Monsters have been a staple diet of the horror film since the cinema first came into fruition. However, it was not until Universal made them famous in the early thirties and thus created the horror genre we know today. Of all the monsters that have plagued mankind on celluloid there are perhaps two that stand head and shoulders above the rest; the vampire and the werewolf. For many years it was Bram Stoker's Dracula that made up the vampiric output; throughout the years he has been portrayed in many guises, from the spider/rat depiction of Murnau's Nosferatu to the far more campy outings in the Hammer films; other vampires have been seen as urban terrors in Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark, up to and including the cute and cuddly, with Angel, the vampire with a soul. Rarely are they seen as the monsters they truly are, that's best left to literature it seems. The werewolf has always been more sympathetically treated as a tortured human soul unable to control the beast at night. The first, and perhaps most well know, is Lon Chaney Jr., furry face and a suit. However, the poor wolfman was treated badly by Universal, it was not long before he was relegated to a comedic figure, forced to share the limelight with the likes of Abbot and Costello. Enjoying something of a comeback in the early 2000's with Marshall's Dog Soldiers, and earlier still with the likes of Stephen King's efforts the highlight must still be Landis' American werewolf in London; here the monster really was just that huge, unstoppable and uncontrollable. Aside from the 'comedic' outputs of Universal in the waning years of their monster output, vampires and werewolves have rarely paired up. It took enterprising you director Len Wiseman in 2003 to pitch these two monsters against each other; the result was Underworld, a dark and stylistic approach that reinvented these two species as feuding clans locked in a bitter power struggle, whose war spills out into the 'real' world. The formula was sound and the film a huge success, not surprisingly then a sequel was commissioned. In keeping the principle crew the same and with a back story already written but excluded from the original film Underworld: Evolution is just that, an evolved movie that takes all the best elements of its predecessor and mixes them to produce a monster film... sorry, couldn't resist the pun.
After head vampire Viktor (Bill Nighy) was slain by Selene the Death Dealer (Kate Beckinsale), she effectively alienated herself from her own coven and became as hunted as the lycans she swore to destroy; she therefore has to run to survive taking with her, her only companion, Michael (Scott Speedman) a hybrid vampire/werewolf recently 'turned' that, as yet, doesn't know his full potential. Meanwhile traitorous Kraven's lust for power has him return to the coven mansion to execute the last elder Marcus (Tony Curran) only to discover him alive and well after being revived by Lucian's dead henchman's blood. Marcus is the son of Alexander Corvinus (Derek Jacobi) and the first vampire; he is an abomination. His twin brother, William, was the first werewolf, an uncontrollable beast without the ability to take human form. In the fifteenth centaury William was imprisoned 'for all time' by Viktor to prevent him from wreaking havoc and creating similar near unstoppable monsters as himself. As soon as Marcus awakes his first and only thought is to find his lost brother, quickly dispatching Kraven's henchmen Marcus drains Kraven's blood to gain his memories; this leads him to Selene, as she and Michael have Lucian's medallion, a key component in William's imprisonment. What follows in an elaborate chase with Marcus, now the oldest and most powerful vampire, as he pursues first Selene and Michael and then his own desire to release his brother from his imprisonment; nothing will stop him, not even his own father; while Selene, wrestling with her feelings for Michael, her own recurring memories about her lost family and the discovery of the truth behind Williams imprisonment, tries to prevent Marcus from completing his deadly quest.
As a narrative this second instalment picks up right where the last film ended with occasional ties told through flashback. This shows a deal of maturity from Wiseman and a respect for the audience seldom seen. He maintains that the encompassing history behind the characters was originally written to be incorporated into the first film, but time and budget restricted this, so any left over material was put aside for a sequel, should it be commission. Thankfully it was, because this intricate history, completely invented by Wiseman and Danny McBride seems so natural that it could be credible. With such a rich backstory the characters that come from it bring with them a wealth of depth and detail making them all the more rounded. Much of this was told in the original film, but in Evolution Wiseman expands upon his premise to include the origins of both species; the relationship between the original vampires and the original werewolves, and so vivid is it told that one wonders if this will become the accepted genesis. The development was not left to the historic characters though, Selene too gets her own share; as well as delving into her past and the reason why she was spared, we also get to watch her mature from a soulless killing machine to something more caring. Her relationship with Michael, so blunt in the original film, (but thankfully expanded in the extended version) now has a chance to blossom. There are obvious nods to Near Dark (1987), Michael is unable to accept his condition, refusing to drink blood; he even travels to an inn to try ordinary food; there is even a scene where Selene, nurturing him, allows him to feed from her wrist and yet another where her hand burst to flames as she is driving into the sun. Once together they finally have a chance to explore their mutual feeling for each other, as always action speaks louder than words.
Talking of action Wiseman dishes it out in spades; Marcus is a furious beast whose wings also act as spears; there are plenty of gun exchanges and the werewolves get to tear into the flesh they so desperately want. The film and the film makers are proud of their R rating and wanted to keep it so while the violence and blood is there it's never too gory, never too violent lest they creep into NC-17 territory; though why they should worry is beyond me; this film would have been a success, perhaps even more so, at that rating. Wiseman was very wary of what made the original film so successful and was mindful to keep those elements in this new film; the tone, the fighting and the confrontations are near duplications, but by evolving the characters by steeping into their history he has managed to create an entirely different film. With a reduced character count this film is far more connected, far more personal. The drive is very much on Marcus' story; Selene for all her evil vampiric nature actually represents the good guys here, the film is therefore very black and white; this for me was its only real let down, it never had the shades of grey that were so prevalent in the original, it was too..... simple. In that respect, and when seen from a distance, the film could be considered less mature, and too a certain extent that is true. But it is so hard to fault when it manages to push so many buttons right! Not to put too finer point on it Evolution looks incredible, deep blues and blacks, hues of green and brown, gothic landscapes, torturous dungeons; it manages to look completely different to its predecessor and yet exactly the same as well, a terrific achievement and a testament to Simon Duggan's cinematography ably assisted by all those in the art department. I also liked the werewolf suits, they looked like dogs now, their 'cat like' look from the first film, though completely intentional, always irked me; wolves are dogs right? Why would a werewolf have cat features...? And what wolves they are, William especially is a savage unstoppable beast, both he and Marcus make for true monster villains.
The 'human' component also does very well, the cast is made up of predominantly British actors as Wiseman felt they give strong performances based on his previous film. I must say I agree; perhaps it's because the accents sound that much older, or because of different techniques, whatever the reason an ancient vampire lord sounds better with a British accent. Beckinsale manages a little more emotion this outing as Selene, caring and scorn can be added to her résumé. Curran as Marcus has perhaps the hardest job, acting through layers and layers of makeup, but he does such a good job, a hideous monster and every inch evil; he doesn't need the seduction of the camera, he demands attention. Veteran Jacobi has little to do with his part, but he is effortless with it. Seems only Speedman got the short straw, once again.
At the end of the credits Underworld: Evolution was a perfect sequel, keeping enough of the original but upping the stakes and telling a continuation of the story keeps the audience engaged with the film, while its look, blood and action brings them back for more. Perhaps slightly less mature that its forbearer it nevertheless manages to out entertain it. Look at that a whole review without once mentioning Beckinsale's leather clad arse... damn.
Our Review Ethos