Episode #93 of The Swampflix Podcast: Queen of the Damned (2002) & Nu-Metal Vampires

Welcome to Episode #93 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our ninety-third episode, Britnee & Brandon travel back in time to wage war with the vampires of the nu-metal era, with a particular focus on Queen of the Damned (2002), Underworld (2003), and Dracula 2000 (2000). Enjoy!

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-Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet

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

The One (2001)

The Hong Kong action cinema boom typified by explosive auteurs like John Woo & Tsui Hark saw its heyday in the mid-80s to early 90s. By the 90s that movement’s highly stylized action aesthetic had become a lucrative export, with many of its best directors being employed & imitated in Hollywood productions. By the early 2000s, it was essentially a dying art form, having given way to an entirely different style of Chinese cinema export, typified by epics like Hero & Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The Jet Li sci-fi vehicle The One happened to arrive in that too-late dead space. At the time, Jet Li was a Chinese-market martial arts star who was poised to make it big in America, but hadn’t quite gotten there yet. The film’s director, James Wong, was a Hong Kong-born American citizen who had more experience making American thrillers than anything resembling Hong Kong action cinema (having been responsible for two of the better Final Destination films). The hilarious thing about The One is the way it compensates for this late arrival & awkwardly inauthentic pedigree by making its soundtrack relevant to the time. The film attempts a slick, futuristic aesthetic within its late Hong Kong action cinema paradigm, but overloads its soundtrack with nu metal acts that instantly date it in the early 2000s: Drowning Pool, Papa Roach, Disturbed, etc. By the time Jet Li is fighting off an entire room of future-police to a remix of “Down with the Sickness,” The One blissfully reaches an ill-advised, self-contradictory sci-fi action cinema aesthetic of its own, one that only becomes more amusing with time.

There are more than 100 versions of Jet Li in The One’s universe(s), or at least there were before the movie’s prologue. As the opening narration explains, “There is not one universe. There are many, a multiverse.” Jet Li stars as both an interdimensional criminal hellbent on killing all other 100+ versions of himself across the multiverse and the sole good-cop version of himself left on the kill list. To put it in Hong Kong action cinema terms, it’s essentially his version of Jackie Chan’s dual role performance in Twin Dragons. This murder spree is frowned upon by the government of the Peoples of the Multiverse, who send future-cops hired to restrict interdimensional travel to catch the evil version of Li and sentence him to life on a dystopian prison planet in the Hades Universe. This proves to be a difficult task, as the remaining versions of the parallel dimension criminal become stronger with each kill, to the point where the final two copies of Jet Li are essentially in-the-flesh gods. The movie has more fun with this incredible super-strength than it does with staging scenes between the Jet Li doubles. In its most iconic moment, Evil Jet Li smashes a cop between two motorcycles like pancake, wielding the machines as if they weighed nothing, one in each arm. All this interdimensional mayhem builds to a climactic battle between the two remaining Jet Lis, of course, a minutes-long fight staged in what Ebert would frequently call a Steam and Flame Factory, the preferred setting for most action movie climaxes.  No one is entirely sure what will happen if either version succeeds in killing the other and successfully becomes the titular One. One character hilariously ponders, “Some people think you’ll explode. Some people think you’ll implode.” I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to report that the movie never decides if either is true. It instead ends with Evil Jet Li trapped on the previously-mentioned Hades Universe prison planet, fighting off thousands of weaker enemies while Papa Roach sings, “It’s in our nature to destroy ourselves” on the soundtrack. Incredible.

The One drops the ball in fully exploiting its deliciously bonkers premise, mostly in denying the audiences a montage of the 100+ previous Jet Li self-kills and in delaying its Jet Li-on-Jet Li action for as long as possible. It’s so fascinating as a nu-metal era relic, though, that those shortcomings are almost beside the point. Weird jokes about an alternate dimension Al Gore presidency & gratuitous indulgences in The Matrix’s “bullet time” CGI humorously date the supposedly futuristic film just as much as its Papa Roach soundtrack. Jet Li’s on-his-way-to-stardom casting as the film’s lead(s) is just as adorably dated as a WWE-era The Rock being considered for the same part(s) or baby Jason Statham being cast as his foil. There are less-fun ways that film recalls the early 2000s as well, like the casual (and entirely extraneous) transphobia or the way it establishes its future setting by tinting everything a sickly blue. For the most part, though, it’s the film’s hilariously incongruous nu metal soundtrack that makes it an amusingly dated watch. For instance, Evil Jet Li is made to be just as much of an audience surrogate badass as Good Jet Li, serving as the ultimate power fantasy; we know this early on because when he steals a car in the first act he changes the radio station away from the oldies in disgust, preferring to listen to “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor” or whatever the fuck. This dark, wicked Jet Li gets an insane amount of screen time for a murderous villain, because we’re not supposed to see him as a villain at all. He’s just a fellow nu-metal junkie who can’t get enough of those sweet Papa Roach licks, just like us. The One’s over the top parallel dimensions premise may not fully live up to the heights of Hong Kong action cinema absurdity or even the supernatural spectacle of Wong’s work in the Final Destination series, but the way that futurism dorkily clashes with its instantly dated nu-metal aesthetic is golden for a solid, campy action movie romp. It could have been great, but instead it was greatly cheesy, which is its own kind of pleasure.

-Brandon Ledet

The Icy Road from Hip Hop to Nu Metal

After watching Cool as Ice, our Movie of the Month for June, I became more interested in Vanilla Ice than ever before. He’s so much more than a one-hit-wonder with terrible pants. He actually does have talent. There’s something about Vanilla Ice that’s just so mysterious & strange and it’s pulling me in. While on my Vanilla Ice high during our Movie of the Month viewing, Brandon mentioned that Vanilla Ice dabbled in some nu metal during the late 1990s. I absolutely love nu metal, so I was determined to find out more about nu metal Vanilla Ice.

In 1998, Vanilla Ice aka Robert Matthew Van Winkle, released his third studio album, Hard to Swallow.  The edgy album cover features a mirror image of a nude woman with bloody eyes surrounded by roses. How did the creator of “Ice Ice Baby” get to this point? Well, it turns out that a whole lot happened to Vanilla Ice after his one hit wonder faded away. He got heavy into drugs (mainly heroin) and jet skiing, but he was still attempting to stay relevant in the music world. Thus, an unsuccessful nu metal album was created.

I listened to the entirety of Hard to Swallow, and while it isn’t by any means a great album, it does have some redeeming qualities.

Track 1 – “Living” (0:00): The song begins with a Jonathan Davis-like scat before very angry, violent lyrics start spewing out of Vanilla Ice, or as he refers to himself in this song, “Iceman.” It’s pretty awful, but it gets even worse at the chorus where Iceman starts to babble on in a Jamaican accent about not having control of his life; at least that’s what I think he’s trying to say. When looking up the lyrics for the song on multiple websites, majority of the lyrics were transcribed as “incomprehensible,” and that sums up this track perfectly.

Track 2 – “Scars” (3:45): The root of Iceman’s anger definitely comes out in this track, and it’s his abusive & absent father. After he says his father threw him out of a window for watching TV, I can’t help but feel for this guy. He also gives a shout out to Mama Ice for doing her best considering the circumstances, which is really sweet. His “scars” are what motivates him to be a better family man. There are so many uplifting messages hidden behind the mildly terrible guitar riffs.

Track 3 – “Ecstasy”: Nine seconds of instrumental confusion that’s nine seconds too long.

Track 4 – “Fuck Me” (8:51): Featuring vocals from Casey Chaos (co-writer for the System of a Down hit “B.Y.O.B.”), this song is a whole lot of fun and very catchy. “Fuck” is said at least every 5 seconds, so it’s obvious that he’s trying really hard to blend into the nu metal crowd. Ice makes fun of himself throughout this entire song with lyrics like “Ice ice baby, ice ice biatch” and “Fuck Vanilla Ice! He sucks! He eats shit!”

Track 5 – “Valley of Tears”: A guy that sounds a lot like Johnny Cash utters a short yet poignant phrase in this short interlude.

Track 6 – “Zig Zag Stories” (13:36): I was waiting for a song about smoking weed, and it only took me six tracks to get to it. Ice pretty much raps about smoking weed and not abusing it, so it’s almost like a liberal D.A.R.E. course. There’s a part in the song where he sings “You know I like to fly,” and it sounds a lot like when Fred Durst says “If only we could fly” in my favorite Limp Bizkit song, “My Generation.” This song came out two years prior to Limp Bizkit’s “My Generation,” so did Fred Durst rip off Vanilla Ice? Say it isn’t so!

Track 7 – “Too Cold” (19:03): Lucky number seven! “Too Cold” is the only song from this album that made it to radio. It’s a nu metal remake of Vanilla Ice’s one-hit-wonder “Ice Ice Baby,” and it’s a damn good song, at least by nu metal standards. Turning a cheesy 90s hip-hop anthem into an alternative hit really shows off Ice’s musical genius.

Track 8 – “Prozac” (22:27): Honestly, this song is pure garbage. How did he legally get away with writing a song called Prozac? Maybe it was so bad and unknown that the major pharmaceutical company never caught him? Watch out Iceman, they may be coming for you.

Track 9 – “S.N.A.F.U.” (26:55): S.N.A.F.U. stands for “situation normal all fucked up”. What is that even supposed to mean? He sounds like a clown on speed during the chorus, and I can’t even handle it. Jimmy Pop from The Bloodhound Gang lends some of his talent on this track, but it’s not enough to save this song from being a piece of crap.

Track 10 – “A.D.D.” (31:42): This is one of my favorites for sure, and that’s probably because it’s heavily influenced by The Deftones. Ice strays away from his rap rock vocals and reveals his softer, more emotional side. He, of course, has some intense rap rock moments in this song, but it’s tastefully done.

Track 11 – “Stompin’ Through the Bayou” (36:57): The next time I visit my parents down the bayou, I am blaring the hell out of this. I would’ve loved this song so much when I was an angry teen living in Larose, LA. This song was made to be played while throwing back a few beers around a bonfire and smoking a shit ton of menthols.

Track 12 – “The Horny Song” (40:21): This track was really hard to get through because it’s pretty much a douchebag anthem. I didn’t expect much from a song titled “The Horny Song,” but I hate it more than I initially thought I would. There are actually lyrics in the song that state, “All I wanna do is hump with it and make you scream, and eat you up as I floss with your g-string.” It’s just the worst.

Track 13 – “Freestyle” (44:55): C-Note, Cyco, and 2-Hype are rappers that are featured in the last song on the Hard to Swallow album. I’ve never heard of them, and while they’re not the completely terrible, they’re not very memorable. This song isn’t very alternative like the other songs on the album. It’s a trip back to Vanilla Ice’s weird gangster rap stage that occurred after “Ice Ice Baby” and before Hard to Swallow, best captured by the video to “Roll Em Up.”

All in all, Hard to Swallow isn’t really a terrible album. There are some crappy songs, but there are also a couple of gems. I will be adding “Stompin’ In the Bayou,” “Fuck Me,” “Zig Zag Stories,” “A.D.D.,” and “Too Cold” to my music collection very soon.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the Vanilla Ice vehicle Cool as Ice, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this episode of the We Love to Watch podcast that covers similar themes of artful commercialism, and our look at how it functions as a remake of the Marlon Brando classic The Wild One (1953).

-Britnee Lombas

American Mary (2012)

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Maybe the reason that the late 90s, early 00s nu metal Hot Topic mall goth aesthetic hasn’t yet returned in any significant, nostalgic way is that it never died a proper death. Not that I’d recommend the experience, but if you tuned in to a modern rock radio station, you’ll notice that not much has changed in the last fifteen years. A couple outliers like Tame Impala & The Black Keys aside, a lot of mainstream hard rock sounds like the kind of dreck I would’ve greedily eaten up in my KoЯn/Slipknot/Limp Bizkit-loving days as a wee lad. That’s partly why the half-hearted, cheap-o slasher American Mary feels so awkwardly uncool. If it were released closer to 1999, it’d be a lot more likely to deserve a former mall goth cult following like the actually-pretty-great werewolf movie Ginger Snaps. Since it was released just three years ago, however, the film feels like stale leftovers from a nu metal yesteryear. It’s not just in the shitty soundtrack either. The whole film feels like it could’ve been jointly sponsored by Hot Topic, Spencer’s, The Family Values Tour, and Ozzfest. Obviously, there’s still a market for that aesthetic, but I personally found it difficult to stomach.

The titular Mary in this nostalgia trip to a time no one misses is a young medical student who falls down the bizarre rabbit hole of performing voluntary body modification procedures thanks to a strip club named Bourbon-a-Go-Go. Unable to support herself financially while attending medical school, Mary auditions to be a stripper at Bourbon-a-Go-Go & somehow the interview devolves into her performing life-saving surgery in her fancy lingerie, a ridiculous display I suppose was meant to be titillation for surgery fetishists. It certainly didn’t deliver anything valuable in terms of gore. Shortly after this strange turn in her life, Mary is drugged & raped at a mentor surgeon’s house party (a moment that feels grotesquely out of place in what is for the most part a horror comedy) and the film then briefly combines my two all-time least favorite movie genres: the rape revenge & the torture porn. Fun. All of this nonsense eventually leads to Mary finding a second life as an unlicensed body modification surgeon who specializes in tongue splitting, teeth filing, implants, gential modification, voluntary amputation, and the like. She spends the rest of the film trying to balance this newfound vocation with the day-to-day complications of a besides-the-point budding romance & police investigation. Gore-light, gothy hijinks ensue.

To her credit, the actress who plays Mary (Katharine Isabelle, who also played Ginger in the aforementioned Ginger Snaps, appropriately enough) is mostly charming here, with her mod goth bangs & ironic, Daria Morgendorffer-style sense of emotionally-detached humor. Other female characters, including a woman who’s had more than a dozen elective procedures in order to look like her favorite cartoon character & a fetish model who wants to become as flat as a Barbie doll to sidestep sexual objectification, are equally fascinating. What doesn’t work is the grotesquely macho world that surrounds them. The film’s tendency towards a meat head nu metal aesthetic opens it up to leering lipstick lesbianism, thoroughly unsexy fellatio, sexual assault, and trashy-at-best strip teases that ruin the good vibes that a few interesting characters here or there can’t sustain on their own. American Mary desperately wants to be an ironically detached horror comedy & sometimes it works. The fact that our lovely mod goth protagonist earns the moniker “Bloody Mary” is amusing, as are other tossed-off details like an early scene where a mentor praises her surgical skills with the line, “You’re going to make a great slasher.” Most of the film is far from self-aware in this way, though, and instead drags on endlessly through macho goth nonsense sure to please every thirteen year old out there who’s still rocking studded bracelets & wallet chains, but not many others.

For the morbidly curious looking to dive into this dated aesthetic, I recommend instead checking out the somewhat-similar-in-tone Starry Eyes, in which a young actress falls into the rabbit hole of Hollywood casting couch politics. Starry Eyes is far from a horror comedy, but its earnestness earns much more interesting, bizarrely grotesque results than American Mary‘s overbearing sense of detachment. Starry Eyes has a lot of American Mary‘s nu metal posturings, but puts them to much better use, going for full-on horror instead of this half-ironic, half-brutal, fully-tepid stinker with a late 90s hangover.

-Brandon Ledet