Giant monsters. Has-been acting and singing sensations coming back for one more pop culture groping. Plots so hole-ridden they might as well be a donut factory. ‘Science’ that would make a grade-schooler blush. And scads of ropey CGI that looks like it was banged out on an 1983 Texas Instruments computer.
These are the hallmarks of the SYFY Originals, that infamous crop of low-budget films–usually fantasy and horror and rarely actual science fiction–that make up the Saturday night 9 p.m. slot on a network whose slogan is ‘Imagine Greater’. Perhaps a better one would be ‘Screw Imagination. Steal Cheaper.’
Truth be told, I, like most other fans, have a love/hate relationship with the SYFY Originals, or SFOs if you will. When I happen to be around the tube I love to settle in for one of their schlocky creature features and yet almost always I’m disappointed. SYFY, which should be out chasing actual science fiction related programming, seems to waste alot of marketing on these jokey one-off B-movies. Movies like MegaShark VS Crocosaurs and Mega Python VS Gateroid are worth a laugh, but are also running things into the ground.
For all of that, SFOs hold a certain dubious place in pop culture. They have made the love of trash cinema an event for the whole family. So, without further ado, I’ve created a 15 film countdown in honor of SYFY and its overwrought genre leftovers.
I give you…
THE TOP 15 SYFY ORIGINAL MOVIES
15. Sabretooth (2002)
Getting lost in the woods has never been quite so eventful as it is in Sabretooth. The forests are sprawling but the numerous characters and titular beastie keep stumbling over one another like it’s the local park. One of the earlier offerings that helped SYFY establish the Saturday night schlock spot, this mangy tale of a CGI enhanced smilodon loosed into the great outdoors is better than it has any right to be. Dopey as hell, but with a fun cast that includes a smirking Vanessa Angel, a portly John Rhys Davies, and an early appearance by Josh Holloway, Lost’s Sawyer. The best turn, though, is by David Keith as a big game hunter who takes on the fanged cat.
14. Wyvern (2008)
Wyvern gets on this list by sheer moronic audacity. At its heart it’s a monster movie about an ancient dragon terrorizing one of those small backwaters that would make Twin Peaks proud. It’s also got some welcome character development, from the resident big hunter (TP’s own Don S. Davis) down to the emotionally damaged ice-road trucker, everyone has definition. True, these attempts at drama are as ludicrous as the giant flying beast, but the two go together to make Wyvern a pleasing bit of weekend silliness. Extra points for the scene where Davis comes wandering in forlornly, wondering who or what launched a severed moosehead into his yard.
13. George and the Dragon (2006)
An utterly perplexing throwback to medieval fantasy adventures of the early 80s, George and the Dragon has one of the oddest casts of any SYFY flick. It stars James Purefoy, Piper Perabo, Simon Callow, Patrick Swayze, Bill Oddie, Michael Clarke Duncan and, in an uncredited cameo as the Black Knight, Val Kilmer. Yes, Kilmer, all the more shocking because this was before he started funding his Hot Pocket binges with DTV garbage. Due mainly to the cast, this is an enjoyable romp. Completely daffy and filled with shifting tones and hammy dialogue, George owes its entertainment factor to its ineptitude as much as it does its positive traits. Swayze playing the knight like he’s still the Point Break character and the terribly dodgy dragon effects add to the cut-rate adventure feel and the unintentional comedy.
12. Sharktopus (2o1o)
Roger Corman knows how to make schlock. Not everything he’s touched is gold–in fact, most of it isn’t–but he understands what makes good camp. And Sharktopus, from the top of his dorsal fin to the bottom of his pink little suckers, is a terrifically campy idea. The movie is mostly just a string of scenes that poke fun at SYFY Originals in general. Eric Roberts gets to bellow lines like ‘We must kill Sharktopus! But first, bring me an enormous Scotch!’ Sharktopus even has his own gnarly theme song that sounds like Gidget on acid. Best of all, the monster itself looks pretty good. Yes, it’s cgi, but there’s no better use for it than making a shark walk on land via his long octopi tentacles.
11. Eyeborgs (2009)
One of the biggest complaints leveled at SYFY is also a perfectly reasonable one; there’s very little ‘science fiction’ on the network outside of Stargate or BSG. So it’s refreshing to see that Eyeborgs has an ambitious and interesting sci-fi idea at its heart. An integrated security network called ODIN has installed sentient robotic cams all over the nation to crack down on terrorism. Now the robots are developing their own mandates and are outfitted with weapons that make for some pretty slick murders. Adrian Paul and a cast of ijits, along with the always welcome Danny Trejo, fight against the robots in a pretty clunky feature. What helps Eyeborgs is the third act, which actually shows some thought and ambition and ends up making the story it’s telling worthwhile. With a little more work, this could have transcended the list altogether.
10. Dinocroc (2oo4)
Dinocroc is exactly the kind of movie that I hope for everytime I sit down for one of these things. A simple but enjoyable monster flick that doesn’t take itself too seriously and spends 80 to 90 brief minutes trying to entertain me. Another Corman production, Dino Croc does what it was designed to do; give you something to watch while having beer and pizza with friends. The monster is a great mash-up that sends-up the American Godzilla in its design and spends the film mauling and eating anything and anyone not nailed down. If you see the uncut version of this you will be surprised to find it breaks a sacred genre taboo; Dinocroc bites a kid’s head off–like, right off. Also, extra points for the plan that involves loads of puppies used as bait to lure the reptilian menace in.
9. High Plains Invaders (2009)
Surprisingly enjoyable for one of the serious-minded SFO efforts. With a plot oddly similar to this year’s upcoming Cowboys and Aliens, HPI pits an Old West soldier with blood on his hands against an H.G.Wellsian invasion of insectoid mutants. It helps that James Marsters of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame and Cindy Sampson (Lisa from Supernatural) are in the lead roles and bring some welcome character depth to their parts. With the exception of a few anachronistic weapons, the film looks reasonably authentic for a period piece, although perhaps a little stark set wise. The alien critters themselves are well rendered and imaginatively designed. The rest plays as you would expect but Marster’s outlaw and a better than average script carry the day.
8. Frankenfish (2002)
Wacky as hell and yet surprisingly slick and well-produced by the standards of the network. Frankenfish’s greatest strength is the way it emulates the monster movies of the 50′s and 60′s. There’s lots of goofy exposition, pseudo-serious scientists, backwater hicks and intrepid heroes. The difference is that Frankenfish understands completely what kind of movie it wants to be. This one set the template in place (after robbing it) for most future SFO’s. It’s like the esteemed grandpa of the brand and is still one of the most consistently funny entries. Director Mark Dippe has worked in the FX industry for quite awhile, which might explain why Frankenfish has some of the best special effects featured in an SFO. If you do watch, stay through the credits for the Frankenfish rap, surely one of the dippiest theme songs ever written.
7. Mansquito (2006)
How can you go wrong with a movie called Mansquito? Well, honestly, you can’t, unless you are looking for the next arthouse hit. With Mansquito, you get what you would expect, with a little extra; a grungy little creature feature that riffs on man-bug movies like The Fly but never takes itself very seriously. The extra is that it’s more engrossing than your average SFO. Corin Nemec leads the cast on this raid and director Tibor Takacs, of The Gate and I, Madman, momentarily pulls himself out his schlocky tailspin to deliver a juicy little B movie. There are even a few good thrills to be had here. The best part about Mansquito? No CGI, just a pretty neat costume that summons the icky with old-school charm. This might well be one of the SFO’s best beasties. Just take a gander at that proboscis. Yick!
6. Splinter (2008)
This is the part of the list where the tide turns from watchable trash to pretty good genre efforts. Once you have skimmed off the dreck, there are some effective and ambitious movies lurking around on SYFY. The trick is that most of them weren’t ever made with the intention of making the channel their home. Indie efforts like Splinter are a good example. This is a wily and creepy monster mash about a trio of characters (one criminal and a waylaid couple) battling it out at a roadside gas station with a beast that operates like a land-based sea urchin. Pieces of it fall off and regenerate and with its fearsome nettles it can incorporate the bodies of those it kills into its physiology. Part The Thing and part Rest Stop, the movie shows its budgetary constraints in its limited view of the monster. Still, there’s some darn fine writing and acting on this, and the result is a fast-paced flick that goes down easy and actually satisfies its ambition.
5. 100 Feet (2008)
A woman kills her husband in self defense after years of abuse and now spends her days on home arrest in the same house where it happened.Now she’s trapped within the confines of the building with the angry rage-filled spirit of the man who tormented her. Now, isn’t that heavy for an SFO? Yes, indeed but also more intrinsically interesting than the usual giant snake fiasco. Directed by the demented Eric Red (The Hitcher), whose personal history echoes this story just a tad too closely, 100 Feet is a damn fine little movie, marred a bit by a less than stellar ending. Famke Janssen is the one who sells the slight but compelling concept, and her performance is the best one SYFY has ever seen in their Saturday night slot. Not quite the sum of its parts, but as a portrait of a woman fighting back against abuse, both physical and spiritual, it’s quite effective.
4. Mammoth (2006)
The best lame-brained creature feature the network has yet offered. This is lampooning SYFY’s onslaught of absurd beasts as much as its telling any story. The best baddie ever, meet the titular monster; a shaggy, flea-bitten dethawed mammoth carcass, posessed by an alien parasite from space, that now runs amok through town using its trunk as a soul hoover to remove the lifeforce of unlucky humans. Beat that Asylum! And then, add in a geeky-as-hell cast of Vincent Ventresca (The Invisible Man), Summer Glau (Firefly) and Tom Skerrit (Alien) as a family of nerds hell-bent on stopping the mammoth. Skerrit is surprisingly touching in his role and has good chemistry with Glau. Who cares though when you have the hilarious scenes of a full-size rotting elephant sneaking up behind people in broad daylight as if it were Jason Vorhees. Kudos to the special effects guys who managed to get an Emmy nomination for their work.
3. Abominable (2006)
Sasquatch movies were a sad and yet comforting staple of the SFO brand back in the early aughts. WhenRyan Schifrin’s version of the myth hit SYFY back in summer 06, it straight-up surprised me. This is a fun and involving B-movie version of Rear Window gone wacky. Matt McCoy is good as the wheelchair bound protagonist who witnesses a big hary beast dispatching members of the bachelorette party one cabin over. Filled with some great cameos by Dee Wallace, Paul Gleason, Jeffrey Combs and Sasquatch alum Lance Henrickson, Abominable alternates between silly and scary. Great composer Lalo Schifrin, Ryan’s dad, adds a suitably bombastic horror score. When the bigfoot finally shows it’s one of the goofiest looking things I’ve ever laid eyes on, and again, this is completely intentional. This is Saturday schlock done right.
2. Infestation (2009)
By the standards of SFOs, Kyle Rankin’s Infestation is positively epic. A slacker cubicle jockey working a boring job to satisfy his domineering dad wakes up to find himself cocooned to his desk after a freak blackout. Turns out the rest of the city is in similar troubles, and he assembles a small band of survivors to venture out into a world overrun by giant insects and zombie hybrids. Infestation is a comedy horror in the vein of Shaun of the Dead but it’s more modest in its schlocky intentions. Ray Wise comes in midway as the hero’s gruff dad and he, along with some very creative creatures (spider pup FTW!), helps make Infestation one of the best and brightest movies to ever bear the SFO moniker.
1. Dog Soldiers (2002)
Okay, before you cry ‘Cheater!’, hear me out. Yes, this is Neil Marshall’s lively, balls-to-the-wall survival horror about a rag-tag squad of Brit soldiers fending off an onslaught by werewolves. Yes, it’s not remotely a film that belongs in the SFO catalog, but it does represent what the enterprise aspires to be. How does it come to be here? Because although it got a cinema release across the pond and a pretty quiet DVD release, no one over here was really aware of Dog Soldiers until SYFY grabbed up the airing rights and in return, branded it an SFO (check the official SYFY site if you don’t believe me).
Point being, Dog Soldiers represents whats great about the SFO Saturday night concept in the same way that Asylum’s trash highlights whats wrong with it. This is a slot that begs for good genre films, and when SYFY is out acquiring high-quality stuff like this, it’s doing a service to everyone involved. When it’s trying to hype the latest washed-up celeb vs. giant mundane animal opus, it’s courting self-parody. So, yes, SYFY,we know you didn’t make or produce Dog Soldiers but you had the sense to acquire it and present to tons of people who probably wouldn’t have seen it otherwise. These films comprise the spirit of SFO as much as the bottom barrell CGI fests you churn out do. Get out there and get us some more.