Despite extending its presence on movie marquees all the way into 2017 through a series of unnecessary prequels & sequels, 2003’s action-horror epic Underworld has always been something of a critical punching bag. Registering with an embarrassing 31% aggregated approval rating on the Tomatometer, this bygone nu-metal era tale of an ancient race war between werewolves & vampires was the Twilight of its day: a critically derided mall-goth romance that found the right angsty audience at the right angsty time. It’s admittedly easy to see why pro critics would be harsh on the film immediately upon its release, despite its populist appeal. It’s practically a work of mu-metal horror pastiche – combining elements of Blade, The Matrix, Resident Evil, and Romeo+Juliet into a single flavorless gumbo without contributing much spice of its own. The film was even sued (and settled out of court) for “borrowing” its elaborate vampires vs. werewolves mythology from the popular tabletop RPG Vampire: the Masquerade – which was the one aspect of its initial outing that critics did praise. Finally catching up with Underworld myself, sixteen years after it was first panned and two years after its final installments passed through theaters unnoticed like a fart in the wind, I enjoyed the experience far more than I expected to. That enjoyment was purely a result of its visual effects work, though, which may have seemed less special at the time of its release than the modern miracle it feels like now in 2019.
I’m not about to rush out and gobble down all four sequels to Underworld or anything. Its vampires vs. werewolves race war mythology isn’t that exciting, nor is its star-crossed interspecies romance across those battle lines. Even the novelty of seeing legitimate actors like Kate Beckinsale, Michael Sheen, and Bill Nighy occupy this leather-fetish mall-goth fantasy space could only lead to diminishing returns, as I imagine the star power in, say, Underworld 4: Awakening is much less luminous. I enjoyed Underworld for exactly one (admittedly shallow) reason: the werewolves look really fucking cool (despite being referred to in-canon as “lycans,” which is not cool at all). Whenever you look back to creature features from this early 00s era, it’s always best to brace yourself for some horrifically shoddy CGI. Contemporaries like Ghosts of Mars, Queen of the Damned, and Spawn all feature early-CG monstrosities whose ambitions overshot their means, resulting in visual effects that have aged about as well as diapers on the beach. I couldn’t believe my eyes, then, when the werewolves onscreen in this Hollywood action-horror were genuine rubber-suit creations from practical gore artists. There’s so much physical blood, fangs, werewolf hair, and leathery nipples onscreen here when the standard for its era would have been a shapeless CG blur. Underworld is stubbornly committed to practical-effects gore (for its time at least) in a way I can’t help but respect, even if I can’t extend that same dorky enthusiasm to its romantic drama or its gothy worldbuilding.
You can get a concise snapshot of this stubbornness & dorky enthusiasm on the Special Features menu of the Underworld DVD, which includes a 12min featurette titled “Creature Effects.” Director (and all-around Underworld mastermind) Len Wiseman’s dorkiness just oozes from the screen in this behind-the-scenes interview. Dressed up like a mall-metal dweeb himself, Wiseman recounts meeting special effects artist Patrick Tatopoulos on the set of Stargate (where Wisemen was working as a props manager) and dreaming up ways to use the veteran’s expertise to craft a gothy creature feature of his own design (with some help from plenty of pre-exiting genre films of a higher caliber, of course). As Tatopoulos takes the audience on a backstage tour of the massive teams & teams of creators needed to achieve the film’s practical effects, it becomes apparent why CGI became the dominant industry standard. Animatronics tech, stilts, silicone body suits, and post-Matrix wire work all needed to operate in tandem to make just one werewolf crawl across the wall—and then CG effects were still used after the fact to smooth out the details. Watching artists work tirelessly to punch individual yak hairs into a werewolf mask or airbrush purple veins onto actors to indicate they’ve been poisoned with silver bullets is astonishing in its commitment to the value of real, tangible effects, even when they’re bolstered by CG touchups. Wiseman & Tatopoulos citing tiles like Aliens, the Predator, and Pumpkinhead as influences or insisting that they “wanted the werewolves to be sexy” really helps contextualize the horror nerd enthusiasm necessary to pull those effects off in the CGI-worshiping days of 2003 when the preference would be to just do it all on computers. It also helps explain why Underworld has aged (at least slightly) better than its contemporary critical reputation might have prepared us for.
Over time, Wiseman & Tatopoulos lost the war over preserving practical effects artistry in the face of CGI dominance. By Underworld 4: Awakening & Underworld 5: Blood Wars, CGI was no longer used to enhance their “sexy,” in-the-flesh werewolf creations, but instead had replaced them entirely. That’s a shame, since the obviously physical presence of those “lycans” in a time when everything was fading away into a CG blur was the one saving grace that makes Underworld something of a modern novelty. It would have been so cool to see that nerdy stubbornness extend into the 2010s, and might have afforded the series a second populist wind. Oh well, at least we can still revel in that dying artistry in the film’s behind-the-scenes tour, which some kind, copyright-infringing soul has uploaded to YouTube: