The UNDERWORLD franchise’s relentless, death-dealing vampire, Selene (Kate Beckinsale), goes under ice at the beginning of UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING, and so does most of the series’ political intrigue, swapping out the power struggles from the previous entries in favor of even more chases, gunplay, and explosions — lots and lots of explosions. Awakened into a (nominally) future world where humanity has decimated the vampire covens and their natural enemy, the werewolf-like lycans, Selene finds herself protecting the fate of the young vamp/lycan hybrid Eve (India Eisley), and on the run from a sinister pharmaceutical corporation, all in glorious 3D. You will believe a metal-barbed whip can poke your eye out.
Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski and Dan Persons set their logic centers to neutral and debate what’s fun (i.e. Kate Beckinsale in skin-tight leather) and what’s not (plot) in this fourth installment, and whether there’s any future to UNDERWORLD’s future. They also discuss their gut-reactions to the latest crop of genre trailers, and Steve talks a little about a safe-driving film with a surprising production credit. Plus: What’s coming in theaters.
The third film in the UNDERWORLD franchise is a prequel that takes us back to the origins of the feud between vampires and werewolves that fueled the previous two films. UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS offers a “Romeo and Juliet” affair between Lucien (Michael Sheen), a werewolf slave, and Sonja (Rhona Mitra), daughter of the vampire elder Viktor (Bill Nighy), but the love story ignites few sparks, because it is overwhelmed by the obsessive need to stage as many bloody battles as possible. These are staged for maximum “coolness” effect, which means that the sight of sliced flesh and splattering blood outweighs any consideration for emotional impact. The result is an emotional vacuum at the core of the film, which renders UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS unengaging except to hardcore fans of the franchise, who want to see even more vampire-versus-werewolf mayhem.
Patrick Tatopoulos, production designer on the previous films, takes over the directorial reigns from Len Wiseman. Perhaps predictably, the big strength of UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS is its visual look. The period setting is less an accurate representation of history than a wonderfully sinister and serious evocation of a grim fairy tale setting, including a monumentally imposing castle hewn out of a mountainside and a tremendously spooky forest that falls somewhere between Mario Bava and Tim Burton (think BLACK SUNDAY and SLEEP HOLLOW).
Unfortunately, that’s the most UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS has going for it. The scenario fails to capture the sense of a powder keg about to explode, because it offers only the most thumbnail sketch of the conflict between vampires and werewolves, instead prefering to focus on the doomed love story. At least the speeches by the lycanthropic Lucian strike a pleasantly Marxist tone as he exorts his fellow werewolves to throw off the chains of oppression and overthrow their vampiric masters.
On a conceptual level, UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS falters because no one seems to have bothered to think through the implications of a society of vampires. The blood-drinkers all act pretty much like humans – nasty, blood-drinking humans, to be sure, but they’re basically not much different from any movie depiction of a decadent aristocracy exploiting the poor. You would think that immortality and near invulnerability – resulting in a static society where you see the same unchanging faces for centuries – would have some kind of impact on society.
The biggest problem the film poses for non-fans is that it barely bothers to fill the audience in on necessary exposition, such as how the collars warn by the lycan slaves prevent them from changing into wolf form. Uninitiated viewers will find themselves wondering what makes weapons effective in a battle between two races of immortals, and exactly how much damage needs to be inflicted to cause fatality.
Without this clarification, UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS comes across like just another typical action movie, in which peripheral characters dies immediately while the heroes receive an exemption that allows them to recover from their wounds and live to fight another day. It’s hard to get worked up about the numerous fight scenes when the vulnerabilities are so unclear.
Mitra and Sheen strive to generate some heat, but the script doesn’t give them enough to work with. Nighy is great, reprising his role as the vampire overlord. The music by Paul Haslinger (formerly of Tangerine Dream) sets the right mood, and Ross Emery’s cinematography lends a beautiful sheen to the characters and settings.
The special effects are nice, though a bit overdone. Computer-generated imagery enhances the practical makeup work, greatly expanding the scale of the film, but the effort to impress the audience with the sheer number of monsters suffers from the law of diminishing returns, with few individual scenes standing out in memory. There is also the old problem of the cartoony look of CGI, but at least in this case it is subsumed into the overall fantasy look of the film.
The ending makes a nice effort to tie the continuity in directly with the first UNDERWORLD film. And that pretty much tells you all you need to know: this is a film for the fans who recall every detail of the preceding two films; no one else need apply.
Screen Gems DVD release of UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS offers good sound and a great widescreen transfer that renders the film’s visuals in impressive detail; even if the story disappoints, it is easy to enjoy looking at the backgrounds.
These are the bonus features:
- Audio commentary with director Patrick Tatopoulos, producer, Len Wiseman, and others.
- Featurette: Underworld: Rise of the Lycans – From Script to Screen
- Featurette: The Origin of the Fued (notes Romeo and Juliet parallel) – promo piece that fills in exposition not made clear in film and fills us in on the characters
- Featurette: Re-Creating the Dark Ages – The Look of Underworld: Rise of the Lycans
- Music Video: “Deathclub”
- Previews (including Sky Crawlers, Quarantine, Blood: The Last Vampire, 2012)
The featurettes are mostly standare promotional pieces, shot and edited before the film’s release. “Script to Screen” doesn’t reall focus on the titular subject, instead offering generic making-of info. “The Look of Underwold” is a bit better, as it focuses on the film’s storngest element. In way, the most interesting featurette is “Origin of the Fued.” Although it consists mostly of cast and crew describing their characters (especially recurring characters whose back story is being explained in the prequel), there is some useful exposition provided that does not appear in the film itself.
The audio commentary is a bit chatty and mostly not too informative, with the filmmakers mostly patting themselves on the back for their accomplishments. A few remarkable details do emerge, such as the fact that the surreal forest that lends such atmosphere to UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS is not a set but an actual location. We also learn that Lucian’s revolutionary speech (one of the film’s dramatic highlights) helped get more money for production when it was cut together as part of a promo film.
During a werewolf-transformation scene, Patrick Tatopoulos mentions that old-fashioned transformations (in films like 1936’s THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON) were achieved by having the actor walk behind pillars, allowing the editing to disguise cuts that allowed the camera to stop while makeup was applied. Computer-generated imagery renders this form of trickery unnecessary, yet for some reasonthe scene in UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS still has the werewolves walking behind pillars as they shape-shift.
Most interesting is a story told by producer Len Weisman, who directed the previous two UNDERWORLD films. Wiseman addresses continuity problem with first UNDERWORLD, which included a flashback depicting Viktor’s daughter Sonja as a blond – even though the script expressly stated that she was supposed to resemble Selene, the dark-haired character played by Kate Beckinsale. When it came time to make UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS, the filmmakers were faced with a dilemma: maintain continuity with a scene that was compromised by budgetary restrictions (they couldn’t afford a wig or a dye job for the blond actress), or simply shoot it the way they thought it should be. Having opted for the later, Wiseman expresses a wish to replace the UNDERWORLD flashback with footage from UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS, and one of the producers says he is working on it for future edition.
Numerous science fiction, fantasy, and horror films of all shapes and sizes are arriving on DVD and Blu-ray this week. Most of them are repackagings of older titles hauled out of the vaults one more time, either to celebrate an anniversary (GALAXY QUEST) or to tie in with the release of a feature film (STAR TREK); fortunately, there are one or two new titles as well, including the latest installment of the UNDERWORLD franchise.
UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS is the third film in a trilogy as far as release dates, but in a sense it’s the first – being a prequel that tells the back story of the previous films. This was originally announced as a direct-to-video film but made its way into theatres earlier this year. Kate Beckinsale, who starred in UNDERWORLD and UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION, passed on reprising her role, but Rhona Mitra (DOOMSDAY) can do the sexy, sophisticated British act just as well. In any case, UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS is available in four different versions: a DVD, a UMD for PSP, a stand-alone Blu-ray disc,and a Blu-ray box set that combines it with the previous two UNDERWORLD titles. (Is it just me, or do you get the feeling that most of these Part 3 titles were begat simply to create the opportunity for a trilogy box set?) DVD bonus features on the are:
- Underworld Rise of the Lycans – From Script to Screen Featurette
- The Origin of the Feud Featurette
- Re-Creating the Dark Ages: The Look of Underworld Rise of the Lycans
- Filmmaker Audio Commentary
- Music Video
The Blu-ray disc duplicates all of the DVD bonus features and adds these extras:
- Digital Copy of the film for PC, PSP, Mac or iPod
- Cinechat: Send on-screen instant messages to yoru friends around the world while you watch the movie together
- Behind the Castle Walls: Picture in Picture
- Interactive Map of Werewolf Sightings around the World.
As all good Trekkies know, there is a new STAR TREK feature film currently with its phasers set on massive ticket sales; inevitably, this means that Paramount has dipped into the vault for old titles to reissue. This week sees several new box sets reassembling the films and television episodes into new permutations:
- A Blu-ray box set of “Star Trek: Original Motion Picture Collection” (containing all the feature films starring the original cast)
- Blu-ray and DVD box sets of “Star Trek: Motion Picture Trilogy” (containing STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK, and STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME)
- A DVD set of “The Best of Star Trek: The Original Series” (containing “City on the Edge of Forever,” “Amok Time,” “The Trouble with Tribbles,” and “Balance of Terror”)
- A DVD box set of “The Best of Star Trek: The Next Generation” (containing “The Best of Both Worlds, Parts 1 and 2,” “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” and “The Measure of a Man.”
GALAXY QUEST returns to home video stores in honor of its 10th anniversary. In addition to the deleted scenes and other goodies from the old DVD release, the New DVD includes half a dozen new bonus features: Historical Documents: The Story of Galaxy Quest; Never Give Up, Never Surrender: The Intrepid Crew of the NSEA Protector; By Grabthar’s Hammer, What Amazing Effects; Alien School: Creating the Thermian Race; Actors in Space; Sigourney Weaver Raps. You can read the details here.
Speaking of trilogies (as I was a couple of paragraphs ago), this week sees the direct-to-video release of THE GRUDGE 3, an arrival that should surprise no one, as the disappointing THE GRUDGE 2seemed pretty much designed to take what could have been a successful theatrical franchise and grind it into the DTV dirt. Following from the conclusion of that sequel, which shifted the action from Japan to America, GRUDGE 3 was made with an American director replacing franchise creator Takashi Shimizu, who has hopefully moved on to better things. Also out today is a Blu-ray release of THE GRUDGE, which was previously released on DVD in two versions: the PG-13 theatrical cut and the unrated director’s cut (each containing different bonus features).
PASSENGERS is a direct-to-video title from writer-director that seems to have more than enough star power to have warranted a theatrical release: Oscar nominee Anne Hathaway and Oscar-winner Dianne Wiest. Hathaway stars as a counselor helping survivors of a plane crash cope with the trauma; her patients begin mysteriously disappearing, and one of them seems to have developed psychic abilities. It all sounds a bit like a high-class version of FINAL DESTINATION (not that the idea was original there). The film is available on DVD and Blu-ray. Bonus features include a director-and-cast audio commentary, deleted scenes, a making of featurette, and an “Anatomy of a Plane Crash” featurette.
Other DTV titles this week include PLAGUE TOWN (available on DVD and Blu-ray), B.T.K. (starring former Jason Voorhees, Kane Hodder), and S DARKO: A DONNIE DARKO TALE (available on DVD, Blu-ray, and in a 2-pack with the original DONNIE DARKO).
As for the rest:
- THE FOG (John Carpenter’s 1980 original) gets a Blu-ray release.
- A new DVD double bills two Bruce Campbell titles: MAN WITH THE SCREAMING BRAIN and ALIEN APOCALYPSE.
- THE ANATOMIST – a 1961 television take on real-life body-snatchers Burke and Hare, starring Alistair Sim (SCROOGE) – makes its debut on DVD.
- Paramount re-releases a few old titles as part of its “Paramount Valu” line: CORE, VIRTUOSITY, and D.A.R.Y.L.
The film franchise that successfully combines vampires and werewolves and which also involves a romantic element hit the theaters once again last weekend and did fairly well in box office returns. I’m not talking about the second installment in the TWILIGHT series, but rather, UNDERWORLD: THE RISE OF THE LYCANS. This latest and perhaps last chapter in the UNDERWORLD narrative is something of a prequel, taking the viewer to a time before the first film’s narrative in order to provide an exploration of how the lycans (short for lycanthropes – i.e., werewolves) broke from partnership and service to the vampires, lauching an ongoing warfare between the two monstrous species.
This film will not be the only one to explore werewolves in 2009 with November representing a furry month that will include a fresh remake of THE WOLF MAN starring Benicio del Toro and featuring makeup by Rick Baker, and NEW MOON, the next film in the TWILIGHT series set to explore the conflict between vampires and werewolves only hinted at in the first film. But while many of the classic monsters immortalized in film have been the focus of popular and academic exploration, especially the vampire and Dr. Frankenstein’s creature, like the mummy, the werewolf has received comparatively little exploration.
Gordon Melton’s encyclopedic Vampire Book discusses the ancient origins of the werewolf in the folklore of various peoples around the world. The werewolf myth is part of a broad collection of myths in cultures with stories of human transformations into various types of animals. One of the oldest comes from ancient Greek mythology, with the word Lycaon from which we derive the term “lycanthropy.” Europe has been the source of some of the most influential folklore in Hollywood horror’s depictions of the werewolf, which reached a peak in the Middle Ages when lycanthropy was attributed to satanic influence along with witchcraft and sorcery. Melton also notes that in the mythic and literary history of various creatures in mythology that werewolves and vampires crossed paths in the past long before Hollywood cinema thrust the creatures together.
In terms of literary development, the werewolf appeared in three novels in the nineteenth century, with George W. M. Reynold’s Wagner the Wehrwolf recognized as one of the most significant. However, it was Guy Endore’s 1934 novel The Werewolf of Paris that would attract the most attention and become influential in the cinematic development of werewolf mythology. Endore’s book (or at least its title) was the inspiration for Universal Pictures’ first exploration of the lycanthrope in THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON.
However, it was Universal’s next film, THE WOLF MAN with Lon Chaney, Jr., that would cement the werewolf in popular culture so that the creature would become an iconic figure. This film would become something of a template for Western audiences in their understanding of werewolf mythology, with subsequent films providing deviations and modifications from this basic narrative core. As David Skal describes the impact of THE WOLF MAN and the subsequent werewolf films derived from this classic in the development of the mythology, “The Wolf Man’s saga was the most consistent and sustained monster myth of [World War II], beginning with the first year of America’s direct involvement, and finishing up just in time for Hiroshima.”
We might also remember that, UNDERWORLD’s pairing of vampires and werewolves is not the first time this has taken place in film. 1943’s THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE by Columbia Pictures did so, as did three films by Universal through the mid to late 1940s.
2009’s two films exploring the werewolf is significant for this horror creature, but it still falls slightly short in comparison with 1981, a year that Marco Lanzagorta calls “The Year of the Wolf” due to the release of three werewolf pictures that year including THE HOWLING, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, and WOLFEN. The werewolf may not be as popular as the vampire or the zombie in popular culture, but perhaps this year’s exploration of the transforming beast from within indicates that we still find the creature fascinating as it provides us with yet another facet of exploring the submersed dark side of human nature that surfaces all too frequently without the need for a full moon or gypsy curses.