Dir: Len Wiseman. US-UK-Germany-Hungary. 2003. 121 mins.
A laughable exercise in Gothic gloom and pulpy horror movie cliches, Underworld is strictly for genre fans. The potential novelty of an age old blood feud between vampires and werewolves quickly fades in a film that sticks rigidly to the tried and trusted elements of gore, mindless action and surprisingly quaint special-effects. The commercial trajectory should be equally predictable as a decent opening weekend is followed by a fast fade around the globe. Queen Of The Damned rather than Blade would appear to be the role model here.
Audience antipathy to female action characters was assumed to have dented the commercial appeal of Summer blockbuster sequels to Charlie's Angels and Lara Croft. The same concern may be a factor here as English rose Kate Beckinsale attempts to reinvent herself as a gun-totin' vampire action babe. This involves sporting skin-tight black leather and looking mean and moody whilst scurrying along shadowy corridors with both guns blazing. It's a transformation that does not appear to come easily to the Pearl Harbor star.
Beckinsale's Selene is a Death Dealer and part of an elite warrior class of vampire who hunt and kill their werewolf adversaries. Living in a vast mansion straight out of a Hammer horror, these vampires forego the traditional modes of transport in favour of fast cars and use silver nitrate bullets as their weapon of choice. They also seem to have a fondness for Matrix-style full-length leather coats that swirl so impressively as they stride purposefully from room to room.
The crux of the plot involves the fate of Scott Speedman's human doctor Michael, whose pure blood holds the key to the ancient feud between the creatures of the night. Hunted by werewolf and vampire alike, he is also handsome enough to make Selene question her obedience to the coven and all she has believed to be true.
Len Wiseman previously worked as a production designer and art director on films like Men In Black and Stargate and sets his directorial debut in an overly familiar vision of a brooding, permanently rainswept city straight out of Batman, The Crow or Dark City. Maintaining a coherent grasp of the convoluted plot occasionally seems beyond him and the film throws up some atrocious dialogue and terrible performances, with Shane Brolly being the most grievous offender as devious, misunderstood vampire leader Kraven.
Hints of class conflict in the war between vampire and werewolf or a Romeo And Juliet style romance between Selene and Michael seem like wishful thinking rather than fully realised subtext.
Genre fans may be slightly disappointed by the rather restrained level of blood and guts on view and by the kind of effects that don't appear to have progressed a good deal from the days of An American Werewolf In London or Hellraiser. Inevitably, the ending sets the scene for a sequel but everyone concerned will have to raise their game if they harbour any hopes or creating a new horror franchise and wooing their target audience away from the small screen allure of Buffy and Angel.
Prod co: Subterranean Productions
Int'l sales: Lakeshore International, (323) 956 4222
Prods: Richard S Wright, Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi
Exec prod: Robert Bernacchi
Scr: Danny McBride
Cinematography: Tony Pierce-Roberts
Prod des: Bruton Jones
Ed: Martin Hunter
Music: Paul Haslinger
Main cast: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Shane Brolly, Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, Kevin Grevioux, Danny McBride