UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Strong Violence and Gore, some Sexuality/Nudity and Language

Directed by: Len Wiseman

Written by: Danny McBride

Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Tony Curran, Derek Jacobi, Steven Mackintosh, Shane Brolly & Bill Nighy

Because 2003’s UNDERWORLD banked at the box office (doubling its budget domestically and cracking 100 million worldwide), Screen Gems was eager to pump out a sequel. Series creators Len Wiseman and Danny McBride were up to the task, because they originally mapped out UNDERWORLD as a trilogy (with different stories to be told at different times). Little details from the first film make big returns in this second installment. While it serves as a decent enough follow-up to that first entertaining vampires vs. werewolves flick, UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION falls into the typical sequel pitfall of not living up to its predecessor.

To properly set up this sequel, I’ll have to spoil 2003’s UNDERWORLD. So, you have been warned. After slicing the villainous vampire Viktor’s head in half and turning Michael (Scott Speedman) into a hybrid species of vampire/lycan, former death-dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is running from both monster clans. Selene soon discovers that original immortal Markus (Tony Curran) has a long-standing score to settle with her and his reasoning extends far beyond her murdering an elder. There’s a secret key and an ancient prophecy coming to light, all while Selene and Michael struggle to stay alive.

EVOLUTION hits the ground running as it introduces potentially interesting new plotlines. Even though he was bland in the first movie and remains just as bland here, Scott Speedman’s Michael receives a brief subplot about adapting to his new monstrous cravings. Meanwhile, there’s the obvious bit about Selene being a fugitive from humans, vampires, and werewolves (though that latter detail opens up a plot hole about whether the lycan clan was fully supportive of Lucian’s master plan in UNDERWORLD). Finally, there’s Markus and his deadly intent to find a hidden secret in Selene’s blood. All of these storylines sound like they belong in an awesome sequel, so what the hell happened?

While EVOLUTION doesn’t exactly drop the ball, it certainly takes its sweet time to let things come to light. For the first half, we’re sporadically shown scenes of an elderly “cleaner” (Derek Jacobi) wiping evidence of vampire and werewolf existence from the human eye. These bits don’t come into play until a character points out this character’s existence far later in the film. When Jacobi’s mysterious man’s identity is revealed, he merely delivers a ton of tedious exposition and becomes a walking plot device (much like Speedman’s Michael in the first film). This character’s inclusion seems arbitrary and boring in the grand scheme of a vampire and a hybrid battling the most powerful vampire in existence. Michael’s struggle with being a new monster only lasts for a single scene too, when it could have been a far more interesting subplot.

Kate Beckinsale slips back into her form-fitting latex catsuit with ease and plays Selene about as well as she did the first time around. This vampire is a conflicted do-gooder who’s now on a quest to make up for her past wrongs and save the world from extinction. As the villainous Markus, Tony Curran is intimidating enough. He doesn’t pack the scenery-chewing presence of Bill Nighy’s Viktor (who shows up for a brief prologue), but remains an interesting baddie nonetheless. Markus is benefited by a bat-like appearance at points and interesting weapons of death (his razor-sharp wings).

As far as EVOLUTION’s action goes, this film is a downgrade from the original in many ways. There are cool bits of Selene taking out vicious lycans and a few fun fights with Markus. However, EVOLUTION seems too reliant on cheesy-looking CGI. The corny-looking effects invade otherwise neat action sequences. A prime example of this is when Markus wipes out an entire room of vampires during his introduction, with low-grade wings impaling and decapitating folks in Syfy-level cheesiness. However, it’s worth noting that Selene’s final confrontation against Markus has one hell of a bloody conclusion.

EVOLUTION is the lowest point of the first three UNDERWORLD films and ends on another obvious cliffhanger for a sequel (that didn’t arrive until 2012). EVOLUTION isn’t bad, but it’s certainly a downgrade from the period piece creativity of its later prequel and the MATRIX-inspired entertainment of the first film. There are loads of interesting plot points that are passed over for the sake of feeding the viewer more exposition and lore about this world/conflict. Some of it is welcome, but a lot of it feels unnecessary. UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION has enough positive qualities to warrant a recommendation for fans of the first film (and the prequel), but expect to be underwhelmed.

Grade: B-

THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sequences of Strong Bloody Gruesome Violence, Grisly Images involving Nudity, Sexual Content and Language

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Directed by: Ryuhei Kitamura

Written by: Jeff Buhler

(based on the short story THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN by Clive Barker)

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Leslie Bibb, Brooke Shields, Roger Bart, Ted Raimi, Vinnie Jones & Tony Curran

THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN has a special place in my movie watching past. I was in my sophomore year of high school and an avid horror fan who would read/watch anything that sounded remotely scary. I frequently visited a certain website that gave me insight into the world of horror filmmaking from the studio perspective and press announcements. In November 2006, it was announced that a film adaptation of Clive Barker’s MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN was officially underway. Months later, official casting information surfaced as well as a teaser poster. Over a year later, we had a trailer and this looked like an awesome masterpiece of terror. It was also touted as the first in a long line of BOOK OF BLOOD stories to be adapted onto film. As it turns out, only two followed (2009’s BOOK OF BLOOD and 2010’s DREAD). Most of this could be attributed to Lionsgate’s and Joe Drake’s piss-poor treatment of MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN upon release. Despite mountains of hype in the horror community and strong word-of-mouth coming out of festival screenings, the film was shuffled around through numerous release dates before ultimately winding up in 100 discount theaters. This is truly a shame, because MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN is a stellar nightmare of a horror film and stands out as the best Clive Barker movie to date.

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Leon is a photographer who has grown sick of taking grisly accident photos to sell to local newspapers. In an effort to expand his career, he meets with a reputable art contractor who advises him to capture the darker side of the city. So on that advice, Leon ventures into the subway where he captures a couple of great/dangerous photos. However, it turns out that one of these photos might be a clue to a possible murder. Leon soon finds himself on the trail of a mysterious butcher, Mahogany, who doubles as a serial killer on the late-night subway train. From thereon out, a deadly cat-and-mouse game erupts between Leon and Mahogany as blood is shed, bodies pile up and a mystery reveals horrifying secrets that lie under the city streets.

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I’m hesitant to say too much about MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN, because part of the enjoyment directly comes from the unexpected twists that this story takes along the way. Rest assured, the plot is dark and disturbing. This is a grim friggin’ ride that doesn’t let up on the tension or brooding atmosphere the whole way through. Those looking for fun slasher fare had better look elsewhere, because MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN isn’t your typical gorefest. It’s also not a predictable serial killer thriller as well. The final third takes some really insane turns that might throw the viewer for the loop (in a good way). It simply isn’t anything that you expect. Though the conclusion is explained a bit better in the source material, I really love this adaptation of Barker’s work. It’s faithful to the short story while also offering enough original material to fill a feature-length run time.

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Before he starred in drunken comedies, voiced a space raccoon, and was nominated for Best Actor, Bradley Cooper played the lead in this grisly horror film. As Leon, Cooper is a compelling protagonist who slowly changes due to the trauma being seen in various horrifying scenarios. Even when he makes questionable choices, there’s always a concrete motivation behind Leon’s actions, making him an unusually well-developed horror character. Leslie Bibb makes a strong impression as Leon’s girlfriend and plays a bigger role in the second half of the film. Brooke Shields shows up for three scenes as an art critic and it’s up in the air as to why she’s even in this film, though she does steal her scenes. Roger Bart is enjoyable as Leon’s best friend and also has a bigger part in the second half. Without a doubt, the best character of the film is Mahogany. Played by Vinnie Jones, this mute (he only has one word of dialogue in the entire screenplay), intimidating killer is a fierce force to be reckoned with. Jones expresses so much through body language and facial expressions, far more than most dialogue-heavy cinematic killers. The scenes between him and Bradley Cooper are something to behold.

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MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN is a beautifully shot film. The visuals capture a grimy atmosphere with a polished look. The entire film reeks of dread and impending doom. The title itself suggests that this movie will get messy and oh boy, it does! Lionsgate actually submitted this film to the MPAA numerous times before it walked away with an R rating. Even still, only two minutes of gore were removed from the every-bit-as-brutal theatrical cut. Rest assured, MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN has some of the most insane kill scenes in horror movie history and I don’t say that lightly. Each death is stylized in a way that makes the scene as beautifully and carefully constructed as it is gruesome and gory. If there are any flaws to be found in this film (aside from an ending that was pulled off marginally better on the page), they come in a few seconds of spotty CGI. Even still, the creative use of this CGI is still bound to satisfy gore hounds. We get severed limbs, body parts, a couple of crazy fight scenes, and gallons upon gallons of blood.

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In my opinion, THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN is one of Clive Barker’s best short stories and translates into near-perfection on the screen. Usually, short stories being turned into feature-length films tend to drag or stretch out unneeded details, but TRAIN has an unusually clever script. I loved MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN when it first came out and still love it to this day. I saw it three times at my local theater, caught it a few times on FearNet, all before buying the DVD on its release day. Without a doubt in my mind, I am calling MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN the best Clive Barker adaptation in existence!

Grade: A+

BEOWULF & GRENDEL (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Language and some Sexuality

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Directed by: Sturla Gunnarsson

Written by: Andrew Rai Berzins

(based on the epic poem BEOWULF)

Starring: Gerard Butler, Stellan Skarsgard, Sarah Polley, Ingvar Sigurdsson & Tony Curran

It seems like the epic poem of BEOWULF cannot be adapted properly into the cinematic medium. This problem seems to stem from filmmakers and screenwriters feeling the need to put their own “unique” spin on the beloved source material, while neglecting that the script practically writes itself. The epic poem serves as a blueprint for current tales of heroism and fantasy, but everybody has to put their unneeded little twist on it. BEOWULF & GRENDEL is a supposedly more humanized version of BEOWULF that comes off as contrived, frequently dull and poorly constructed in every sense. It’s not that a little creativity on old material can’t be a good thing, but this movie is a shoddy mess all around.

The time is 500 A.D. and the place is Denmark. King Hrothgar has just slain a troll on the edge of his land. The troll’s young son witnesses the bloody affair and hides in the seclusion of nearby caves. Years pass and the young troll has grown up into a powerful beast named Grendel. In that enormous period of time, Grendel has plotted his revenge against Hrothgar’s kingdom. As bodies pile up and the king drinks himself into a stupor, the heroic Beowulf comes to the shores with the intentions of slaying Grendel. However, the situation soon appears more complex than originally thought. Beowulf starts to realize that maybe Grendel isn’t the monster that everyone is making him out to be, but a bloody deed must be completed before Beowulf can sail back home.

If there were a single compliment that I could give BEOWULF & GRENDEL, it would be about the locations. The film was shot in Iceland and the landscapes are simply beautiful. This lone positive quality makes the rest of the film feel like the giant cinematic disaster that it is. The production values appear to be fairly cheap, but that’s no excuse for poorly executed scenes that become unintentionally hilarious at points. Take for example when a rubber-looking webbed hand casually comes out of the ocean and caresses Beowulf’s face. The moment almost seems like it was intended as a jolt-worthy scare, but plays off in a passive way. The editing looks hastily glued together, especially during the final conflict. When it’s not cheesy or stupid enough to be unintentionally comedic, the pacing of the film really drags this whole thing down. Despite whatever new spin is put on the material, one thing is for certain: BEOWULF should never be boring. This film has two modes: dumb and dull. That’s about it.

Aside from awful production values and wasted locations, the acting is beyond bad from everybody. The dialogue is riddled with so much swearing that it becomes distracting. If curse words are to be used in the dialogue, they should feel like they’re a natural part of the character who happens to be saying them. It feels like the frequent F-bombs were really the only thing that got this film the R rating as the violence and sex are surprisingly tame. Gerard Butler portrays Beowulf as a bland guy who doesn’t seem the least bit heroic or someone worth caring about. He’s wooden delivery of “I am Beowulf” made me chuckle a few times. I mean, even Ray Winstone put emotion into those lines in 2007’s misguided animated adaptation and he was a cartoon character. Stellan Skarsgard chews the scenery as the drunken king. Two unneeded characters come in the forms of Sarah Polley as a witch and Eddie Marsan as a cowardly Christian missionary. Finally, the portrayal of Grendel merely consists of a guy in heavy make-up who occasionally yells out a bit of gibberish, pensively stares off in the distance, and (I kid you not) plays a game of bowling with human skulls on a cliff.

I’m not completely opposed to a creative take on the age-old tale of BEOWULF, but it would be nice to see a proper adaptation grace the screen as well. Even though there might have been creative liberties taken in this film that could have possibly played off well in other hands, this movie fails at everything it’s trying to do. I didn’t feel an ounce of sympathy towards Grendel or any emotion for any given character in the film. I was bored instead of excited. The locations are gorgeous, but wasted on a poorly written screenplay. Even though Syfy produced its own take on the material (simply titled GRENDEL), BEOWULF & GRENDEL feels very much like it deserves regular airings on the Syfy Channel. The only bit of entertainment I got from this film was when a crew member accidentally wandered onto a scene that occurred 18 minutes into the running time and then quickly darted off as soon as he realized the camera was filming. BEOWULF & GRENDEL is that kind of failure.

Grade: F

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