Dead Ringers 

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Gore, guns, and Busey abound in scenes from Snakes on a Train, 666: The Child, and H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.

The girl in the tree is unconscious. 

She’s pretty, with arching eyebrows, reddish hair swept from her cheeks by an unruly ponytail, and large, presumably expressive eyes (they’re closed — unconscious, remember?), but she’s out cold. And in a tree. The last by virtue of the fact that said tree holds the passenger seat into which she’s securely strapped — the same seat that, seconds earlier, loosed itself from the fuselage of an ailing jetliner, which deposited her daintily amid jungle branches before continuing its smoky swath across the sky and smashing with a spray of fire into the side of a
mountain.

She stirs. Her face contracts in a bit of a scowl; she looks, for an odd moment, like she’s about to cough or vomit. She touches her head as if it’s hurt, and tries to blink herself out of a daze. Cut to trembling brush; we hear a low, rhythmic rumbling. It’s far off at first, but persistent, and swiftly getting closer.

Back to the girl. She’s awake now, worried. The sound thunders loudly nearby. She tries to move, but is held firmly in place by the chair’s safety belt, which has become stuck. She screams — and I mean, terrifically: a classic, wide-eyed, high-pitching screech, like a castrated banshee in a boys’ choir. They don’t make ’em like that anymore. But it’s too late: The beast is upon her. An enormous, glowering, movie-magic ape, stories high and knuckle-propped, bellies up to the tree and, ignoring the poor lass’s none-too-subtle protests, swipes her up with a leathery fist the size of a master bedroom.

And yet, all you can think is: “Dude — that’s not Naomi Watts.”

Quite. It isn’t Jessica Lange or Fay Wray, either, for that matter. It is, instead, 20-something model-actress-singer Eliza Swenson. The role of Gloria, ill-fated airline stewardess, is one of Swenson’s 10 to 13 film credits (depending which online résumé you happen to dig up), the majority of which are low-budget, small-screen horror titles (to wit: the upcoming Pocahauntus, wherein the titular tribeswoman’s spirit comes back to exact bloody vengeance for the mistreatment and slaughter of her people — painting with all the colors of the windpipe, as it were).

See, the thing is, you’re not watching any of the various incarnations of King Kong that have appeared over the years — or at least, not exactly. Rather, you’ve stumbled upon King of the Lost World, a direct-to-DVD release by California-based production house The Asylum. But it’s understandable that you’d mistake one for the other(s).

Let’s review: On December 14, 2005, writer-director Peter (The Lord of the Rings) Jackson’s effects-heavy, $207-million, more-than-a-year-in-the-making action-adventure epic King Kong hit theaters nationwide, clocking in at 187 minutes and boasting award-winning actors Watts and Adrien Brody. A day earlier, on December 13, writer-director Leigh (The Beast of Bray Road) Scott’s effects-heavy, $1-million, more-than-13-days-in-the-making action-adventure epic King of the Lost World hit video-rental stores nationwide, clocking in at 90 minutes and boasting award-winning actors Bruce Boxleitner and Steve Railsback. (Insert double take here.) The hook for both films — the 500-pound gorilla, so to speak — is featured prominently in the promotional artwork for each, leaving some room for confusion: KOTLW’s cover features the immense, roaring animal, arms outstretched below a title banner in which the word “king” is conspicuously larger than the others. Hmm. Below that, the tag “The Epic Story that Inspired King Kong and Jurassic Park” refers to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (of which the film is “a modern retelling,” albeit with significant plot and character alterations). Coincidence? Er … not likely. But hey, the book’s a classic. Maybe KOTLW had been planned for a while, and had to be rushed into production so as not to get buried beneath Jackson’s monster. Right?

Dateline: London, England. Armed guards in black, each with a rifle slung over his shoulder, patrol the entrance of an impressive, white-columned mansion, vaguely reminiscent of Tony Montana’s ample digs in Scarface. It’s the De Korte residence, we’re informed. As the sentries pass each other, one asks the other for a light; the second obliges, and the two begin chatting. Behind them, meanwhile, two shadowy figures, also in black, slink past. A picked lock and neutralized alarm system later, this second pair is inside, and we’re introduced, as he slips off his night-vision head-harness-thing, to forensic anthropologist Michael Archer (C. Thomas Howell). Following the signal from a handheld tracking device, Archer and companion make their way through the darkened house, tripping a secret door, nimbly traversing hidden snares, and arriving, finally, at a locked and portent-loaded safe. Once opened, it yields precisely what our boys have come for: ancient, unbound pages of a priceless manuscript, believed to hold the key to Earth’s greatest treasure, not to mention a mystery whose untangling could prove earth-shattering. As the music swells, Archer gazes intently at his long-awaited take and intones breathlessly:

“Mr. da Vinci, I believe you have something to tell me ... ”

Well, OK. So it isn’t a coincidence. The Da Vinci Treasure, directed by Peter Mervis, was released straight to DVD by The Asylum on March 23, 2006, a mere four days after Sony Pictures’ U.S. release of The Da Vinci Code. The cover for Treasure depicts a woman in black, supine before the Mona Lisa, a pool of blood at her head. (Neither the scene nor the painting, incidentally, appear in the film.)

Clearly, something’s up. How in the world does a film studio get into the business of — ahem — “spinning off” blockbuster
doppelgängers?

“By accident,” says David Michael Latt, one of The Asylum’s three managing partners; he has produced or directed just about every title issued by the company since its 1997 inception. Latt, who founded the studio with ex-Village Roadshow sales directors David Rimawi and Sherri Strain, says the trend started in 2005 with The Asylum’s H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, which Latt directed.

“We wanted to make War of the Worlds, and then we found out Dreamworks was making it, so we shelved it,” Latt says. “And then, at the very last possible second of producing that film — it was like December — we asked our main buyers, ‘Hey, is this interesting to you if we do this?’ And everyone was like, ‘You gotta make it, you gotta make that film.’ We didn’t understand the value of what we were doing.”

That value, as it turns out, was
considerable.

“The pay of that title has probably out-performed all the other titles we’ve ever done combined,” Latt says matter-of-factly.

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Producer, director, bullshit detector: David Michael Latt (left) discusses a shot during production of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.

The Asylum’s War of the Worlds, released on Thursday, June 28, 2005 (Spielberg’s premiered Friday the 29th), stars C. Thomas Howell (in his first turn with the company), Jake Busey, and some able relative unknowns, and cost easily 100 times less than did the big-screen version.

“We spent about $50 less than Spielberg,” joke-estimates Latt, who, indeed, has a healthy, even frisky sense of humor, moving easily between self-deprecation and unpretentious, straightforward movie-talk. “I think they spent a quarter of a billion dollars, honest to God, and we spent, uh … shy of a quarter-billion.”

The actual numbers are closer to a $1-million-$132-million split, but no one’s counting, least of all Latt.

“I’m very proud of the film,” he says. “I’m not saying it stands up next to Spielberg’s, but I’m very proud of the film. I think it’s a very enjoyable watching experience.”

Prior to the WOTW experiment, Latt’s outfit was primarily a direct-to-video/DVD, low-budget horror factory, producing and/or distributing such gleefully gore-laden titles as Vampire Clan, Death Valley: The Revenge of Bloody Bill, and Head Cheerleader with regularity. A stroll through credits past and present turns up a quirky cache of notables who have chanced through the The Asylum’s ever-fluid firmament, including Lance Henriksen (in The Da Vinci Treasure, among others), Colin Mochrie, Chris Noth, Dustin Diamond, Tony Todd, Joey Lawrence, Daniel Baldwin, Chris Hardwick, Danica McKellar, and Wil Wheaton. Additionally, the company has developed something of a family of regular writers, directors, actors, and contributors — a family that once (before their second child, that is) included Latt’s wife of 12 years, Kim Little.

“We met by, I `cast` her in my very first film,” Latt says. “It was a supporting lead. She was the crazy, wacky neighbor in this romantic comedy I directed.”

Romantic comedy?

Sorority House Party.”

Ah. That’s better.

Interestingly enough, the “fast, cheap horror” tag wasn’t by design, according to Latt.

“We just wanted to make movies,” he says. “We’re whores. So, really, it’s what our buyers wanted from us … which was horror films … And you know, if you’re a filmmaker, you go to Lions Gate first, you go to studios first, and so we got slim pickin’s, and basically, our buyer’s like, ‘Well, we need a very specific kind of movie … ’ Uh, why don’t we just make it? So, we started making them, and as our relations grew stronger, we made them more aggressively and faster, and now we’re making them pretty much once every three weeks.”

The success of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, Latt says, sparked a bit of a turning point for the company.

“It did really well, and so it was kind of a no-brainer,” he says. “It’s like, OK, well, maybe it was a fluke. Let’s just do another one, we’ll see if that — what’s coming out? King Kong was coming out, and you know, we couldn’t call it the same thing, so it’s like, well, maybe it’s not gonna work, but we’ll see. And we did it based on `The` Lost World, the Doyle book, and it did really well — didn’t do as well as `The Asylum’s` War of the Worlds, but it did well enough where it was like, we-lll, maybe it’s not a fluke. Let’s try another one.”

SNAKE BITES
Five Asylum “tie-ins,” ranked and (briefly) reviewed
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H.G. Wells’ war of the Worlds
Director: David Michael Latt
Released: 6/28/05
Budget: $1M
Compare to: War of the Worlds, Paramount Pictures, released 6/29/05, $132M


Verdict: The best of the bunch, by a sight. Sure, the digital effects pale in comparison to those in Spielberg’s take, but for 1/132 of the budget, I feel comfortable saying they’re probably not 100 times less impressive. Asylum regulars Rhett Giles and Andy Lauer actually turn in subtler, more convincing performances than headliners C. Thomas Howell and Jake Busey, but all in all, WOTW boasts the most solid acting (not to mention most gratuitous moment of nudity) of all five titles.
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666: The Child
Director: Jake Jackson
Released: 6/6/06
Budget: not available (less than $1M)
Compare to: The Omen, 20th Century Fox, released 6/6/06, $25M


Verdict: Somehow, 666 is the lightest, breeziest, and most fun of the five. Made me laugh once or twice — and did so intentionally, I think. It also featured what were probably the least-believable performances, but is no worse for the wear. Also: Best Gore Award.
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King of the Lost World
Director: Leigh Scott
Released: 12/13/05
Budget: $1M
Compare to: King Kong, Universal Pictures, released 12/14/05, $207M


Verdict: The effects here, again, shrivel next to those of its big-screen cousin (heck, they might pale next to Hercules: The Legendary Journeys), but you’ve got to hand it to ’em for being frugal: the opening plane-crash scene is a composite of notable FX shots from the first two films on this list. Pacing and a hard-to-swallow, insufficent ending ultimately sink the feature despite reasonably able performances, but the DVD’s hidden gem — and thoroughly redeeming feature — is its rollicking, apparently beer-soaked cast-and-crew commentary. Direct quote from (I think) director Leigh Scott: “Continuity is for pussies.”
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The Da Vinci Treasure
Director: Peter Mervis
Released: 5/23/06
Budget: $850,000
Compare to: The Da Vinci Code; Sony Pictures, released 5/19/06, $125M


Verdict: Slow-moving and convoluted. There’s an admittedly sweet car-chase-cum-fistfight-atop-a-double-decker-bus sequence, but even Lance Henriksen can’t save Treasure, whose chirpy-surveillance-footage editing gimmick is dragged out far too long. Most compelling moment: watching Howell be a total dick (albeit an occasionally laugh-out-loud funny one) on-set in the “blooper reel.”
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Snakes On A Train
Director: The Mallachi Brothers
Released: 7/15/06
Budget: not available (less than $1M)
Compare to: Snakes on a Plane; New Line Cinema, released 8/18/06, $33M


Verdict: “Grotesque, creepy. Don’t plan on sleeping for days!” So goes the (unattributed) back-of-the-box quote for SOAT. This one might be funny if you’re drunk, with friends. Otherwise, all you really get is some gross-out gore, another scene of brief nudity (BN), and a batshit-bonkers ending that — depending on your mood — will either make you laugh out loud or yearn to kill.

To date, The Asylum offers 10 or so films (of more than 50) — including the Wells, Kong, and Da Vinci surrogates — that, it might be argued, were timed and/or sculpted to benefit from the releases of similarly themed blockbusters. 666: The Child, like its big brother, 20th Century Fox’s The Omen remake, was strategically released (doubly so, in fact) on June 6, 2006. The Exorcism of Emily Rose, released in September 2005 by Screen Gems, was followed within five months by Exorcism: The Possession of Gail Bowers, which went on sale a little over a month after Emily Rose arrived on DVD. Screen Gems’ retooling of When a Stranger Calls, out this past February, was retooled the same month (or at least granted a more buxom heroine, judging by the DVD cover) by The Asylum’s When a Killer Calls. The Hills Have Eyes, Fox Searchlight, was met with Hillside Cannibals, The Asylum; they showed up 18 days apart. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (July 7, 2006) approximates Pirates of Treasure Island (June 27). The most recent Asylum release, The 9/11 Commission Report, based on the bestseller, became available September 5, 2006, possibly to semi-coincide with Oliver Stone’s August 9 release of World Trade Center (though one might easily counter that both films were simply meant to line up with the fifth anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks). And yes: Snakes on a Train was in video stores a full month before the much-anticipated premiere of fan favorite Little Miss Sunshine. (And that other one.)

Pissed? Aghast? You’re not alone. One needs but log in at the trusty Internet Movie Database (Imdb.com) message boards to find such slings and arrows as the following (comparably mild) one, lobbed by a user at Pirates of Treasure Island director Leigh Scott:

“By judging his filmography, Leigh is a living joke, and a monkey with a super 8 `sic` `camera has` filmed better movies. Yo Leigh, let me ask you a question, why do you do it?”

Of course, with The Asylum, there’s always the chance someone’ll lob back. Quoth Scott, the next day:

“I live and exist to try and beat that monkey with the super 8 `sic`,” Scott writes. “His name is Chobo … God, you’re right. What was I thinking? Living out a childhood dream of being a filmmaker. Actually making a good living working in Hollywood. How stupid of me … Is the porn theater you work at hiring other mop boys? I’m gonna need a job. … Oh wait, what’s that you say. You’re actually a frustrated filmmaker and not a porn theater cumscrubber? I never would have guessed. No wonder you’d post something like that. You’re better than me … I just have all these cool people around here and beautiful women who keep helping me make these bad movies. Obviously, they’re not my real friends. You guys who keep coming on these boards are. You tell me the truth.”

Latt expects controversy, and gets it. The board for his WOTW features such disparate posts as the one titled “THIS VERSION IS BETTER THAN SPIELBERGS! `sic`,” and the subsequent reaction, “This version of W-F-T-W is definately `sic` one of the worst movies I have ever seen … OH MY GOD IT SUCKED!!!”  with each side of the debate accusing the other of being either (1) an Asylum shill or (2) a plant from a rival studio. Indeed, Latt exposes himself to criticism far more often than he has to: He routinely pops up on Imdb, The Asylum’s active message boards (down, as of this writing), and his own MySpace page to engage fans and detractors alike, as well as to advise and field questions from aspiring filmmakers (topics include finding financing, low-budget makeup effects and action, and the “film school or not” debate, among others).

“You know, if someone has a legitimate question, I try to respond,” Latt says. “I don’t think there has to be a great big mystery about this business. I think, if someone asks, ‘How did you do this?’ I’m more than eager and willing to help ’em out with stunts, and they can do it, and maybe do a better job, and then I can learn from them. I mean, we hire first-time filmmakers all the time here, and I always learn from every film, different ways of making movies. And it’s great … And the critics — you know, what can you do? I can’t respond to someone who tells me I suck, and I shouldn’t be making movies, and they wish I died.”

Which, he says, has made him at least slightly more private.

“When they personally started attacking me as far as, you know, ‘I hope you die,’ and whatever they wanted to say, I was like, ‘I’m going to take the family pictures off `MySpace`,’” Latt says.

It bears noting that The Asylum isn’t the only studio that has produced (or rereleased, or repackaged) familiar-looking films with suspiciously fortuitous timing. Lions Gate Films, for instance, released the 2003 film Terrarium on DVD as War of the Planets in November 2005, five months after Spielberg’s and Latt’s versions hit. Distributor MTI Home Video’s catalog includes 2001’s The Devil’s Tattoo, retitled Ghost Rig and given a 2003 DVD cover heavily reminiscent of Warner Brothers’ Ghost Ship nine months after the latter premiered. But Latt and co.’s “studio tie-ins,” as he calls them, seem to be the most prominent and consistent. And despite the criticism, these parablockbusters appear to be decidedly less trouble than they’re worth. Not only do they make more money than the non-“spinoffs,” they’ve broadened The Asylum’s palette and scope, Latt says:

“It sort of pulls us — not that I have any problem whatsoever with making horror films — but, definitely as a filmmaker, all of a sudden now we can make action films, we can make political films, we can make pirate films, we can make, you know, a whole bunch of different genres that we weren’t able to do before.”

Despite the fun Latt clearly has with his work (“There’s no martyrdom here,” he says, a smile in his voice), he reiterates that it is, indeed, serious business.

“We’re small, and we basically survive on cash flow,” Latt says. “So, if we don’t release a movie on a monthly basis, then our doors close and we don’t get to make a movie anymore. And whether I make a tie-in movie, or a different kind of movie, doesn’t matter to me, ’cause I’m just going to try to make a great movie, regardless. And if more people get to see it, that’s wonderful, because that’s my goal … If more people are going to see Snakes on a Train due to the title, or for whatever reason, then I would rather make that movie than a movie that no one’s gonna see.”

Capital from the less “original” titles, he says, is reinvested, and helps fund more personal projects.

“We spend more money on these films, so, it’s like, well, you’re spending more, you’re getting more … But, at the end, it’s like you get a lot more out of it — you get people like you calling us and wanting to do `a story`, because you’re suddenly on the map,” Latt says.

It’s a good point.

“We have a library of 30 other movies that aren’t tie-ins, but you never called for that.”


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