Movie vampires have gone through a lot of changes over the years. While there was always an undertone of sexiness associated with American movie vampires (“Nosferatu” was German, and decidedly unsexy in every way), the current brand of boobs-and-blood-drinking horror represented in “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans” goes beyond anything Bela Lugosi could have imagined.
“Underworld: Rise of the Lycans” is a prequel to the two former movies in the series, moving centuries back to a vaguely defined period during the Dark Ages. The vampires, led by Viktor (Bill Nighy, “Valkyrie”), are using brutal force to maintain a shaky, feudal power structure in which they protect their human blood supply from wild, mindless werewolves. To this end, they manipulate the freak genetic traits of a werewolf named Lucian (Michael Sheen, “Frost/Nixon”) who has the ability to not only take human form, but control his transformations. The vampires force Lucian to bite hapless humans, turning them into sentient werewolf slaves who will guard the vampires from the more animalistic werewolves.
SORT OF A BADASS
Even among the werewolves “ which are called Lycans in this parallel universe “ Lucian is sort of a badass. Despite his slave status and resulting lack of basic hygiene, his badass-ness has attracted Viktor’s daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra, “Doomsday”). The unlikely couple engages in unlikely (yet spirited and athletic) couplings on the castle roof. Everyone knows slaves and aristocrats are not allowed any sort of coupling, especially when they’re not even of the same supernatural monster species, and it only stands to reason that their indiscretion will make the movie pregnant with dramatic conflict.
Some other stuff happens, and Lucian runs afoul of Viktor. He decides to mount a rebellion with the other Lycans in the dungeon.
It’s difficult to put “Underworld” in a neat category. On one hand, it’s the sort of goofy, fantastical kind of thing that will appeal to fanboys and people who really like medieval settings, Dungeons and Dragons, and Knights Who Say Ni! On the other hand, it actually features some good acting and semi-decent writing. Sheen, Nighy and Steven Mackintosh (who plays a political player named Tannis) are all respected British character actors with serious work under their belts. Nighy, in particular, has a long list of prominent roles, and seems to play Viktor with real relish.
It’s odd, because “Rise of the Lycans” didn’t necessarily have to be about vampires and werewolves. The story itself follows the well-worn pattern of political intrigue in a feudal system, where class and power status stand in the way of True Love. The plot is incidental, and the whole thing exists to create a situation in which werewolves can bite off people’s faces, and vampires can be all emo while drinking blood out of crystal goblets. There’s a sense that the filmmakers want it to fit within a larger mythological continuum (presumably the other movies in the series), but are many moments that are just plain confusing.
Still, for a movie in which vampires and werewolves get jiggy with each other and there are more per capita impalings than in a John Holmes movie, the acting and production value save it from straight-to-video ridiculousness and elevate it to not-bad status.