We’ve all been there: cruising the algorithm-based Netflix Watch Instantly page on any given evening, searching for something decent to watch. Let’s see, you’ve got your instant queue, filled with all the Fellini, Godard, and Truffaut that you didn’t bother watching back in college when you were still young enough to speak really seriously about auteur theory (they’ve been in your queue for half a decade). You’ve got the “Top Ten for You” section, which is some kind of bastard child born of the unholy coupling of the action and 18th century costume drama genres. You’ve got the “Popular on Netflix” row consisting of all the good stuff that everyone’s already seen. Then you’ve got the wildcards, the stuff like “Dark Romantic 20th-Century Period Pieces Featuring that One Guy With the Hair” or “Because You Watched My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, We Figured You’d Like to Check Out Some Imaginative Foreign Sci-Fi Movies Subtitled in Yet Another Foreign Language.” Somewhere in that bizarre pit of randomness, you’ll find the Asylum mockbusters.
The Asylum is the studio responsible for all those straight-to-DVD movies with titles and cover art eerily similar to those of popular blockbusters. Their stuff usually pops up on Netflix, and presumably in video stores, around the time their big-budget counterparts hit theaters, the better to dupe the oblivious film goer. According to Wikipedia, a typical Asylum production goes from concept to finished product within four months, costs under a million dollars, and never loses the studio any money. I would usually brush right by these offerings when browsing Netflix, but one day my husband fell victim to their ruse and put Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies on our queue, mistaking it for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Before dismissing it entirely, I read through some of the user reviews, which made it sound more like a classic B movie rather than a blatant cash grab. I thought I might as well give it a shot.
How was it? Read on to find out, but obviously I went ahead and watched several more of The Asylum’s offerings in the interest of exploring their particular brand of camp. Fair warning: there are light spoilers below, so avoid this article if you’ve been dying to see Transmorphers, Paranormal Entity, Snakes on a Train, Princess of Mars, or the aforementioned Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies.
Sci-fi action movie or ReBoot the animated series?
Transmorphers was the first Asylum picture I noticed floating around the Netflix netherworld, mainly because the artwork is so close to the real thing that it nearly fooled me. Ironically, it’s less a knock-off of Transformers and more a poor man’s Battlestar Galactica seasoned with a dash of The Matrix.
Alien machines have decimated Earth’s population, and now the human survivors live beneath the surface in a very Zion-y city. They decide to revolt against the machines when the titular villains “cross the line,” literally and figuratively. There’s a Starbuck-type, a Boomer-type, and a Neo-type. They wear leather jackets and call their commanding officers “sir,” even the ladies. I’m really shocked no one slipped a “frak” in there.
The acting is not uniformly great. That’s the last time I’m going to write that sentence in this article, because you may as well assume that’s a given with all of these movies. The British Neo-type guy, Warren Mitchell (Matthew Wolf), is pretty good. If you check him out on IMDB you’ll see he’s actually got quite a few credits, including voicing “Hired Thugs” in Uncharted 3. See? You’re already familiar with his work. Also, Matthew Wolf? Do you think his name is really Matthew Fox and he had to change it for SAG?
Oh yeah, there’s a lesbian subplot that’s really weirdly shoehorned into the story. But that partially provides the reason I kept watching. I have never seen so many women in a sci-fi actioner (excepting BSG). I feel like it was nearly a 50/50 split, which was both awesome and true to life besides.
Hey look, Jean-Luc Godard makes a cameo! Not really, but how great would that be thematically for my article?
This is so close to the form, style, content, and even the sound design of Paranormal Activity, it would be easy to think you had seen the real thing. You’d probably even be able to carry on a conversation with someone who had seen the source material for a good ten minutes before realizing you were talking about two different movies.
Paranormal Entity focuses on a family of three (a mother and two siblings) instead of a couple, but they’re also being terrorized by a demon who likes slowly opening doors and leaving footprints all over the house, and they also seek the help of a perpetually MIA psychic.
The three leads are all decent, especially the brother, who happens to be the writer, director, and handheld cameraman. It definitely delivers on the creep factor, though the night vision doesn’t look as scary as PA‘s version. I liked the backstory about the recently deceased family patriarch, the initial explanation for the (ahem) paranormal activity. The demon actually toys with this notion, supernaturally making the phone ring in the middle of the night until the answering machine picks up (dad’s voice is the outgoing message), and using the father’s ashes to leave his footprints on the ceiling. Oh yeah, this demon walks on the ceiling, not the floor. Totally different.
I wasn’t a huge fan of the demon as incubus. The idea of being raped by an invisible evil is truly terrifying, but it seemed to be a cheap ploy for gratuitous nudity.
Snakes on a Train
If these graphics make you want to skip this movie, you might have generally good taste.
I actually hadn’t seen Snakes on a Plane before deciding to see Snakes on a Train, so I made sure I did before writing this article. That was totally unnecessary. Other than the pun-y title and the idea of snakes being trapped with passengers on a mode of public transportation, this has nothing to do with Snakes on a Plane.
There’s a woman who’s been cursed with the world’s worst stomach bug (constantly puking snakes), and her boyfriend (husband?) has an uncle shaman with a counter curse somewhere in Los Angeles. They hop aboard an LA bound train, and you can probably imagine a better version of the story while you accurately guess where this is going.
This is one for straight up hate-watching. Get some friends together, order in some Mexican takeout, make a few batches of sangria, and loudly make fun of this until someone pukes snakes. By the time the cursed woman herself turns into a giant snake (?!) and actually swallows the train, you’ll be deep in a conversation about whether or not this is a B movie or a C movie, since it can rightly be argued that Snakes on a Plane is firmly in the B camp. Then you’ll discuss whether the title should have been Train in a Snake.
Great gore scenes, though!
Princess of Mars
Ladies and gentlemen, Traci Lords in an imitation Slave Leia bikini.
I actually really dug John Carter, so I was looking forward to watching The Asylum’s version of his adventures on Barsoom. Imagine my surprise when I learned this version predated Disney’s by three years, which means it’s really just a straight adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough’s 1917 novel.
Carter, played by Antonio Sabato Jr., is updated here as a soldier in the Afghan war instead of the American Civil War, which I thought was a fairly clever way to keep the frame story fresh. After suffering injuries in the line of duty, a couple of infirmary doctors stand around him yapping about some “teleportation experiment” while he slips in and out of consciousness, then boom: suddenly he’s leaping around like a lunatic on Barsoom.
Antonio Sabato Jr. is terrible, but this is the closest I’ve seen The Asylum get to actually capturing that so-bad-it’s-good B movie magic. I especially loved a sequence near the beginning with giant ants that brought back fond memories of Them!.
Some of the Martian vistas are actually quite beautiful, and the makeup for the Tharks is appealingly Whovian.
Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies
L to R: The daughter of a prostitute Lincoln secretly loves, the 16th President of the United States, the 26th President of the United States.
By far my favorite of The Asylum’s “tie-ins” (as the studio prefers to call them), Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies is nearly as fun as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Bill Oberst Jr. makes a fantastic Lincoln, no lie. He also carries around a Swiss Army scythe in his long black coat, and dispatches zombies with great (bad) one-liners like “Emancipate this!”
Lincoln is in the middle of writing his Gettysburg address when he gets word of a soldier suffering a mysterious illness. He happens to have experience with said illness, having killed his own zombiefied mother as a young boy. He leads a covert mission into the heart of the outbreak, heading up the newly formed Secret Service who all dress exactly like him—minus the top hat. And that, my friends, is how you pull rank.
Lincoln meets and teams up with so many historical figures during his quest that it becomes almost laughable, until you realize you’re watching a middle aged Abraham Lincoln gruesomely decapitate a bunch of zombies. Like a boss. One of the members of the Secret Service is an actor named John Wilkinson who’s no fan of our 16th President. He gets his opportunity to fully express his displeasure later, as I’m sure you’ve guessed (hint: he took a slightly different stage name), though the circumstances are served up with a horror twist.
There is an absolutely stunning arrangement of “Johnny Comes Marching Home” played over a montage of the Secret Service prepping for battle that is totally worth the price of admission (that is to say, free on Netflix).
Truth be told, I probably won’t give any of these movies a repeat viewing (except AL vs. Z), so using the word “favorite” in my subtitle may be a bit strong. I’m glad I gave them a chance, though, as they were never anything less than fun. All of them have those inadvertent laugh lines that can bring a movie viewer such unexpected delight, and some performances—like Bill Oberst Jr.’s—even reach a state of grace.
I hear good things about Asylum’s version of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds; really good things, actually. Thanks to these films, I won’t hesitate to add it to my queue.