There are certain cinephiles – and I’m proud to call myself one of them – who take pleasure in the savory low-hanging fruit known as bad movies. This is my seventh (and most likely final) installment in my Worst Movies series, and I believe it to be an opportune moment to discuss the semantic differences between a bad movie and a shitty movie. A bad movie invites an unintentioned hilarity. A bad movie accidentally reveals the fishing line holding up the rocket ship, spills an unlikely twelve gallons of blood from a victim’s abdomen or demonstrates an extraordinary aptitude for stilted, unnatural dialogue.
A shitty movie either sets out to be a shitty movie from the start, or else it has no pretentions whatsoever. Making a bad movie on purpose will inevitably result in a shitty movie. Take a gander at the insufferable (but sincere) madness of Manos: The Hands of Fate, an exercise in bungled horror, then sit through last year’s Sharknado. Yes, the latter is bad. But it knows it’s bad.
Sharknado, and indeed the bulk of films released by The Asylum, a film studio that specializes in ‘mockbusters’ and monster movies that pay an almost Mystery Science Theater-esque tribute to the monster flicks of the 50s and 60s, are shitty movies. It’s hard to find enjoyment in sitting with friends and making derisive jokes about these flicks when the creators, cast and crew of the films have probably already made the same jokes.
The mockbusters genre began with movies that would almost certainly fit more snugly into the ‘bad’ category than the ‘shitty’ one. Unlike the modern direct-to-cable excursions into over-the-topsville, mockbusters were legitimate attempts to ride someone else’s box office coattails into a modest profit. When The Creature From The Black Lagoon became the go-to monster epic of 1954, a couple of contract employees at Universal – one of whom was Jack Kevan, the guy who had designed the aforementioned Creature’s costume – decided to produce a knock-off called The Monster of Piedras Blancas.
A cavalcade of copycat copycats followed, including Village of the Giants after Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Legend of Dinosaurs & Monster Birds after the 1975 hit The Land That Time Forgot, and a slew of garbage sci-fi hackjobs that tumbled into second-rate theaters after Star Wars. These films were either cashing in on a fad or hoping to dupe unwitting movie-goers. In some cases, perhaps an optimistic amalgamation of both. None of these movies were good – though I knew a couple of deluded souls who didn’t care that Mac And Me was a grotesque rip-off of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial – but most of their creators hadn’t set out to fashion something purposefully bad.
Success breeds imitation. Often that imitation is astoundingly genetically inferior, and probably should have been killed in utero, but it brings in money and in Hollywood, money almost always trumps art. No one needed the 1979 Peter Lawford / Jack Palance film Angels Revenge, but droves of TV viewers had recently made Charlie’s Angels a smash hit, so the producers knew they’d at least break even.
And that’s really the goal here. No one makes a mockbuster in hopes they’ll earn enough scratch to buy a romantic Malibu getaway pad, any more than they make one in order to quell the angst-sopping shriek of their inner artist. They want to make enough to pay the bills and have a hearty laugh at their detractors. Only once has a mockbuster-type knock-off successfully out-performed its predecessor, and that was when the syndicated sitcom Mr. Ed borrowed the big-talking-farm-animal trope from Frances The Talking Mule and became a huge hit. Disney tried it again (sans the talking but with that bizarre ability to fully understand human speech) with their 1976 film Gus, about a football-playing mule. That one didn’t fly though; it just left us wondering why Don Knotts kept getting so much work in the 70’s.
The Asylum is the name of the reigning king of mockbusters today. Founded in 1997, The Asylum appears to have truly taken aim at creating knock-off clones of genuine hits to coincide with the blockbusters’ release. Their 2007 film Transmorphers (which you can watch a clip from here if you want to be thankful you haven’t wasted 85 minutes of your life) is similar to the first Transformers movie, only with crappier CGI, a plot that necessitated less building-smashing, and a healthy dose of shaky hand-held camerawork to inject an artificial intensity.
Director Michael Latt claims there is no attempt at duplicity here, only a non-subtle tie-in that happened to be released on video two days before Michael Bay’s explosion-heavy epic hit theaters. It’s all a question of where that fuzzy line of legality is drawn and how far The Asylum can lean over that line without losing its balance. They couldn’t dispatch Bilbo and Gandalf on a new unsanctioned adventure without getting sued back to the silent era, but they could create another “unrelated” type of hobbit (apparently based on Homo floresiensis, an actual human subspecies discovered in 2003 in Indonesia and actually referred to as ‘hobbits’ by the scientific community) for their film called Age Of The Hobbits. Coincidentally, their movie was released shortly before the 2012 release of Peter Jackson’s latest big-budget Middle Earth flick.
Universal took The Asylum to court because American Battleship was too similar to their movie Battleship (and probably just as awful). The film’s title was changed to American Warships. Other similar titles have been allowed to slip through. The Asylum’s catalog reads like the new release rack at the Blockbuster Video in hell: The Da Vinci Treasure, Snakes On A Train, Pirates Of Treasure Island, AVH: Alien Vs. Hunter, etc. They even dropped a version of War Of The Worlds into video stores at the same time as Steven Spielberg released his 2005 adaptation. Only The Asylum’s version starred Gary Busey’s son.
The Asylum will never be a major player among Hollywood studios, but in fairness they’ve probably got a better track record than most. Their movies never have a budget even close to a million dollars, and they generally break even within three months of release. I’m fairly confident that no other major studio can lay claim to The Asylum’s success rate of having never lost money on a single picture. They have even branched into the religious market, dropping Sunday School Musical on a Jesus-loving public just as High School Musical was at the peak of its popularity. I suspect The Asylum’s version peppered more than one disappointed kid’s Christmas stocking that year.
Lately The Asylum is becoming more known for its original, not-so-derivative monster movies, which are so horrendously awful and devoid of intricacy and intelligence they become self-parody. Here I’m speaking of Mega Python vs. Gateroid, 2-Headed Shark Attack, Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus (starring Jaleel “Urkel” White), and of course Sharknado and its forthcoming sequel. These movies will not compete with Her or The Wolf Of Wall Street in seducing film buffs, nor will they compete with The Hunger Games or Frozen as movies people will actually line up to see. But they’ll do more than break even, and given the public’s inexplicable love of Sharknado last year, they might just keep The Asylum in business for another two decades.
But let’s be clear on this – these are shitty movies. When that guy leapt into the flying shark’s mouth with a chainsaw, we were all meant to groan at how cheesy and excessively goofy that moment was. But an intended gag is seldom as funny as the ones we stumble upon by chance, which is why watching Sharknado feels hollow, while picking apart the subtle strangeness within wrestler Tor Johnson’s “acting” in Plan 9 From Outer Space or dissecting the story structure of The Room is downright delicious.
Take my advice, everyone. Dial up some cheap-ass Blaxploitation or some classic low-budget sci-fi tonight. Watch a bad movie, not a shitty one.