Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

The WTF Happened to This Horror Movie series looks at the third film in the Underworld franchise, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

Last Updated on June 14, 2024

We all love a good old forbidden love story, right? Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has been re-conceptualised countless times over the years; from stylish adaptations by Aussie auteurs, traditional period dramas and with, of all things, gnomes. This is just a drop in the vast ocean of movies that have taken on the Bard’s classic tale, and for the third entry in the popular Underworld series, it was time for a flashback to some forbidden Lycan and vampire love. The first Underworld movie had a backstory that explained how vampires and werewolves came to be mortal enemies, thanks to a feud that began between Michael Sheen’s super sexy Lycan, Lucian, and Bill Nighy’s nosferatu vampire Viktor. You see, hairy Lucian had been secretly romancing the fanged bloodsucker’s daughter Sonja, played by Doomsday’s Rhona Mitra. And with that premise, you can probably guess where this threequel is going. The first two movies, as we discovered in our previous episodes, are fun if flawed creature features with an abundance of S&M clad characters, some questionable VFX and world-building where the sun doesn’t seem to exist anymore, mostly. They helped make stars of actors like Kate Beckinsale, and proved popular enough to spawn games, novels, comics and various other merchandise. It probably did wonders for leather pants sales, too. However, as co-creator of the series Len Wisemen stated when the second Underworld film, Underworld: Evolution, was released, the vision was always to create a trilogy of movies, with part three being a prequel. So could the tantalizing prospect of a Romeo and Juliet style history lesson in all things lycan and vampire be enough to carry the weight of fan expectation, and also introduce some memorable new characters? Well, dust off that leather outfit, and let’s find out, here on WTF happened to Underworld: Rise of the Lycans!

With Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (watch it HERE) being a prequel to the first two movies, this means its main selling point for a lot of fans, i.e. Kate Beckinsale’s leather clad ‘death dealer’ is nowhere to be seen. Well, that’s not necessarily true, she does, spoiler alert, appear in a brief cameo, but it’s a risky strategy to leave your main draw for what is arguably a largely male-skewed franchise on the sidelines. Also, horror prequels haven’t always been the slam dunk the studios were hoping for in the past, with various franchises being milked for all their worth in the name of chasing a quick buck. The Exorcist: The Beginning had the writer of the original 1973 movie saying that watching it was, “the most humiliating professional experience”. Its terrible reviews and paltry box office return against its mid-range budget didn’t exactly help matters. Hannibal Rising made the most basic mistake that so many horror prequels do by attempting to make a serial killer sympathetic, while also failing to cast the lead character with an ounce of the charm that the likes of Brian Cox or Anthony Hopkins had in spades.

I could list countless prequels but I think the point has been made, sufficiently. Well, actually, just one more, 1982’s The Thing, itself a remake of course, is rightly considered to be one of the greatest horror movies ever made, so a follow-up of some kind was inevitable. However, Universal’s 2011 prequel feels like a hollow, soulless take on the original with awful VFX and an incredibly dull script. While those movies weren’t all missing their key leading character, or actor, their failures can be attributed to lazy writing and probably the studio’s desire to keep their once lucrative IP alive for as long as they could. The issue with creating a prequel to the Underworld series, and let’s remember that co-creator Len Wiseman had always envisioned a prequel for part three, is that it had to replace the likes of Beckinsale with equally enticing characters. In fact, Wiseman’s ideas were already in place a few years before Rise of the Lycans, with a shift towards focusing on those pesky, hairy Lycans, saying, “The third film is going to be a prequel. It will be the origin story and we find out things we didn’t know about Lucian; he’ll have a much bigger part in it. It will be about the creation [of the races] and what started the war. It will be a period piece. The film will also focus for the first time through the Lycans’ point of view.” On paper at least, the premise was sound.

With production going full steam ahead on the prequel, it wasn’t just Beckinsale’s Selene who would be missing. Her director, and husband at the time, Len Wiseman, was also stepping aside to focus on other projects. He was approached to direct the fourth installment of the Die Hard franchise, 2007’s Live Free or Die Hard, but it’s not clear if that was the sole reason for him vacating the Underworld hot-seat. Instead, picking up the reigns would be Patrick Tatopolous, who had designed the creature effects for the first two movies, and would also do so for the prequel. The VFX artist and production designer had only directed a short plus a couple of music videos for Coolio prior to Rise of the Lycans, so it was perhaps something of a gamble for both the studio and director. One thing going in his favour though, was that despite some ropey CGI in the first couple of movies, the creature and production design is pretty solid, and although it’s sometimes hard to make out the various vampire on werewolf on hybrid on human etc. skirmishes, due to the overly gloomy lensing and eventual color grade.

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009) - WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

So, with some cast members leaving the production due to logistics, others would be making a welcome return, plus we also get the introduction of new blood to flesh out the narrative. Unless you’re Scott Speedman, who seems to have been forcibly ejected from the franchise, probably in super-stylish slo-mo, while wearing all black and looking very moody. Back amongst the fangs and swearwolves is, as we mentioned earlier, Michael Sheen as Lucian who was last seen as a corpse on a table, and also in flashbacks in Underworld: Evolution. He plays a major part in the proceedings here, shagging his masters favorite daughter, in a hilarious sex scene that takes place on a literal cliff edge, and subsequently being flogged for it when they’re eventually rumbled. Bill Nighy returns, of course, as vampire leader and the Nosferatu alike Viktor, crushing skulls and threatening all and sundry as only Bill Nighy can. Other franchise regulars also appear in Rise, including Shane Brolly as Kraven, Kevin Grevioux as Raze and Stephen Mackintosh as Tanis. The main edition to the franchise though, is Rhona Mitra’s Sonja, who tries her best to out-Beckinsale Kate, and does a decent job, pithy English accent and tight costumes both accounted for.

If you’ve seen our previous WTF episodes on the Underworld series you’ll know that I like the series, to a certain degree. They’re by no means the benchmark all fantasy movies should aspire to but there’s enough blood-shed and action to keep this gore-hound relatively satisfied. However, with the promise of the Lycan and vampire backstory being further developed, plus the return of some key characters could this Selene-light installment satiate my on screen blood-lust? Well, not entirely, no, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate it for what it ultimately is; a half decent, enjoyable monster movie.

The plot kicks off back when the Lycans are slaves to the vampires and are forced to wear embarrassing collars to stop them from turning into their werewolf form, but are still expected to protect and serve them. Michael Sheen’s hairy Lucian is held in higher regard than the rest by chief vamp Viktor, because he doesn’t know he’s shagging his favorite daughter at this point, so Lucian enjoys more than just the flesh of his master’s offspring than the rest of his kind. This forbidden love is soon exposed and as the years go by Lucian plots to break himself and his fellow swearwolves free from the shackles of his blood-sucking oppressors, with the help of Sonja. All of this leads to a conclusion involving a final battle, naturally, that doesn’t go anywhere other than unfolding the narrative to a new beginning.

In terms of the cast, both the excellent and always reliable Michael Sheen and Bill Nighy do their best with a threadbear script. The former seemingly enjoying his relationship and slow-mo soppy as fuck sex scene with Rhona Mitra, while the latter chews up every aspect of the mega gloomy scenery as best he can. Nighy’s vast and wonderfully varied CV means he can play this kind of part blindfolded, but he doesn’t just pick a nice little paycheck here and turns in a committed and fun performance. Rhona Mitra does a good enough job of out-Beckinsale-ing Kate, but perhaps because of the script, or the way her character is written, comes across a touch wooden at times. She’s a very assured actor so perhaps this is down to her first time director not having the experience to coax a more engaging performance out of her. Still, she shares some decent chemistry with Sheen’s Lucian who himself roars out some rousing speeches, which, if you’ve seen his other work, you’ll already know that these are his trademark.

What works in the movie’s favor is its Dark Ages period setting, with the fantasy elements at the core of the story much better suited to this environment. However, what lets it down is pedestrian direction, some incredibly shoddy CGI, plus an overly dark color grade which means you can barely tell which hairy beasty is fighting who most of the time. Also, despite Sheen’s gravitas, his speeches are cheesy as fuck, and the tired cliches of the love affair at the centre of the story all too familiar; secret rendezvous, being rumbled by your dad biting your neck, sex on a cliff-top with dodgy music and little flesh on display. You know, the usual stuff…

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009) - WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans opened in 2,942 US theaters on January 23rd, 2009 and grossed an estimated $8 million dollars over its opening weekend. Despite opening at number one at the US box office, it was overtaken over the three day weekend by the ‘hilarious’ Paul Blart: Mall Cop. It really wasn’t a stellar weekend at the cinema, unless you find the likes of Hotel for Dogs the pinnacle of cinema excellence. At least the superb Slumdog Milloinare was still clinging on to a very respectable box office haul nationwide and overseas.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rise was met with a less than favorable reception from critics, with both claws and fangs out in equal measure. Empire Magazine were not impressed, saying, “it’s unlikely you’ll be able to follow the tosh this passes off as a plot. In former effects man Patrick Tatopoulos’ vision, these Dark Ages were really dark – so dark, in fact, you can barely see the monster action or register why Sheen and Nighy felt the need to sign up.” The movie only holds an approval rating of 30% based on 77 reviews, with an average rating of 4.40/10, over at Rotten Tomatoes, while Entertainment Weekly amusingly described the film as, “basically Were-Spartacus, though that makes the humorless, scare-free result sound much more fun than it is”. To be fair though, the movie is better than what those particular naysayers have said and at least Variety saw some merit in the hairy shenanigans, saying that director Patrick Tatopoulos, “offers a satisfyingly exciting monster rally that often plays like a period swashbuckler” and that the film is “notably less frenetic (and appreciably more coherent) than its predecessors”.

The Underworld series was never going to go down well with critics but the fact that it had already spawned three movies says that its key demographic were still talking with their wallets enough for the series to continue. And, continue further it, indeed, did, as we may just be taking a look at what delights followed Rise of the Lycans. More importantly though, I’d love to hear about what YOUR opinion is, as that is what matters to us most here at JoBlo; so let us know your thoughts of Underworld: Rise of the Lycans in the comments section. Does it soften the blow of not featuring Beckinsale’s leather clad Selene (well, apart from a small cameo of course) or was making it a prequel a bad idea? I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on this one, you wonderful gore-hounds. Thanks for watching!

A couple of the previous episodes of WTF Happened to This Horror Movie? can be seen below. To see more, head over to our JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!

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