Great minds think alike, the saying goes. Well, replace the word “great” with “Hollywood” and, not surprisingly, it still applies. It also explains why every so often the studios come out with similarly-themed movies within a few months or so of each other: 1997 gave us the parallel lava stories Dante’s Peak and Volcano, while the following year featured dueling insect cartoons Antz and A Bug’s Life along with twin asteroid actioners Armageddon and Deep Impact. Beyond these apparent acts of coincidental scripting, of course, are the copycat pictures that try to ride the coattails of a hit film (From horrormeister William Castle’s 1961 pseudo-Psycho shocker Homicidal and the 1977 Jaws rip-off Orca from Dino De Laurentiis to the various failed attempts at creating a Harry Potter-like fantasy series in the past decade, for example). In the world of home video, one company has taken these various practices to new levels of…if not originality, let us say focused creativity…and in the process raised the bar for the industry in the field of the “high-concept” (able to be summed up in one quick sentence) movie.
Founded in 1997 and focusing mainly on making/distributing horror and sci-fi films for the direct-to-video (this was way back in the days of VHS, kids) market, the California-based studio known as the Asylum has become famous–some might say infamous–for the roster of “mockbusters” it’s released in the last several years. Stacie Ponder, author of the marvelous Final Girl blog, once referred to them as “the Designer Imposter Fragrances of the movie world.” In a 2007 New York Times article, Asylum co-founder David Michael Latt talked about how he and his partners discovered their formula for home cinema success by sheer chance two years earlier, when their own modern-dress adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, starring C. Thomas Howell, became a hit in video stores at the same time the big-budget Steven Spielberg version was playing in theaters. Latt and company would even go Spielberg one better and come up with a sequel, War of the Worlds 2: The Next Wave, in 2008.
That got the ball rolling, and–in the spirit of such B-film pioneers as Roger Corman and Samuel Z. Arkoff–the Asylum gang have continued to create films with eye-catching artwork that will remind would-be viewers of more mainstream Hollywood product, even if it probably won’t fool anyone into thinking they’ve about to watch the better-known movie. If you’ve already seen Naomi Watts juggling to amuse King Kong enough times (and really, who hasn’t?), why not try King of the Lost World with Bruce Boxleitner, which managed to work a giant simian into Arthur Conan Doyle’s story of prehistoric beasts in the Amazon jungle? If you think Samuel L. Jackson has his hands full battling snakes on a plane, come back to earth and marvel as a Mayan curse forces a woman to unleash Snakes on a Train! And why go back in time to a mere 10,000 B.C. when you can travel all the way back to 100 Million B.C.–and get Christopher Atkins, Greg Evigan, Michael Gross and a tyrannosaurus rex to boot?
Want more? Howell returns from fighting Martians to save the planet when aliens place giant robots in world captials and prepare to pass judgement on humanity in The Day the Earth Stopped. That’s “stopped,” mind you, not “stood still.” Meanwhile, the last surviving human on a post-apocalyptic Earth battles monstrous mutations in…no, not I Am Legend with Will Smith, but I Am Omega with Marc Dacascos, which works a salute to Charlton Heston’s earlier The Omega Man in its title. The Transformers and Terminator franchises got tossed into the company’s pop culture blender, and the results were the mechanized sci-fi spectacles Transmorphers and Transmorphers: Fall of Man, not to mention the similar but unconnected The Terminators. And what happens when the world’s most famous (and public domain) detective takes on a metal-armored foe and dinosaurs in the heart of Victorian London? You get Sherlock Holmes, Asylum style, with Ben Snyder in lieu of Robert Downey, Jr.
As intriguing as these “tie-in” titles may be, the good folk at Asylum have also managed to excel with some slightly more original tales, the apotheosis of which was 2009’s Mega Shark versus Giant Octopus. In my review of MSVGO last summer I gave the filmmakers kudos for…well, just making a film with the title Mega Shark versus Giant Octopus, as well as for the classic scenes where the shark jumps out of the water to take a bite out of the Golden Gate Bridge and munches on a passenger jet (in mid-air!). And what can you say about a movie whose cast includes ’80s pop singer Deborah Gibson as a marine researcher and ’90s TV icon Lorenzo Lamas as a gruff-talking government agent? Well, here, go look at my review and see what I said.
Never one to rest on their laurels, the studio comes back this month with–wait for it–Megapiranha! That’s right, this time the piscatorial terror comes from South America, as massive mutated pirnaha bite, chew and chomp their way from South America up to the Florida Keys. Gibson’s scientist must be on assignment this time out, because the studio went and found the next most logical person to fill her shoes: fellow mall chanteuse Tiffany. As for the role of the government official, that now goes to another TV Land favorite, eldest Brady Bunch son Barry Williams. Sadly, though, I have to report that the scale of the Megapiranha to battleship on this box cover is (surprise!) a tad inaccurate. Truth be told, it takes several of the feisty fish to bring down a Navy ship…and a submarine…and helicopters, but with an Asylum movie, scale or even believability are not factors that one should allow to get in the way of one’s cheesy movie enjoyment. And this time, the filmmakers managed to get their project out well in advance of its theatrical counterpart, this summer’s Piranha 3D.
When Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith and Mary Pickford teamed up to form United Artists in 1919, a Hollywood executive was quoted as saying, “The inmates are taking over the asylum”. The people behind this Asylum may not be inmates, but they are crazy like a fox when it comes to carving out their own unique, low-budget, and strangely entertaining niche in the motion picture landscape.