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Volume 3034
TRACI LORDS:
THE ASYLUM'S PRINCESS OF MARS


By Den Valdron
 
Can it really be true, is the former Princess of Porn the new Princess of Mars? Is the original pink lady going to the red planet? The mind boggles. But it's true!

Barsoomiacs have been abuzz the last few years over the prospect of a big budget, Hollywood blockbuster version of Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian saga. Directors ranging from Robert Rodrigues to John Favreau to Kerry Conran have been attached to it, along with a host of actors. Currently Lynn Collins is set to play the Princess, and it's set for release in 2012.


Lynn Collins: The Future Dejah Thoris

Traci Lords as Dejah Thoris
But there's actually a Traci Lords version of Princess of Mars produced by a company called 'The Asylum' for release on December 29, 2009.

Asylum's specialty is something called 'Mockbusters'. Essentially, they ride on the coattails of big budget Hollywood exploitation films by producing a direct to video film with a similar title and premise which comes out at the same time.

Thus, when King Kong gets released, they produce King of the Lost World, Alien vs Predator hits theatres, and Alien vs Hunter hits video store shelves. Land of the Lost is mockbustered by Land that Time Forgot. Terminator: Salvation is matched by The Terminators. The Day The Earth Stood Still is accompanied by The Day the Earth Stopped. 10,000 BC is trumped by 100 Million BC. And Transformers is challenged by Transmorphers. There's miles more of them, but this is a representative sample.

The Asylum started up back in 1997. They seemed to produce sincere little art house movies, and B-list horror flicks, all direct to video.  They were chugging along, having trouble competing as a small fish in a pond full of bigger fish.

And then Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise happened to them.  Actually, that's not quite right.  H.G. Wells and The War of the Worlds happened to them.

In 2005, the big studios produced a blockbuster version of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, directed by Spielberg, starring Cruise.  And of course, when you spend a hundred million dollars doing an alien invasion epic, you spend another hundred million dollars to make sure that people actually come to see it.  So ...  television advertising, movie trailers, newspaper and magazine adds, all sorts of advertorials, promotions and interviews and articles with producers and stars and effects guys, posters, postcards, internet buzz, you name it.

And of course, H.G. Wells is long dead, War of the Worlds is in public domain, so everyone else got into the act, feeding off the buzz for their own profit, as well as contributing to it.  The Wells novel, being public domain, was reprinted by at least three different publishers.  People wrote sequels to the Wells novel, updates of the novel.  There were comic books taking off with the idea.  There were revivals of the Orson Wells Broadcast, the George Pal movie, the rock opera.

And of course there were movies.  Several low budget production houses rushed out their own versions of War of the Worlds, or movies with titles or retitles close enough to maybe trade a little bit on the action.

Among these were the Asylum, which produced its own version of War of the Worlds, on what amounted to Spielberg's catering budget, but which hit the DVD stores at the same time as the Spielberg movie.  And they sold over 100,000 units, which was spectacularly more than they'd ever sold before. That's when the light bulb went off in their head.

Hollywood spent billions promoting the hell out of its mega-blockbusters in theatres and then again in DVD stores. But with some careful timing, you could produce a movie to take advantage of that.

The odd thing was that the Asylum's 'War of the Worlds' was actually quite a good little movie.  I found the Spielberg/Cruise version to be bloated and uneven, a victim of its own excess, with characters being stupidly irrational and unlikeable, and way too much shmaltz.

On the other hand, Asylum's version in many ways hewed much closer to the Wells novel in terms of spirit and sequence.  It was updated to the modern era, of course, and to an American rather than British setting.  But ultimately, much of the movie's strength rested on a solid script and good performances.  In particular, C.Thomas Howell, a rather underrated actor, carried much of the film on his shoulders.  War of the Worlds would have probably done well for them no matter what, it's simply a good little movie.  But because of the timing, it did great.

And so they discovered their winning formula.  Or if not winning, at least a viable business model.

The Asylum's modus operandi is to shoot cheap and shoot fast. CGI costs have dropped a bit which means that you can actually insert some decent CGI monsters into a low budget film.  So they like to use CGI dinosaurs and giant spiders and whatnot.

They'll shoot internationally - their Allan Quatermain movie (to accompany the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) was actually shot in South Africa and benefitted from impressive locations (but sadly, not much else).

They generally have a recognized B or C list actor, someone you've actually heard of, in a starring or supporting role.  C. Thomas Howell shows up a lot, Bruce Boxleitner, Steve Railsback, etc.

Generally, their budgets are under a million dollars. They generally make their costs back in three months.

The downside? Often, the movies are not terribly good. Thin budgets show in threadbare sets or locations, often people have to stand around and talk a lot, to pad the running time.  Or people are running back and forth, without much actually happening.  Once you get past your bankable stars, actors are the cheapest special effect, so Asylum films often have ensemble casts of amateur or semi-pro actors, who get subplots and relationships to bicker over and kill time.

Because of the very short shooting schedule and the tight budgets, what often gets short shrift are the script and performances. There's a desperate need to get it all done quickly and get it in the can. So they concentrate on just getting a shot, rather than getting a good shot, or pacing it out right.

Oddly, I don't see a lot of nudity, choreographed violence or gore in Asylum films.  Thinking back, no nudity really.  The action and fight scenes tend to be brief and the gore skimpy.  Partly, I suppose, really good fight choreography or gore effects cost time and money, neither of which is really in solid supply.  Partly, I think, because they're usually trying for a PG marketplace niche to maximize the piggyback potentials on blockbusters.  Believe it or not, one of the problems I have with Asylum films is that they're just not sleazy enough.

The result is often wordy movies that aren't terribly lively, the dialogue often lacks snap and sizzle, there's very little time to actually develop the characters, or for the actors to flesh out their performances, there's very little of the quirkiness or inventiveness that made Roger Corman's boys an enduring legend. There's little sign of genuine humour in these movies. In the end, they're generic product with little sign of becoming beloved cult films.

Let's take the next big movie of 2005, King Kong.  Their answer to it:  "King of the Lost World"  tagline 'based on the original story that inspired King Kong', with a picture of a giant gorilla on the DVD cover.

What's the story here:  A passenger aircraft crashes leaving a handful of survivors trapped in a place that doesn't quite seem to be in our reality, just like the TV series Lost.  The characters, based loosely on Conan Doyle's characters, wander about.  First, they find a mysterious airplane graveyard . . .  actually a real airplane graveyard out in the California desert and a magnificently strange and creepy location that they don't really do anything with.  From there, they proceed into the jungle, where one of them gets eaten by a giant spider, and another by giant scorpions, and another by a man-eating plant.  Luckily, we don't care about any of these characters, so it just kind of thins out the cast.  They come to an abandoned temple, with the skeleton of what seems to be a dragon.  Meanwhile, in the background, a giant ape shows up now and then.  And a Lieutenant Challenger (Bruce Boxleitner) appears with his own mysterious subplot.

Eventually, after  killing enough time and cast members, the region's native tribe shows up to capture the survivors.  This tribe consists of white, pudgy frat boys in grease paint -- it's embarrassing, it's like they recruited from a Young Republicans kegger -- worst part of the movie.  Anyway, we discover the secret food chain of the lost land.  The natives are the descendants of previous crash victims and, in order to keep the Giant Ape from eating them, they keep dragons close by to keep the ape away.  They keep the dragons close by sacrificing new plane crash victims.  Thus, the circle of life.  The whole thing ends with the giant ape fighting off flying dragons by swatting them with an airplane fuselage and the world's smallest atomic explosion.

You'd think from a description like that it couldn't possibly miss.  There's a crazed, runaway inventiveness to it all, instant cult classic.  Sadly, the best we can say of it is that its a radioactive mess of missed opportunities.  It never manages to gel or come together, never amounts to more than a series of tortured subplots, sloppy performances, and lagging pace.  Amazingly for a movie with genuine talent involved, decent CGI and a whole lot of stuff happening, the movie drags constantly.  All the pieces are there, but its as if they didn't have the time or the skill to put it together properly.

Also, the CGI ape is unbelievably crappy.  There's a reason dinosaurs and arthropods have been so popular with stop motion and now CGI.  Fur is hard to do.  CGI furry animals are incredibly difficult to do and have it look right.  So its one harsh looking ape, and even worse, its movement is terrible.  They'd have had better luck compositing in a man in an ape suit.

So if War of the Worlds was everything going right, King of the Lost World was everything going wrong.  Honestly, I kind of like King of the Lost World.  Who couldn't like a B-movie that ripped off King Kong, Lost, The Lost World and tossed dragons and giant scorpions in.  But it's the kind of like you have for a brain damaged dog.

Having said that, I actually liked several of their films: Alien vs Hunter was their answer to Alien vs Predator, and it wasn't bad at all.  Not great, but a dependable little actioner with decently drawn characters, which moved along nicely, and had an almost nostalgic 'twilight zone' type twist ending. Basically, an ensemble cast gets trapped between first an alien which is a cross between Giger's creature and a big spider, and an armoured hunter, and has to try to survive.  The downside, it's a lot of day shooting in some pretty uninteresting country farm scenery, which undermines a bit of the tension.

The Terminators is set in the near future where human-looking robots do most of the work, and then they just turn on their masters and start killing people left and right.  There are some very decent effects and make up sequences, some good CGI, and there's well done chase and fight scenes.  Again, large cast, way too much relating to each other without being interesting.  There's some plot going on.  A Battlestar Galactica visual reference twist.

Oddly, while Alien vs Hunter and the Terminators aren't the greatest movies ever made, the franchises that they rip off have become so degenerate that they're actually quite likeable in comparison. They actually got sued for The Terminators, by the way, and amazingly, they won that lawsuit.  Go figure.  Then again, perhaps the Judge saw Terminator: Salvation.

On the other hand, their forest fantasy 'lord of the rings' type movies just drag painfully. When its an ensemble cast of people we don't particularly care about wandering around in an empty forest... well, time to book the root canal work.

As for Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus....  Well, that has to be seen to be believed, and you won't believe it even then.  Actually, just watch the trailer on YouTube.  It's got all the best shots.  The actual movie tends to spend a lot of time shovelling in filler, although it's occasionally so bad it becomes hilarious -- I like how Lorenzo Lamas spends the entire movie acting like he wants to punch out his agent for getting him into this, or wonderful moments when we learn that submarines have turbo-boost, for that extra little bit of speed when being chased by giant sharks.

I can't really say that I'm a fan of Asylum pictures, though I've gone out of my way to watch most of them. I think I just admire the Chutzpah.  Or maybe I'm a fan of the idea of Asylum, and their potential to do fun and funky cult movies, but not of the movies themselves.  Or maybe I just think that someone out there needs to stick their thumb in the eyes of the studio blockbuster movies.

I mean come on -- we all remember Tim Burton's remake of Planet of the Apes?  What's worse?  A bloated studio apeic with A-list cast, A-list director, budgets in the hundred million dollar range, and ceaseless promotion down to McDonalds levels, that flops like a nuclear explosion made of fecal matter?  Or some low budget turkey like King of the Lost World, where they fell on their face, but at least they gave it a shot.

Still, what it means is that we will get to see a version of Princess of Mars in the next few weeks. So, all to the good.

But wait, you ask - the Big Budget Blockbuster Barsoom isn't coming out until 2012??? Isn't Asylum shooting its wadd? Prematurely cinejaculating?

Ah, but they're not releasing Princess of Mars for the Barsoom movie. They're releasing it for Cameron's Avatar. Their tagline for Princess of Mars is 'The Original Story that Inspired James Cameron's Avatar' based on Cameron's comments in interviews that he was heavily influenced by Burroughs.

So, Princess of Mars is an Earthman transplanted to a world of primitive aliens movie designed to ride Avatar's coattails. And with any luck, it'll keep on riding into the big budget Barsoom movie. Hell, if it works, Asylum may actually make more cheesy Barsoom movies, either from the original public domain Burroughs novels - or from similar Barsoomiads - Gullivar of Mars for instance, or Kline's Outlaw and Swordsman of Mars. Basically, if the big budget Barsoom franchise takes off.... they're ready.

This is not the first time that Asylum has mined Burroughs, by the way. They used Burroughs Caspak novelette The Land that Time Forgot as the public domain answer to Land of the Lost, and they've also done Pellucidar with Journey to the Earth's Core which is definitely more Burroughs than Verne.

So, what can we expect?  Oddly, the leads of Asylum's Princess of Mars may actually be bigger than the Hollywood film.

In terms of the blockbuster John Carter coming up the biggest names are Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden-Church, who are both well-known and quite decent actors, but essentially supporting character actors, and here in supporting roles. Beyond that, we've got Taylor Kitsch as John Carter and Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris.  Well, no offense, but who are they?  Merely a pair of Hollywood pretty faces, with no particular history.  It seems odd to me that Pixar and Disney would put so much weight on such slender reeds.  Nor is the director Andrew Stanton any great shakes.  His specialty seems to be CGI children's pictures.  Nothing wrong with that.  But let's face it, he's not a Peter Jackson, he's not a Robert Rodrigues, or even a Jon Favreau or Kerry Conran.

So its quite possible that the great big, blockbuster version of John Carter of Mars is simply going to stink on ice.  Or more likely, be a tolerable mediocrity.

On the other hand, The Asylum film casts Traci Lords, who is a rather underrated actress, and who has more name recognition than all but a very few actresses.  Antonio J. Sabato, who plays John Carter, probably has more chiseled abs than talent, but at least he's got a track record.  So who knows.

Personally, I'm not expecting a great movie.  Generally, Asylum doesn't have the budget or the time to do a classic.  On the other hand, while they've offered up some stinkers, they've also done some decent work.  My best guess is the low side of mediocre.

But you can decide for yourself.  This is the Asylum site, with the poster and a bunch of production stills.

You can also watch the trailer at the Asylum Website on Youtube

Actually, from what I can see, it's not nearly as bad as I feared. Asylum has a CGI spider package and they tend to overuse it, so I figured all the multi-legged barsoomian beasties would bet rendered as spiders. We might as well bite the bullet on that one.

And I figured the rest would be shortcuts -- so just use horses instead of thoats, have the green men simply be a version of human Tuaraeg or Bedouin, etc. They clearly weren't going to render full Tharks. I figured they'd also cheat on flyers as well.

Instead, it looks like they've opted for at least some decent CGI critters, in addition to spideroids (although they look more like Otis Kline's riding birds than 8-legged horsies). And there are actual flyers.

They couldn't do full scale tharks, but they've at least put decent monster masks on them, and from the look of some of the stills, it seems that the masks allow for the actors actual eyes and mouth, so there's a chance at a performance.  On the one hand, only two arms and not four, but on the up side, they've got tusks.  Downside, the Tharks are overdressed and I've got no idea what all those spikes are coming from their head.  On the up side, Tars Tarkas is played by a guy with professional wrestling background, so odds are he's going to be big, physically imposing, and hopefully persuasively dangerous in action scenes. I'm prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt.

I notice that the IMDB credits have a "maggot puppet supervisor."

And there are some pretty decently epic looking visuals.  Scenes of Dejah Thoris, of Martian temples and skylines, All of this is good news.  Traci Lords is an underrated but capable actress, and she looks good in a bikini.  A blonde Dejah?  Oh well.  Antonio Sabato Jr. looks kind of like a beefcake lunk, and in some of the trailer's shots, we flash back uncomfortably to the old Steve Reeves' Hercules movies.

The downside? Well, the Asylum teaser trailer looks good. But often the Asylum puts all the best parts into a trailer and then pads the movie out with tedious filler. Check out the trailer for Mega-Shark vs Giant Octopus and then watch the movie itself. So you have to be careful.

Still, we have to acknowledge that the original story was a classic ripping good adventure. Perhaps even the Asylum can't screw that up. So who knows.

Anyway, it'll give us something to watch, and something to talk about waiting for the big movie.

And who knows, it raises an interesting possibility. Princess of Mars, and the first few Barsoom novels are clearly in Public Domain, or could probably be had cheaply. As is Gullivar of Mars, and likely other early Barsoomiad's, Pope's Journey to Mars, Tolstoy's Alita of Mars, LaRouge's Prisoner of Mars, as well as Otis Kline's own classics.

Remember when Steven Spielberg was making his 'Lost World', and a host of smaller and international production companies pushed out four or five different versions of the public domain Conan Doyle story. Or how there were a handful of versions of Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth.

It's possible that we may be seeing a lot more of John Carter and his pals than just Hollywood's designated golden goose.


THE ASYLUM FILMS: A REFERENCE GALLERY


Princess of Mars:
IMDB | Wikipedia | Asylum

King of the Lost World:
IMDB | Wikipedia | Asylum

AvH Alien vs Hunter:
IMDB | Wikipedia | Asylum

The Land That Time Forgot:
IMDB | Wikipedia | Asylum

The Terminators:
IMDB | Wikipedia | Asylum

The Day the Earth Stopped:
IMDB | Wikipedia | Asylum

100 Million BC:
IMDB | Wikipedia | Asylum

Transmorphers:
IMDB | Wikipedia | Asylum

Allan Quatermain and the Temple of Skulls:
IMDB | Wikipedia | Asylum

War of the Worlds 2:
IMDB | Wikipedia | Asylum

Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus: 
IMDB | Wikipedia | Asylum

Journey to the Center of the Earth: 
IMDB | Wikipedia | Asylum


Visit ERB, Inc.'s Official Princess of Mars and John Carter of Mars Sites
www.barsoom.com
mirrored at:
www.princessofmars.org
www.johncarterofmars.org
www.johncarterofmars.ca

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