Underworld is the story of the secret war between werewolves and vampires, a war that humans have been blissfully unaware of for years, but which now threatens to erupt into our consciousness.
It was also the subject of a lawsuit by White Wolf Games, who claimed that the vampires-vs.-werewolf storyline infringed on its copyright. Having now seen the movie, I have to disagree with White Wolf — this movie doesn’t actually contain any vampires, so how could it possibly infringe on their copyrights?
Oh, it does contain creatures it claims are vampires, but they are largely vampires in the same way that Goths are vampires — they wear black clothes, prefer the night, and exude a dark kind of sex appeal. They are completely and utterly divorced from their vampiric background, bloodless, bland entities incapable of horror, terror or even the slightest twinge of psychological discomfort. They aren’t the undead … they are merely the daylight challenged.
The movie begins by introducing us to Selene, who’s a Hunter, a vampire who’s dedicated her life to slaying werewolves. Why does she kill lycanthropes (or as they are called in the movie, “Lycans”)? Pretty much for the same reason the Hatfields killed the McCoys — it’s a blood feud that’s so old that no one remembers the exact cause (and in this case, isn’t allowed too — history is forbidden to the vampire cults by its elders).
Selene finds a group of werewolves hunting a human and follows both into a subway. There a gunfight erupts as the werewolves learn they’re being followed. Selene’s partner is cut down by new-fangled werewolf weaponry — bullets that contain some sort of irradiated material that mimics sunlight. As the movie unfolds, Selene must learn why the wolves were hunting the human while her vampire minions must prepare for the awakening of one of their slumbering elders and the accompanying celebration.
Boring Vampires, Uninspired Werewolves
I need to preface this part of the review by noting that I was in the middle of re-reading Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (Amazon) when I watched this movie. And to go from the menacing, vile, sly evil of King’s vampires to the banality of Underworld’s quasi-undead is more than a little jarring. King’s vampires were undeniably vampiric in the classical sense, abiding by most of traditions, including an aversion to daylight, running water, holy symbols, and human familiars. And they were definitively evil.
I realize that vampires have undergone a transformation since Salem’s Lot was first published. Anne Rice — and of course White Wolf’s Vampire RPG — bear much of the blame for this romantification of vampires, transforming them from lords and mistresses of evil into immortal yuppies who stand around swirling blood in glass goblets.
Underworld is the culmination of the degradation of the classical vampire. These vampires are no longer evil, but we’ve seen that before. These vampires are superficially allergic to daylight, reacting badly to radioactive bullets but these bullets are a fleeting plot point, and the entirety of the movie is shot in the darkness. There are no “evil” vampires — the clan gets its blood from a bank it owns — and even the nominally evil leader of the vampires recovers from his long hibernation via IV, rather than the sacrificial virgin one might expect. In combat, the vampires look good, blasting away at their werewolf enemies with style, but their only superhuman powers appear to be an ability to survive multi-story jumps and — on rare occasion — to leap onto the ceiling. They can spread their disease via biting, but we see exactly one bite in the entire vampire movie.
The vampires are reduced to being good-looking men and women with leather fetishes and a predilection for the night.
The werewolves fair better — although they can change at will, they do at least change into a super-strong hybrid wolf form that’s susceptible to silver, and they can spread their virus by biting. Overall though, the werewolves themselves are still disappointing, with oversized heads that look more comic than menacing. Werewolves were done far better in An American Werewolf in London (Amazon) and The Howling (Amazon).
I won’t give away the secret behind vampire and werewolf animosity save to say that its not all that different from Romeo and Juliet, nor will I give away the werewolves’ hidden goal except to describe it as really freaking stupid, the stuff of a thousand 6th grade debates over the nature of supernatural beasts.
Is Underworld all bad? Well, no. There were some cool bits — Selene’s character looks great and pulls off some nice stunts (like blasting her way through a floor in order to escape onrushing werewolves) — but not enough to raise the film out of its C movie cellar.
I understand that Underworld’s blood-less immortals are part of a vampiric tradition that eschews traditional horror for a Gothic romanticism, which is in direct conflict with my own preference for evil blood-sucking undead. That said, Underworld doesn’t even succeed on its own terms. It’s a murky passionless mess that’s best left lurking underground.
- Directed by Len Wiseman
- Starring Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman
- Columbia Tristar
- MSRP (DVD): $28.95
- Buy it from Amazon.