A Bloody Mess

Kate Beckinsale and the vampires of Underworld.

As a vampire, Beckinsale doesn’t suck

Being a simple, old-fashioned fellow, I like my vampires staked through the heart and my werewolves bludgeoned to death with silver-handled walking sticks. So, I had a tough time processing Underworld (Screen Gems), in which vampires wielding automatic weapons do Matrix-style slow-motion somersaults while firing silver-nitrate bullets into werewolves, who ricochet off the walls while shooting back with irradiated “daylight” projectiles. Some of the werewolves (or, as they’re known here, “Lycans”) are able to squeeze the bullets out of their smoking bodies in mid-transformation, while others simply keel over and rot. One Lycan expires, revives, expires, revives, and finally expires (I think). Vampires jump from towering skyscrapers and land intact, but one nearly drowns in a submerged car. The head vampire, meanwhile, seems to be able to kill Lycans with his bare hands, while others perish from having their blood drained by werewolf scientists looking to cross-breed the two species for maximum invincibility. Literalist that I am, I kept wanting to scream: “WHAT ARE THE BLOODY RULES?”

It wouldn’t have mattered if I’d been having fun, but 125 minutes is a long time to stare at a movie that’s basically in bleached blue-and-white with occasional splotches of brick red. The palette reinforces the monotony of the storyline and the confusing resemblance of most of the long-haired male characters (vampire and werewolf)—who are even more of a challenge to keep track of during the stroboscopically edited and incoherent battle sequences. The plot is no picnic, either. It has something to do with an ancient feud between monster clans, and with the vampires’ Nazilike obsession with maintaining “the purity of the bloodline.” Like decadent Hapsburgians, the black-clad bloodsuckers loll around their Budapest mansion sipping red stuff from wine goblets and murmuring about the upcoming “awakening” of their master. Most of the Lycans, on the other hand, look like working-class bodybuilders and are fond of staging impromptu wrestling (and gouging, and flesh-ripping) matches in subway tunnels. The rest of the time, they’re trying to locate the missing vampire-werewolf link—a young doctor (Scott Speedman) and burgeoning werewolf who proves mighty attractive to our militant vampire heroine (Kate Beckinsale). You thought the Montagues and the Capulets had it rough …

With his sepulchral voice and visage, the marvelous English actor Bill Nighy often makes a spooky impression—so it’s good to see him finally play a lord of the undead! Other than Nighy, the only reason to see Underworld (directed by Len Wiseman, from a screenplay by Danny McBride) is to ogle bonny Kate, more mouth-watering in a caped black shiny vinyl catsuit than anyone in film (or human, or inhuman) history. Her diction doesn’t suffer for those vampire teeth, either. As we Christopher Lee fans can attest, there’s something hugely satisfying about seeing regal English snobs with perfect enunciation hiss through bared fangs while drooling blood. It clarifies so much about Great Britain’s role in world history.

The English Mike Figgis is my favorite director who has never made an altogether good movie. A true jazzman, he’ll try anything—and I don’t just mean cinematically. Lots of brash film-school grads show off their MTV syntax but timidly cling to old-fashioned Hollywood structure. Figgis—in movies like The Loss of Sexual Innocence (1999) and Timecode (2000)—loves to pile on the perspectives and force the viewer to make mental leaps, if not loop-de-loops. Of course, those films haven’t exactly rocked the box office, which is probably why Figgis took on a big-studio thriller like Cold Creek Manor (Touchstone Pictures). It stars Sharon Stone and Dennis Quaid as a couple of moneyed New Yorkers who decide to raise their two kids in a saner environment—upstate, in a small and decidedly unfriendly town, in a crumbling mansion repossessed from the original owner (Stephen Dorff), who’s in jail for running someone over and is also a psycho nut. They don’t know the last part, but it’s funny they don’t ask until poisonous snakes start showing up in their beds. (The town seems very protective of Dorff’s character—they know he’s a psycho nut, but he’s their psycho nut.) The first hour is evocative and creepy: You can’t tell if there’s a ghost or a devil cult somewhere, or if we’re in Shirley Jackson country. But once the trajectory is clear and the squeamish New York intellectual Quaid has to stand up and fight for his homestead, the boringness seeps into you like the damp.