There aren't a lot of "pure" horror franchises at this point; everything has been retconned/rebooted/remade so many times that I can't keep track of what's happening. When the new Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre films come along, I'll actually have to look online or something to know exactly what films they are sequels to. Others, like Nightmare on Elm Street, have been dormant for so long that I can't imagine a traditional follow-up will be in the cards if they ever come back. As an avowed fan of franchise storytelling when done with some care, this bums me out, as it would be nice to have the thing I was able to take for granted in the '80s and '90s. Saw is coming back, but I still don't know if what they're making is a "Saw 8" or if it's a soft reboot (if a cast could be announced, we might have a better idea), and thanks to Don Mancini the Child's Play series continues on the same timeline, but as far as big screen options, the only two games in town are Resident Evil, which is ending (or, "ending") in a few weeks, and the Underworld series, for which I came in too late.
In fact, I didn't see the first one in theaters; despite my love of Kate Beckinsale (I even saw Serendipity, for Christ's sake) I was moving at the time and (based on my research on Boxofficemojo) it seems I didn't go to the movies for a full five weeks, the exact period that the film was doing fine business before being edged out by the likes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the remake) and Kill Bill (which I DID see, thankfully). I didn't catch it until the second film, Underworld: Evolution, was about to hit theaters - it looked fun and I had time, but had to see the original first. So I rented the first one on DVD (thanks, original incarnation of Netflix!), but alas, I didn't like it much at all; in fact it took me two sittings to get through it, being too bored to continue the first time, not to mention confused with the surprisingly dense mythology being established. It felt like I was watching a "for fans only" adaptation of a very thick, Game of Thrones-esque epic, and I just didn't have the patience to deal with it. I eventually finished watching (probably with one eye on a Fangoria or something), but needless to say it didn't entice me to race out to see its follow-up, either.
It wasn't until 2008 that I saw that one; I had gotten a PS3 and was renting Blu-rays a lot, and realized this (probably very nice looking on high def) movie would also count as a Horror Movie A Day entry, and I'm all about killing two birds with one stone (don't forget, when the format launched, they weren't exactly porting the sort of stuff that was HMAD's bread and butter just yet; the likes of Scream Factory was a long way off). I still found it rather silly, but I ended up liking it more than the original (not difficult), and saw some value in the world that was being built up, so I vowed to see future installments on the big screen. That makes 2009's Underworld: Rise of the Lycans the first one I saw theatrically, which is kind of ironic now that I think about it; it's the lowest grossing entry of the series (for now) and that's largely due to the fact that a lot of people didn't want to see it because it lacked Beckinsale, as her character Selene wasn't born yet. Yes, this one was a prequel, which also enticed me - I wouldn't have to remember much, if anything, about the first two films. If the filmmakers were doing their job right, it could have been the very first entry I saw at all and I shouldn't have had any trouble following the plot. Hilariously, (spoiler for eight year old movie ahead) I didn't even remember that the tragic history of Sonja (the character Rhona Mitra was playing) was already explained in the first entry, so when she is killed with a good twenty or so minutes left in the film, I was actually kind of surprised at the development, which was a foregone conclusion to the fans. It'd be like watching Revenge of the Sith without knowing who Anakin Skywalker became.
This was the sort of thing that made it my favorite one of the bunch at the time, so by the time 2012's Underworld: Awakening came along, I was actually excited for it - I even went at midnight to the "Thursday night" showing, back before they pushed these screenings back to 7:30 or so. And again, it was my favorite one at the time - Kate was back (and in 3D!) and I found the story easy to follow, plus they were finally using the Lycans as full-blown villains this time around after being the... not HEROES, per se, but never as much of a threat to her as her fellow vampires in the other films (no way around it, they were the heroes of Rise of the Lycans). She even fought a giant wolf (again, in 3D!), and in this one she had a daughter (Eve) that would occasionally vamp out and bite some dude, so basically it was just a good ol' time at the movies. Plus, for the first time in the series, there was a human character of note, a police officer named Sebastian (Michael Ealy) who was sympathetic to the vampires' plight because his wife was one. Part of what I think kept me at bay with the early entries was that there was no one to really relate to - it was this world of powerful creatures fighting each other or explaining their own complicated histories to one another - it could have used a "normal" character to guide us through. So with all my misgivings more or less out of the way, I was able to have the most fun yet (Kate, on the other hand, looked a bit bored, sadly). And even if I was still scratching my head at the plot, the film offered more action than any previous entry (the body count is well over 100), so it was basically the B-movie nirvana I wanted from these things when I first heard of their "vampire vs werewolf" storyline.
Naturally, now that I was a full blown (if still casual) fan, the series would go in limbo for a while. The sequels had been released like clockwork every third January (the original was the only one that was released outside of this period), but 2015 came and went with no new adventure, despite Awakening scoring the highest grosses yet and ending on a cliffhanger. They finally got Underworld: Blood Wars going later that year, but since I assume they wanted to stick with the January tradition, we had to wait until now to see it (it was released overseas last month to okay but not spectacular business), a full five years after the last one, which means it was also five years since I last saw a frame of any of them. Once I started coming around on the series, I made a mental note to go back and give the original another chance, but my time for re-watching even the movies I love is next to nil these days, so I never got around to it. As the release date loomed, I was planning to just re-read the Wiki synopses for the films before seeing Blood Wars, but last week I was trading in some Blu-rays/DVDs and saw they had the series boxed set on Blu for a pretty reasonable price. So I picked it up and committed myself to rewatching them over the past week, trading away some of my video game time to reacquaint myself with Selene and her non-pals.
Watching them back to back (and with more enthusiasm than I ever had) really changed my perception of the series as a whole. I still wouldn't call myself a die-hard fan - even for this piece I've had to double check character names and such - but I think they deserve a bit more credit than they've been afforded. Not unlike the Saw series, it's easy to dismiss them at face value simply for their commitment to a certain low-grade aesthetic, but when you stack them against other big-screen horror franchises of our generation, there's a commitment to the overall story and mythology that should be championed, not scorned. And it's really not as hard to keep track of as I used to think; my problem was I watched the most plot-heavy entries under less than ideal circumstances, and also years apart when the films themselves (at least, the first three Selene ones) take place in a fairly compact timeframe*. That sort of approach is fine for something like Friday the 13th, but not so much when they've got this fairly well-fleshed out world with no connection to our own. And it really is fleshed out; rewatching them back to back revealed almost no inconsistencies despite ever-changing screenwriters. The Friday the 13ths couldn't keep it straight when it came to simple things like whether or not Jason had hair, so the fact that they built this world from scratch and have done right by the people who take it seriously (i.e. people who probably never had trouble following it in the first place) is impressive, I think.
And yes, built from scratch. The series' biggest rival/closest peer is probably the aforementioned Resident Evil franchise, which is also returning this month after a long gap (this will be the first time both series will be playing in theaters simultaneously). That one had a long-running game series to fall back on whenever they felt like it, as Paul WS Anderson has taken game characters almost at random and put them in his films with little discernible rhyme or reason - I'm still trying to figure out why they introduced Chris Redfield as randomly as they did in the fourth film (and then got rid of him instantly in the fifth one). So even if the story around them is different - after all, series hero Alice (Milla Jovovich) was never in the games - fans can quickly understand someone's importance (and whisper it to their disinterested date, if necessary), a shorthand that hasn't been afforded to the Underworld series. They have just as many characters to juggle, but everything we need to learn to understand their significance has to be done on-screen, and that means less time for the big action scenes people showed up for.
Another thing they've done more successfully than the Resident Evil films is given the lead character a better supporting cast. Evil vampire overlord Viktor (Bill Nighy) and sympathetic slave turned lycan Lucian (Michael Sheen) proved themselves to be interesting enough to get their own Selene-less movie with Rise of the Lycans - do you think they could manage the same if they dropped Alice from one of the Resident Evil entries? Would anyone beyond the most die-hard fans (if that) give a shit about a movie starring Shawn Roberts' Wesker and Oded Fehr's Carlos? And even if they did, would they care because of how interesting those characters have been in the existing films, or because Wesker was cool in the game? I'd put money on the latter. Nothing against Alice (and certainly not Jovovich), but after five films I still couldn't tell you much about her beyond "she can kick ass", and that's the most well-rounded character they got. Here, they've got all the above mentioned, plus newer characters like David (Theo James) and Semira (Lara Pulver) who have their own solidified backstories and subplots; I don't know if I'd exactly buy advanced tickets for a movie focused squarely on them, but if it came out the same day as another Resident Evil movie, I can guarantee I'd be picking Underworld: Kate's On Vacation Again over Resident Evil: Some Ten Letter Word. The difference isn't night and day as far as quality, but Underworld gives you more of a reason to keep coming back beyond sheer habit; they've put more effort into building a world and core cast of characters over the years, and did so without existing material to crib from (and often botch). Looking back at the two side by side, I must admit I am far more impressed with the house that Wiseman built - even if it took me almost a decade to realize it.
That said, unfortunately some of that dedication has wavered in the most recent entries. CGI has become more commonplace, but at least for the earlier ones I can appreciate the use of practical FX, particularly for the Lycans. The transformations are digital, sigh, but at least once they're in wolf form you can see tangible creatures running around and sparring with Beckinsale or whoever else happens to be nearby. Wiseman is big on practical FX (it's one of the few things about him I can defend), and when he reduced his involvement with the series after the third film I guess they didn't feel the need to carry on that tradition, though there were a few in Blood Wars, thankfully. I can assume with the 3D element that they've since added to the series, they had enough time-consuming tech stuff to worry about without adding potentially clunky practical wolves (ones that jump on cars or grow to twenty feet tall no less); not that it's much of an excuse, but if it is the case at least they HAVE an excuse, and are doing things with them that couldn't have been easily done with the guys in the suits.
However, they DO remain committed to hiring classy actors to play the higher up vamps, which is actually an important part of the series' legacy, something else I noticed only this time around. Sure, genre films have a long history of scoring respected actors to appear in things that aren't exactly Shakespeare, but there's a subconscious benefit to it that became apparent watching them this past week, right around the time (Sir!) Derek Jacobi delivered a long gibberish speech about his bloodline in the 2nd film - these guys help you buy into the silly story. They're not smirking their way through the dialogue, they're giving it 100% as if it WAS Shakespeare, and that helps people like me (who could and HAS easily wave(d) his hand at it) take it a bit more serious as well, something only these British theater guys could really manage. I'm sure Nighy and Charles Dance (his sort of successor for the last two films) are rolling their eyes at some of this stuff when they're reading the script, but on-screen they're fully committed (Nighy with heavy makeup and occasional armor to boot!), and if guys like this can sell it, I can buy it.
All in all, I think the series gets a bum rap that it doesn't deserve. They're not phoning it in, something you can't find in most horror franchises by the time they get to their third film, let alone their fifth (and sixth, perhaps). If my free time wasn't a factor, I'd totally read a tie-in novel about Marius' rise to power, or a comic series about where Eve went between these last two movies. Not just so I could follow any future entries that much easier, but because they've built up a world worth exploring beyond the 90 or so minutes of footage that we see every 3-5 years. They've also done other things that don't get enough credit; Blood Wars was directed by Anna Foerster, a female making her first feature - the sort of thing people are constantly demanding out of Star Wars or whatever, but has gone largely unnoticed here because it's "just an Underworld movie" (an actual response I got when making this point a while back). Sure, Underworld isn't exactly a prestige gig, but it's still a big franchise from a major studio that plans to continue it - and they handed it over to a female who had never directed a film before. It would have been nice if some of the soapboxers gave it a shoutout for doing as much, because personally I think it's a big deal (and that Foerster did a pretty great job - it's got some of the most satisfying action in the series as a whole), and would be more excited to see her directing the next one than Wiseman making his return (I wouldn't mind him and the other original writers returning, however).
So if you've turned your nose up to the series, or simply haven't bothered, I'm going to encourage you to give it another chance. Take it from a reformed "hater" - they aren't going to be your favorite movies or anything, but they do scratch an itch and offer big (OK, mid) budget R rated action/horror spectacle that we almost never see in our multiplexes anymore, spiced up with legitimately good actors and an increasingly expansive world. I don't know if there will be more, but if so, maybe you can join me in being excited where you were once weary.
*In Awakening she is put into a coma for a while, but the scenes before it pick up more or less right from Evolution. And then the jump forward is something we experience with her, so it's not hard to follow.