Welcome to The Asylum: Settle right in

May 17, 2011

Did you happen to catch the new “Thor” movie on SyFy network last weekend?

That’s right, the all-new “Thor” motion picture was screened on cable just last weekend. But don’t look for the gravitas of Anthony Hopkins or Natalie Portman, the visual panache of Kenneth Branagh, or even the budget and talent of a middle school stage play.

You see, this is "The Almighty Thor," the latest cash-grab from a production outfit known as The Asylum.

The production company pays its bills by churning out quickie straight-to-video flicks, with titles and covers altered just enough to dupe the casual browser, then usually piggybacks the film’s release to siphon off cash from the of-the-moment films. It has been credited with creating the “mockbuster.”

Some examples of its titles include:

• “King of the Lost World,” released the same year as “King Kong”

• “H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds,” released the same year as Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds”

• “Pirates of Treasure Island,” released the same year of “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”

• “Snakes on a Train,” released...well, duh!

• “Transmorphers,” released the same year as “Transformers”

•  “I am Omega,” released the same year as “I am Legend”

• “The Day the Earth Stopped,” released the same year as “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (which landed the company with a lawsuit threat)

• “Paranormal Entity,” released the same year as “Paranormal Activity”

• “Battle of Los Angeles,” released within months of “Battle: Los Angeles”

In the world of competitive racing, there’s a term known as drafting, in which one competitor will race directly behind another to save energy, saving it for a sprint to the finish. But Asylum has no aspirations (or budget, or talent) to exert such energy to take the lead. The company members are completely comfortable coasting behind, happy for any small advantage they can gain from following the leader.

Instead of names like Johnny Depp, Will Smith, Keanu Reeves and Tom Cruise, Asylum flicks are populated with marquee power like ‘80s teen queens Debbie Gibson and Tiffany, Richard (“21 Jump Street”) Grieco, Barry (“The Brady Bunch”) Williams, and C. Thomas Howell.

Instead of intricate storylines and casts of hundreds, Asylum releases usually skew toward more tawdry tales (hello, random sexy lesbians in “Transmorphers”) and feature casts consisting of whoever is wandering around the lot during production.

And instead of the groundbreaking special effects found in a typical Hollywood epic, these inbred cinematic cousins display all the technical proficiency of an old Atari game.

Since its inception as a production company in 1997, The Asylum had been eking out an existence on the lower rungs of the horror ladder. But in 2005, the company decided to squeeze out a version of “War of the Worlds,” based on H. G. Wells’ book, which was in the public domain. It was dumped on video within days of the highly anticipated Spielberg adaptation that summer, and, thanks to a hefty order of the film from then-rental giant Blockbuster, the studio realized its winning formula of being remoras to the studios’ big sharks.

In a 2009 interview with The New York Times, Asylum founder Michael Latt said, “I'm not trying to dupe anybody. I'm just trying to get my films watched. Other people do tie-ins all the time; they’re just better at being subtle about it.”

Carrying budgets that are typically well under $1 million, made within months, featuring a mix of unknown and past-their-prime actors, and Asylum films typically quickly recoup their costs, according to Latt.

But Asylum does not limit slumming to just the horror and sci-fi aisles. It has its mind in the gutter (“18-Year-Old Virgin,” “Sexpot”), in the clouds with its religious division that produces such films as “Sunday School Musical,” and, at times, seems to have lost it altogether (“Titanic II,” “2010: Moby Dick”).

They also seemed to have cornered the modern-day mutated seafood genre as well, with flicks like the unabashedly named “Mega-Piranha,” “Supercroc,” “Mega-Python vs. Gatoroid,” and “Mega-Shark vs. Crocosaurus.”

So why would anyone want to purposefully sit through these bottom-feeding, cinematic stinkbombs? Well, there is a roguish charm to their “Hey! Let’s make a movie!” attitude, and when mixed with acting on the level of an automated GPS car device, it makes for an enjoyable evening of audience-participation cinema with the right group of friends.

And while the theatrical “Thor” may have the prestige of Hopkins, Portman, and Branagh, you will not get to see Thor brandish an Uzi or battle dragons in a Los Angeles strip mall parking lot. That kind of detail can only come from the mad minds at The Asylum.

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