“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” or so the saying goes. However, there’s nothing sincere about these ten direct-to-DVD mockbusters. In fact, each release is the height of cinematic laziness: artless, disposable and, typically, rushed out ahead of a big-screen counterpart in an attempt to grab some expected blockbuster gold dust.
The mother of mockbuster makers is indisputably California-based studio The Asylum, whose back catalogue reads like a collection of cinematic detritus that would be most at home in DVD bargain bins. According to co-founder David Michael Latt, the company’s business model is based on its “perception” of what will hit it big at the box office; though mainly, he says, it’s determined by buyer demand.
And while legal wranglings inevitably arise, it’s a model that works. Countless well-meaning shoppers of a certain age have likely consigned themselves to doddery grandparent status by mistakenly picking up releases such as What’s Up: Balloon to the Rescue and Disney-angering rip-off Frozen Land, adding to the coffers of companies like The Asylum as they go.
10. Atlantic Rim (2013)
Onetime Baywatch favorite David Chokachi left the warm waters of California and headed east to star in this thinly veiled sci-fi knockoff. Hilariously, all The Asylum did to tweak the title of its $500,000 spin on Guillermo del Toro’s $190-million 2013 blockbuster, Pacific Rim, was transplant the action from America’s west coast to its colder eastern seaboard. Adding insult to injury, thanks to its four-week production time, Atlantic Rim came out just three days before del Toro’s film did in the U.S. In the direct-to-DVD version, monsters hatch deep under water and head for the surface; and the only defense is a trio of giant Power Ranger-like robots – Red, Blue and Green in color – operated by U.S. military robot pilots. Better yet, somehow booze-guzzling “reckless liability” Red (Chokachi) is the country’s greatest hope.
9. Iron Hero/Metal Man (2008/2010)
This rip-off’s backstory only adds to its dubious appeal. Originally titled Iron Hero, the film was first released in 2008, the same year that Iron Man hit screens. Then in 2010, to coincide with the unveiling of Iron Man 2, distributor Midnight Releasing shamelessly repackaged the flick and re-issued it as Metal Man. As for the plot, it revolves around college student Kyle Finn (Sam Hoffmire), who lands a job assisting biomechanical engineer Dr. Arthur Blake (Reggie Bannister). Kyle agrees to demo Dr. Blake’s pet project, a superpower-granting metal battle suit. However, power-hungry arms dealer Sebastian Reed (P. David Miller) – who plans to sell the suit as a supreme war weapon – brutally murders the doctor. Kyle finds himself trapped in the suit, although he ultimately works out the kinks and goes toe-to-toe with Reed and his minions, who try to get that oh-so-familiar-looking armor back.
8. AVH: Alien vs. Hunter (2007)
Released in 2007, a week before blockbuster sequel Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, The Asylum’s AVH: Alien vs. Hunter was nothing short of a disaster to make – as well as to watch. According to website Dread Central, which quotes an anonymous studio insider, director Scott Harper habitually turned up on set two hours late and messed around on his cellphone, leaving his assistant directors to handle the scenes. Apparently, he’d also occasionally demand to see additional takes of a shot that the crew had only filmed once, before ranting about how much of an improvement the second takes were – when he’d actually just been shown the original takes again. As far as the plot goes, an alien and a mechanical-looking “hunter” crash land on Earth and wreak havoc while a bunch of inept humans – including one played by Michelle Pfeiffer’s sister Dedee – stage a guerilla intervention. It all sounds so strangely familiar.
7. The Da Vinci Treasure (2006)
The Da Vinci Treasure is another straight-to-DVD release from The Asylum that shamelessly latched onto a Hollywood blockbuster host like some kind of low-rent suckerfish. This time the host in question was Ron Howard’s 2006 big-screen adaptation of Dan Brown’s best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code. Also unveiled in 2006, The Da Vinci Treasure follows the adventures of Michael Archer (C. Thomas Howell), a forensic anthropologist. Archer travels the Earth, attempting to crack a complex puzzle concealed in Leonardo Da Vinci’s creations, with the treasure of the film’s title said to be able to transform Christianity and the world. Hence, we’re not a million miles from the original. Interestingly, bona fide actor Lance Henriksen – recognized for his roles in Aliens and The Terminator – adds a little bit of legitimacy to the whole production as cutthroat rival treasure hunter Dr. John Coven.
6. American Battleship/American Warships (2012)
Even major Hollywood flops – in this case an estimated $220 million bomb – aren’t spared the indignity of The Asylum’s straight-to-DVD knockoff shenanigans. After all, as company co-founder David Michael Latt has explained, “We look at the genre, our perception of the box office, and how we feel it will be received in the general marketplace, but primarily it’s dictated by our buyers.” No doubt, then, that 2012 sci-fi extravaganza Battleship seemed like a banker: explosions, aliens, Rihanna, Brooklyn Decker. Check, check, check and check. Initially titled American Battleship, until legal action forced The Asylum to rename it American Warships, Battleship’s small-budget – but perhaps ultimately more profitable – 2012 imitation stars onetime box office heavyweight-of-sorts Carl “Apollo Creed” Weathers. And much as in the original, the plot involves a hulking battleship that defends Earth against an alien invasion.
5. The Day the Earth Stopped (2008)
In 2008 20th Century Fox released a remake of 1951 sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still. On cue, The Asylum rushed out a direct-to-DVD equivalent three days ahead of the big-screen reboot’s U.S. release date. Of course, The Asylum’s production costs were considerably lower than 20th Century Fox’s, so as a result, instead of Keanu Reeves, The Day the Earth Stopped features regular Asylum collaborator C. Thomas Howell – who also directed the film – and onetime The Breakfast Club star Judd Nelson. As for the plot, 666 giant space robots alight on Earth, while a mysterious naked redhead (Sinead McCafferty) is found in woods fringing Los Angeles. The predictably gorgeous she-alien explains that the motionless robots are transmitting sound waves that will cause the planet’s center to cease spinning, ultimately wiping out humanity as punishment for its ruinous behavior.
4. Android Cop (2014)
Released eight days before 2014 Hollywood studio reboot RoboCop, The Asylum’s low-budget, coattail-riding equivalent, Android Cop, downgrades – perhaps for legal reasons – its eponymous character to sidekick status. The year is 2045, and technophobic L.A.P.D. detective Hammond (Michael Jai White) and his latest partner, Android Cop, a.k.a. “Andy” (Randy Wayne), infiltrate The Zone – a forbidden, lawless part of Los Angeles filled with vagrants, mutant cannibals and crime bosses. Together, the unlikely duo uncovers a sinister government plot involving coma victims on life support and the covert transfer of their consciousnesses to android avatars. Along the way, Hammond – whose old partner was killed by a malfunctioning sentry gun at The Zone’s perimeter – realizes he can trust his new mechanical buddy, and Android Cop, in turn, discovers his humanity. Sweet.
3. Transmorphers (2007)
Transformers director Michael Bay caused a scene at CinemaCon 2013 when he slammed so-called “robot rip-off” films. It’s probably safe to assume, then, that Bay wouldn’t recommend The Asylum’s 2007 mockbuster Transmorphers, which was released on DVD a week before Transformers hit U.S. theaters. Set on a dystopian Earth, the movie features a horde of part-biological, part-machine alien robots that have taken over the planet, driving humans to live beneath the surface. Thankfully, a clutch of rebels hatch a plan to overthrow their alien overlords. Less fortunately, possibly limited by the film’s low budget, the Transmorphers aren’t particularly prolific when it comes to morphing. Oh, and there are various technical issues: think silent explosions and badly dubbed dialogue. Amazingly, perhaps, Transmorphers spawned 2009 sequel, Transmorphers: Fall of Man – brought out, predictably, to overlap with Bay’s follow-up, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
2. Snakes on a Train (2006)
There was perhaps only ever one plot option when it came to The Asylum’s 2006 Snakes on a Plane-piggybacking release, Snakes on a Train – after all, “Snakes on a Crane” probably wouldn’t have quite the same measure of suspense. Released, like its big-screen counterpart, in mid-August, the low-budget mockbuster features killer snakes wreaking havoc on, yes, fast-moving public transport. However, Snakes on a Train turns out to be even schlockier – something of an achievement in itself – by adding a bizarre paranormal element. Here, a young Mexican couple steal onto a train heading to Los Angeles, hoping to meet a shaman capable of undoing the curse that stowaway Alma (Julia Ruiz) has been inflicted with – a particularly nasty symptom of which is her harboring poisonous snakes inside her body. Naturally, these snakes escape, to much alarm; supernaturally, Alma ultimately turns into a humongous serpent before devouring the entire train.
1. Allan Quatermain and the Temple of Skulls (2008)
One way to navigate the treacherous legal terrain of mockbuster moviemaking is to take a step back chronologically and jeer at the potential accusers. “From the story that inspired Indiana Jones,” reads the cover of The Asylum’s 2008 direct-to-DVD release that is Allan Quatermain and the Temple of Skulls. And perhaps this ingenious idea gave the studio the chutzpah to blatantly steal the Indiana Jones font and approach to titling, not to mention release its knockoff – which cost approximately $50,000 and came to light almost a month earlier than Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull appeared in U.S. theaters. What’s more, The Asylum’s Allan Quatermain (Sean Michael) is a whip-wielding Indiana Jones clone far removed from the original older-looking, bearded protagonist created by H. Rider Haggard in literary form. Plot-wise, the movie’s Quatermain agrees to lead two siblings around South Africa in search of their absent brother and the lost treasure of King Solomon.