But there's actually a Traci
Lords version of Princess of Mars produced by a company called
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
Terminator: Salvation is matched by The
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
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
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,
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
But wait, you ask - the Big Budget Blockbuster Barsoom
isn't coming out until 2012??? Isn't Asylum shooting its wadd? Prematurely
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
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
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.