Chapter One: Introduction
As far as professional role models go, exploitation filmmakers tend to borrow more from P. T. Barnum than Cecil B. DeMille. This is understandable. While there are certainly a number of overlooked gems in the genre (I wouldn’t be writing in this forum if there weren’t), even the most deluded B-movie producer will admit that the vast majority is, frankly, garbage. The art of the exploitation film is less in the filmmaking itself than in the canny marketing. One of the earliest masters of this art form was Samuel Z. Arkoff, whose American International Pictures set the standard for cheap cinematic thrills in the 1950s. With each of the dozens of pictures turned out by AIP and its stable of directors (including Roger Corman, who would soon become the undisputed king of the genre) came a breathless trailer and a gorgeously lurid poster to lure moviegoers. The films themselves were almost beside the point; all that was needed was enough to get that ticket dollar. Arkoff was fond of quoting an exhibitor, who once complained to him, “Sam, if we could just punch sprocket holes in the campaign and throw the film away . . . ”
The venues have changed in the decades since Arkoff’s heyday, but exploitation films, like a wild strain of virus, have mutated to adapt accordingly. As society became more permissive in the ‘60s and ‘70s, they migrated from the drive-in to the grindhouse, and posters lined the alleyways of Hell’s Kitchen. With the dawn of home video in the ‘80s, studios like Troma and Full Moon flourished, wrapping their offerings in colorful, handpainted clamshell cases with titles ridiculous enough to pry a few bucks from the bored and the curious. Today, the video stores have been shuttered, the grindhouses have been Disneyfied, and the drive-ins have been bulldozed and turned into housing developments, but the exploiteers have found a new home: the Internet.
In today’s digital age, the undisputed leader in schlocky evening-killers has become a little studio called The Asylum. Founded back in 1997 as a straight-to-video outfit, The Asylum found their niche in 2005, when they beat Steven Spielberg to the punch with their own adaptation of H. G. Wells’s (public domain) War of the Worlds. While their version, uh, lacked the polish of Spielberg’s, their bravado drew press, and they almost certainly fooled more than a few unobservant DVD shoppers. Sensing they were on to something, they began to produce more and more films frequently referred to as “mockbusters” (though The Asylum founder David Michael Latt prefers the term “tie-ins”): Snakes on a Train, Transmorphers, The Da Vinci Treasure, and so forth. Of the countless tie-ins they’ve churned out, only Age of the Hobbits has attracted actual legal attention (despite being nominally about Homo Floresiensus), the rest being tweaked just enough to stay legal. And when I say “churned,” I mean churned—in 2014 alone they cranked out 16 (!) feature films. In recent years, they’ve captured a new type of lightning with the Sharknado series, which started with a Syfy original movie two summers ago and shows no signs of stopping.
Like roughly 5.4 million Americans (!!!), I saw Sharknado on TV the summer it originally aired. But, as I suspect is the case for at least a few million of those viewers, “saw” is the operative word, as opposed to “watched.” I selected Sharknado on my channel guide, and laughed, then left the room to cook dinner, and returned to observe that, yes, there was still a tornado of sharks on my TV. Likewise, I once selected 2010: Moby Dick at a party, but it quickly receded into background noise to a game of Apples to Apples. In all likelihood, the people at The Asylum aren’t losing sleep over this; like the people suckered in by Arkoff’s posters, I had done my part. This is cinema as clickbait.
And yet, a part of my mind can’t help but wonder. There is, after all, an actual feature film behind each of those titles. These films have scripts, which were written by one or more actual people. Producers paid money to a director. These films have characters with names, portrayed by professional actors who memorized the lines. Each of these films dominated the lives of probably a couple of dozen people for at least a week or two. Surely, there must be some content—at least 90 minutes’ worth. Right?
So here’s what I’ve decided: In this, the year of our lord 2015, I, Oscar Goff, vow to watch and review every film The Asylum puts out. And this time, I mean watch: I will close my computer, put away my phone, and make a concerted effort to follow the plot and keep track of the characters. After all, these are movies and deserve a fair shake like any other.
In an effort to standardize my observations, I will note the following in each film:
FILM BEING IMITATED AND/OR TYPE OF SHARK ON DISPLAY: The vast majority of Asylum films are either bald-faced knockoffs of better-known films or about some type of freakishly mutated shark. In the unlikely event that a film does not fall into one of these two categories, I will adjust accordingly.
HAVE I SEEN THE SOURCE MATERIAL, AND/OR WOULD I RUN FROM THAT SHARK?: See above.
PERCENT CHANCE OF BEING CONFUSED WITH THE ORIGINAL AND/OR AN ACTUAL SPECIES OF SHARK: I will calculate this based on a highly scientific algorithm, which for obvious proprietary reasons I will keep a secret.
. . . AND: In a classic budget-filmmaking tradition which dates back at least to Ed Wood, The Asylum will frequently cast a handful of recognizable, but inexpensive, faces in supporting roles. These usually take the form of a faded TV star or model, an athlete or musician trying their hand at acting, or a workmanlike character actor who will never turn down a role if the price is right. The biggest of these stars is usually listed at the end of the opening credits to lend gravitas to the production (e.g. ” . . . AND LANCE HENRIKSEN”), hence the category name.
. . . And with that, I’m off. This project will either give me a fresh understanding of an oft-maligned corner of the cinematic world, or it will destroy me. Either way, I hope you come along for the ride, as I mess up my Netflix recommendations so you don’t have to!