The correct term is mockbuster (or knockbuster): a micro-budgeted, straight-to-DVD, B-movie that piggy-backs on the massive publicity of a phenomenally bigger movie. The formula is simple: look at what blockbuster movies are planned for next year, then knock out something vaguely similar in a week and a half and slap on an almost identical—but just different enough to not get sued—title. Here are some of our favorites.
1. Snakes on a Train
Most notable star: A.J. Castro (Played “Casino Waiter” on an episode of Days of Our Lives)
How does it compare to the original? Well, clearly we won’t get Sam Jackson on an Amtrak professing how tired he is of these “monkey fighting” serpents on this “Monday to Friday”* commuter. So lower your expectations accordingly.
Besides that, what’s different? Pretty much everything. Here’s how the screenwriter described the plot: A woman has been put under a Mayan curse which causes snake eggs to hatch inside of her and eat their way out. In order to recover the lost pieces of herself, the snakes, she must take a train to Los Angeles where a powerful Mayan shaman can lift the curse, taking the snakes along with her in small jars. When she gets on the train, bandits accost her and the snakes escape, leaving the rest of the people on the train to deal with them.
So, you see…wait wha-???
In a perfect example of how marketing trumps artistic integrity at mockbuster factory The Asylum, the producer asked the special effects guy to change the ending of the film to match the artwork on the DVD box, which inexplicably features an aircraft carrier-sized snake consuming the eponymous train. So, near the end, we see the cursed woman leap off the train only to transform into a giant snake and gobble up the train. Fin. It’s a finale so perplexingly inscrutable as to make David Lynch cry.
* Those are the actually dubbed lines used for Samuel L. Jackson’s famous quote in the safe-for-basic-cable version of Snakes on a Plane.
2. AVH: Alien Vs. Hunter
Most notable star: William Katt (Greatest American Hero)
How does it compare to the original? If you think AVH just shamelessly copies Alien Vs. Predator, you’re sadly mistaken. There is no Predator in AVH (because that’s a licensed property), but rather an interstellar “hunter.” Big difference. Okay, so the poster looks like some graphic designer simply took the Alien Vs. Predator poster and slapped “hunter” over Predator and called it a day, which is pretty much the case. But then you see the trailer:
See, the Aliens, who on the poster so closely resemble the Aliens in the Hollywood franchise, are nowhere to be found. Instead we get giant spiders. Also, can the Alien Vs. Predator films boast William Katt’s glorious moustache? No, no they can’t.
3. The DaVinci Treasure
Most notable stars: C. Thomas Howell, Lance Henrikson
How does it compare to the original? To say The DaVinci Treasure blatantly rips off The DaVinci Code is like saying last night’s WWE match might have been rigged. C. Thomas Howell is a forensic anthropologist, which to the Asylum’s credit, sounds less made up than Tom Hanks’ “symbologist.” Howell decodes clues found in Leonardo DaVinci’s work that might just lead to “the world’s greatest treasure.” Of course, mysterious agents encounter Howell, seeking to stop the treasure seeker dead in his tracks (literally). We even get all the requisite European locals, car chases, gun play, inexplicable explosions and just that right amount of National Treasure tossed in.
4. Transmorphers: Fall of Man
Most notable star: Bruce Boxleitner (Scarecrow and Mrs. King. And, okay, Tron.), Shane Van Dyke (grand nephew to Jerry Van Dyke and an Asylum veteran)
How does it compare to the original? As a rip off of the Transformers sequel, The Asylum zig when you think they’ll zag and make their mockbuster follow-up a prequel. Brilliant! Nonetheless, the main distinction between the Asylum version and the Hollywood version is Michael Bay’s robots transform, whereas The Asylum’s robots “transmorph.” Reminds me of the Transformers/Go-Bots toy wars of the 1980s, and we all remember how that turned out: total global nuclear annihilation.
Fortunately, The Asylum is savvy enough not to rip off Transformers wholesale. Instead, the plot of Transmorphers: FOM rips off the Terminator franchise entirely, centering on a man vs. machine apocalyptic showdown. It should be noted The Asylum also rips off Terminator in another, more legitimate knock-off, The Terminators. So it’s like a rip-off within a rip-off within a rip off. Right now some kid is writing his film school dissertation solely on that last sentence.
Interesting Note: For an Asylum film, Transmorphers: FOM’s SFX are impressively passable. Considering the film cost only $300,000 to make, it would only require a 3 million dollar return to make the movie 1,000% profitable. Michael Bay’s flick needed to make 2 billion dollars to match that kind of return on investment.
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For all its versatility, one thing The Asylum doesn’t have in its bag of tricks is CG family entertainment. What’s one to do when you want to sit down with the kids to a Pixar or DreamWorks flick but without all that irritating quality and more Portuguese?
Thank goodness there’s Video Brinquedo, the Brazilian animation studio behind such great Portuguese-language family fare as That One Movie that Looks Vaguely like Kung Fu Panda. You may know Video Brinquedo from such hits as:
5. What’s Up: Balloon to the Rescue
How does it compare to the original? What’s Up is about an old man who travels around in a house held aloft by a balloon. Stop right there. Before you say, “Yeah, sounds exactly like Up,” just wait. This old man, Dr. Crumb, is the leader of a monster busting crew that travels the world…well, “monster busting crew” kind of explains itself. Also, Dr. Crumb possesses an incredibly powerful hypno-rock that could hypnotize the entire population of the earth just with the password “lavender,” something he never forgets to mention in TV interviews. So are Dr. Crumb and his team a group of super villains? Nope, they just have a world-enslaving power object and don’t hesitate to let anyone know it.
So why do we need a balloon house again?
What happens next involves a tea-hating, drunk Frenchman, travels across the globe and Dr. Crumb’s assistant, Guto, having an adverse reaction to hypnotization and pooping his pants. Really, the entire film can be summed up in this bit of dialog:
Guto: I don't want that Chinese guy in there with my monsters. He didn't even say anything when i showed him the cookie.
Dr. Crumb: Did you try showing him a fortune cookie? That would work.
How does it compare to the original? Hey, Pixar’s movie about a culinary rat was called Ratatouille, this one is called Ratatoing. How much originality do you want? The subtlety of Vídeo Brinquedo make of The Asylum’s rip-offs look like The Thomas Crown Affair.
Or, as one critic said, "if you ate a copy of the worst cartoon you could think of, you'd still probably crap something better than Ratatoing." Which brings the question: what sadistic publication makes their reviewers watch this?
7. The Little Panda Fighter
How does it compare to the original? Take Kung Fu Panda, render it in MS Paint, then take the MS Paint version and render it on an Etch-a-Sketch. We’re not done yet. Put that Etch-a-Sketch version back into MS Paint and color it using the paint bucket tool and…jeez, that still looks way too good. Any way we can do this all on a Commodore 64?
The Little Panda Fighter is about a world inhabited by bears that all look like someone punched a jar of Play-Doh in the face. One particularly perverse panda spends an unsettling amount of time in his dank basement, but instead of begging others to put the lotion on the skin, this panda dreams of becoming a ballerina. Unfortunately, he is forced to become a kick boxer (typical panda struggle). Will he find a way to bring these two worlds together? The movie probably cares less than you do. Also, the panda falls down a lot. Because he’s fat. Comedy!