THE MONSTER (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 31 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language and some Violence/Terror

Directed by: Bryan Bertino

Written by: Bryan Bertino

Starring: Zoe Kazan, Ella Ballentine, Aaron Douglas, Scott Speedman & Christine Ebadi

Bryan Bertino made audiences scream with his simple, but effective home-invasion horror flick THE STRANGERS. Though that film has its detractors and is far from perfect, I vividly remember watching THE STRANGERS in a theater on its opening weekend and it was a crowd experience. Bertino couldn’t keep his high quality going with his disappointing sophomore effort MOCKINGBIRD, which just might be the worst found footage film I’ve ever sat through and that’s a mighty terrible feat. My expectations weren’t exactly high for THE MONSTER (Bertino’s third film) which has a simple premise, generic title, and an okay-at-best trailer. Color me surprised though, because THE MONSTER is horror story that packs scares and emotional gut-punches in equal measure.

Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) is a frustrated 10-year-old who’s had it with her abusive junkie mother Kathy (Zoe Kazan)’s shit. In an effort to live a better life, Lizzy is taking a permanent vacation to her father’s house. This decision is killing Kathy on the inside and she’s trying to make the most of her final mommy-daughter moments. While on a deserted backroad in the middle of a storm, Kathy’s car hits a wolf and spins out of control. Lizzy and Kathy quickly discover that the wolf was actually a meal for a bloodthirsty monster, which has now set its hungry sights set on the two of them.

THE MONSTER mostly takes place on a deserted stretch of wooded backroad. The film did not have a massive budget behind it, but it covers that possibly crutch by regulating its titular beast into the shadows for most of the running time. In fact, it’s a good long while before THE MONSTER’s monster rears its ugly head. This storytelling tactic is rather refreshing though, because that screen time is spent developing the two main characters and amping up the tension in waiting for the inevitable to happen. The character development of this mother-daughter pair also makes everything so much more effective when shit eventually hits the fan.

It certainly helps that the two leading ladies do a phenomenal job with the material. Ella Ballentine seems pretty damn mature for her age and is able to convincingly capture this emotionally damaged daughter’s feelings. Zoe Kazan is also oddly sympathetic as the not-so-great mother. We get glimpses of Kazan’s character in the flashbacks, which paint a pretty damning picture of her. However, Bertino and Kazan still manage make this character into someone worth caring about and (dare I say) rooting for. The pairing of Ballentine and Kazan really helped sell this B-movie-sounding material. THE MONSTER’s script is a simple creature feature that happens to have a ton of well-written family drama placed into its core.

Where THE MONSTER encounters a few problems are in its creature design. While Bertino wisely keeps his beastie off-screen for as long as possible, he does reveal far too much of it in certain moments. The titular antagonist basically looks like a buffed-up version of Zuul from GHOSTBUSTERS. While there are a few tense scenes of it attacking folks, these are mostly shown in bits of quick editing and the full-blown views of buff Zuul…er, I mean, THE MONSTER’s monster that look too silly. These out-of-place campy bits aren’t enough to detract from the film’s rock-solid acting, slick cinematography, and creepier less-is-more attitude. However, the full-blown shots of the monster stick out like a sore thumb.

Overall, THE MONSTER shocked me. I wasn’t expecting too much from this film, but received a well-acted, mostly well-executed horror story that had an emotional core as its driving force. Despite its generic title, THE MONSTER’s main focus isn’t its monster. Instead, this is a story about a mother and daughter caught in a terrifying situation that happens to involve a monster. The plot also plays out in an almost fairy-tale-esque manner that may make a few viewers shed a tear or two. If you’re into that sort of thing, THE MONSTER is well worth a look!

Grade: B

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-

UNDERWORLD (2003)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence/Gore and some Language

Directed by: Len Wiseman

Written by: Danny McBride

Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Bill Nighy, Michael Sheen, Shane Brolly, Erwin Leder, Sophia Myles, Robbie Gee & Kevin Grevioux

2003’s UNDERWORLD came out when I was just entering junior high school and this film was the talk of all my preteen friends, though we were far too young to go watch this in a theater. When it premiered on cable, I remember watching it and liking it. However, I haven’t seen this first film in over a decade. UNDERWORLD has the nifty premise of vampires fighting werewolves…in present day…with cool weapons. While it’s far from perfect, UNDERWORLD is an entertaining watch that has amazing visuals and lots of creativity (alongside many clichés).

For centuries, a war has raged between vampires and lycans (the fancy word for werewolves). Humans are unaware of these monsters’ existence and their feud, but this changes when medical student Michael (Scott Speedman) is thrust into the middle of the conflict. Supposedly dead lycan leader Lucian (Michael Sheen) wants Michael for some reason and vampire death-dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale) has taken an interest in the human. The monstrous factions begin to reach boiling points as new weapons come to light, alongside buried history and a master plan that may end the war. Selene soon finds herself saddled with deep feelings for Michael and discoveries that blur her long-standing loyalty.

When watching UNDERWORLD, it immediately becomes clear that creators Danny McBride, Kevin Grevioux, and Len Wiseman put a lot of thought into crafting extensive lore behind the plot. The politics of vampire coven rituals are complicated, but the trio simplify things to the point where the viewer can easily grasp what’s going on. There’s also an avid history behind the vampire-lycan conflict itself, but this won’t come as a shocking twist to first-time viewers who’ve already seen origin story RISE OF THE LYCANS. UNDERWORLD was originally planned as a trilogy of films, which explains the eye-rollingly obvious cliffhanger ending that’s left wide open for a sequel.

Plot-wise, UNDERWORLD is a bloody, clichéd, and fun mixture of ROMEO & JULIET, BLADE, and THE MATRIX. Even with these obvious influences, the resulting film is its own cinematic beast (aided by lots of latex and blue filters). The pacing is mostly compelling, though the middle section occasionally drags for the sake of giving lengthy exposition behind the series’ fanged/furry mythology. These slower points are easily remedied by an action-packed final third that delivers a bad-ass creation that’s never been seen on film before.

Though the plot may contain more than its fair share of clichés and familiarity, UNDERWORLD is a visually stunning movie. Lots of slow motion, slick cinematography, and MATRIX-inspired (in a good way) action sequences make their way into the mix. This film doesn’t skimp on the gore either, because vamps and wolves go at each other’s throats with a variety of weapons. Sometimes, these are specialized bullets and hand-to-hand/claw-to-claw combat. Other times, these warring monsters use kick-ass weapons brought in for a specific scene (e.g. metal whips, bladed discs, etc.).

Kate Beckinsale slips into a sexy latex catsuit as vampire Selene, though she’s just as dangerous as she is attractive. This female bad-ass provides a solid protagonist for the audience to root for, especially as her preconceived notions about the war begin to shatter. I wish the same could be said for Scott Speedman as Selene’s human love-interest Michael. Speedman is wooden as the dude-in-distress and functions as a walking plot device. Even worse than Speedman’s blandness is Shane Brolly as scumbag vampire Kraven. He plays his character with all the subtleties of a moustache-twirling villain. Thankfully, Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen make up for Speedman and Brolly’s bad acting, as the determined leaders of the warring monster factions.

Though UNDERWORLD suffers from overly familiar clichés, two lame characters, and an occasionally dull middle section, this film still delivers on being entertaining. If the idea of vampires and werewolves fighting (with guns, no less) intrigues you, you’re likely to have a good time watching UNDERWORLD. It’s far from high art, but very much succeeds at being a fun, visually stunning horror-actioner!

Grade: B