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Selene, Hollywood’s latest female ass-kicker, seems a bit familiar. Raven-haired and British, she dresses in shiny black cat suits and is well-endowed in the weapons department. She takes easy command of the simple-minded men she must work with to save the world, petulantly explainingthough she really doesn’t have time for thishow things need to be done. She fights with agility and grace, often in drippy subterranean environs, and when these sequences really get going, you might just think, This is the best Tomb Raider ever.
It’s not, of course. It’s Underworld, a Gothic tale from first-time director Len Wiseman about vampires and werewolves and the love that’s been long lost between them. Selene (Kate Beckinsale, Wiseman’s fiancée) is not an adventuress but a vampiric “death dealer” charged with spotting and dispatching “Lycans.” When, after one particularly messy battle, Selene notices that the Lycans she was after had been pursuing a human (this discovery comes courtesy of a webcamthese ain’t Bram Stoker’s bloodsuckers), she makes it her business to find out why. This pursuit upsets her covennow led by Kraven (Shane Brolly) but once headed by the
hallowed Viktor (Bill Nighy)whose other members would seem to prefer drinking wine and looking fabulous in their medieval lair.
Underworld starts out with a bang, wisely limiting Selene’s introductory voice-over to the very basicsy’know, a mysterious world beneath our urban streets, a centuries-old secret warand jumping in with gunslinging vampire-on-werewolf action. But the script, written by actor and stuntman Danny McBride, eventually gets heavy with pseudohistory, feeding the audience mythical backstory with all the portentousness of The Matrix Reloaded. By the time Selene stares reflectively out a window midmovie and utters, “I couldn’t save my mother…,” you no longer care what she’s all about.
The effects, meanwhile, are appropriately noirish and thrillingmost notably the transformation of the Lycans to their wolfish statebut a second-act resurrection of the “hibernating” Viktor succeeds in wiping out all the cool that came before it. From the moment his booming, disembodied “What’s…this…ruckus?!?” echoes through the coven’s mansion, his presence is simply silly. A skeletal, craggy-skinned walking corpse with odd tics and grunts, Viktor appears rather unworthy of the veneration he inspiresthough Selene in particular seems, ahem, to carry a torch for the guy, always tossing out “Viktor…” this and “Viktor…” that when she’s unhappy with the way Kraven’s running the coven. In one of the movie’s unintended laughs, her obsession lends an absurdly saucy connotation to her wistful remembrance of “that night he made me a vampire.”
Though it seems impossible to have a good-hair day in the UnderworldBeckinsale’s remains particularly stringy throughoutthe movie itself is gorgeous. Wiseman, who worked in the art department on Independence Day and Stargate, collaborates with art director Kevin Phipps to fashion a shadowy, rainy world painted in black, gray, and gunmetal blue. Inhabiting it, Beckinsale makes a worthy if one-note heroine, granting the no-nonsense, smart-alecky Selene the right combination of foxiness and intelligence to make viewers cheer whenever she answers detractors with whupass rather than words. Still, even a valiant attempt to win back the audience’s interest with an action-packed bookend is simply too little, too late: As with Selene’s dour cinematic doppelgänger, a little levity would have gone a long way.
Cabin Fever seems a bit familiar, too. The difference is that it has hardly an original thought in its head. Referencing horror films as old as The Evil Dead and as recent as The Blair Witch Project and 28 Days Later, writer-director Eli Roth’s debut feature throws a group of shallow, comely college students into the woods and dares disaster to strike. Terror comes not in the form of mountain men or monsters, but of a fatal flesh-eating disease, the spread of which the kids are unable to stop.
And boy, are these folks ripe for the slaying. There are hot-and-heavy couple Jeff and Marcy (Grind’s Joey Kern and Not Another Teen Movie’s naked girl, Cerina Vincent), just-friends Paul and Karen (sitcom vet Rider Strong and no one really Jordan Ladd), and frat dude Bert (Swimfan’s James DeBello). They’re all appropriately vacuous, and most of them are selfish bastards as well: When a bloodied stranger comes knocking on their door and then tries to make off with their truck to get medical attention, they respond by attacking him.
Roth is at least to be commended for trying so hard. Cabin Fever is clearly more ambitious than your average gorefest in terms of sheer style, from its white-turned-sepia opening screenaccompanied by the increasingly loud buzz of fliesto the well-framed and occasionally red-filtered scenes near film’s end. Roth tries to keep the tension high by riffing constantly on genre conventions such as grisly campfire stories, random creepy images, and cheap, non-flesh-eating scares, but the pace is actually rather leisurelywhich, for horror fans, will eventually translate into boredom. The big mystery is a matter of when, not if, the campers are going to start showing signs of the disease, and once the gore starts the suspense effectively stops.
An equally damning problem is the film’s uneven tone: Instead of paying homage to either classy psychological thrillers or cheesy slasher flicks, Roth unsuccessfully tries to model Cabin Fever after both. When the blood isn’t being spilled ever so graphically, the director goes overboard with restraint. And though the moronic antics of Bert allow Roth to sprinkle humor throughout, most of the laughs are drawn unintentionally, from lines such as “Paul, that guy asked us for helpwe lit him on fire!” The kids aren’t quite irritating enough to get the audience rooting against them, though one scene in which Paul makes a perhaps-unwanted move on a slumbering Karen offers satisfyingthough hardly feministpayback: As he stares at her lovingly, the camera follows his hand as he first caresses her face and neck and then makes his way down the rest of her body. She moans quietly and slightly icky squishy noises issue from her nether regionsuntil he pulls his too-wet hand out from under the covers and finds ityescovered in blood. CP