22nd Aug2017

Top 5: Movies from The Asylum

by Phil Wheat

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With Sharknado 5 making a splash on TV screens across the globe these past few weeks, what better time to visit the world of The Asylum? With a myriad of films under their belt, from their beginnings as king of the mockbuster to their foray into original film making, it’s no secret we’re big fans of these bastions of the direct to DVD market and have reviewed a LOT of their output! With that in mind, here’s my pick of the TOP 5 (because it’s Sharknado FIVE… geddit?!?) movies from The Asylum in – shock, horror – order of preference…

5) Avengers Grimm

An off-the-wall mix of Grimm Fairy tale characters and superhero team-up movies which, frankly, should have been obvious given the title, Avengers Grimm’s plot is relatively simple: when Rumpelstiltskin uses the Magic Mirror to escapes to the modern world taking Snow White with him and destroying the mirror in the process, the four fairy tale “princesses” – Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood – give chase, journeying through a magic portal in order to bring Snow White home and the evil one to justice… Of course these aren’t your traditional damsels in distress of the Disney movies, oh no. These four are ass-kicking, Xena-style warriors who think nothing of going toe-to-toe with anyone who stands in their way.

OK, so maybe Avengers Grimm doesn’t have the biggest of budgets and the script could do with a lot of work, but there’s something so endearingly charming about the film that I couldn’t help but love every minute of it. Maybe it’s because I’m a fan of the TV show Once Upon a Time, of which this shares a LOT of similarities? Or maybe it’s the B-movie junkie in me? I’m leaning towards the latter.

Besides the obvious influence of both superhero movies and the aforementioned Once Upon a Time (and its short-lived spin-off) Avengers Grimm also seems to take inspiration from Zenescope Comics and the lascivious fairy tale books such as Grimm Fairy Tales, Wonderland – which weave the traditional Brothers Girmm characters into all new stories, all the while adding copious amounts of sex and violence. However Jeremy M. Inman’s film does away with the sexier aspects and instead presents what is, for the most part, a family-friendly action-adventure movie with a strong female-led cast, something which – given The Asylum’s track record – is somewhat of a surprise.

Avengers Grimm is a lof of fun, but it’s also not without its problems. For one the performances of the ass-kicking heroines varies wildly. Lauren Parkinson, as Snow White, and Marah Fairclough, as Sleeping Beauty, both are unconvincing as the fairy tale heroines whilst Team Unicorn members Milynn Sarley and Rileah Vanderbilt, as Cinderella and Rapunzel respectively, really shine – even when going head to head with scenery chewing “big-name” actors (The Asylum always know that names sell, no matter the film) Lou Ferrigno and Casper Van Dien.

Jeremy M. Inman, who writes and directs Avengers Grimm has obviously channeled his experience on previous Asylum productions into his work here. Be it knowing how to get the best out of his cast and his budget, or knowing what makes for an interesting, modern take on the Brothers Grimm mythos; Inman has – despite limitations – produced a fun post-modernist example of the “fairy-tale” movie.

4) Ghosthunters

When his wife and daughter fall victim to a Jigsaw-like serial killer by the name of The Night Stalker, Henry (Stephen Manley) has only one thing on his mind – to return to the scene of the crime and begin plotting his revenge. Yeah, that’s not true at all. In fact, you couldn’t be further from the truth! Upon finding that the killer is in fact dead, Henry actually wants to return to the Night Stalker’s torture mansion (that sounds quite pathetic doesn’t it? I could have worded it much better, but oh well!) to see if he can locate and make contact with the spirits of his wife and daughter. Seems a little farfetched? Well, Henry is a paranormal expert so any opportunity is a good one, especially when family is involved. He enlists the help of his team members Neal (David O’Donnell) and Jessica (Liz Fenning). Unbeknownst to him the pair decide to invite their girlfriends; amateur reporter Amy (Francesca Santroro) and occultist expert Devon (Crystal Web). Initially angered by their inclusion, he slowly warms to them when their expertise both practical and paranormal begin to aid him in the task at hand. All is not as it seems however, as there are spooky and potentially deadly things at play. Could The Night Stalker be slaying from the other side? Did he even die at all? Maybe spirits don’t like to be messed with? Investigate for yourself!

Now, in a cinematic world that is full to the brim with cheap and uninspired ghost, paranormal and possession movies, you’re probably already sighing at the prospect of another low budget offering. I know for a fact that this being an Asylum production certainly doesn’t help things for most viewers. Thankfully, Ghosthunters was one hell of a surprise. Not one of those ‘close the medicine cabinet and get greeted by someone standing behind you’ surprises, but one of those genuine cinematic surprises we all face every now and then. OK, let’s just say my hopes weren’t too high. Did I also mention this was a film cashing in on the hype and success of the Ghostbusters reboot!? Yeah. I can totally understand why people would completely give this one a miss. As much as I understand, I have to say more fool them.

Thankfully, Ghosthunters isn’t cheesy or tongue in cheek at all and shoddy CGI doesn’t make an unwelcome appearance. Although not completely original, the film is a breath of fresh air. The characters are likeable enough for you to follow and the tone does get genuinely creepy, bordering on sinister at points. Unfortunately, we do get treated to that unwanted cliché of spirits suffering from sped up nausea inducing head spasms (I’m sure there’s a proper technical term for that?) in the afterlife and the occasional loud jump scare, but I think the latter is unavoidable in films like this and it is never overused. Speaking of the spirits, they look and sound great and wether they’re jumping at the screen or standing in the corner of the room, they look the part. The film itself looks great and actually has a genuine cinematic feel. Like I said, a real surprise when you consider what this film is and who produced it. There’s even some genuinely gruesome moments with practical effects!

All in all, I really enjoyed this one. From the performances to the atmosphere. Takes aspects of the Fatal Frame and the Silent Hill game franchises with a hint of Saw and a sprinkling of Ringu and throw in elements of the recent slew of possession films (you’ll see what I mean!) and mix that with paranormal cinema and programming and you have a very solid film indeed. Of course, some of the technology used is reminiscent of Ghostbusters, but this film could have easily been released on its own merits and in a completely different window of time in relation to that remake. I can completely understand why it was released when it was, but I personally think a much more legitimate and forgiving crowd would appreciate the film for what it is.

If you missed this film completely for any of the reasons mentioned earlier in the review, do yourselves a favour and be genuinely surprised. Ghosthunters is not a perfect film by any means, but for someone who finds ghost / paranormal films quite tedious for the most part, I thought this was superb.

3) Hercules Reborn

This iteration of the mythical hero’s tale takes place after he kills his wife and children in a fit of madness and is now living in exile, banished for the murders. However when the bride of Arius, an officer in the Greek army, is seized during a bloody coup by a ruthless Greek general, the soldier turns to the legendary Hercules for help. Initially Hercules refuses, but when he sees this as a chance for salvation, he agrees to help Arius. Together they must battle the general’s army, as well as the demi-god’s demons, in order to rescue the bride and reclaim the honor of Hercules.

Given that this is a product of The Asylum there HAS to be a connection with the current cinematic outing of the character. That’s how the companies many, many, mockbusters have worked right?

Right.

Taking the lead from Brett Ratner’s Hercules, which stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, The Asylum have tasked another former ‘sports entertainment’ star as their lead: in this case former WWE superstar John Morrison – performing here under his real name of John Hennigan – who rose to fame in the WWE as part of the tag team MNM, before gaining both the ECW Championship and the Intercontinental Championship. Having made the move into acting, this marks Morrison/Hennigan’s first headlining role and whilst many would question casting a wrestler as the lead in any movie, here the casting actually works in The Asylum’s favour. Morrison is surely going to bring a wider audience to Hercules Reborn, and for once our titular hero actually looks like he could seriously kick your arse – when he’s not busy looking smouldering, moody or drunk of course!

To be fair, I wasn’t really expecting that much from Hercules Reborn, so it came as something of a surprise to discover this product of The Asylum was less of a typical mockbuster and more of a truly solid attempt at telling the story, albeit a very different story, of Hercules. If the reports are to be believed, The Asylum budgets most of their current movies at the million dollar mark, if this is true then the company have literally put every penny on screen – from the costumes to the sets, to the epic (for a DTV action flick) battle scenes, this film looks every bit the million dollars; making this easily the best looking production to come from the company in its relatively brief history.

I’ve no doubt the success of this Asylum production comes down to it’s director Nick Lyon who was also behind two better-than-average DTV zombie films: Zombie Apocalypse and Rise of the Zombies, starring Ving Rhames and Danny Trejo respectively. Both of those films made the best of their budgets and of their story; and Lyon’s repeats that formula again here. Yet despite the serious action-movie tone, Hercules Reborn is not without it laughs (some no doubt unintentional) and it’s hard not to appreciate any film that re-stages the famous “I Am Spartacus” scene from the Kirk Douglas film using a small courtyard of drunks instead of an army of slaves.

Despite being a much smaller-scaled production, Hercules Reborn does actually score points over the much bigger-budgeted The Legend of Hercules – nowhere more so than in it’s reveling in the violence and bloodshed of the genre (thank god), something which was missing from Renny Harlin’s watered-down teen-friendly version. John Morrison also makes for a much more enigmatic hero, running the gamut of emotion from moody drunk, to anti-hero, to just plain old hero – whereas Kellan Lutz’s titular character was a much more one-note affair. Although what’s with both films turning the mythological hero into more of a man than a demi-god?

2) Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies

Whilst it’s namesake Hollywood counterpart takes the battle to undead bloodsucking legions, Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies sees Lincoln take on an all-together more daunting task… zombies. Opening with Lincoln as a child in the midst of the first zombie outbreak, an outbreak which took the life of his mother; the film follows the titular President as, in the middle of the American Civil War and prepping the Gettysburg address, he downs tools and heads behind confederate lines to battle the undead which have once again risen from their graves and whom have no qualms about chomping down on union or confederate, because as we all know zombies don’t discriminate!

Forget the fact that this film is essentially a quick straight to DVD cash in on the Timur Bekmambetov directed blockbuster book adaptation, forget that this is yet another product of The Asylum, Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies is that rare thing – a damn good movie in it’s own right!

Led by horror veteran Bill Oberst Jr. who gives a stellar performance as Honest Abe, the film is unlike any Asylum movie that has come before it. For one it has one hell of a script, writer/director Richard Schenkman has not only co-written a story featuring one of America’s greatest historical figures but Schenkman and co. have also included Teddy Roosevelt, Stonewall Jackson, Pat Garrett and John Wilkes Booth! Talk about getting more bang for your buck. It’s especially fun to see the interaction between Bill Oberst Jr.’s Abe and the young (however historically inaccurate) Teddy Roosevelt as the pair team-up to fight the undead menace.

What also raises Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies above the norm is the fun historical references such as Lincoln [almost] quoting that classic Rossevelt line ‘big stick’ line when he tells the young will-be-President to “walk softly and carry this big stick”; there’s also a cracking tie-in to Lincoln’s final demise come the films conclusion. It’s those little real-life historical references which really make the film a super-fun watch.

As I mentioned previously Bill Oberst Jr. does a stellar job as Lincoln, ably supported by Jason Vail as John Wilkinson (aka John Wilkes Booth), Baby Norman as Mary Owens and Canon Kuipers and young Teddy Roosevelt. And whilst the rest of the cast do a decent job, special mention must go to Don McGraw, who plays confederate general Stonewall Jackson. Why? For one of the most ridiculous over-the-ear fake beards I’ve sever seen in a “straight” movie – trust me, it’s the type of beard that is only ever used for comedy effect…

Looking fantastic – this is one of the best-looking film The Asylum has ever produced – and with a cracking cast and script, Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies is just as good (if not ever so-slightly better in terms of story) than it’s Hollywood counterpart. Definitely not one to be missed.

1) Mercenaries

You remember the 80s and the action films of The Cannon Group? Remember how Stallone tried to bring that era back with The Expendables? Remember all the chatter about the being an “Expenda-belles” movie? And how, even now some 3 films into the franchise, we are nowhere near to seeing the female-centric version come to fruition? Well forget that film. And forget The Expendables. Check out the Mercenaries

The plot is, like it’s big-screen brethren, pretty simple.When the President’s daughter is kidnapped by a man-hating “Amazonian She-Bitch” (to quote the movie) whilst on a tour of a foreign war zone, a team of female mercenaries – all prisoners of the United States government for various severe crimes – is assembled by the CIA to infiltrate a women’s prison for a daring rescue.

I’ll be honest, news on Mercenaries originally broke just after I’d watched the awesome Zoe Bell fight-flick Raze, so between seeing (and loving) that movie and finding out that this film would also star one of my all-time favourite martial arts movie stars, Cynthia Rothrock, it’s safe to say that I was a more than a little excited for what Mercenaries had to offer… And a little apprehensive.

But I needn’t have ever worried. Not only is Mercenaries easily the best film The Asylum have ever produced, it’s also an Expendables beater.

Now that may seem like a bold, and frankly ridiculous statement, but it’s not. Having loved the first two adventures of The Expendables, the third film left me cold. That film was a by-the-numbers affair, the type of film that was more about the headlining names in the cast than the story, the type of film that was more reminiscent of the Stallone career lows of the 90s than the great comeback the first film was. Which is why I can safely say that Mercenaries wipes the floor with The Expendables 3. It succeeds where many slicker Hollywood female-led action movies have failed (Tomb Raider I’m looking at you) and also where The Expendables 3 failed, because it has the right cast. The right blend of women. And most importantly, the right story in which to show them off.

I don’t think you could have asked for a better group of women in a Cannon-esque action flick. Zoe Bell and Kristanna Lokken kick mucho arse as usual (Lokken seems to be channeling a little of her T3 character here) and Nicole Bilderback – who is the real surprise as a bad-ass bomb expert, having only appeared in teen comedies and the like in the past – have superb chemistry. Whilst Vivica Fox and Bridgette Nielson make for great villainous foils for our heroes (Nielsen really chews up the scenery in a role she was born for). It’s just a shame Cynthia Rothrock doesn’t get more screen time but hey at least she gets to have a smackdown, drag-out fight with Fox early on!

The action genre was, at one time, filled with female heroes – the likes of Cynthia Rothrock, Michelle Yeoh, Kathy Long and Rachel McLish – all of whom tore up the screen in some of the best B-movie action flicks to have ever been produced (before or since). Of course we’ve had female heroes since, but in my opinion nothing has really matched the heady days of the straight to video era for creating real star vehicles for women who can really kick arse. Mercenaries does this. And it does it incredibly well.

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2 Responses to “Top 5: Movies from The Asylum”

  • Phil,

    Thanks for including ABRAHAM LINCOLN VS. ZOMBIES on your short list here. Like you, I liked the historical angle of Richard Schenkman’s script, thought the YoungTR scenes were fun and loved, loved loved Stonewall Jackson’s beard (after which The Gettysburg Address was just gravy.) Long live Asylum!

    with appreciation,
    Bill

    Bill Oberst Jr.
    billoberst.com

  • Hey, Nerdly –

    Thanks so much for the shout-out! We were all very proud of “A v Z”, especially what we were able to achieve on a budget far lower than you can imagine. (Trust me — whatever you think we spent on that movie? We spent less).

    But we had the entire town of Savannah at our back, and the miraculous Bill Oberst Jr. at our head, and a script we were all excited to bring to the screen.

    Thanks again to David Latt, Paul Bales, and David Rimawi of the Asylum, who never stopped believing.

    best,
    Richard Schenkman