1. Piranha (1978)
After the runaway success of Jaws, the B-movie market was flooded with rogue-animal movies. Alligator, Orca, Grizzly… if it had sharp teeth and a cool name, the beast was in the picture. The best of the bunch was Piranha, from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. In keeping with Corman’s philosophy of letting young filmmakers do pretty much what they wanted—so long as they were on-budget and delivered footage that could be cut into a marketable trailer—writer John Sayles and director Joe Dante made a Jaws rip-off that skates right along the edge of parody. The movie contains ample shocks, gore, and nudity, but Sayles and Dante approach the story of killer fish on the loose with tongues firmly in cheek, letting the doomsayers be extra-hyperbolic and the dopey teenage victims be downright moronic. And the Phil Tippett creature designs remain a thing of beauty: simultaneously horrifying and profoundly silly.
2. Munchies (1987)
A conspicuous number of movies featuring destructive, pint-sized creatures began appearing in the wake of the 1984 hit Gremlins, but that didn’t make them all knock-offs. Both 1985’s Ghoulies—best remembered as “that movie with the monster that pops out of the toilet”—and Critters—a modest 1986 success from future Mr. Holland’s Opus director Stephen Herek—have scripts that predate Gremlins, though Joe Dante’s movie no doubt helped fast-track their production. Munchies, on the other hand, has no excuse. Also produced by Corman, never one to let a trend pass him by, and without whom this list would be a lot shorter, the low-budget 1987 effort features violent imps apparently made from designs discarded by the Gremlins effects team as too repulsive. The presence of Harvey Korman suggests that the film was supposed to be funny. The frozen-faced Munchies suggest that it cost about $75 to make. Like Critters and Ghoulies, it also spawned multiple sequels, though Munchies’ offspring are related to it in name only. Directed by Jim Wynorski—an auteur whose career stretches from Chopping Mall to the 2009 effort Para-Knockers Activity—both Munchie and Munchie Strikes Back feature a helpful, theoretically adorable, but actually terrifying rubber-faced creature voiced by Dom DeLuise.
3. Carnosaur (1993)
Corman wasn’t just savvy about trends already in progress: Sometimes he beat them to the punch. Released in May 1993, Carnosaur slipped into theaters nearly a month before Jurassic Park. What’s more, it starred Diane Ladd, mother of Jurassic Park star Laura Dern. The trailer even has a cheeky reference to a dinosaur theme park. Check and mate? Not quite. No one would call Carnosaur’s special effects groundbreaking, though the plot, adapted loosely from a 1984 novel by Harry Adam Knight, outdoes its big-budget competitor for weirdness. Not afraid to go over the top and then some, Ladd plays a genetic engineer who wants to wipe out humanity by impregnating women with dinosaurs. (Or perhaps just dimly shot rubber monsters.) She doesn’t succeed, but carnosaurs of various kinds returned in some direct-to-video sequels. Fun fact: Ladd’s character is named Jane Tiptree, a nod to James Tiptree Jr., the pen name of science-fiction writer Alice Sheldon, who imagined some genetic apocalypses of her own.
4. Supergirl (1984)
Superman movie fans tend to agree that the first two films are great, the third merely okay, and the fourth an embarrassment. They don’t even bother to rate the justifiably forgotten Supergirl, though the movie that failed to make Helen Slater the ’80s answer to Lynda Carter does complete the franchise’s arc into self-parody. Richard Pryor’s troublesome mugging in Superman III removed some of the series’ luster, and the laughably cheap Superman IV: The Quest For Peace sandblasted all vestiges of respectability away, but Supergirl is the missing link between those low points, showing that Superman’s cinematic gatekeepers had not merely lost their way, but had truly stopped giving a shit. Like Superman IV, Supergirl is somehow both campy and boring, which seems impossible considering that world-class scenery-chewers Peter O’Toole and Faye Dunaway have supporting roles.
5. Battle Beyond The Stars (1980)
In the wake of Star Wars’ unprecedented success, a wave of would-be blockbuster space operas sprang up hoping to cash in. They ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, with the scales heavily tipped toward ridiculous. (For a truly laughable example, check out the 1978 Italian quickie Starcrash, featuring a host of non-stars, including a young David Hasselhoff and ex-televangelist Marjoe Gortner.) But in spite of its origins as a cash-in, Battle Beyond The Stars was one of the most ambitious. Its stellar crew seems more impressive in hindsight: produced by Roger Corman, it featured a screenplay by John Sayles and special effects overseen by James Cameron (later to make his directorial debut with the Piranha sequel Piranha II: The Spawning). So why was it such a disaster? Well, Sayles wasn’t exactly in Matewan mode, and the script, though it borrows its structure from The Seven Samurai, is frankly ridiculous. The direction is slow and turgid, and the cast doesn’t help much: Richard Thomas (a.k.a. John-Boy Walton) makes a poor substitute for Mark Hamill, and the rest of the actors are a half-assed mix of has-beens (John Saxon, Robert Vaughn, George Peppard, Sybil Danning) and never-weres (Darlanne Fluegel, Jeff Corey, Marta Kristen). The result is pure space-camp, without the fun pulpy edge that gave the original its appeal.
6-7. King Solomon’s Mines (1985) and Allan Quatermain And The Lost City Of Gold (1987)
In a sense, it’s unfair to call the 1980s Allan Quatermain series a knockoff. After all, they were based on novels that H. Rider Haggard wrote a hundred years earlier, and which were first adapted for the big screen in 1950. So you could say that Raiders Of The Lost Ark was a rip-off of Allan Quatermain, and not the other way around. Still, there’s no denying that the timing of the two movies—the crummy King Solomon’s Mines and the concurrently filmed but even worse Allan Quatermain And The Lost City Of Gold—intended to cash in on the newfound popularity of a certain Dr. Jones. The movies’ problems are myriad: low budgets, poor screenplays, and none of the affection for the medium that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg brought to Raiders. But the casting undoes any effort on other fronts: female lead Sharon Stone acts like she’d rather be in another movie, villain Herbert Lom acts like he’d rather be dead (and he soon would be), and poor Richard Chamberlain means well, but was already in his mid-50s when the movies were made, leading to a certain lack of enthusiasm that one normally doesn’t expect from an action hero. Even worse, half the cast appeared to be playing it straight while the other half were camping it up, a disastrous mix for any production.
8. In The Name Of The King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (2008)
Though he owes his ignominious career more to a loophole in the German tax code than any tangible box-office successes, director Uwe Boll has always had unfailingly commercial instincts, and he’s made a career out of turning out shadow blockbusters with a quarter of the budget and an eighth the prestige. But Boll’s videogame-to-movie adaptations have never hewed closer to a real franchise source than In The Name Of The King, an off-brand version of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy that cuts so many corners, it should be considered a safety hazard. The names have changed, but the game remains the same: The marauding orcs are now “Krug,” Middle Earth is called “Ehb,” and the omniscient evil sorcerer isn’t Christopher Lee’s Saruman, but “Gallian,” played by a slumming Ray Liotta. The one common denominator between Peter Jackson’s world-beating trilogy and Boll’s Max Fischer Players version of same: John Rhys-Davies, who gets an upgrade from the scrappy warrior Gimli to a Gandalf stand-in.
9. Missing In Action (1984)
Never shy about cashing in on cultural moments, producing partners Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the brain trust behind the Cannon Group, seized on a golden opportunity when the 1982 Sylvester Stallone vehicle First Blood, the first film appearance of the John Rambo character, caught fire with a populace still haunted by the legacy of the Vietnam War. But where First Blood concerned the psychosis of a Vietnam vet turned loose in the woods of Washington State, Golan and Globus’ Missing In Action and its two sequels went for the full-bore fantasy of a “one-man army” mowing down the enemy to rescue American soldiers still being held and tortured in the jungles of North Vietnam. Later entries in the Rambo franchise wound up taking their cues from Chuck Norris’ risible quest to re-fight and win the Vietnam War, but the Missing In Action series did it with the bargain-bin frugality and tastelessness that defined the Cannon legacy.
10. Screwballs (1983)
After the boobs-and-yuks raunchiness of 1982’s Porky’s became an unexpected phenomenon, the race was on to create a winning facsimile. Since a quick cash-in required only a minimal outlay of cash, it was the type of opportunity that Roger Corman and New World Pictures couldn’t possibly pass up. In truth, the mid-’80s were littered with sex comedies in the Porky’s tradition, but the “Canucksploitation” classic Screwballs is one of the few worth salvaging, thanks to its winning marriage of cavalier sexuality and disarming innocence. Part of that comes from its hilariously botched attempt to recreate ’50s small-town America in ’80s Canada, and part from a vision of high-school life that plays like a smutty Archie comic. But mostly, Screwballs is one of the few movies of its kind without an ugly puritanical streak; when the school’s resident tease, Purity Busch, gets her comeuppance, it’s a victory for sexual liberation.
11. Mac & Me (1988)
Few knockoffs are as exuberantly shameless as the 1988 E.T. clone Mac & Me, an unintentionally hilarious exercise in chutzpah in which another hideously ugly space alien with magical powers, glowing fingers, and a boundless love for tiny candies befriends a small boy and is pursued by NASA operatives. Mac & Me ratchets its inspiration’s product placement to ridiculous levels, most notably in sequences in which the titular alien boogies in an endless dance number inside a McDonald’s (complete with a heavily billed cameo from Ronald McDonald himself) and a jaw-dropping scene where the aliens are brought back to life by imbibing delicious, delicious Coca-Cola. For such a successful film, E.T. inspired surprisingly few imitations, perhaps because Mac & Me ruined the field for everyone else.
12. Galaxy Of Terror (1981)
When Alien was released in 1979, it revitalized the genre of science-fiction horror. But in 1981, New World unleashed Galaxy Of Terror—and the genre is still trying to recuperate. Swiping Alien’s gritty, claustrophobic set design and space-creature-slasher idea—but none of its atmosphere or invention—Galaxy Of Terror stars the unlikely crew of Eddie Albert, Ray Walston, Robert Englund, and Erin Moran (who was still playing the fresh-faced Joanie Cunningham on Happy Days) as mere hamburger in a deep-space abattoir. The whole film is a blatant, clumsy, yet undeniably endearing rip-off that lets fly all the gore Alien so masterfully parceled out: In Galaxy’s most infamously repulsive scene, Taaffe O’Connell is raped to death by an extraterrestrial worm.
13. Hercules (1983)
Fresh off his long run as TV’s Incredible Hulk, Lou Ferrigno threw in his lot with an Italian production that brought the ancient hero Hercules to the big screen in 1983. It couldn’t have been a coincidence that Hercules arrived on the heels of the 1981 hit Clash Of The Titans, whose central character just so happens to be Hercules’ half-brother, Perseus. From the soft-focus majesty to the anachronistically mechanical critters, the whole film plays like a low-budget version of Clash—which, granted, looks cheap anyway. But without Clash’s stellar cast and Ray Harryhausen’s effects, Hercules is just plain puny. And the stilted, ridiculous, dubbed-in voice given to Ferrigno didn’t help, either.
14-plus. Everything made by The Asylum
Reading a list of the titles offered by “mockbuster” production company The Asylum means perusing a funhouse mirror of the cinematic zeitgeist. Transformers: Rise Of The Fallen = Transmorphers: Fall Of Man. High School Musical = Sunday School Musical. Alien Vs. Predator = Alien Vs. Hunter. The list goes on: Snakes On A Train, 2012: Doomsday, The 18-Year-Old Virgin, The Da Vinci Treasure, Paranormal Entity, The Terminators, and more. The Asylum, which also made last year’s meme-tastic Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus, creates straight-to-DVD films based on distributor requests, cranking out cut-rate schlock in four months with shoots that last less than two weeks, according to Wired. None of it aspires to be great art, though the bald cash-ins sometimes have their own charms. Sure, the Sherlock Holmes that stars Robert Downey Jr. has high production values, but The Asylum’s has dinosaurs, giant squid, and a dragon attacking London. Advantage: Asylum.