Since the early days of cinema, filmmakers have been obsessed with vampires. Some classics, like Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, stay close to the tone of traditional vampire tales. Conversely, more experimental efforts like Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive and Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, play with vampire archetypes and gothic horror tropes in their own unique, artistic ways.
But few 20th-century movies offer as distinct a take on the genre as Underworld. The Len Wiseman-directed 2003 action film pulls from multiple different influences, including 1999’s The Matrix and 1998’s Blade, to create a visually striking alternate reality where vampires and werewolves walk, hunt, growl, and fight among us. Twenty years after its September 19 release, Underworld’s late ‘90s influences feel more dated than they did at the time of its release — but the film itself still feels just as refreshing and original.
Underworld takes place in a world where vampires and werewolves (known as “Lycans”) have been secretly at war for centuries. The film follows Selene (Kate Beckinsale), a vampire assassin known as a “Death Dealer” charged with hunting and killing every Lycan she comes across. Her mission is complicated when she crosses paths with Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), a medical student with the rare genetic ability to become a vampire-werewolf hybrid. When she’s forced to choose between her growing feelings for Michael and her responsibility to her fellow vampires, Selene finds herself at the center of the very war she’d long been a willing participant in.
As far as its plot goes, Underworld tells a fairly basic star-crossed lovers story. In a post-Twilight world, its central vampires vs. werewolves conflict feels considerably less original than it did in 2003, too. However, it’s not just the simplicity of Undeworld’s story or the efficiency with which it sets up and introduces its fictional world that makes it such an enjoyable, watchable film. Credit must also partly be given to the steampunk-inspired aesthetic that Wiseman and his collaborators — namely, cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts and costume designer Wendy Partridge — create throughout it, which makes the film feel compellingly well-realized.
Nowadays, there’s something unintentionally funny about the straight-faced manner in which Underworld so thoroughly commits to its grimy world and BDSM-esque costumes. Not only do those elements of the film work in tandem with its overall aesthetic, though, but they also make it feel even more of a piece with many of the other sci-fi and fantasy movies that were made around the same time as it. (Thanks to films like Dark City, The Matrix, and Blade, all-black leather and rubber costumes briefly became all the rage in Hollywood — showing up in everything from Underworld to Bryan Singer’s early 2000s X-Men movies.)
Ultimately, Underworld is a movie that proudly wears its once-contemporary influences on its sleeve and uses them to create a desaturated, gothic reality of its own making. The fact that it spawned an entire, financially successful franchise is, frankly, a testament to just how well the film both introduces viewers to its fictional world and leaves them wanting more of it. (The power of Kate Beckinsale’s magnetic, confident lead performance can’t be overstated, either.)
In a time when original, big-budget genre movies are becoming increasingly rare, Underworld’s success only feels even more noteworthy, too. It’s the kind of franchise-launching, singular blockbuster that Hollywood’s major studios seem overly reluctant to make nowadays. The past 20 years have, therefore, been surprisingly kind to Underworld.
When it originally hit theaters in 2003, the movie felt like it had taken the unique aesthetic of Blade several dozen steps further — delivering a version of the vampire genre that moviegoers had never truly seen before. The result is an undeniably cheesy but also oddly endearing film, one that isn’t afraid to take more than its fair share of big, bold creative swings.