I rail a lot against bad horror movies, the kind that are excuses to inflict a lot of violence, gore, and bad writing on audiences. As a horror fan, I wish to hold the genre to a certain standard of storytelling because the genre has so much to offer. But I’m realistic, and if a horror movie doesn’t live up to those standards (or even try), all I ask is that it’s at least entertaining. There’s nothing worse than a boring horror movie that tries way too hard.
However, I must confess that I have my own horror guilty pleasures. These are films that I acknowledge are poorly made movies with a laundry list of flaws. Yet somehow, I love them. I watch them over and over.
And my favorite horror guilty pleasure is 2003’s action-horror classic Underworld.
Cheesy and somewhat uninspired, Underworld nonetheless managed to become a surprise hit in the fall of 2003. The film centers around a beautiful but cold vampire Death Dealer named Selene (Kate Beckinsale), who is dedicated to her role in clearing the werewolf scourge. Against the backdrop of a centuries-old war between vampires and werewolves, Selene’s job becomes more difficult when she uncovers a werewolf plot to mingle the vampire and werewolf bloodlines. In the process, she discovers hidden vampire secrets and falls in love with a human male, Micheal, and both of these developments threaten the balance of power.
I know it’s a not-great movie, just like I know it borrows heavily from sources like Vampire: The Masquerade and The Matrix. But I love it. And I’m not that only one.
Today, Underworld enjoys its 15 year anniversary. That’s why I wanted to explore what I love about the film and highlight what it gets right.
Yes, there’s next to no character development except to present the characters as loosely sketched archetypes. Okay, the plot is completely predictable yet nonsensical (as Roger Ebert pointed out, it’s never made clear why Selene falls in love with Micheal). And sure, Underworld is a cheap goth rip-off of The Matrix. But that’s not why you watch Underworld.
Why I Love Underworld
I’ll never forget my first time seeing Underworld. I was a sophomore in high school just starting to explore my tastes, the ones that didn’t fit in with the preppy image with which I had long associated. Like many of my friends and girls my age, I adhered to a one-note idea of what it meant to be a girl. I wore a bunch of polos in various shades of pink, I listened to certain kinds of pop music, and I consumed teen entertainment almost solely limited to shallow teen romcoms and young adult novels.
Not that any of that is wrong or bad. I just wasn’t entirely satisfied with these expressions of my interests, though I pretended to be. I put aside my interest in things that might be considered “weird” or “off-color,” like my love for The X-Files, my interest in monsters and ghost stories, and my overall attraction to the macabre.
That was until Underworld.
I somehow convinced my friend to see the movie with me, even though it wasn’t her cup of tea. We went opening weekend, to the Alamo Quarry Theater in San Antonio, Texas. Being two smears of pink in a sea of black, we stuck out like sore thumbs. But I didn’t care. I may not have looked like a girl who would dig a movie about vampires vs. werewolves, yet somehow, I knew I would.
And enjoy it I did. Underworld quickly became on of my favorite action films. It wasn’t a very good movie regarding acting, and I’d snuck enough young adult horror books and lurked on enough fan fiction forums to know the story wasn’t original. But Underworld was fun. It was exciting. And as shallow and cheesy as some of its elements were, it spoke to me on a deeper level, a level that made me embrace my love for all things dark.
Fifteen years later, Underworld holds a special place in my heart as a guilty pleasure and something more. Now, as a critic, I recognize the film’s flaws and relish its successes. There’s a reason why this film franchise has endured, despite the increasingly clumsy and overblown plot points.
Let’s explore why.
The Overall Atmosphere
First, one of Underworld’s most compelling features is its moody, blue-toned atmosphere. Set in the bowels of the grungy aging city, a fortified vampire mansion, and a filthy werewolf laboratory, Underworld makes the most of these cold, unforgiving environments. By immersing the audience in these settings, it makes the audience feel tough and edgy, slinky and seductive, wild and ready to fight. It also helps that the film makes liberal use of blue filters and dramatic camera angles.
And the costuming, specifically the vampire costumers—dear Lord, help me—I love them. There’s so much lace, so much leather, so much cheaply baroque jewelry, and godawful satiny shirts. That isn’t just a look but a whole damn aesthetic, like a delightfully gothic music video from the mid-90s, and I love it. Part of me judges hard, and part of me wonders how freaking awesome it would be to parade around wearing a leather-corseted jumpsuit.
(Side note: it’s movies like this, with their darkly baroque décor and romantic-goth style that makes me wonder if vampires are required to attend some kind of orientation when they become vampires. Is it a requirement for vampires to decorate and dress solely in red and black? Is it like wearing your sorority letters? More importantly, is it possible to attend vampire orientation without becoming a vampire? Asking for a friend.)
Which leads me to…
The World Building
In general, the lore of Underworld isn’t the most inventive or creative interpretation of vampire-werewolf mythos, but it’s compelling nonetheless. Clunky exposition aside, the film’s set design and art direction provide a lot of information about the relationship of these two foes. From the vampire Elders to the mythical weapons arm-race to the werewolves’ careful plotting, we come to understand so much about these two species and their shared lore. It’s one of the things the film does very well.
It helps that the film positions the vampires as the fashionable aristocracy and werewolves as the grungy working-class (whom the vampires had enslaved–awkward). It’s downright archetypal to frame the conflict in this way, and effective. The audience finds itself torn between the two sides because even though Selene is Team Vampires (and the vampires are cooler), the werewolves are the underdogs who are pursuing justice for centuries of persecution.
To be fair, the movie doesn’t highlight just how marvelous the soundtrack is. Seriously, the Underworld soundtrack is a triumph of metal goth-rock and dark techno, which perfectly encapsulates and reinforces the brooding, dark aesthetic of the movie. It’s also excellent music, mixing punk with alt-rock with industrial. It’s dreamy and moody when it needs to be, and then it’s exciting and crushing when it needs to be. It’s one of those soundtracks where I listen to the whole thing instead of jumping around to my favorite songs. For the record, though, the best song is the remix of David Bowie’s “Bring Me the Disco King.” It’s such a great song, even better than the official version on Bowie’s album Reality.
The Fight Scenes
No matter how heart-pounding your soundtrack is, it won’t matter if you don’t have the action scenes to back it up. Additionally, if you’re going rip-off The Matrix, then you must deliver. Luckily, Underworld does a pretty good job. The fight scenes are great, from the shootout in the sewers to Selene shooting her way through the floor to escape werewolves. The most memorable fight scene, of course, is when newly vampire/werewolf hybrid Scott Freedman battles vampire elder Bill Nighy, only for Kate Beckinsale to swoop down, swinging a sword so sharp Bill Nighy doesn’t realize it’s cut through his skull until the top of his head slides off.
It’s shallow and cheap to construct the plot specifically to set up fight scenes, but honestly, Underworld doesn’t care, and I love that. It knows it’s a thrilling B Movie action horror and isn’t interested in anything else. It knows that, sometimes, people want to see hot, physically impressive specimens kick ass in increasingly awesome ways because it’s the only way we’ll ever experience that kind of action. Who doesn’t want to vicarious feel like a sexy vampire who is a f*cking surgeon with two Berettas and can rock a leather catsuit? EVERYONE wants that. You’re a liar if you say no. Fight me.
This kind of action doesn’t require anything deeper. It’s like popcorn—light and lacking substance but buttery and savory and addictive.
The Film’s Stars – Kate Beckinsale, Michael Sheen, and Bill Nighy
Selene is not a difficult character to play, nor is it demanding role requiring emotional heavy-lifting or a nuanced portrayal. Just the opposite—Selene is meant to be a beautiful, icy hard-ass, and by God, that’s what Kate Beckinsale gives us. As a teenager, this kind of female action hero was a breath of fresh air compared to all the female sidekicks or love interests who plagued action movies.
Meanwhile, Michael Sheen is way too good to be in this movie. Despite that, he successfully brings nuance and depth to his role as Lucian, leader of the Lycans. As written (if you can call it that), Lucian could have easily been as deep as a sheet of paper, much like Kraven (played by Shane Brolly), who’s by far the worst example of acting in the movie. But no, Michael Sheen elevates the role as much as he can, bringing raw intensity and intelligence to his werewolf while providing the film with the closest thing it has to a moral compass.
But neither one of them can compare to the GIFT of Bill Nighy’s Viktor.
Bill Nighy, a classicly trained British character actor, is so fun to watch. He’s gruff and dry and vicious, snarling and ripping off huge chunks of the scenery and spitting them in his co-stars’ faces.
It’s the juiciest role in the film, which…isn’t saying much. But Bill Nighy runs with it. He’s rigid without being stuffy, over the top without being comical. Mean but immensely entertaining. I love every moment of his screen time hissing and snapping and generally being a huge douche. More importantly, he adds to the overall arch of the narrative by providing a compelling villain in a way that only a classically trained actor can.
As much as I love these aspects, Underworld is a guilty pleasure and not a good movie. Underworld is melodrama, a gothic, action-packed melodrama about forbidden love. But again, while it doesn’t concern itself with a deeper meaning about social or cultural concerns like many horror movies, Underworld still makes me feel something. All the dark vampire-werewolf conflict stirs some kind of truth, the same way that fairy tales make sense in a way I can’t quite articulate.
And that’s why I will always have a soft spot for this film.
Do you share my love for this cheesetacular action-horror film? What’s your favorite part about Underworld? Let me know in the comments!