This is the first in what will be an ongoing series I intend to write here about movie rip-offs, knock-offs, clones and cash-ins. This introduction should hopefully explain what I take those terms to mean and suggest the kind of amazing (though sometimes amazingly awful) movies and filmmakers I want to talk about. There’s a lot of discussion about Hollywood’s fascination with remakes and what it all means, but I found a limited amount of semi-serious discussion about rip-offs, which are usually far more interesting to watch and investigate. So semi-seriously read on.
“Movies are a gold rush business.” William Goldman
“Talent borrows, genius steals.” Attr. Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Steven Morrissey
Like any historical gold rush, the capitalistic process of movie-making is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Just the same way the luck, creativity and hard work of the first prospectors made them fantastically rich, second- and third-wave prospectors could scrape a living mining the same depleted vein and a whole peripheral industry sprung up to exploit and support the mining enterprise. Eventually, so many decades after the first modern blockbusters turned a mega-buck, we have ‘mockbuster’ production houses like The Asylum the same way we have Cash4Gold.
The surprise success of The Asylum’s HG Well’s War of the Worlds (Timothy Hines, 2005), released for rental in the same year as Spielberg’s version, lead to a glut of similar cheapo straight-to-DVD films, quickly dubbed “mockbusters”, that exploited the Hollywood hype machine. I Am Legend (Francis Lawrence, 2007), a re-imagining of the source material for Omega Man (Boris Sagal, 1971), found itself piggybacked by I Am Omega (Griff Furst, 2007).
The defining aspect of these mockbusters is that the makers usually have to attempt to rip-off films that they have only the most basic knowledge of, that haven’t even been released theatrically yet. Therefore, the packaging is unusually important as it is closely styled to mimic the widely proliferated advertising materials of the upcoming major studio release. It’s a streamlined and highly effective model that critics (see the clip above) say exploits the likelihood of gullible children and inattentive adults being unable to discern the difference between Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen (dir. Michael Bay, 2009) and Transmorphers: Fall Of Man (Scott Wheeler, 2009).
The Asylum is a cash-flow company, with the budget of upcoming movies on their slate dependent on the success of their latest release. The straight-to-DVD films The Asylum have become famous for making themselves piggy-backed million-dollar advertising campaigns and the associated press attention. Perusing their back catalogue is not dissimilar to taking in a comedy list of porn versions of Hollywood movies and the ratio of people who have actually seen the films to those who have only heard the names is probably similar. Their continued success was virtually assured by the continued patronage of big rental firms like Blockbuster, who took an active role in guiding The Asylum’s choices of projects by ordering huge numbers of advance copies of their DVDs and even advising them on what films to make, based on the schedules of the major Hollywood studios.
The Asylum is a highly successful, high-profile organisation whose main remit is regularly churning out movie rip-offs – in other words, they’re a long way from a critical respectability. Of course, they’re laughing all the way to the bank, bolstered from the back-end by ironic appreciation of their brazen methods. But they’re not even the first set of filmmakers to make a core business out of churning out knock-off blockbusters – Roger Corman’s output as a director but more importantly a producer testifies to that. Corman had Carnosaur (Adam Simon, 1993) in cinemas a whole month ahead of Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993). And as quotable as The Asylum’s titles might be (watchable is another question), they’re not nearly the most interesting or entertaining. For those qualities, the likes of Star Crash (Luigi Cozzi, 1979), Treasure of the Four Crowns (Ferdinando Baldi, 1983) and the original Piranha (Joe Dante, 1978) are much better places to start.
Movie rip-offs like these can be variously trashy, uninspired, stupid, ridiculous, cheap, surprisingly well-funded, inventive, thrilling and mind-boggling. The best can be an infuriating mix of all of these, and the worst are sometimes only really as subjectively bad as the movies that ‘inspired’ them. Rip-Offs, in this context, are distinct from sequels, prequels, remakes, re-imaginings, spin-offs, spoofs and homages. Rip-Offs, on these terms, don’t include the numerous instances of Hollywood cannibalising itself and/or foreign films thematically, aesthetically or spiritually – some of the more explicit examples include the Indiana Jones series and its debt to the serials of the 1930s and 40s or the ‘homage’ paid by Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992) to City On Fire (Ringo Lam, 1987) – although they are part of the same process.
With borrowed prestige (and often gratuitous scenes of sex and/or violence thrown in for good measure), guaranteeing an audience and usually a bottom line profit, they can often outstrip the imagination of their progenitors, free of the usual worries over financial remuneration. They offer extreme cinematic curiosities, mutated archetypes and truly odd, hybrid plotlines. To entirely exhaust a metaphor, sometimes the gold leaf peels off to reveal something surprisingly valuable underneath, or at least something just too ugly not to love.
Ironic enjoyment is in there somewhere, of course, but just as with the concept of ‘guilty pleasures’, it’s a tedious and mealy-mouthed position to maintain. Movie rip-offs and the B-movie wonderland they exist in frequently pose the question “When does ‘so bad it’s good’ become ‘it’s just good’?” The canonical, Empire Magazine/Top 100 Movies mentality can ignore much of what is vital and transcendent in cinema (with respect to the invaluably tenacious work of Kim Newman). The curious question of objective quality is certainly useful in organising what is a constantly expanding universe of movie-making for the uninitiated, but as with Rolling Stone’s Hall of Fame, there are always going to be creators and work that do not ‘fit’, and life-altering experiences would be lost if, come the zombie apocalypse, we were stuck in a bunker with only the work on these ‘definitive’ lists. Most zombie movies, for a start.
That said, there are many kinds of Rip-Offs and, as they are all part of the same creative continuum, it’s useful to look at the whole process and define the many wonderful kinds. Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) is a fairly instructive choice as a microcosm of the path from movie gold to rash-making fakery. Alongside Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) and The Omen (William Friedkin, 1976) it was one of the first modern blockbusters, inspiring a slew of Rip-Offs, not counting the output of the marketing machine surrounding the film itself and its sequels and prequels. It’s also appropriate as an example because its own influences are so well documented. From genuine gold to polished excrement, these movies can be categorised (irrespective of quality) like this:
1. The Movie
1b. The Parallel Production
3. Wholesale Rip-Offs/Knock-Offs/Clones/Spoofs & Parodies
4. Home-made Tributes/Fan Films
5. Unauthorised Foreign Versions
6. Mutant Hybrids
7. Porn Rip-Offs
8. Modern Mockbusters
9. Official Sequels
10. Remakes/Re-imaginings/Détournement (Total Cultural Proliferation)
With Star Wars as an example, the (inexhaustive) list could go as follows:
0. The Hidden Fortress (Akira Kurosawa, 1958) & Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961)
The influence of Kurosawa’s work on George Lucas and Star Wars is well documented, as are comparisons to the Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s. This ‘zero’ category is useful to make the perhaps obvious point that even the most innovative and groundbreaking works are not generally born in a vacuum.
1. Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)
Some of the first wave of Star Wars Cash-Ins have some legitimate claim to Parallel Production. However, as an untested and unexpected phenomenon, there’s no directly applicable example for this in the case of Star Wars. Many films extremely similar in thematic content have famously raced each other to cinemas. These include Raise the Titanic!/SOS Titanic, Armageddon/Deep Impact, The Illusionist/The Prestige, Antz/A Bug’s Life, The Truman Show/EdTV, Saving Private Ryan/The Thin Red Line, Mission to Mars/Red Planet, Iron Eagle/Top Gun, Dante’s Peak/Volcano, Tombstone/Wyatt Earp.
2. The Black Hole (Gary Nelson, 1979)
There must be some distinction between the Parallel Production and the Cash-In. Scripts pushed into production following the commercial success of others can be defined as Cash-Ins, especially since the final product usually has been informed by the aesthetic concerns (at least) of the cash-cow. King Solomon’s Mines (J Lee Thompson, 1985) and its sequels were based on books written decades before Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981) was a huge success. The scripts for Ghoulies (Luca Bercovici, 1985) and Critters (Stephen Herek, 1986) are said to predate Gremlins (Joe Dante, 1984). Disney’s The Black Hole existed as a script before Star Wars reached screens, but crucially was rushed into production to capitalise on the burgeoning phenomenon. The finished product actually has as much in common with Forbidden Planet (Fred M Wilcox, 1956), and has elements of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968).
3. Star Crash (Luigi Cozzi, 1979), Battle Beyond The Stars (Jimmy T Murakami, 1980), The Humanoid (Aldo Lado, 1979), Spaceballs (Mel Brooks, 1987)
Although the films in this category vary wildly in tone and delivery, they are distinguished and linked by the fact that they almost certainly wouldn’t exist in any form without the success of the original property. These films are not necessarily the most brazen of Rip-Offs (see the Unauthorised Foreign Versions, below) but they are generally fairly shameless. The key difference between these and the Modern Mockbuster pioneered by The Asylum is that they had/have full access to the material they are cribbing from, so expect to see wholesale theft of ideas, with barely concealed riffs on familiar plots, characters, set pieces, set design, special effects, music cues and even dialogue. Christopher Plummer’s speech in Star Crash is a good example of how little effort the film makes to hide the influence of Star Wars: “the Count has created a weapon, a weapon so vast, so huge, that it would take a whole…planet to conceal it”. Spoofs and parodies have become something of a cottage industry recently, with Scary Movie (Keenen Ivory Wayans, 2000) starting the modern trend for films that simply make as many then-current cultural references as possible, rather than concentrate on being funny.
4. Troops (Kevin Rubio, 1997)
Fan fiction has been a staple of genre work since time immemorial. Recent movies, such as Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998), Son of Rambow (Garth Jennings, 2007) and Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry, 2007), have featured fan-recreations as plot elements. Star Wars Uncut (2010) is a project to recreate the original film using hundreds of fan-made clips. These are obviously not Rip-Offs per se, but they have an intriguing mutation as seen in the likes of Return of the Ghostbusters (Hank Braxton, 2007), The Hunt For Gollum (Chris Bouchard, 2007) and Grayson (John Fiorella, 2007 – as yet only a trailer and an unmade, Batman-related script), unauthorised, not-for-profit, just-for-fun fan made sequels. There are many Star Wars fan films, of hugely varying quality. Troops could also be considered a Spoof, or a Mutant Hybrid, as it takes the form of an episode of COPS set in the Star Wars universe, but it has also been recently voted the number one Star Wars Fan Film. There are many others, with vastly differing degrees of quality and seriousness.
5. Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam AKA Turkish Star Wars (Çetin Inanç, 1982), Os Trapalhões na Guerra dos Planetas AKA Brazilian Star Wars (Adriano Stuart, 1978)
The most unrestrained and ridiculous of all the Rip-Offs, Unauthorised Foreign Versions capitalise on the distance of their productions and audience from Hollywood and recycle not only narrative, character analogues etc, but also unashamedly cannibalise original music cues and even whole special effect shots and sequences. There is also potential for a sub-category of the Foreign Rip-Off that has similarities to the Cash-In, where films are opportunistically re-titled to capitalise on the previous success of a film or franchise. Examples in the horror genre abound, including The Evil Dead franchise (Sam Raimi, 1981, 87, 93), where the first two films – released in Italy as La Casa and La Casa 2 – were followed by La Casa 3 (Umberto Lenzi, 1988) and La Casa 4 (Fabrizio Laurenti, 1988), which had no real connection to Sam Raimi’s originals.
6. The Ice Pirates (Stewart Raffill, 1984), Serenity (Joss Whedon, 2005)
The generic mis-match of the Mutant Hybrid is possibly the closest the Rip-Off comes to escaping the term itself. It is arguably the most tenuous of inclusions on this list, because it takes broad elements of an original property and smashes them together with elements of another to create something usually very bizarre, original and often totally unclassifiable. There’s a similar giddiness of approach to that found in Fan Films in these kinds of hybrid rip-offs, which happily pillage from any successful genre film to create bizarre mutant cinema, in which practically anything is possible at any moment. Just as slash fiction can meld to its own satisfaction two cinematic franchises or properties, fantasising the possibilities without commercial concern, so to do filmmakers such as Enzo Castellari, who indulge their own impulses, safe in the knowledge of a guaranteed b-movie bottom line. There is clearly a fine line between the Mutant Hybrid and plain old genre stablemate, but certain similarities in aesthetic, mise en scene and thematic/narrative concern signify the Mutant Hybrid in its classic hotch-potch, Frankenstein-film-making mode. The Bronx Warriors (Enzo G Castellari, 1982) incorporates elements of Escape From New York (John Carpenter, 1981), Mad Max (George Miller, 1979), A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971) and The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979). The filmmakers can literally take whatever they like from a mainstream movie, remove the ‘boring’ bits – quite often pesky problems like plot coherence – and amp up the sex and violence.
7. Porn Wars Trilogy (Kovi, 2006), Sex Wars (Bob Vosse, 1985)
From Flesh Gordon (Michael Benveniste/Howard Ziehm, 1974) via Edward Penishands (Paul Norman, 1991) through to This Ain’t Avatar XXX (Axel Braun, 2010), Porn Rip-Offs have always been a particularly vital strand of the Rip-Off. As you can see from the above (edited for family viewing) clip, their production values can be impressively higher than most other Rip-Offs. Discerning whether this makes them better films or worse porn would require further research.
Star Wars has somewhat fallen outside the purview of The Asylum and the Modern Mockbuster. Expect that to change if rumours about a new trilogy ever come true. For now, The Asylum’s handiwork can be evaluated by comparing I Am Legend (Francis Lawrence, 2007)/I Am Omega (Griff Furst, 2007), Sherlock Holmes (Guy Ritchie, 2009)/Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (David Michael Latt, 2010) and the upcoming Battle: Los Angeles (Jonathan Liebesman, 2011)/Battle of Los Angeles (Mark Atkins, 2011).
9. The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980), Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand, 1983), Prequel Trilogy (George Lucas, 1999, 2002, 2005)
Sequels are the legitimate counterparts to the movie Rip-Off, naturally recycling characters but also frequently reusing broad storylines and elements of the original in order to attempt to guarantee repeat success. Sequels made with this approach naturally tend towards the formulaic, with the added pressure of retaining and expanding upon a wide audience. They are generally even more conservative than their forebear, if only in creative approach. I would argue this is true even of sequels that claim or aim to be more ‘extreme’ in content. The impulse is generally commercial and the end project is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Regardless, where there was once gold there may be more, and it follows that any cinematic property proving particularly fruitful will be mined until there is nothing left. The mark of a successful rip-off, therefore, must be the establishment of an alternative franchise – where the rip-off itself sparks one or even a series of sequels. This more often than not takes the form of the aforementioned Cash-In sub category – e.g. some countries saw the release of Star Crash 2, which was actually an unrelated film originally called Giochi Erotici Nella 3a Galassia (Bitto Albertini, 1981). It was not financially successful.
Star Wars will probably never be ‘remade’ in the traditional sense, but we can see a kind of détournement in the Robot Chicken/Family Guy TV specials, and countless internet memes. I don’t think anybody would argue with The Total Cultural Proliferation of Star Wars, from the many peripheral appearances of all aspects of the property, up to and including constant references in sitcoms such as Spaced and The Big Bang Theory and the recent Currys UK TV adverts with R2D2 and C3P0. The spoof trailer for Blackstar Warrior, the ‘lost’ Blaxploitation spin off focussing on Lando Calrissian’s struggle with the intergalactic man is also worth a look. This category is curious because it is split roughly between films that have been completely absorbed into the wider culture and those that have barely made any impact at all.
For a more instructive example of détournement, see What’s Up Tiger Lily (Woody Allen, 1966), which recut and redubbed the dialogue of two in a series of Japanese James Bond Rip-Offs (International Secret Police: A Barrel of Gunpowder & International Secret Police: Key of Keys) for comic effect. Ferocious Female Freedom Fighters (Jopi Burnama/Charles Kaufman, 1982) was an Indonesian martial arts film that was appropriated by the Troma studio and reworked into a comedy, with all new dialogue and humorous sound effects. Man Called… Rainbo (David Casci, 1990) was a similarly détourned version of Sylvester Stallone vehicle No Place to Hide (Robert Allen Schnitzer, 1970). Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a television series that made similar use of old B-movies, many of which were Roger Corman productions, adding a humourous commentary over the original films. Ironically, the Mystery Science Theater 3000 DVDs were for a long time the best place to find some of these movies on DVD, although Corman himself has blocked the release of those which used his own films (“I don’t make B-movies” is a frequent refrain).
These categorisations are in no way intended to seem infallible and are only a guideline for the purposes of looking at the magnificent Rip-Off in context of Hollywood creativity. The timeline that this process works along is not always linear, but the general momentum from genuine inspiration to regurgitated muck is discernable. Also, some films can be said to belong to two or more categories and obviously the timeline is all over the place. Having said that, similar lists can be extrapolated from any blockbuster film. Most of the categories require further elucidation that these cursory examples cannot fully provide (certainly Mutant Hybrids), so for that and hopefully much more, stay tuned.
This series will expand with discussions on some of the more intriguing and under-discussed categories above and also more specific pieces on individual films. As a rule, I’m going to stick to movies, so I’m disregarding the thread that leads to the equally pertinent likes of Battlestar Galactica (even though, yes, it was a movie at one point) and its eventual, critically lauded re-imagining. Therefore I’m also excluding the likes of The Renegades, the Patrick Swayze-starring TV Rip-Off of The Warriors (which, although I haven’t managed to track down any episodes beyond the first, looks awesome) and any number of other TV-based Cash-Ins. Feedback, criticism and contributions are all welcome. Corrections, additions and amendments will be also inevitably be made and recorded.
Expect to see more specific writing about the above, incorporating but not limited to the following: Star Wars and the many piglets suckling at its teat (including Star Crash, The Humanoid, Battle Beyond The Stars and, of course, Turkish Star Wars), Jaws and its many bottom-feeding followers, the hinterland of fanmade films, Mutualism, Parasitism & Commensalism In The Movies, Roger Corman and his Legacy and, my favourite, The Royal Family of the B-Movie Rip-Off – The Mutant Hybrid.