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

Quick Change (1990)

For years, I’ve been curious about the New York City-set heist comedy Quick Change because of a single, isolated image: Bill Murray robbing a bank while dressed like a birthday clown. Since at least as far back as Rushmore, Murray has been perpetually playing a sad clown type in nearly all of his onscreen roles, so it seemed too perfect that there was a film out there where he made the archetype literal. Unfortunately, Murray The Clown does not last too long into Quick Change‘s runtime. It makes for a wonderfully bizarre image, but the bank-robbing clown sequence is only a short introduction to the film’s larger plot. As a heist film, Quick Change does not put much stock into the intricate difficulties of robbing a bank in New York City; it’s more concerned with the complications of making away with the loot in a city that resembles an urbanized Hell. As the tagline puts it, “The bank robbery was easy. But getting out of New York was a nightmare.”

The cliché statement “New York City itself is a character in the film” usually means that a movie uses the rich, multicultural setting of the city to breathe life into the background atmosphere, usually by including a large cast of small roles from all walks of NYC life. In Quick Change, New York City is a character in that it’s a malicious villain, going out of its way to destroy the lives of the film’s bank-robbing anti-hero. In a media climate stuffed with so many gushing love letters to the magic of New York, Quick Change is fascinating as a harshly critical screed trying to tear the city down, which is an impressively bold perspective for unassuming mid-budget comedy. The birthday clown bank heist is certainly the best-looking & most impressively choreographed sequence of the film, especially in the gradual reveal that Murray had two insiders helping him pull off the robbery while hiding in plain sight as hostages (Geena Davis & Randy Quaid). The dynamic among this trio doesn’t hold as much emotional weight as the film requires it to, but they are amusingly dwarfed by the complex shittiness of a larger city that has trapped them with a never ending series of obstacles between them & the airport. Murray explains to his cohorts, in reference to the police on their tails, “Our only hope is that they’re mired in the same shit we have to wade in every day.” This filthy, crime-ridden, pre-Giuliani New York is crawling with reprobates always on the verge of sex & violence. Passersby whistle at & ogle Geena Davis and express disappointment when strangers nearly die but pull through. Mobsters, construction workers, and fascist bus drivers make simple tasks complex ordeals. Mexican immigrants joust on bicycles with sharpened garden tools. There’s a hideous, hateful side of the city waiting to reveal itself at every turn, which the movie posits as a facet of daily life in the Big Rotten Apple.

Quick Change falls at an interesting midpoint in Bill Murray’s career, halfway between the comedy megastar days of Ghostbusters & Stripes and the serious artist collaborations with auteurs like Wes Anderson & Sofia Coppola. Once Jonathan Demme dropped out as the film’s director, Murray himself stepped in as co-director (along with his partner in the elephant-themed road comedy Larger than Life, Howard Franklin) and you can see why it was important for him to hold onto the project in that way. Quick Change was not a commercial hit (despite positive reviews), but it does a good job of allowing Murray to play to his strengths as a downtrodden, put-upon cynic while still adhering to the general aesthetic of a commercially-friendly late 80s comedy (which unfortunately includes gay panic & racial stereotype humor in its DNA). A more interesting film might have held onto his birthday clown costuming for longer into the runtime, even as he struggled to escape the chaotic nastiness of New York City at large, but as a transitional piece between too radically different points in Murray’s career the movie is admirably goofy & bizarre. It even has a kind of cultural longevity in the way it includes then-young actors like Tony Shalhoub, Phil Hartman, and Kurtwood Smith among the general population of the ruffians of New York, a city the movie clearly hates.

-Brandon Ledet

The Five Most Surprising Comedic Actors Lurking in Galaxy Quest (1999)

 

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As a full-length ode to what made the original Star Trek television series such a joy to watch, you can’t do much better than 1999’s sci-fi comedy Galaxy Quest. I guess you could argue that there’s a little influence from the The Next Generation incarnation of Star Trek mixed into the film’s DNA, considering that the spoofy homage was contemporary with titles like Nemesis, particularly noticeable in the design of the space crew’s alien enemies, but for the most part it feels true to the original Star Trek run. I suspect our resident Trekkies Alli & Boomer could do a better job explaining exactly how Galaxy Quest captures & lovingly mocks the post-Lost in Space philosophical ponderings of Gene Roddenberry’s 1960s cultural landmark, but I can say for sure that it’s difficult to think of an example of an homage that does old-line Star Trek better than Galaxy Quest. The depressive black comedy Space Station 76 might come close and JJ Abrams’s reboot of the franchise might nail a few stray details, but Galaxy Quest is more or less the pinnacle of lovingly farcical Star Trek sendups.

Besides the film’s accomplishments in capturing the spirit of its obvious, but unspoken source material, what always strikes me about Galaxy Quest is the strength & likeability of its ridiculously stacked cast. The film follows the actors who played characters on a Star Trek-esque sci-fi show as they’re misunderstood to be a real deal spaceship crew and unwittingly recruited by an alien species they mistake for enthusiastic fans of the show for a real, life-threatening outer space adventure. The casting of the Galaxy Quest crew has always struck me as inspired. The sadly deceased Alan Rickman is perfectly pitched as a Leonard Nimoy surrogate: a self-serious stage actor who’s annoyed by his genre nerd celebrity, yet still wears his prosthetic alien makeup around the house as he glumly performs simple chores. Tony Schalhoub turns “phoning it in” into his own artform as an in-over-his-head engine room technician amidst a constant state of crisis. Sam Rockwell’s role as a bit part actor justifiably paranoid about dying on the mission because he played a one-line, no-name character on the show is great meta humor. Similarly, Sigourney Weaver’s space bimbo with no real purpose on the crew besides displaying her breasts is a great subversion of her resilient, insanely competent role as Ripley in the Alien series. Even Tim Allen is a joy to watch here, bringing his iconic role as Buzz Lightyear to full live action glory as the crew’s self-important ass of a captain. Once Galaxy Quest hits its narrative groove each of these crew members helplessly find themselves slipping into their scripted roles and lift tactics from old episodic plot lines to problem solve their way back to Earth, much to the delight of their extraterrestrial fans/kidnappers.

Those famous actor crew members are largely what makes Galaxy Quest such an iconic work in the first place. It was on my most recent watch, however, where I discovered that they’re far from alone in terms of recognizable faces in the cast. It’s been a good few years since I’ve revisited Galaxy Quest, which always struck me so one of the heights of easy, pleasant viewing, and I was surprised by how well both its humor & its CG special effects have held up in the past couple of decades. What really surprised me, though, was the number of familiar faces lurking behind the film’s main flashy space crew. Here are the five Galaxy Quest supporting players that most caught me off-guard, listed form least to most exciting.

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5) Enrico Colantoni

I really shouldn’t be surprised that Colantoni is in this movie because as a kid I probably knew him just as much for his role here as an alien nerd as I knew him as the chauvinist photographer from Just Shoot Me (I watched a lot of trash television as a youngster). In the years since its release, however, memories of Colantoni in the role had faded thoroughly to the point of vague déjà vu and I’ve come to think of the actor solely as Keith Mars, one of the great television dads (from the cult show Veronica Mars, in case you’re unfamiliar). Colantoni is damn funny as the lead alien kidnapper/nerd here, bringing a distinct Coneheads vibe to the performance. However, I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that I was waiting for him to say “Who’s your daddy?” at some point during the production, a moment that obviously never arrived.

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4) Missi Pyle

The eternally underutilized character actor Missi Pyle probably shouldn’t surprise me by popping up in a bit role as one of Colantoni’s alien underlings. Pyle’s career has long been relegated to supporting player parts on TV comedies & straight to DVD/VOD farces (she’s actually pretty phenomenal in her role as a drunken loser in the mostly unseen Parker Posey/Amy Poehler comedy Spring Breakdown, a part that seemed tailor made for Jennifer Coolidge). I think I was mostly surprised by Pyle’s inclusion in the Galaxy Quest cast because I had mentally placed Milla Jovovich in the role as I reflected back on the film. Her character’s space goth visage recalled amalgamation of Jovovich’s roles in Zoolander & Resident Evil and her super geeky, posi, genuine vibe in the role recalls Jovovich’s most iconic performance as Leeloo in Luc Beson’s ludicrous space epic The Fifth Element (a film Galaxy Quest resembles in a few production details, especially in the design of its alien weaponry).

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3) Justin Long

Much like Missi Pyle, Justin Long has been in almost-famous purgatory for decades, never quite breaking out of bit roles in low profile comedies while his friends & collaborators “make it big” without him. Outside a few standout parts in comedies like Idiocracy & *shudder* Tusk, he’s mostly a background player who’s asked to allow other comedians to take the spotlight. That small potatoes status is still true in his diminished role as a geeky, convention-going superfan in Galaxy Quest, but looking back I had no idea he was in this movie at all. It’s no wonder that I didn’t recognize Justin Long in 1999, since Galaxy Quest is listed on IMDb as his first credited roe, but I was still surprised to see him onscreen here, all bright eyed & babyfaced. His few scenes as the Galaxy Quest crew’s #1 (human) superfan, the kind of dweeb who obsesses over decades-old plot holes that don’t quite match the blueprints of a fictional spaceship, is more serviceable than scene-stealing, but he was still a pleasant addition to the cast. It’s a status I’m sure he’s used to filling.

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2) Rainn Wilson

In case you’re not noticing a pattern here, a lot of the more surprising supporting players in the Galaxy Quest cast are the alien kidnapper/fans that kick the film’s plot into action. Although the presence of Pyle & Colantoni caught me off-guard, what really threw me off was that Rainn Wilson was lurking among them. Much like with Long, Galaxy Quest was a kind of a career-starter for Wilson, who had only appeared in an episode of a soap opera before joining the ranks of this sci-fi comedy’s geeked-out aliens. As an unproven newcomer (this was obviously years before Wilson’s star-making turn as Dwight Schrute on The Office), Wilson mostly lurks in the background as a stealthy member of the extraterrestrial superfans. However, he fits in perfectly with his compatriot dorks & the film stands as an early glimpse at the total-weirdo energy he’d later bring to his iconic television role, as well as the strange diversity in his choice of projects, which include recent strange outliers like Cooties & The Boy.

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1) Kevin McDonald

Speaking of the ridiculous range of underutilized talents lurking in the film’s geeky alien troupe, I spent a lot of Galaxy Quest asking myself “Is that Kevin McDonald? No, it’s not. But is it, though?” while watching character actor Patrick Breen fill out their ranks as a Spock-like superfan of Rickman’s eternally inconvenienced personification of nonplussed stoicism. Patrick Breen, it turns out, is not Kevin McDonald. They are two separate people. Imagine my surprise, then, when the Kids in the Hall vet did show up in the film’s closing minute in a thankless, jokeless role as a sci-fi convention MC who announces the arrival of each crew member as they make their inevitable return to the Earths’ surface. Just when I thought Galaxy Quest could hold no more room for further casting surprises, Kevin McDonald swooped in at the last second, as if the film were reading my mind.

I guess that’s to be expected in a movie where Sam Rockwell plays a full-length tribute to the very nature of a thankless bit role actor, but how could Galaxy Quest’s casting director Debra Zane have known that all of those supporting players would eventually become such big names in the first place? Her intuition seems to have been just as futuristic as the film’s sci-fi setting and her work of gathering up all of these strong personalities is a large part of what makes the film such an enduring delight.

-Brandon Ledet