The Collet Effect: Visiting Jaume Collet-Serra’s Films

Director Jaume Collet-Serra is about to release his eighth film in twelve years, and seven of them have a comfy, indented seat in the thriller genre. There’s no denying he’s a busy man, and there’s no denying he’s become a trusted filmmaker within the industry. Yet, with the body of work he has, shouldn’t the phrase “hey, the new Collet-Serra film is coming out soon” be a bit more common? By an auteur’s third or forth film, he or she (and there should be more she, but that’s another topic for another time) should invoke some sort of excitement amongst us movie lovers if said auteur produces quality work. I won’t name names, but you know what I mean. So at this point you could say that it’s simple: he’s not that good to begin with, he’s just a Liam Neeson favorite, or he’s just a gun-for-hire for any studio that needs a yes man. I’ve seen these words pop up gradually over the years. And to all of that, I say: he is, it’s more than that, and hell no.

Another point brought up about Collet-Serra is that he’s a filmmaker who has gradually spent his career getting better and better. This is something that hit me because without really knowing it, I’ve been growing up with this man’s movies. Since his debut, the might-as-well-be-made-by-MTV remake of House of Wax in 2005, he’s been releasing a steady flow of films since then. And then this point was brought up sometime last year during a discussion among friends that got me worked up: what if he is the pulpy, modern-day version of Alfred Hitchcock? Despite the man’s personal line of grossness, there’s no denying the effect he has on cinema. So, I mean, is it too much to say that this theory could be accurate? Well, I spent the last few days going back to the wax house and catching up to the deadly, unnamed island, and these are my findings. To note, I viewed the following films in order: House of Wax, Orphan, Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night, and The Shallows. I did not view Goal II because…that’s about soccer.

Hello, Style

Let’s go back to the mid-2000s, where teen slashers were a burning hot commodity and Warner Bros. decided to use its Dark Castle Entertainment label to dish out another horror remake to make a quick penny. That comment earlier about MTV, I meant that. Does anybody else remember that MTV made a miniseries about the making of this film? It was the fluff you find inside of fluff. While it was busy focusing on a scantily clad Paris Hilton and boy eye candies, producer Joel Silver sought out the young Collet-Serra to helm the project after seeing his work as a music video director. And that was really it. The story of music video directors jumping into horror as their debut is a common one, and the situation Collet-Serra was thrown into was just as typical: abide by the studio, showcase sexy young actors and make it for a few cheap bucks. This isn’t new. And yet, there is something to House of Wax.

If you set aside the iffy casting and tediously indulgent script, you see some rather interesting choices made by the first-timer. There was excellent camera work, shot compositions, and most of all, an energy to every single scene that became a little more infectious as the film moved along. If this was given to a true journeyman filmmaker, this would have been one of the lamest horror remakes you would’ve ever seen, period. But Collet-Serra took a different interest in the material, rose above a screenplay full of unnecessities, and brought a clever feel to everything surrounding the generic. I hadn’t seen the movie in well over a decade, and it holds up better than a lot of the slasher films of the last two decades. House of Wax is a film given a ton of style, and yes typically style-over-substance isn’t prefered, but when your substance is dull, you can mold the style to make everything better than what it could’ve been. But the most interesting thing about Collet-Serra’s approach is that, from his debut, it’s been molded throughout the rest of his current filmography like the wax he was surrounded by during that shoot.

Hello, Mini Signatures

Every one of Collet-Serra’s thrillers all start their movies with a piece of music that is absolutely juicy. They all range as far as which has the best opening credits (Orphan’s blacklight hideousness and the errieness of unknown intimacy in Unknown are my favorites) but every single one of them start off with the perfect track to get you ready for the next couple of hours. We’re in an age of cinema where the opening credits, or hell even the start of a movie, is more underappreciated and looked over than the opposite. It’s old-school to have that passion for the kickstart into your cinematic journey, and Collet-Serra channels it each time.

And it’s not just with the opening credits. In his time spent working with Junkie XL, Marco Beltrami and John Ottman numerous times, he forms a bond with how the music becomes its own character in the beginning and end. What about the middle? I caught onto something about the middle portions of the scores in these films. See, with the beginning, everything screams Collet-Serra’s desire to welcome us all. Though they’re different pieces of music, they all have that same efficiency of world-building. The middle portions in all his films feel like it’s the composer’s free reign; their time to do what they do best and infuse their own signature musical styles. That’s pure Ottman you’re hearing during the chunk of Non-Stop’s middle beast, and Beltrami’s wonderful sense of dread in The Shallows. And by the end, it’s a beautiful marriage between the two energies. Composer and director mixing their feelings into that final track where the characters either make it or break it. In Run All Night, he and and Junkie XL fuse something together in that final shootout in the woods that’s a punch to the gut. The climatic ending of Orphan is like a damn nerve pinch that’s determined to stop your heart.

The music is something that radiates love from Collet-Serra’s directions, as does his love of the camerawork & visuals; this is something I can say 100% has evolved over the course of his career and it’s extremely evident. From a few neat tricks in House of Wax, he created a living, breathing nightmare in Orphan. From the paranoia engulfing Farmiga’s Kate to even that brief moment when Esther screams, it’s a crazy kind of bliss. As he’s progressed, different material calls for different vibes. He got it got to sophistication for Unknown and Run All Night, and with Non-Stop he had a ton of fun with the text messages and the set-up to a tremendously impressive one-shot. In The Shallows, he made an entire island feel small and worthless, and to Nancy an abyss that only leads to a horrible kind of death.

Hello, Characters

Now, even though I’ve come to admire Collet-Serra, I will say say that he’s not perfect, and neither are his films thus far. The biggest gap that he has is sometimes being held down by a bad piece of writing, a lackful subplot or even an entire screenplay. He fought like hell to get over House of Wax, struggled a bit with some of the boring parts of Unknown, but the biggest example of this is Run All Night. I mean, this film should have killed. It had a ton of the right elements but the clunkiness of the script prevented it from being a contenter (and I am a huge sucker for movies that take place during a single night). There are difficulties getting around certain scenes or even moments, and it’s something Collet-Serra is still working with as a filmmaker.

But even when the titles or moments don’t stand out, the one aspect about him as a filmmaker — and my favorite thing about him as a filmmaker — is that he absolutely loves his characters. He falls head over heels with them. Going back to Run All Night, the best parts of that film are when Neeson interacts with, well, everyone else. Collet-Serra did a marvelous job of showcasing the losing life of Jimmy Colnon, and even if the script wasn’t perfect, he wasn’t about to give up on how well-built the characters were in the film. In Non-Stop, there’s a moment where the film pumps the brakes to give Bill Marks a moment that, in real life or in any other movie, wouldn’t make any sense whatsoever. But for Non-Stop, he just made it work. Hell, I’m not even sure how he did it. That’s my point about Collet-Serra. Even in the moments when the script fails the characters, he won’t allow them to fail. He doesn’t just bring out the best possible performances out of his cast, but also out of the character. The framing, the set-ups, the beats in between to let them breathe and take everything in.

The best showcase of this is, of course, in The Shallows. Speaking as a person who will fully admit he didn’t know Blake Lively had that in her, I was beyond blown away with her performance. The collaboration of her talent and power combined with Collet-Serra’s cameras and atmosphere was explosive all over. I cried out in pain for Kate in Orphan, understood the helplessness of Dr. Martin Harris in Unknown, and hell even sympathized a bit with the killers in House of Wax. There is no denying the love he has for the people that surround the stories he tells, and it’s completely admirable.

The Next Hitchcock?

OK, look, is it too much to say that about Collet-Serra? That he’s the next Hitchcock? I’m going to say yes, and for two reasons. First, I think filmmakers should really be labeled as their own thing instead of the “next whatever” and second, if you do want to go that route of labels, then yes, because even with seven movies in, the man is just getting started. Do you know how many movies Hitchcock made before The Man who Knew Too Much? Seventeen. He progressed and got better with each project, and that’s the same thing Collet-Serra has been doing. Truth be told, I don’t think we’ve seen the absolute very best out of this filmmaker yet, and when his absolute best does hit us, we might not be prepared. Whether it be a slick thriller or a disturbed horror film, the best film that Jaume Collet-Serra will eventually give us will knock us on our ass. Until then, the repertoire the man’s given us so far has been extremely entertaining. Binge them all like I did.

HIs latest, The Commuter, opens January 12th. Enjoy.