Sorry if you're all far more clued-up about this stuff than I was, but while impatiently waiting for MegaPiranha to get its UK DVD release (August 10th!), I got my good friend the postman to bring me the equally lipsmacking Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus, and I've been looking into the background of these two projects.
In the age of torture porn, how heartening it is to see people getting eaten by big sea creatures again! How wonderful to see the exploitation industry reconnecting with the innocent joys of optimistic special effects, novelty casting, cheap gimmicks and shameless plagiarism. The bedrocks of cinema, in other words.
Both films emanate from a production company called The Asylum, founded by a bunch of former Village Roadshow execs who realised the only way to compete with the big boys was to get their stuff out quicker.
Accordingly, they specialise in what are known as 'mockbusters'. The company keeps its ear to the ground, listens for what the majors are up to, knocks out its own one for under a million dollars, and gets it on the video shelves before the paint's dried on the posh version.
They did a version of The War of the Worlds at the same time as Spielberg. They released Transmorphers two days before Transformers. ("Unlike Transformers," wrote the New York Times, "it has cheap special effects and a subplot involving lesbians.") Like a big corporate girl's blouse, Twentieth Century Fox threatened legal action when they made The Day the Earth Stopped, a variation on The Day the Earth Stood Still, which Fox had apparently just remade with that chap from Bill and Ted who acts like he's just been woken up in the middle of the night.
The low-budget rip-off is of course one of the oldest and noblest tricks in the exploitation handbook, and the best thing about it is that it drives the major studios crazy. There they are frittering two million dollars just so Tom Cruise can have a trailer shaped like the Belt of Orion before they've even spent a penny on making the bug-eyed monsters, and along comes some little two-bit outfit and does the job just as well if not better for less than the cost of Mel Gibson's Grey-away hair dye. And by the time the two movies are side by side on the shelves at Blockbuster they've averaged the same take, too.
Good. This is as it should be.
The Italians used to be the best at this, of course. Every country makes cheap rip-offs, but only Italy could have the chutzpah to market them not as rip-offs but as phoney sequels. (Copyright laws? Non me ne frega!) Only Italy could produce a silver-tongued genius like Ovidio G. Assonitis, the rip-off king, who made virtual carbon copies of The Exorcist and Jaws (Tentacles, about a naughty octopus) and then sweet-talked the likes of John Huston, Shelley Winters and Henry Fonda into appearing in them. For The Devil Within Her, his Exorcist clone, he somehow got Juliet Mills to do the green face and vomit routine.
Then there's Mexican maestros Rene Cardona Sr and Jr, the cinematic ambulance chasers who got cheap cash-ins on the Andes air crash cannibals (Survive) and the Jim Jones mass suicides (Guyana - Cult of the Damned) onto the world's screens before they'd even finished carting the bodies away. They also produced their own nifty rip-offs of Jaws (Tintorera) and The Birds (Beaks), and surely no other film-makers have so many mouthwatering titles on their CVs: Santo vs the Ghost of the Strangler, War of the Pastries, Bang Bang al Hoyo, OK Cleopatra, Night of a Thousand Cats, Zindy the Swamp Boy....
Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus is the first film since forever to truly belong in such exalted company.
It stars Debbie Gibson. MegaPiranha stars Tiffany. I appreciate not everyone was around in the nineteen-eighties, but if if you weren't, just take my word for it: this is clever. It's like when AIP started putting Frankie Avalon in horror films. It's that clever. Belinda Carlisle in the next one, please. Giant ants.
I love big mutant monster films. I love monster duel movies. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man: what an amazing concept. Freddy Vs Jason: I was there. Went to see it twice. But this is really something. It's a fantastic big monster, and then it's another fantastic big monster, and it's both of them at the same time, and you sit back and you let them come at you. I've never seen anything like it. It gets pretty much everything right. It's everything you wanted Orca - Killer Whale to be, and more. I don't think I've ever seen a less pretentious film: it makes Police Academy 6 look sly. I just couldn't believe, given the premise, that it could be so totally without irony. Couldn't and wouldn't. I don't mind if I am unable to convince you: I understand. You have to see it.
It is as innocent as any monster flick of the nineteen-fifties; a worthy successor, lacking both the misguided self-importance or the kitschy knowingness of most later variations. There's an amazing moment when the shark leaps out of the ocean and takes down a passenger plane. How can this possibly be played straight? Surely it's parody? No it's not.
The special effects are not going to convince you it's really happening, but neither are they deliberately silly. They are my favourite kind of special effects: the kind that get the job done. The kind that show you what's happening and rely on you to put the effort into believing them. The kind you get from Jack Arnold. The kind you get from Bert I. Gordon. The kind you don't get from Roland Emmerich.
. The best thing about Jaws is that they use a rubber monster - one created by the great Bob Mattey, yet. Imagine Jaws with a CGI shark. It would rip the heart out of it. In a stroke, you'd have turned the greatest film of the nineteen seventies into Jurassic Park.
This is CGI, of course; how could it not be? It is ironic that CGI is now the only option for low budget movies: the cheap way is just too expensive. (Along with all of its other crimes, I blame CGI for killing off the art of animatronics, which was just entering its golden age when the mouse-clickers showed up.) But as in the best fifties monster movies the budget rules, and this is not the kind of monster movie where you see so much of the beastie you're sick of the sight of it come the halfway mark. We see the creatures when it is essential that we do so; the rest of the time it teases us with flashes and bits and pieces.
It even does that fifties thing of latching naively on to some fashionable scientific neurosis: not the atom bomb anymore, but melting ice caps. They froze together, millions of years ago, this shark and this octopus, locked in combat. Now they've thawed, like Frankenstein and the Wolf Man in House of Frankenstein, and they're ready for the rematch. And I don't throw about House of Frankenstein comparisons lightly either.
"The octopus is headed towards Tokyo and our shark is on its way here!"
The cast plays it fifties-straight. The material is absurd, the lines are absurd, but they never wink at you, not once. It's not serious. Of course it's not serious. But it doesn't think you're an idiot for wanting to watch it. Best of all, it's all over in an hour and twenty-four. Imagine Tarantino bringing this in under an hour and twenty-four. That's the difference between hipness and sincerity.
"We'll get them to kill each other!"
Debbie Gibson is just terrific. Could there be better casting, given the brief? She looks great. She is great.
Debbie gets the idea to have the monsters fight each other rather than let the government bozo nuke them. Nukes aren't as cool as they were back in the Fifty Foot Woman days. The modern answer is pheromones. They all celebrate like true scientists: by joyously pouring coloured liquid from a test tube into a beaker. Thank God no killjoy says: "But Debs, even if you can get them to fight it out, what on earth makes you think they'll both die?" They don't need to. She calls it right.
"Looks like they finished what they finally started eighteen million years ago!"
Such a blizzard of hyperbole here, I know. Such little restraint, such casually wind-tossed caution. But this film spreads happiness. Torture porn does not make me happy. Sodding big octopuses do. I just didn't know I still had the choice.