The True Battle in Underworld (2003) Wasn’t Vampires vs. Werewolves, It Was Practical Effects vs. CGI

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:

-Brandon Ledet

Love & Friendship (2016)

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2016 very well might be The Year of the Anachronistic Jane Austen Adaptation (if it’s not already being billed as The Year of the Confined Space Thriller or The Year That Superhero Spectacles Shat the Bed). Besides the Comedy Central reality show spoof Another Period, which recontextualizes Austen-era social machinations in a petty Keeping Up with the Kardashians mindframe, we’ve also been treated to the just-as-silly-as-its-title-suggests Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. That latter, zombified Austen bastardization didn’t make much of a splash when it was released this last spring, but I got a kick out of the way the horror comedy accentuated the verbal sparring of its source material by making it literal sparring in some ludicrous knockout fights between high society women. The most recent entry in The Year of Austen Anachronisms is Wilt Stillman’s Love & Friendship, adapted from the lessor known, minor Austen title Lady Susan. While the far less subtle Pride and Prejudice and Zombies felt the need to punch up Austen’s verbal aggressions by turning them into physical altercations, Love & Friendship recognizes just how biting & playfully transgressive they already are on the page. Stillman’s film finds its own anachronism by playing the material straight, but fitting it into the format of a modern, 90min comedy, with all of the playful energy that genre implies. In a way it’s similar to Sofia Coppola’s (criminally underrated) Marie Antoinette picture, just without the Converse sneakers & unavoidably depressive third act.

It’s probably best to consider Love & Friendship as a period comedy instead of a period drama if you want to quickly get on its very particular wavelength. The film’s rapidfire, breathy dialogue & playbill-style character introductions (accompanied by phrases like “a divinely attractive man” & “a bit of a rattle”) are a relentless assault throughout the film. As a subversion of its genre the film presents the same polite-on-the-surface setting & intricately beautiful costumes, but with a new, cheeky attitude. Speaking of the usual hallmarks of the costume drama, the familiar-to-the-genre Kate Beckinsale stars as the Lady Susan of the source materials’ namesake, a character at the edge of high society fringe who’s just as self-important as she is calculated & prepared to destroy. A recent “widow without fortune”, Lady Susan is a scenery-chewing Austen archetype who wields love & friendship as deadly weapons in her designs for wealth & discomfort. The movie’s tightly paced, pleasantly efficient plot mostly centers on her machinations to find well-off husbands for both herself and her young daughter. As their financial situation is direly dependent on the kindness of acquaintances at the beginning of the film, the stakes aren’t exactly low, but it’s not easy to sympathize with our “agreeable flirt” antihero as she tries to entrap a husband of the right social stature & age range (he can’t be “too old to be governable” or “two young to die”) & sleeps with other people’s husbands for fun in the meantime. Like all traditional comedies, Love & Friendship ends with everyone finding a suitable mate, but the fun in this film is in watching Beckinsale’s lead shrewdly manipulate each piece of the puzzle so that they fall into place without her barely lifting a finger. Most of the targets of her designs don’t even know they’re being played as pawns and even the ones who do, including her poor daughter, are helpless to do anything but watch her designs play out in stunned silence. They’re all ridiculously outmatched.

All of Lady Susan’s designs wouldn’t mean a thing without her supporting players, however. Chloë Sevigny (who after this & #horror is hopefully staging an indie scene comeback) stars as a friend & conspirator who’s mostly kept around so that Lady Susan has an audience to appreciate her manipulative brilliance. Then there’s the case of the wealthy, potential beaus for Lady Susan & her daughter. The younger, more desirable candidate is a handsome gent with whom she ignites “the most peculiar friendship” and whose family is scandalized that he would associate with a flirtatious widow prone to  such “sauciness & familiarity”. The movie’s real secret weapon, however, is the delightful Sir James. A “very silly” man with “a charm of a kind”, Sir James distinctly recalls the posi stupidity of characters like Murray from Flight of the Conchords. He calls peas “tiny green balls” & “novelty vegetables”, finds difficulty remembering how many Commandments there are in the Bible, and dances like a delighted fool. There are varying degrees to which Love & Friendship’s male characters don’t measure up while going toe to toe with Lady Susan, but no one is as delightfully or entertainingly incompetent as Sir James, who has a way of stealing scenes he’s not even in as characters discuss the various charms & annoyances of his spectacular idiocy.

As amusing as the supporting players can be, however, falling for Love & Friendship depends largely on finding amusement in the cold calculations of Lady Susan, a delicately aggressive performance Beckinsale nails with ease. Although she’s a cunning manipulator who believes that “facts are horrid things” & leaves a few opposing women weeping in her wake, Lady Susan is a formidable social warmonger, a great encapsulation of the social combativeness that distinguishes a lot of Austen’s quietly powerful characters. Love & Friendship may include a lovable dolt performance from a character that belongs in a modern mockumentary-style sitcom & other 90min comedy conventions like a continuous stream of alternate take jokes included with its end credits, but it intimately understand the appeal of Jane Austen’s powerful (& humorous) archetypes in a way that’s not always captured in the more self-serious adaptations of her work. Much like the character of one Sir James Martin, the film is an all-around delight that never outwears its initial charm.

-Brandon Ledet