) in the middle of an unnamed city that looks awfully like London. (The final credits identify this as a U.S.-British-German-Hungarian co-production, and among the people listed in the credit roll are some with “vampiric” first names like Bela — as in Lugosi, who you’ll recall was in both the original Dracula and The Wolf Man — and Vlad, the true first name of Vlad Tepes Drakulya the Impaler, the real-life inspiration for Bram Stoker’s vampire character.)

The gimmick is that Lucian (Michael Sheen), the werewolf king supposedly killed 600 years before by vampire king Kraven (Shane Brolly), is in fact alive, and he and Kraven are working together for some unspecified but undoubtedly nefarious purpose. Not surprisingly, given that this is a youth-oriented movie with a young cast aimed at a young audience, the plot, such as it is, is a mere pretext for spectacular action sequences. The promotion for the film emphasized the Romeo and Juliet-like aspects of the story, as killer vampire Celine falls for Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), an internist who’s just been bitten by Lucian and, of course, turned into a Lycan himself — and it turns out that both vampires and Lycans are descendants of a Hungarian family who were infected with plague in the 13th century but whose viruses mutated, one to cause lycanthropy, one to cause vampirism, and one which left the person normally human but immune both to conventional plague symptoms and to the lycanthropic and vampiric symptoms associated with the other two mutations. (Well, it’s as good an explanation as any for the existence of vampires and werewolves in an otherwise recognizable 21st century urban environment.)

Much of the film consists of action scenes of vampire and werewolf death squads firing at each other with automatic pistols and machine guns, and writer Danny McBride (he shares story credit with Kevin Grevioux and director Len Wiseman but gets sole credit for the actual script) at least explains how vampires and werewolves can shoot each other: the vampires’ guns are loaded with silver bullets (duh) while the werewolves’ guns are loaded with bullets with luminous pale-blue spheres in the tips that create an instant flash of light once they explode inside a body, thereby subjecting the vampires to an artificial sunlight which has the same effect on them — instant death — as the real thing. McBride even explains how the vampires can afford to go through all those silver bullets — they own a company that makes artificial blood and plasma, which is not only profitable enough to fund their ammunition needs but has the beneficial side effect of providing them a source of food so they don’t have to keep putting the bite, as it were, on human beings (though they also feed on the blood of livestock à la some of Stoker’s junior vampires).

As long as you accept that what you’re going to see is a phantasmagoria of intense visual images tied to a plot that won’t make more than a lick of sense, Underworld is actually great fun. True, it’s not always that easy to tell who is who — particularly because most of the cast is young and the actors tend to look alike (especially Scott Speedman and Shane Brolly; it took me about one-third of the film before I was reliably able to tell them apart) — and some of the images are so camped-out as to be risible, particularly the sight of vampire elder Viktor (Bill Nighy) being awakened from his tomb and revivified by plugging about 12 IV’s into the back of his body — but the sheer stunning visual quality of this film makes it entertaining, and there’s nothing as self-consciously gross as the eyeball soup in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Indeed, I ordered the “unrated director’s cut” version of the film through the Columbia House DVD Club and was braced for some really gory, blood-spewing action that would have grossed out Charles and made me queasy, but nothing like that occurred (the closest to it we did get were some bizarre scenes of werewolves literally pushing out the potentially toxic silver bullets from inside, the bullets emerging back out of the entrance wounds and plopping safely to the ground beside their would-be victims). Director Len Wiseman kept his camera in almost constant motion, the fight scenes were brilliantly choreographed, and the look Wiseman and cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts blessedly avoided the past-is-brown approach and created a convincing Gothic look by shooting as close to black-and-white as they could get in color and using color very sparingly. (Directors of neo-noir movies, please take note!) Wiseman even quoted one of the most famous Val Lewton gimmicks — in an early scene Celine is about to blow away some werewolves when a subway train suddenly blocks her view, and we hear the sound of the train before it enters the screen — though little of the film is at a Lewtonian level of subtlety, nor can we really expect it to be given what the modern market for the genre wants.

Like Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream (the only two films of his I’ve seen), Underworld was clearly made by people who would be capable of a subtler, more artistic approach to horror than they can get away with in today’s market, but even so it’s great entertainment and a far more appealing and believable combination of horror myths than Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and the other clunkers Universal made during the dog days of their monster cycle after Lewton’s films had pushed RKO ahead of them in making truly artistic films in the genre, and it leaves me anticipating the sequel, Underworld: Evolution (which I imagine will be built around the sexual union of Celine and Michael — Michael having been established as the only human in the world who has both vampire and werewolf viruses in his system and can still survive — and what manner of creature it will produce), even though watching all those pitched battles in the subways and streets I couldn’t help but wonder why the collateral body count of normal humans caught in the crossfire wasn’t catching the attention of the human authorities — the only “cops” we see are two werewolf agents in disguise.

Still, it’s fun to see the digital effects work turning the human characters literally into feral creatures of the night, able to climb up walls and on ceilings in images Hieronymus Bosch would have loved to have painted — we’ve gone a long way since the days when John Fulton had to wait patiently for his double-exposure shots while Jack P. Pierce progressively plastered more and more of Lon Chaney, Jr.’s body with yak wool! — 9/21/06


I was finally ready to run Charles a movie: Underworld: Evolution, a 2006 sequel to the 2003 Underworld, the story of a centuries-old war between vampires and “Lycans” (werewolves) that has somehow managed to continue on earth, with a horrifically high body count on both sides, without the normal human population ever seeming to notice. (Anne Rice’s novels, whatever their deficiencies, at least did a better job of suggesting how her vampire cult could have existed under the radar of the rest of humanity for so long.) The previous film ends with “death-dealer” vampire Selene (Kate Beckinsale in a hot, skin-tight black leather outfit) slicing the head off her father, Viktor (Bill Nighy), after she finds out he’s the latest in a long line of vampires that have betrayed her, and after she’s discovered Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), who has been bitten by both vampire and werewolf and therefore has become a “hybrid,” with characteristics of both.

This one begins back in the Middle Ages, with a sequence depicting the brothers Marcus (Tony Curran) and William (Brian Steele) Corvinus, sons of Alexander Corvinus (Derek Jacobi — what a way to end a career that began so illustriously with I, Claudius, also, come to think of it, a tale of relatives murdering each other for power!) and founders of the vampire and Lycan races, respectively. (A written foreword helpfully explained that Marcus was bitten by a bat and thereby became a vampire, while William was bitten by a wolf and thereby became a werewolf; I joked, “Actually there was a third brother who was bitten by a gerbil, but we don’t talk about him.”) It seems that back then the human-to-Lycan transformation was one-way; it was only later, through internal discipline, that the Lycans learned to go back to being human once in a while -— until then they just became feral animals, raging killing machines without consciousness or conscience.

Then the film returns us to the early 21st century, with Selene opening up Marcus’s tomb — and having him turn out to be yet another deceitful baddie, though probably the coolest-looking character in either film: with extra arms that can pierce an entire body (with which he performs a bloodier version of the Vulcan mind-meld to get whatever information he needs at the moment) and cool bat-wings that descend from his original arms and enable him to fly. She goes around the world looking for other vampires with clues on how to defeat Marcus and finds vampire historian (I’m not making this up, you know!) Andreas Tanis (Steven Mackintosh), whom she discovers under house arrest made considerably more pleasurable than Marcus (who sentenced him centuries earlier) anticipated by the presence of two vampirettes (Christine Danielle and Kaja Gjesdal) who were apparently the result of a vampires’ blood-sucking raid on a Playboy Club one night.

Tanis bites the big one (pun definitely intended!) at Marcus’s hands, but not before revealing that the mysterious commander of a vampire ship (I’m not making that up, either!) is none other than Alexander Corvinus, father of both these clans and also distant ancestor of, you guessed it, Selene’s formerly mortal boyfriend, Michael Corvin, who at first turns down the bags of blood Selene offers him as his repast and then, as she warned him, gets violently ill when he tries to eat normal human food — which he does at, of all places, a Russian military base (“Yeah, we know the food is bad, but it’s usually not that bad!”).

Underworld: Evolution is one of those obnoxious sequelae that doesn’t really go beyond the earlier episode but instead offers just more: more exciting action, more blood, more gore, more bodies (it’s the sort of film where the credits include a listing for “corpse creation,” and the credited corpse creator, Joel Echallier, definitely earned whatever they paid him), and also more incomprehensible plot twists and a lot more scenes in which director Len Wiseman and screenwriter Danny McBride (they collaborated on the original story and Kevin Grevioux is credited with them for having created the characters in the first place) rather rawly introduce us to new dramatis personae just by cutting them in and evoking the age-old question, “Who the hell is he?”

It has most of the virtues of the first film, particularly a steely-gray look that proves to be a good way of doing Gothic in color (thanks be to cinematographer Simon Duggan for not bathing it all in murky brown!) and would be a good way of doing noir in color as well, and a script that at least feints at explaining who all these people are and what they need to do to kill each other. Alas, it’s weaker than the first one simply because this time around the plot makes even less sense than the previous one did, and the predictable action set-piece at the end (William the werewolf is revivified — and he looks all too much like a pretty ordinary feral dog the pound is about to have to put down, and he and Marcus have the inevitable battle to the death which they both lose) offers us a pretty pat resolution of the plot.

At least we get a rather chilly sex scene between Beckinsale and Speedman, though carefully framed to avoid showing any “naughty bits,” as well as yet another orgy scene (this time between Tanis and his Playboy Bunny vampire pets) that suggests an alternate title could have been Fangs Wide Shut. I don’t want to sound too hard on the Underworld movies because they’re actually quite entertaining for the genre and the era; the gore almost never seems gratuitous and the filmmakers obviously aimed at a work of some taste (the Matrix influences are obvious in the big effects set-pieces but McBride and Wiseman are nowhere near as opportunistic in their plotting as the Wachowskis were), though they could have done better by making the movie even more restrained (their quote of the famous Val Lewton “bus” effect in the first Underworld convinces me that they’ve seen the classics and would be able to duplicate their approach if they didn’t know too well how little patience modern audiences would have for that sort of thing). — 10/2/06


I ran us the third film in the Underworld series, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, which I didn’t realize until I read the blurb on the DVD box wasn’t a sequel to the previous Underworlds but a prequel, set in medieval times two generations after the mutated plague bacteria that gave birth to the new life forms the cycle depicts, vampires and “lycans” — a.k.a., werewolves. In the first two generations of lycans, a rather unctuous narrator explains at the beginning, they were simply people who changed into wolves — they never changed back. Then another mutation arose and a baby was born with the ability to change from human to wolf and back, and Viktor (Bill Nighy), the leader of the vampire clan, decides to use him to transmit the new-style lycan mutation to other humans, then puts collars around them (parts of this movie do look like a particularly violent S/M play party!) and forces them to stand guard as slaves around the vampires’ castle, so the vampires will have a security guard to repel anyone that might try to attack them during the day, when they’re vulnerable.

Once the exposition is complete, the main part of the film is sort of Romeo and Juliet meets Spartacus, as Lucian (Michael Sheen), the first lycan “switch,” and Viktor’s vampire daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra) fall in love and Lucian rallies his fellow lycans to rebel against their vampire masters, forging a key with which they can remove their collars to make that possible. The script is by the usual committee, and it’s a sign of the times that the writing credits feature nine listings even though they only represent six actual people: the screenplay is by Danny McBride, Dirk Blackman and Howard McCain (nice to know a “Blackman” and someone named McCain can work together on something!) based on a story by Len Wiseman, Robert Orr and McBride, in turn based on characters created by Wiseman, McBride and Kevin Grevioux — and Grevioux is actually in the movie as Raze, one of Lucian’s lieutenants and a rather incongruous Black person in an otherwise all-white world.

The writing committee never made it clear whether the collars are simply symbolic of slavery or they contain some magic power that actually saps their wearers’ wills and forces them into obedience (though, judging from Lucian’s attitude when he’s wearing one — which isn’t appreciably less rebellious than when he isn’t — it’s hard to believe they have much intrinsic power), and there really isn’t much more plot to it than the basics of a war between lycans and vampires that ends inconclusively, since according to the first two movies it’s been continuing for at least 500 years and is still going on in our own time.

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans is the first episode in the series that wasn’t directed by Len Wiseman, a genuinely talented filmmaker with a feel for the history of his genre (my love and respect for the first Underworld were probably cemented when it included a copy of the famous scene in the Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur Cat People in which the climax of a shock scene was the hissing airbrake of a bus — an innocuous sound that in this context made audiences both in1942 and 2003 leap with fright); instead, this time around they gave the direction to the effects guy, Patrick Tatopoulos. Naturally he kept the visual style Wiseman and company had established in the first two films — notably the steely-gray, almost monochrome overall “look” to establish Gothic atmosphere — and I don’t think it’s fair to blame Tatopoulos for a comparatively uninteresting script.

There are some quite spectacular scenes, including one of unearthly beauty in which Lucian calls out to his fellow Lycans in various stages of werewolf-dom; another in which Viktor consigns Sonja to execution by putting her in a room and then slowly opening the skylight, which since she’s a vampire condemns her to death by utter obliteration — her body simply turns to smoke and blows away. (Both Charles and one of the imdb.com contributors noted, though, that this wasn’t the way Sonja died in the flashback exposition scene in the original Underworld.)

Overall, though, Rise of the Lycans strikes me as the weakest of the three (and audiences seemed to agree, since it was a box-office disappointment and didn’t match the success of the other two), partly because so little happens; partly because (as with the latter two Matrices) the atmosphere is so mephitic and dark that the movie is half over before we actually see a daylight exterior; partly because where the first two films were morally ambiguous and neatly divided our sympathies between werewolves and vampires, in this one the werewolves are clearly the good guys and the vampires the bad guys; and partly because we really miss the element of clash between this Gothic netherworld and our own familiar existence that the first two films had because they were set in modern times.

I faulted the first two Underworlds because it wasn’t altogether believable that this war between vampires and werewolves could exist so totally under the radar of modern humanity — Anne Rice did a much better job of explaining how her vampire cult co-existed with modern life while remaining pretty much incognito — but the solution to that credibility issue was not to set the whole movie in a medieval netherworld which fell heir to the big problem with fantasy stories in general: when anything can happen, you can’t play with audience expectations because you haven’t set up any you can then shock the audience by violating. (In fairness, merely setting a movie in modern times and avoiding blatantly fantastic elements is no guarantee of avoiding this; Duplicity is a perfect case in point.)

I’m not sure there’s going to be another Underworld movie — the first two had pretty much seemed to exhaust the premise and the lackluster returns on Rise of the Lycans are not the sort that usually inspire a sequel (nor is the Zeitgeist working in its favor; the vampire movies people are going to see today are things like Twilight that emphasize the romantic side of the vampire myth, which Underworld virtually eliminated) — but if there is another, I hope they bring it back to the modern world! — 9/29/09