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

Orphan (2009)

Jaume Collet-Serra is an interesting fella. I’ve gotten to know the Spanish-born Hollywood director through his recent string of high-concept, single-location thrillers like The Shallows, where Blake Lively fights a vengeful shark while stuck alone on a rock, and The Commuter, where Liam Neeson takes down a global conspiracy network from a pedestrian commuter train. However, before Collet-Serra was making over-the-top Liam Neeson thrillers that could be reductively described as Taken on a Train (The Commuter) or Taken on a Train (Non-Stop), he got his start directing mainstream horror productions for Hollywood bigshot Joel Silver. The first was a fairly innocuous remake of the Vincent Price classic House of Wax, best remembered for its stunt casting of Paris Hilton. Collet-Serra’s sophomore effort was something much more novel, an aughts perversion of The Bad Seed that leaned heavily into shocking twists & children being depicted in sinister, adult scenarios. 2009’s Orphan was a modest hit that has been largely forgotten in the decade since, only remembered by those most incensed by its controversial amorality & head-on dedication to tastelessness. It’s also quite possibly Collet-Serra’s best work to date, as it allows the director to chase a new bonkers idea every few minutes instead of tying him to a single concept at feature length. As much as I’ve come to respect Collet-Serra for essentially remaking Speed with a new novelty conceit in every subsequent picture, Orphan is wildly entertaining for setting him loose and allowing him to indulge in whatever silly idea inspires him from minute to minute. It’s a movie that deserves to be forgotten for its sins against good taste, but I can’t help but be tickled by it.

Vera Farmiga stars as a grieving mother whose third child was miscarried, stillborn. Nightmares about horrific, gory childbirth scenarios and guilt over past relapses into alcoholism plague her marriage with an insensitive oaf played by Peter Sarsgaard. To help alleviate the trauma of losing her would-be youngest daughter in childbirth, she decides to adopt – turning a family tragedy into an act of charity. The adopted child is a precocious, morose little girl with a cold Russian accent & a mysterious past, coming across like a 90s Goth update to Rhoda Penmark. The titular orphan’s old-fashioned wardrobe (including a ribbon choker she refuses to be seen without) looks like it belongs to a fairy tale princess, teasing a supernatural twist in its gradual reveal of her background. Whatever the cause, she’s deliciously evil, taking perverse pleasure in staging “accidents” that harm other children, purposefully spying on her new parents mid-coitus, and eventually just full-on murdering adults with guns, knives, and hammers. The reveal of her true biography & motivation to kill is astoundingly tasteless, ludicrous, and easy to guess well before it’s explained; the journey to get there is still a perversely fun ride. Collet-Serra turns each set piece & heinous act into a new toy to play with, the same way he’d later gleefully fool around with all possibly novelties offered by the planes, trains, and bloodthirsty sharks of his subsequent thrillers. The ill-considered morality of Orphan suggests that there is great danger in adopting an unknown orphan with a foreign-born past, which is a much more harmful angle to take than movies like Cooties, The Children, and We Need to Talk About Kevin, which reflect parents’ fears of their own kids. My guess is that neither Collet-Serra nor fist-time screenwriter David Leslie Johnson paused long enough to consider that morality as they chased this preposterous scenario’s potential for over-the-top, in-the-moment thrills. To be honest, the movie is all the more entertaining for it.

I’ve come to associate Collet-Sera most closely with over-the-top visual gimmickry, which is his most consistent auteurist tell. As absurd as their basic premises can be, some of the things that most stand out to me about the director’s post-Taken thrillers will be the way he constructs a time-lapse montage in The Commuter or the way he makes text messages appear visually dynamic in Non-Stop. Orphan’s best quality is in the freedom it allows Collet-Serra to indulge in this visual gimmickry in a variety of locales. The way he shoots kitchen window reflections, POV angles from car doors & paintings, and (in an early precursor to A Quiet Place) children communicating via American Sign Language is endlessly fun, as there’s a new toy for the director to play with in every new set piece. The pinnacle of this over-stylized visual artistry is a sequence set on a children’s jungle gym in a public park, which Collet-Serra shoots like a Gothic horror set in a maze. The menace of children-at-play on plastic slides & monkey bars is delightfully handled with a straight-faced terror, concluding with a genuine jump scare despite the tableau’s built-in absurdity. If made a decade later, Orphan might have been entirely set in that single jungle gym set piece, with the titular villain chasing around the same pint-sized victim (presumably not played by Liam Neeson) at feature length in a challenge to see how far the premise of that chase could be stretched. Here, it’s allowed to thrive for just a few minutes as an isolated novelty before the film moves onto its next ridiculous indulgence (and there are plenty more to come). It’s a willingness to visually experiment & indulge that keep the movie perversely fun despite the amoral implications of its twisty, ill-considered plot.

There’s a generous reading of Orphan that sees its fear of adopted children gone murderously rogue only as a reflection of Vera Farmiga’s character struggling with her own anxieties as a “flawed” mother with a shaky past. Farmiga sells the emotional core of that conflict as best she can, especially in arguments with a husband (Sarsgaard) and a therapist (esteemed character actress Margot Martindale) who are cruelly dismissive of her skepticism over her new adopted daughter. The film just has too much gleeful, amoral fun for that reading to fully play out, especially in scenarios where the orphan is beating victims to death with a hammer or inserting herself into adult, sexual scenarios with a perverse curiosity. The Babadook is a film about a mother who is unsure of her own stability & value as a nurturing parent. This film is more of an update to The Bad Seed, where it’s the kid who’s clearly at fault & taking pleasure in the chaotic violence that surrounds them. It’s a set-up with some disturbing, half-cooked implications about the adoption process as a result, something I wouldn’t fault any viewer for finding too distasteful to be entertaining. Personally, I consider Orphan to be an exquisite slice of mainstream-horror trash and a thoroughly entertaining showcase for a visually-skilled director who can’t help himself whenever afforded an opportunity to over-indulge in a set-specific gimmick. I’d love to see Collet-Serra return to this style of filmmaking, where his tones & gimmickry are allowed to be more free-wheeling & varied in their minute-to-minute whims instead of being dedicated to a single concept for an entire film. It’s a looseness in premise & morality than I believe has produced his best work to date.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #66 of The Swampflix Podcast: All the Darkmen & Non-Stop (2014)

Welcome to Episode #66 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our sixty-sixth episode, we kick off the Halloween season with an unhinged Liam Neeson. James & Brandon discuss all three movies in Sam Raimi’s Darkman franchise and James makes Brandon watch Jaume Collet-Serra’s airplane-set thriller Non-Stop (2014) for the first time. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet

The Commuter (2018)

The sole kernel of fun in last year’s over-hated natural disaster thriller Geostorm was its function as a conservative fantasy in which one white, middle aged tough guy fights off a massive conspiracy all on his lonesome. The latest action vehicle for Liam Neeson, who knows a thing or two about middle aged white guy power fantasies at this point in his career, pushes that same dynamic to a much more satisfying, deliriously inane extreme. Director Jaume Collet-Serra already reframed Neeson’s defining late-career gimmick in Non-Stop, which was essentially Taken on a Plane. His latest collaboration with the forever-slumming-it actor, The Commuter, flips the script again with the paradigm-shifting concept of, wait for it, Taken on a Train. Neeson stars as the titular commuter, a hardworking family man struggling to maintain an upper middle-class lifestyle without a proper safety net. Just when his job, his family, and his sense of security are taken away from him, he’s offered a quick, sleazy way to make a cool $100k on his commute home. He must make a choice: blindly go along with the flow or stand up for the little guy and take down a massive conspiracy network one bare-knuckled punch at a time. The Commuter isn’t exactly capital “R” Republican in its politics; at the very least it musters a lot of residual anger from the 2008 market crisis, even including the line, “Hey, Goldman Sachs! On behalf of the American middle class, fuck you!” The film’s pro-cop philosophy, “Millennials, huh?” patronizing, Info Wars-style paranoia, and general macho swagger are all informed by a conservative tinge, though, and it’s perversely fun to watch that sensibility stretch to such absurd lengths in this kind of disposable, low-rent/high-concept thriller.

Freshly let go from his unglamorous job as an insurance salesman by a heartless Corporation, our ex-cop Hero Dad has little to lose as he sullenly rides home on a packed commuter train. He’s a hardworking man who plays by the rules in a mind-numbing routine, but he gets screwed anyway because the system is rigged. In this moment of desperation & financial despair, he’s approached by a mysterious organization and offered $100k to do something he is uniquely qualified for: pointing out a fellow passenger “who does not belong” on the train he rides every day. This setup does not entirely make sense, as he’s both tasked to single out an out-of-place stranger and told that there are other strangers on the train watching his every move, which you would think just muddles the assignment. It doesn’t take long or the focus to shift away from this original moral quandary (which feels somewhat like an exhausted, late 90s John Woo adapting The Box). Neeson’s middle-aged toughie quickly realizes he’s being blackmailed into committing unwitting acts of Evil and the rest of the film details his David vs. Goliath heroics in taking down the mysterious, all-powerful Organization responsible for his predicament from within the speeding train. His triumph as the hero hinges both on his ability to see through the Fake News & truthiness of the world and on the brunt force of his traditional masculinity, something that’s been eroded by the daily Corporate grind of commuting by train in a cheap suit to provide for his family. I’m not sure how much longer Neeson will be able to coast along in these ludicrous Tough Dad action thrillers, but The Commuter hits a nice sweet spot where he’s still virile enough for the violence to be passably convincing and the premises must reach far beyond rational thought to keep the formula novel. It’s fun trash.

Much like Collet-Serra’s fun-trash shark pic The Shallows, The Commuter feels a little unnecessarily labored & delayed in its setup. Once his aggressively idiotic plots get cooking, however, they capture a distinct 90s thriller spirit that used to light up summertime marquees, but have since been ghettoized on a straight-to-VOD release path. Even The Commuter’s gloriously cheesy tagline, “Lives are on the line,” feels like a relic from an ancient mode of blockbuster filmmaking. Where that 90s thriller throwback vibe might disappoint is in this film’s general deficiency of action. Besides an inevitable special effects climax involving the train itself, there are only a few moments of genuine action that make appropriate use of the train setting’s close quarters combat tension. The most memorable of these involves Neeson fighting off a guitar-wielding conspirator with a fire hatchet, in what’s effectively an axe-on-axe fight. Mostly, though, The Commuter is less entertaining for its Loud, Dumb Action than it is for its Loud, Dumb Ideas. The film recalls high-concept thrillers like the David Fincher joint The Game or the M. Night Shyamalan-penned Devil in its paranoia-driven sociology experiments where every character is an anonymous archetype and no one is to be trusted. I probably shouldn’t take so much delight in how films like Geostorm & The Commuter adapt that conspiracy theorist hero worship to the Fake News, Alex Jones era, but I just find it so damn silly. There’s a whole legion of dangerous white, American men out there who believe they’re living in some kind of rigged, The Matrix-type system where they’re the only dude in the world smart enough to crack the code of What’s Really Going On, when they’re actually just, for instance, some boring ex-cop who got laid off from selling insurance. Watching that kind of outsized power fantasy play out onscreen to its most illogical extreme should probably be frightening, but instead it tickles me immensely.

-Brandon Ledet