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

Serial Mom (1994)

Mention Serial Mom to a suitably knowledgeable crowd, and you’ll hear a lot of, “Oh yeah, that was his [Waters’s] last…” and then some trailing off. His last great film? His last successful film? Depending upon whom you ask, both are true, or neither. Whatever your thoughts on it, although it’s part of his post-Hairspray mainstream canon, it’s pure John Waters, even if it does sacrifice a great deal of his notable filth (and maybe picks up some cohesion along the way).

Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) is the perfect wife and mother in a squeaky-clean Cleaver-esque family, as noted in the text itself. Her dentist husband Eugene (Sam Waterston), son Chip (Matthew Lillard), and daughter Misty (Rikki Lake) all dote on her and are doted upon in turn. Everything is a picture of idealized domesticity, except that Beverly is severely mentally ill and holds intense grudges against those she perceives as having slighted her. She acts out relatively harmlessly at first, making obscene phone calls to her neighbor Dottie Hinkle (Mink Stole, acting against type), but quickly escalating to murder when Chip’s teacher claims at a parent-teacher meeting that he thinks the boy’s interest in horror film is affecting his academic work. Once she crosses that line, she falls down the slippery slope at a rapid pace, snowballing into murdering of Misty’s crush Carl (Lonnie Horsey) for rejecting Misty and bringing another girl (our old friend Traci Lords) to a local swap meet, as well as a various others who are impolite or rude. This leads up to a trial of great spectacle, in which Beverly represents herself and discredits various witnesses and earns the sympathy of the jury, including Patty Hearst (credited as Juror #8), although the films ends on an ambiguous note about the ultimate fate of Beverly (and her family).

As always with Waters, this film is hilarious, with touches of absolute comic genius. Undersung comedian Justin Whalin has a minor role (and a major scene) in the film, and Patricia Dunnock is consistently fantastic as Chip’s (girl?)friend Birdie. There’s a lot to recommend here, but I hesitate to go into more detail for fear of ruining the fun for those who have yet to experience the comic genius. If I had one note to give, it’s that I agree with Roger Ebert’s review of the film; Turner is phenomenal in this film (that “pussywillow” scene alone manages to be both pure art and pure comedy), but she does play Beverly with such an earnest sincerity that, at times, the sympathy for such an obviously unwell woman supersedes humor, but not always.

After all, isn’t Serial Mom the more palatable version of Female Trouble? Or, more accurately, doesn’t (Female Trouble + Polyester) – Desperate Living = Serial Mom? I’m pretty sure my math is right here. Like Dawn Davenport before her, Beverly Sutphin goes on a killing spree and ultimately stands trial for her crimes. But whereas Dawn got the chair, Beverly, lovable insane Beverly, gets away with her crimes (maybe). Dawn gives a pre-execution monologue like she’s getting an Oscar; Beverly’s story is transformed into a TV miniseries and victims of her crimes are willing to sign away their story rights. Both films are chasing a thesis about the celebrity of crime, but Serial Mom does it through the eye of someone who’s seen twenty years of growing media attention and the resultant dilution of public outrage into ironic (and perhaps unironic) antiheroism, not to mention someone who crossed the Rubicon into the mainstream (for better or worse). What I’m saying is this: you can get Kathleen Turner and America’s Darling (D.A.) Sam Waterston into a movie wherein a man gets stabbed in the back with a fire poker and his liver has to be removed from said implement comically, but not a film in which a chicken is crushed to death by fucking. John Waters couldn’t make Female Trouble or Pink Flamingos in 1994, and maybe that’s a good thing; it gave him the opportunity to tackle a similar concept in two different ways, and although the size of an audience isn’t the sole factor in determining success, it can’t be said that Serial Mom didn’t reach a larger audience. What (if anything) it lost along the way is worth the sacrifice to create a John Waters movie you can (almost) watch with your mom.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Scooby-Doo! & WWE: Curse of the Speed Demon (2016)

scooby-doo

three star

campstamp

I’ve gone on record as enjoying the first WWE/Scooby-Doo collaboration WrestleMania Mystery (the Flintstones collaboration Stone Age SmackDown was even better), but was a little skeptical that a sequel could find much more room to play around with the concept of a Scooby-Doo pro wrestling picture than what’s established in the original. The first film brings the gang to WrestleMania where they meet a bunch of famous “WWE Superstars” at the company’s biggest annual event & help solve the mystery of an improbable specter threatening to ruin the spectacle, in this case a bionic ghost bear (seriously). I expected a sequel would simply repeat the same exact scenario with a fresh batch of pro wrestlers & lazily call it a day, but Curse of the Speed Demon accomplished much more than that on the creative end. Recognizing that its larger-than-life cast of musclebound characters don’t necessarily have to live in a wrestling ring in their animated form, Curse of the Speed Demon picks an entirely new context for them to flex muscles & deliver promos in: off-road monster truck racing. The sequel to WWE’s original Scooby-Doo collaboration plays less like an animated pro wrestling picture & much more like a little kid’s imagination as they smash together Hot Wheels toys in a sandbox.

Instead of attending a second WrestleMania, Scooby & the Mystery Gang find themselves at Muscle Moto X, an impossible Vince McMahon startup that combines monster truck mayhem with dirt track speed racing. (Though, I guess if McMahon were to start a dirt track monster truck racing division of his brand, that name might not be far off, considering the long-gone XFL.) The film gets further & further away from realistic versions of what off-road pro wrestling monster truck races might look like (as unrealistically goofy as that starting point is on its own), eventually just says “Fuck it.” and indulges in some Mario Kart-type cartoon race tracks you’d find doodled in an eight year old’s dream journal. Much like the ghost bear of the last Scooby-Doo/WWE picture the proceedings here are mucked up by an otherworldly threat, in this case a literal speed demon known as Inferno, which may or may not be someone involved with the company trying to sabotage the success of Muscle Moto X. Although the wrestlers are not in their usual squared circle habitat, they’re more than willing to bodyslam & tussle with Inferno on the dirt track until the demon’s true identity can be revealed. WWE personas mix with Scooby-Doo’s harmless, trademarked stoner humor and, viola!, you have an enjoyably campy kids’ picture that captures the spirit of pro wrestling without all that pesky pro wrestling getting in the way.

Of course, as a pro wrestling fan, a lot of the fun of indulging in disposable trash like this is in seeing beloved WWE performers doing their thing in animated form. For the most part, the contributions are enjoyable, if not predictable here. Michael Cole & Seamus do their usual thing: inanely providing play-by-play & interspersing action with unprompted shouts of “Fella!” respectively. Paige bounces some of her mall goth sarcasm off the similarly difficult to read Lana & Rusev, which is an interesting dynamic that would likely never occur in a wrestling storyline. In-the-ring high-fliers Kofi Kingston & Los Matadores defy gravity in some really goofy cartoon logic. Vince, HHH, and Stephanie McMahon present a human face for the company & A-Lister The Miz constantly points to the absurdity of the whole ordeal in lines like “Another monster attack? Really?” & “Strangely enough, I’ve been mauled by a monster on a midnight jog before,” referring to events of the first film. It’s the more over the top characters who really steal the show, though. The Undertaker is especially game, gravely reading lines like “Rust in Peace” [to his deeply mourned, irrevocably smashed vehicle] or gleefully driving a souped-up, sandwich-shaped food truck & saving the day with a sausage link lasso. It actually makes sense that Taker would be in the center of this film’s story, given that the auto-performer Grave Digger is pretty much the monster truck version of the wrestler & I suspect that exact dynamic is what the film was initially built around. Taker fills the role well, bouncing off the Mystery Gang’s comedic sensibilities (with the voice of Velma now filled by half of Garfunkel & Oates, Kate Micucci, and Shaggy being the eternally imprisoned in the role Matthew Lilard), but he’s not the most interesting player in the game. That would be the Rhodes family.

I think there’s great camp value potential in WWE’s collaborations with the Hanna-Barbera brand that’s not quite fully realized yet at this third-film-in juncture. Curse of the Speed Demon finds a lot of goofy room to play with its basic “super stars & super cars” concept, like in the Michael Cole-shouted line, “Only The Undertaker could fly a sandwich out of the jaws of oblivion!” However, I think they could push the cartoon absurdity even further, as evidenced by the way the film uses the Rhodes brothers Goldust & Stardust. Because the temporal demands of production necessitate that these collaborations will be behind on current WWE storylines, Curse of the Speed Demon brings Goldust & Stardust back to the delightful heights of their absurd, magical “Cosmic Key” era of promos, which I believe was back in the late summer of 2014. Including other now-outdated storylines like The Authority (or, for that matter, the now departed from the company/galaxy Stardust and, even more sadly, the departed from this mortal coil Dusty Rhodes) is a little awkward, but the magic of The Cosmic Key silliness suggests an even more out-there kind of goofery the company could reach for, with all of the characters’ magic dust &strange hissing. At the end of my review for the first Scooby-Doo/WWE film I suggested that I’d like to see a Stardust Meets the Jetsons picture (something that’s pretty damn unlikely now). I want something like Huckleberry Hound in a New Day unicorn & rainbows cartoon. I want to see the concept pushed to the point where Hanna-Barbera characters meet WWE performers in their own strange worlds nestled in their gimmicks instead of their profession.

Curse of the Speed Demon starts to hint at that go-for-broke cartoon logic potential by giving Goldust & Stardust so much strange screen time (along with their now deceased father, which was about as sincerely touching of an inclusion as you could expect from a Scooby-Doo pro wrestling feature) & by removing the action from the wrestling ring in favor of an outlandish monster truck racing setting. I say push it even further. Much like the works of Mario Bava & Dario Argento (who I’ll admit I’m only referencing for the absurdity of it), the mysteries at the heart of Scooby-Doo are not nearly as important as the style in which they’re told, which is typically a campy take on old-fashioned haunted house horrors. There’s a lot of room for playing within that dynamic while sticking to kayfabe in the in-the-ring gimmicks of folks like Stardust or the Undertaker or The New Day or, hell, even the Wyatt Family (who I loathe to watch due to their monotonous promos, but could totally work in a haunted house cartoon). Curse of the Speed Demon finds the right tone of the cartoon-wrestling hybrid I’m describing in certain moments (The Miz putting the speed demon Inferno in a figure four leg lock or the Undertaker tombstoning him come to mind, as does the film’s basic premise, which feels like something I might’ve come up with while riding my WWF Big Wheels as a kid). It just needs a little more of a push into that detached-from-reality direction for this cartoon WWE Universe to really stand out as a memorable campy delight. As for now, they’re doing some surprisingly amusing work & I’m sure a lot of the wrestling-obsessed kids out there are eating it up, which is good enough to keep my attention for now.

-Brandon Ledet