Robbing William Castle’s Grave: The Slow Decline of Nu-Metal Horror

From the top down, it’s such a great time for horror cinema, big-budget & small, that it’s difficult to remember how grim the genre was looking in not-too-distant memory. Wes Craven reinvigorated the horror movie industry with Scream in the mid-90s, unwittingly giving birth to a new wave of slick, big-budget, teen-marketed monstrosities with nu-metal tie-in soundtracks that festered on the big screen until the (even worse) trends of found footage cheapies & torture-porn gross-outs took over a decade later. Occasionally, an interesting deviation within the big budget nu-metal horror trend would amount to something novel (Final Destination, The Craft, The Faculty, Valentine) but it’s a genre that’s more so typified by slickly produced, routine dreck (I Know What You Did Last Summer, Disturbing Behavior, Urban Legend, Halloween: Resurrection). I was the exact right age to appreciate the 90s teen horror cycle while it was still fresh in the theaters (including the worst of the dreck), but just like how nu-metal rotted on hard rock radio long after it was culturally relevant, its cinematic equivalent stuck around long after I grew out of it. Part of the reason I’m so pleased with the state of recent major studio horror releases like A Quiet Place, Split, and IT, is that there was a period of nu-metal hangover in the 2000s when most well-funded horror films in wide release were about as appetizing as room temperature oatmeal. I was mentally transported back to this time in my recent (re)discovery of a string of nu-metal era William Castle remakes produced by Robert Zemeckis & Joel Silver under the label Dark Castle Entertainment. In the span of just three William Castle remakes, Silver & Zemeckis covered the entire trajectory of big-budget 90s horror’s descent from slick slashers to torture porn grotesqueries & beyond, all while maintaining a distinct nu-metal tinge.

The first film in the Dark Castle remake trilogy starts off as a perfectly distilled mission statement of what Silver & Zemeckis were attempting to accomplish. 1999’s House on Haunted Hill remake stars Geoffrey Rush as a William Castle type in broad Vincent Price drag (in a role originated by Price). An eccentric millionaire amusement park owner, Rush’s evil horror host offers a million-dollar prize to any party guest who can survive the night in his recently purchased old-timey L.A. mental hospital (which is, naturally, haunted by the ghosts of past patients). An art deco space flavored by dramatic organ music & matte painting backgrounds, the house in question is a wonder of detailed set design, a perfect application of Robert Zemeckis’s career-long obsession with special effects wizardry. Rush is also a great heel for the scenario, going big as a carnival barker-type huckster who turns the “haunted house” into a spooky amusement park rigged to scare off his guests – only *gasp* some of the scares are revealed to be “real” and the guests start dying off one by one, not by his hands. This self-described “spook house boogey man bullshit,” combined with Rush’s campy combo of Vincent Price & William Castle showmanship and 90s-specific casting of actors like Taye Diggs & Lisa Loeb, should make for a perfectly entertaining big-budget diversion. Yet, House on Haunted Hill somehow manages to shit the bed. Watching the film devolve from delightful novelty to miserable mess is like watching the 90s die onscreen in real time. Rush’s caustically bitchy rapport with his gold-digging wife (Vera Farmiga) sours the fun early on, a hint of nu-metal era misogyny that’s only intensified by the film’s open leering at gratuitous nudity. Most notably, there’s a terribly rendered Rorschach Test-shaped CGI ghost made up of greyed-out naked women that only exists because the presumed audience is ten-year-old boys starving to see some tits by any means necessary. It’s a bafflingly juvenile choice that’s somehow even more boneheaded than having a CGI Chris Kattan ghost save the day (seriously), the exact moment you’re reminded that Zemeckis’s special effects obsessions are most often used for Evil, not Good.

While House on Haunted Hill starts with the potential to succeed as an over-the-top horror diversion before it devolves into juvenile misogyny, its follow-up begins & ends completely within the bounds of that film’s worst tendencies. 2001’s Thir13en Ghosts (ugh, even the title is miserable) is a relentless assault of all the worst CGI grotesqueries & slack-jawed leering that gradually sinks its predecessor. Matthew Lillard revives his Scream schtick as an overly enthusiastic ghost hunter who attempts to guide several unwitting inhabitants of a haunted house through a night of supernatural terror. A slumming-it Tony Shalhoub, professional Jessica Biel understudy Shannon Elizabeth, and rapper Rah Digga constitute most of the cast of unfortunates under Lillard’s wing, each to varying levels of embarrassment. The underlying tones of racism, misogyny, and general misanthropy that gradually sour House on Haunted Hill are on constant, full-volume blast in Thir13en Ghosts, making for a miserable experience throughout. There’s an early potential for winking, William Castle camp in the film’s setup of an eccentric adventurer/ghost collector who wills a haunted house to his family (another role originated by Vincent Price, naturally), but the film’s hideous CGI, hyperactive editing, and amoral nu-metal aesthetic pummels that glimmer of hope out of existence at every turn. As with House on Haunted Hill, THir13en Ghosts is a special effects wonder of over-the-top, detailed set design – containing all of its haunted house mayhem inside an impossible mechanized structure that resembles a blown-up version of the Hellraiser puzzle box. It even improves on the CGI Rorschach ghost of the previous film with a cast of undead characters that, when not sexually objectified even in their bloodied state, strike a distinctly spooky image worthy of a high-end haunted house attraction. The problem is that any minor progress in production design is drastically outweighed by the film’s hideous nu-metal aesthetics, most notably in hyperactive editing & CGI camera movements that exhaust more than delight. The worst part is that haunted house tour guide Matthew Lillard is on hand to constantly remind you how far this mainstream horror cycle had fallen since its Scream roots.

The third William Castle remake from Dark Castle’s early run stretched beyond the outermost boundaries of the nu-metal teen cycle to spill into the found footage & torture porn aesthetics it replaced. It’s also, confusingly, the best film of the batch. 2005’s House of Wax remake starts like a conventional post-Scream slasher, with the world’s most hateable group of college-age idiots being stalked & hunted by local yokels while camping in the woods. The ways the film attempts to update the 90s slasher aesthetic for the evolving post-90s landscape are universally embarrassing: mixing in shaky-cam found footage techniques to adopt a Blair Witch patina, constructing elaborate torture devices to feed off the popularity of titles like Saw & Hostel and, most cruelly, stunt-casting Paris Hilton as one of the victims only to exploit her real-life tabloid persona by matching the night vision digicam footage of the 1 Night in Paris sex tape that helped make her notorious. The film doubles down on its juvenile titties-leering and even adds casual homophobia to Dark Castle’s list of moral shortcomings in a nonstop barrage of no-homo style jock humor. These are a few of the many sins weighing against House of Wax, but I can’t help but consider it the best of its studio’s big budget William Castle remakes, the only one I’d even consider solidly entertaining. If there’s anything these films share as a common virtue, it’s that the set design of their respective haunted houses is admirably detailed & wonderfully bizarre. House of Wax is the only film of the batch to fully exploit that asset for all it’s worth, accentuating the amusement park quality of its titular attraction at length. Recalling the horrifying 70s curio Tourist Trap, the film is set in a fake town populated almost entirely by wax figure statues, the centerpiece of which is a mansion-like museum entirely made of wax. The Zemeckis special effects machinery is pushed to its most glorious extreme here, with all of the wax figures and the titular wax house of its setting warping & melting in a climactic fire that transforms the amusement park-like town into a cartoonish vision of Hell worthy of both Dante and Joe Dante. House of Wax is far from a great film, but it’s weird enough to be an entertaining one and, although it suffers the worst trappings of its era in mainstream horror, it leans too hard into its strengths to be fully denied.

I obviously wouldn’t recommend that anyone repeat this journey into Zemeckis & Silver’s nu-metal era William Castle remakes; of the three films in the bunch only House of Wax squeaks by as satisfactory entertainment (and then just barely). However, I did find the experience illustrative of mainstream horror’s transformation in the past couple decades from slick post-Scream slashers to more adventurous, thoughtful experiments in genre. House on Haunted Hill devolves mainstream 90s horror from delightful camp to CGI-leaden misanthropy over the course of a single picture. THir13en Ghosts gleefully revels in the Hellish depths where that first film sank, indulging in the worst nu-metal hangover sins of horned-up male angst & hyperactive editing booth antics. House of Wax starts as a desperate attempt for the genre to stay relevant by coopting tropes from its found footage & torture porn successors before instead pushing through to find new, weird territory in its Zemeckis-flavored special effects majesty. It’s with that film that Dark Castle Entertainment abandoned its original mission of robbing William Castle’s grave to instead fund better, more modern pictures. House of Wax director Jaume Collet-Serra even went on to direct Orphan (the to-date best film of his career) for the same company just a few years later, a bizarre-free-for-all that feels much more up to date with the creative mainstream horror boon we’re living in now. You can even feel the nu-metal aesthetic struggling to hold on in the House of Wax’s soundtrack, which interrupts mainstay modern rock knuckleheads like Marilyn Manson, Deftones, and Disturbed with jarring sore-thumb inclusions like Interpol, Joy Division, and Har Mar Superstar. As a collection of big-budget horror remakes of once-campy cult classics, Dark Castle’s initial run of William Castle remakes is a grim, grueling experience. As a snapshot of how post-Scream mainstream horror gradually transformed into the spoil-of-riches horror media landscape we’re living in today, however, they’re extremely useful, functioning practically as a step-by-step guided tour of the nu-metal 90s dying out & fading away. Just like how many corners of modern rock radio are still stuck in this exact nu-metal rut, you can still find modern movies that revert those old ways, but this damned trio paints a picture of a time when this was the majority & the norm – the nu-metal Dark Ages.

-Brandon Ledet

Colin Firth, Peter O’Toole, Romantic Competition, and the Immortal Bard

I was mostly on board with the subtlety & restraint exercised in December’s Movie of the Month, 1990’s Wings of Fame, but there was one glaring area where the film’s delicate approach to its surrealist premise could have benefited from a stronger hand. The film establishes a version of the afterlife that runs on a kind of fame economy, where the level of a historical figure or celebrity’s postmortem notoriety determines their privilege & prestige in an Eternal Limbo. Our introduction into this world is through a Shakespearean actor (Peter O’Toole) and his bitter assassin (Colin Firth) as they die near-simultaneously and blindly enter the fame-economy afterlife. Mostly, the breathing room allowed by the film’s patient, delicate approach to surrealism invites philosophical discussion & audience hypothesis on how, exactly, this fantasy realm operates. That exact openness to interpretation is likely the movie’s greatest strength. Where the restraint frustrates me, however, is in not populating its afterword with real life historical figures & dead celebrities. Besides familiar names like Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, and Lassie, the movie’s ranks are mostly filled with fictional, archetypal placeholders: a psychedelic rocker, a Freudian psychologist, a Russian political poet, etc. Not using familiar personalities to fully explore the absurdity of its premise seemed like a missed opportunity, especially when it came to the comeuppance of the movie’s chief cad, played by Peter O’Toole. It seems obvious that a pompous Shakespearean actor obnoxiously blowing hot air in an afterlife populated by famous historical figures would have an onscreen confrontation with William Shakespeare himself, but it’s a moment that never arrives. Oddly, his co-star did have that confrontation with Shakespeare many years later, despite Colin Firth not being nearly as closely associated with the bard.

It’s strange to say that Peter O’Toole is known mostly as a Shakespearean actor, when he has never appeared in any Shakespearean films. Before he transitioned to TV & film work in the late 1950s and eventually achieved infamy as the lead in Lawrence of Arabia, O’Toole was already a well-known thespian, respected for his work on the British stage, especially in the coveted role of Hamlet. Once he blossomed into a screen actor, however, he mostly left Shakespeare behind, possibly out of fear of being typecast, possibly by simply aging out of the Hamlet role. He did portray King Henry II in two Shakespeare-esque films (Becket & Lion in Winter), but mostly left his Shakespeare career on the stage, not onscreen. Still, he was closely associated enough with Shakespearean drama as a medium that his casting in Wings of Fame was a meta reflection of his real life persona. His co-star in the film, Colin Firth, was also “discovered” while playing Hamlet on the stage, but was much more closely associated with another infamous literary author: Jane Austen. Firth’s role as Mr. Darcy in the 90s adaptation of Pride & Prejudice (and, parodically, in the Bridget Jones franchise) would command much of his career onscreen for well over a decade, falling into the exact kind of restrictive typecasting Peter O’Toole managed to avoid. It’s strange that despite both actors emerging through a British stage tradition in the same Shakespearean role and both separately working with Lawrence Olivier, the only thing they’ve happened to collaborate on together was this single Dutch picture about fame in the afterlife. What’s even stranger is that where Wings of Fame withholds the satisfaction of seeing famed Shakespearean actor Peter O’Toole get into an onscreen confrontation with William Shakespeare himself, the Jane Austen-associated Colin Firth would later play Shakespeare’s nemesis for the entire length of a high-profile, Oscars-sweeping feature.

John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love is one of those decent, mildly entertaining pictures that seems to draw a lot of critical heat merely because it was showered with a heap of Academy Awards. Although the film is dressed up like a prestige costume drama, it’s much more spiritually aligned with Shakespeare’s more frivolous farces (and not necessarily the exceptional ones). Everyone can enjoy a decent screwball comedy once in a while, though, and the film maintains its endearingness as such, especially now that the unfair, tremendous weight of its many Oscar wins has faded. Joseph Fiennes stars as (a forgettable, bland) William Shakespeare, who is suffering severe writer’s block as his romantic life hits a major rut. He finds his manic pixie dream muse in a noblewoman played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who auditions for his latest play (eventually titled Romeo & Juliet) in disguise as a man. Surface level meta humor about the hallmarks of Shakespeare’s work (drag, comic misunderstandings, drunken fools, confusion with Christopher Marlowe, exact lines & scenes from Romeo & Juliet, etc.) unfolds along with this new romance and shapes the course of the play the couple are collaborating on. Enter Colin Firth as Lord Wessex, an empty-pursed nobleman who arranges to marry Paltrow’s disinterested theatre nerd for her dowry. As Shakespeare’s romantic rival and an all-around cad, Colin Firth’s mustache-twirling villain brings life to an otherwise light romantic romp. Similar caricatures from Judy Dench, Geoffrey Rush, and (Bostonian sore thumb) Ben Affleck are amusing in flashes, but Firth is so over-the-top as the villain it’s near-impossible to focus anywhere else. First of all, his look includes the world’s worst goatee and a dangly earring. He’s introduced negotiating marital terms with his intended’s father by asking questions like “Is she fertile? Is she obedient?” Minutes later, before he even announces his marriage plans to their shared love interest, he pulls a knife on Shakespeare “for coveting his property.” He only gets more dastardly from there, singlehandedly setting up the forbidden love oppression that required two whole families of brutes to establish in Romeo & Juliet.

This romantic rivalry between Wessex & Shakespeare, enforced through violence & wealth, is far more intense than what I was hoping to see in Wings of Fame. My hope was for a mere Shakespeare cameo, where the bard could offend Peter O’Toole’s posh sensibilities either by insulting his acting skills or by acting like an Al Bundy-modeled slob in a moment of don’t-meet-your-heroes disillusionment. Wishing for for something that specific to happen in a movie’s script is usually an idiotic way to approach cinema, but Wings of Fame feels like it sets up that conflict (or any kind of interaction, really) by sending a fictional, famous Shakespearean actor played by a real-life, famous Shakespearean actor to an afterworld populated by dead famous people, Shakespeare blatantly excluded. That’s what makes it so strange that Colin Firth would later be the actor to participate in an onscreen rivalry with the bard. What’s even stranger is that Wessex’s contentious relationship with Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love is not too dissimilar to the main rivalry that drives Wings of Fame. Once they arrive in the afterlife, O’Toole’s Shakespearean actor and his professionally bitter assassin get caught up in a (passionless) love triangle as they compete for the affections of the same demure French pop singer. Of course, O’Toole plays the blowhard cad in that scenario, not Firth, who would assume those duties in Shakespeare in Love. Shakespeare in Love is a much lesser film than Wings of Fame (although the pair are largely incomparable), but it both complicates & satisfies the two caveats I had with the otherwise impeccable surrealist comedy that had managed to unite Firth & O’Toole onscreen. All of the romantic rivalry intensity & onscreen conflict with Shakespeare himself I felt was missing from Wings of Fame was oddly misplaced in Shakespeare in Love; it also happened to feature the wrong actor of the duo.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the delicately surreal afterlife puzzler Wings of Fame, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, and last week’s look at its less restrained Harmony Korine counterpoint.

-Brandon Ledet