When people look back on the horror scene of the very late nineties through the aughts, they will see that it was transitioning from the Scream era to an era that didn’t quite know where it wanted to hang. Self aware, meta horror was slowly bidding its farewell. Inbreds were slowing making a peculiar comeback. Haunted places were beginning to take a slight rise, as well. Creepy kids were becoming all of the rage (thanks, Shyamalan). Remakes begin to pop up left and right. There was one studio that was taking note of all of these horror trends, and from the beginning, decided to put them all in its repertoire.
Enter Dark Castle Entertainment. Formed under the supervision of Joel Silver, Robert Zemeckis, and Gilbert Adler, the subsidiary of Warner Bros. set out to remake the library of William Castle’s horror films from the 50’s and 60’s. The hopes and nightmares of updating the stories once told by Castle were the ultimate goal of Dark Castle, but did they succeed? In the William Castle area, only thrice, as they released three updated versions of Castle’s films: The House on Haunted Hill (1999), Thir13en Ghosts (2001), and House of Wax (2005). Other films created under the Dark Castle Entertainment banner were all originals where ghosts, inbreds, imposters, slashers, and biogenetic wonders wrecked havoc.
The majority of Dark Castle’s films were met with critical poo-poos and average audience yays, but don’t let that deter you from saying that you enjoyed the heck out of the films upon their initial releases and on your nostalgic rewatches. They are full of fun and inventive scenarios, did not shy away from the gore, and starred some of the hottest talent that was available in the late 90’s and aughts. We’re talking Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, Robert Downey Jr, Geoffrey Rush, Hilary Swank, Idris Elba, Penelope Cruz, Kate Beckinsale, and Paris … Hilton.
Not all of Dark Castle’s films hit all of the right notes which means some of the films will not make it on this list. I really wanted to include Gothika (2003) as its cast (Halle Berry, Robert Downey Jr., Penelope Cruz, John Carroll Lynch, Charles S. Dutton) should guarantee it a spot on any list, but the film just fell absolutely flat for me. A good cast and spectral possessions does not always a good film make. Another that I wanted to include was 2009’s Whiteout, but when the majority of the film was spent building up explosive promises (Blizzardcane!) only to utilize those promises very sparingly ( …blizzardcane), there was no space for it on a “best of…” list.
But which films are worthy of being the best of Dark Castle Entertainment?
8. The Reaping (2007)
Hilary Swank is Katherine, an ex missionary who uses her science smarts to debunk religious phenomena.When a small parish in Louisiana begins to experience the 10 Biblical plagues of Egypt, she’s off to do some debunking. What she gets is her past coming back to haunt her, a murder mystery, and perhaps something a little (it’s a lot) more supernatural than she expects.
I’m not normally a fan of religious horror involving a kid, but The Reaping handles it very well by not getting too preachy with its content. The set pieces involving the plagues are fun, and places out characters in precarious situations. Swank and costar Idris Elba carry the film with their friendship. Sure, the film ends on your typical “the town was behind it the entire time” note, but it went out with a bang. Lots of bangs because plague #9, fire from the sky.
7. Return to House on Haunted Hill (2007)
Return to House on Haunted Hill is the 8 years later direct-to-video sequel of Dark Castle’s first film, but don’t let that status steer you away from viewing it. It stays right on course with its predecessor’s story by picking up a few years after the murders of Price’s party. Ali Larter’s surviving Sara has killed herself, and it’s up to her sister to figure out why. That why is explained within the first 30 minutes of the film, but it’s that reason that gets her sister, her love interest, some friends, a professor, and group of criminals back into the house for some ghostly mayhem.
I like to think that Return is almost as good as the first. Extremely satisfying was the continuity that stayed on course, and the ghostly happenings that led to some extremely gory deaths. Moderately satisfying was giving the house a reason behind its insanity, some pretty fun characters, and the return of Jeffrey Combs as the ghost behind it all, Dr. Vannacutt. Not satisfying was the over CGI’d finale, but hey, they stayed on course with the first as the first’s finale had some incredibly shoddy CGI.
One of the neater additions to this sequel was that it gave the ghosts motives behind their actual murders. Before most kill scenes, we are taking back to the ghosts’ hardships and torture that led them to their ghostly ways, and they use those aspects to finish their victims. Way to meld the house with its ghosts! Cheering on murderous ghosts, that’s what this is about, kids.
6. The Hills Run Red (2009)
After viewing The Hills Run Red, I had two questions. Why isn’t Sophie Monk a bonafide scream queen? She’s willing to go to some dark places for her character, and she delivers us to those places with some pretty hardcore “scream queen” tactics to make us care for her, only to turn on us for the film’s last act, and destroy it – in a positive sense – as being a part of the baddies.
Why doesn’t Babyface, the film’s backwoods murderer, have multiple sequels under his belt? A slasher icon if there ever was one, Babyface has his own twisted backstory, a warning signal using a necklace made of children’s toys, and you can literally smell the stench wafting off of him due to the blood, sweat, dirt, and gore that covers him.
The movie has some pretty unsettling pieces that had me squirming a little bit, and others that had me giggling. It’s a hecking fun little diddy, and I wish Dark Castle had done a few more Babyface / Sophie Monk sequels.
5. Splice (2009)
Where Gothika and Whiteout attempted at toning down the gore and insanity of other Dark Castle releases with little to no appreciation from critics and the public, Splice finally got it right. It is Dark Castle’s best film as far as praise goes, and it rightfully deserves that praise. Two geneticists (Sarah Polley, Adrien Brody) create a human / animal hybrid (Delphine Chanéac) that was to be used for a certain protein to battle disease, but ends up becoming a being that manipulates the geneticists’ morales and lives.
Using a small cast, a few locales, and one of the neatest creature designs that does not get enough love, Splice slowly caresses your face before grabbing you by the neck and twisting until your head pops off at the finale.
4. House of Wax (2005)
House of Wax rests high on the list due to its authentic slasher aesthetic that wasn’t seen very much in the aughts. Lead by a cast of hot – for the time – TV and reality stars (Elisha Cuthbert, Jared Padalecki, Paris Hilton, Chad Michael Murray), the film takes just the Wax part from House of Wax (1953), and runs with it, creating its own town that is entirely made out of wax. This town is ran by two brothers who welcome visitors to their town, and have them stay forever in the form of mummified wax figures. It doesn’t matter to them if their future wax figures lose a finger or head along the way.
There’s been a little disgrace given to the film due to it not really following the plot of Castle’s original, but instead being more of a Tourist Trap (1979) remake. That’s just a small glare that does not take away from the fun and insanity that the film delivers.
3. House on Haunted Hill (1999)
Dark Castle’s baby. The one that started it all. Using William Castle’s film of the same name as a basis, it ups the anté by using some pretty macabre imagery, and set the standard for scares and gore that the majority of Dark Castle films would use.
The opening to House is genuinely one that caught many a horror fan’s eye as it promises blood, mayhem, and genuinely unapologetic beings that will rip you apart. That pencil through the neck? Brutal.
The movie itself is a funhouse with a cast and crew that seemed to know exactly what they were making. Geoffrey Rush and Famke Janssen as the titular couple who are running the party are the most notable. Their sparring spousal dialogue and energy light up (or darken) the screen every time they’re on together. Major props to the decision of making Rush’s Price an almost exact replica of original House on Haunted Hill star, Vincent Price. Worked like a charm just like the movie did.
Just be able to overlook the CGI in the finale.
2. Orphan (2009)
I like to think of Orphan as the darkest film of the Dark Castle library. In Orphan, a couple adopt a seemingly all too perfect girl, and they couldn’t be more proud. But, surprise, cause this little girl has a demented soul, a jealousy streak, and a secret so bizarre that I shall not reveal because that reveal is just too good, and must be unknown for first time viewers.
The girl, Esther, is portrayed by Isabelle Fuhrman who is the absolute reason that this film almost made it to number one. Her performance, particularly for the final act, is squirm worthy. Fuhrman was only 11 or 12 when this was filmed, and her performance as a child in horror doesn’t best Linda Blair’s demonic Reagan from The Exorcist, but it gives it a run for its money.
1. Thirteen Ghosts (2001)
And here we are, my pick for Dark Castle’s best Film, with Thirteen Ghosts. A batshit gorefest with Matthew Lillard, Shannon Elizabeth, Andy Shalhoub, and Rah Digga that shouldn’t have been able to best House on Haunted Hill for Dark Castle’s best William Castle remake, but it does in spades.
There are gimmicks galore that mirror the energy of William Castle. The house that holds the ghosts is a character in itself with its myriad of secrets, moving walls, and glass cases. The thirteen ghosts each have their own distinct look, personality, and backstory. While some ghosts are featured more than others, they all are so visually great and memorable. Sad that you don’t get to delve into the backstories of the ghosts? Check out the DVD release that has a lengthy featurette that does just that.
In trying to find something that could possibly hold Thirteen Ghosts back, I honestly failed. The film is a horror dreamscape full of movie magic from beginning to end. It is the equivalent of a favorite amusement park ride.
Having revisited the world of Dark Castle, I realized that they helped hold the reigns of horror during the aughts. There were a few duds, but as a whole, they succeed. With the success of universes being created within films, how awesome would it have been if Dark Castle would have created a universe with its film. Babyface’s next outing could have been in the wax town. There could have been a ghostly showdown between the thirteen ghosts and the ghosts of Hill House. Esther’s DNA could have been a part of another genetic creation gone wrong. Or they could remake Ghost Ship (2002) and possibly have that entire film live up to the outstanding opening of the original?
Allow me to stop insaning the insanity of the world of Dark Castle. That insanity that hasn’t been visited in a few years as their last official release was 2012’s The Apparition (2012) which was their worst received film (3% on Rotten Tomatoes). With horror making huge returns, is a Dark Castle revival among us? If so, what sort of nasties will it bring?
What Dark Castle film do you believe should be at #1? What would you like to see from Dark Castle if they were to return to the big screen? Is there another fan of Babyface out there?! Show that Babyface love on our Twitter, Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook, or our Reddit.