"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 21 January 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.


Faux Film Festival

It's a familiar, horrifying scenario. An exhausted parent in a video store or supermarket sees a videotape packaged for sale. The tape boasts a familiar title — Aladdin or The Hunchback of Notre Dame — and an attractive sticker price. Upon arriving home, the tape is proffered to media-savvy children, who immediately proclaim, in loud, whiny voices, "This isn't the real Aladdin." Following a careful examination of the product by the now red-faced parent, a decision is made to watch it anyway. After one or more members of the family leave the room out of disgust or boredom, the tape is ejected before completion and stored at the bottom of the family's videotape collection, a dusty reminder of the parent's basic marketplace incompetence.

Making cheap knockoffs of successful media products is an American tradition that speaks to the core of our materialist society: Imitation is the sincerest form of chicanery; capitalism means never having to say you're sorry. Film is one of the most frequently knocked-off media, and there are two basic methods. The first is to release different treatments of the same material — that you either make yourself or redub from someone else's work from another country — under almost exactly the same name because both are drawn from works in the public domain. This encompasses most of Disney (Beauty and the Beast, Jungle Book), and following the Mouse's unsuccessful 1993 legal attempt to block all related movies, there's not a damn thing it can do about it. The second way to do a knockoff is to release movies about approximately the same subject with approximately the same title. The key is to make the knockoff enough like the original to benefit from its publicity and success but different enough to avoid copyright infringement. Finding the right balance is delicate, sensitive, and — let's face it — artistic work.

There is a major benefit to all this copying: cost. Knockoffs broke into mainstream movie consciousness when they were introduced as cost-effective alternatives to high-priced videos in Heartland-focused retail outlets like Wal-Mart by savvy entrepreneurs like the Cayre Brothers of GoodTimes Video. The current availability of inexpensive, first-run movies is due in no small part to success stories like the Cayres'. But in addition to changing the marketplace, knockoff movies have given us great pop art and a category of filmic endeavor as complicated as any movie subculture, with its own villains and multitasking heroes (such as composer/lyricist David Goldsmith, whose credits include Moses: Egypt's Great Prince, 1998; The Secret of Anastasia, 1997; The Amazing Feats of Young Hercules, 1997; and The Adventures of Pinocchio, 1996). Some knockoffs are better than others, and some knockoffs are so wonderfully inept that they glow like shiny diamonds of crud. And despite the inevitable waning of the home video sales/rental market, these humble films linger on, living tributes to the power of unoriginal thinking.

Suck recently held its first Knockoff Film Festival, viewing dozens of videos on Megavox VCRs, all the while consuming enormous amounts of Dr. Thunder and Jiffy Pop popcorn slathered with I Can't Believe It's Not Butter spread. The winners, as follows, received a life-sized facsimile of Marisa Tomei's 1992 Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

Best Disney Knockoff: The Legend of Mulan

Disney knockoffs are that perfect combination of popularity and public domain and are so prevalent they can be listed en masse at Amazon's movie site by searching out its own special designation: "(Not Disney Version)." The fact that Disney spent millions lobbying to change US law to protect its own copyrights (Mickey Mouse, Goofy, etc.) while earning billions off of its versions of publicly held works makes watching Disney knockoffs an arguable act of cultural revenge. And they're almost all so splendidly awful that this becomes not only our most important category but the most difficult to judge. It's tempting to give the award to the Madacy Entertainment 1999 DVD release of Beauty and the Beast. Not only does this movie all by itself destroy whatever special aura DVD releases have enjoyed up until now, the character designs are worse than those found on early 1980s Saturday morning television shows. The super-thin animation of the Beast in particular makes a compelling argument that there exists something between one-and two-dimensional.

But the award goes to DVD Inc.'s The Legend of Mulan, a 1998 release that not only features dreadful, sluggish animation, it features dreadful, sluggish Japanese-style animation. In one fell swoop, The Legend of Mulan bores its viewers to death and punctures the sacred cow of the superiority of Asian cartooning. The glacial pacing is certain death to any child's enjoyment, and parents will be turned off by this version of Mulan herself — a role model too unpleasant for aggressive little girls. She even curses in a very un-Disney-like fashion, as noted by an enraged parent who took the time to alert parents to this fact — twice! — on Amazon's customer review section devoted to the movie.

As we said, you can rarely go wrong with a Disney knockoff, but Legend of Mulan almost makes the argument that Disney was doing the story a favor with its saccharine, Westernized treatment.

Best Big Feature Knockoff: Carnosaur

You'd think that Roger Corman, who has made a career out of doing cheaply made, profitable films, would have a lot to offer the knockoff field. But Corman's best-known films are subversions of the horror genre rather than knockoffs. Little Shop of Horrors is best seen in the context of 1960s Vincent Price/Peter Cushing "really creepy, gaunt-looking men" movies. Ditto Rock 'n' Roll High School, which showcased the genius of P. J. Soles and the Ramones within the modest vessel of a teenage coming-of-age film.

Roger Corman's 1993 masterpiece, Carnosaur, is different. It was pimped as a Jurassic Park rip job and seemed to benefit from a tongue-in-cheek shamelessness regarding its copycat status. Preproduction publicity reported the filmmaker's let's-put-on-a-show attempt to complete the film and get it into theaters before Spielberg's movie. The book upon which it was based was rereleasd with the tag line "Before Jurassic Park... there was Carnosaur"; at least one interviewer asked Corman in an admiring fashion about his success in beating Spielberg to theaters by a week. And there's even stunt casting: Carnosaur features Diane Ladd, mother of Jurassic Park star Laura Dern. That's a lot to live up to, but Carnosaur is one convincingly crappy film, featuring cheap effects, poor technical production, and really bad but earnest acting (the best kind). The dinosaur effects are better for the fact that they're doled out like Bush-era NEA grants. You can almost imagine someone counting the seconds of special-effects time before declaring "OK, that's enough." Unfortunately, no one said that when it came to making the two Carnosaur sequels, neither of which benefit from the original's brilliant timing.



Next ... Major disasters, major self-plagiarism, and major stars, as Suck's film festival continues. [Next Page]