Captive State (2019)

I don’t know what the production or distribution history of the mid-budget alien invasion thriller Captive State indicates, but this seems to be a movie that no one really wants. Director Rupert Wyatt’s only major credit is a Planet of the Apes reboot released nearly a decade ago. The film itself feels like it wrapped production so long ago that it missed an opportunity to boost the screentime of single-scene actors who’ve blown up in the years since – Madeline Brewer (Cam) & KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk) to be specific. Most damningly, it’s a film that’s near-impossible to market, as it’s an alien invasion thriller that’s more interested in the political machinations of humans surviving under intergalactic rule than it is in exploiting the commercial potential of its creature-feature payoffs. A smarter, artier movie like Arrival can get away with that kind of obfuscation, but cheap nerd-ass sci-fi like this generally needs to be more accommodating to wide audiences in its minute-to-minute payoffs. As a result, both pro-critic reviews and box office numbers have been tepid for this underdog sci-fi pic, which has essentially been orphaned by its marketing & distributor. It’s a shame too, since Captive Sate is actually a solid little sci-fi thriller for anyone with an enthusiastic interest in the alien invasion genre.

The reason I say a little sci-fi nerd cred is required to fully engage with the film is that Captive Sate is much more adept at action set pieces & world-building lore than it is at dialogue or meaningful pathos. Set nearly a decade after first contact with invading alien species, the film is set in a post-apocalypse Chicago that’s politically torn between acceptance & resistance. Few characters are allowed any nuance as the film sketches out the two warring factions: a marshal law surveillance state government (represented mostly through John Goodman as a fascist brute) and an underground resistance aiming to topple it (represented by Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders as a low-level street hustler). The movie isn’t especially interested in the emotions or political maneuvers of their personal struggle, though, despite their unlikely social bond that bridges the gap between both sides of the civil war. It’s much more interested in establishing a larger “off-the-grid” future defined by analog equipment like wiretaps, reel to reel recorders, vinyl records, polaroid cameras, in-print newspapers, and carrier pigeons. Nothing typifies this old-world future better than the bird-swarm murmurations of surveillance drones that flutter throughout the city, keeping citizens in line with the threat of facial recognition tech. So much thought went into that establishment of a lived-in world and the political clash & chase scenes staged within it that very little time was left for establishing fleshed-out characters, which is something you just have to be okay with to get on its wavelength,

So what, exactly, is Captive State trying to say with all of this world-building & freshman-year Poli Sci pontification? Its major theme seems to be a contrast between active political resistance & mindless cooperation. Although the roach-like alien beasts (who feel like cousins to the space-bugs of Starship Troopers) are largely off-screen, their presence is felt in the submission & cooperation of a human government that cows to their intergalactic authority. As the film focuses on real-world issues like facial recognition software and exponential wealth disparity over defining the players in that conflict, it does appear to have a “Silence is complicity” ethos when it comes to living under the fascist rule of modern ills like The Trump Administration. It establishes a world where “You must pick a side,” having no patience for the cowardice of political apathy. More practically, the world it establishes is essentially just a playground where it can execute carefully-considered thriller sequences: the surgical body horror of tracking device removal, the heist-planning rhythms of a political assassination, a few spare moments of creature-feature confrontation, endless police chases, etc. I may have a few minor quibbles with its paper-thin characterizations (mainly, how it manages to have immensely talented women like KiKi Layne, Madeline Brewer, and Vera Farmiga on staff, but for some reason affords much more dialogue & screentime to dudes as lowly & uninteresting as Machine Gun Heckin’ Kelly than all of them combined), but I was mostly on board with the picture as a nerd-ass, overly serious sci-fi thriller. It’s just a shame it couldn’t also inspire that enthusiasm in its own distributor.

-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

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