It used to be simple. Studios would make bad blockbusters and The Asylum would make worse imitations. But now there's Tom Cat and, my God, won't someone please think of the children.
Today The Asylum is probably best known for churning out Sharknado sequels, but they made their name as the mockbuster shithouse behind budget rip-offs like Transmorphers and Snakes on a Train. They weren't the first to operate a business model based on tricking unsuspecting parents into buying little Johnny the wrong movie, but their use of titles and artwork that are so similar to their mainstream inspirations makes them among the most cynical devotees of an extremely cynical practice. They've been at it for a couple of decades and are by no means alone (Brazilian firm Video Brinquedo cover the Pixar knockoffs and various smaller outfits fill in the gaps). Some might see mockbusters as the natural progeny of the Italian schlock that shamelessly mimicked Hollywood's latest blockbusters in the 70s and 80s. But those movies followed the likes of Jaws and Star Wars, they didn't hit screens the same day. More importantly, they also had great music, cool miniatures and bags of style. Their titles and artwork generally riffed on those of the movies they copied but were seldom so similar as to be mistaken for them. Until recently I thought The Asylum's low budget rip-offs were about as low as the industry could go. Then I discovered Tom Cat Films.
One of Tom Cat's more successful titles
Tom Cat (also known as TomCat depending on whether they're acting as distributor or producer) is a sub-label of Summer Hill Entertainment, a company specifically set up to produce mockbusters. Unlike The Asylum, who claim they're just offering punters targeted product, Tom Cat have embraced the term mockbuster and make no secret of their modus operandi. But, also unlike The Asylum, they are only one step away from slapping 'Black Knight vs Supraman' on a 70-minute video loop of Summer Hill president Ted Chalmers giving us the finger. It's questionable whether there's any point spending an afternoon shooting the 'movie' they put in the box. A blank disc would be no less an insult to consumers. But, legally, that might present some challenges. So these things are literally no more than an attempt to meet the statutory definition of 'movie'. They're a get out of jail free card, existing purely to provide evidence for the defence in any possible legal action. The Asylum, and I never thought I'd say this, at least try. They hire writers, actors and technicians. They have stuff like tripods to keep the cameras steady, and external microphones so you can hear what people are saying. Tom Cat produces the cheapest, ugliest and laziest movies you will ever see. They are to The Asylum what The Asylum are to Marvel Studios. Think about that.
To celebrate the end of Not So Super Heroes season I had a Tom Cat marathon. Finding their movies can be tricky, even finding out which movies they're responsible for isn't straightforward. The company weren't interested in helping me, for some reason, and there's no definitive filmography online, just a mishmash of contradictory sources of information. Their website omits certain titles, the IMDb others, but as far as I can tell their superhero mockbuster credits are as follows...
As producer and distributor:
Metal Man aka Iron Hero (2008) dir. Ron Karkoska
The Black Knight Returns (2009) dir. Juan Alvirez
Thunderstorm: The Return of Thor (2011) dir. Brett Kelly *on their website
Captain Battle: Legacy War (2013) dir. David Palmieri *on their website
As distributor (and perhaps producer, who knows):
Avenging Force: The Scarab (2010) dir. Brett Kelly
The Amazing Bulk (2012) dir. Lewis Schoenbrun
The Black Bat Rises (2012) Scott Patrick *on their website
Agent Beetle (2012) dir. Brett Kelly *on their website
My initial plan was to watch all eight, but concern for my health got the better of that idea and I stuck to just four.
Metal Man aka Iron Hero (2008)
Country: USA/Germany | Runtime: 87mins | Director: Ron Karkoska
Starring: Samuel Nathan Hoffmire, Reggie Bannister, P. David Miller, Jill Shackelford,
Just tell me what happens: North America, the present. Kyle (Hoffmire) is a college kid, we assume, helping Dr Blake (Bannister) test an experimental supersuit. Sebastien (Miller), who seems to be a crime lord, turns up and kills Blake, stealing one of his superhelmets. The supersuit Kyle was testing becomes fused to his DNA somehow. Luckily the helmet can project an AI Dr Blake directly into Kyle's brain, so he learns how to use the suit's powers. Sebastien kills Kyle's parents and kidnaps a girl he has a crush on. Sebastien tries to force Kyle to hand over certain chips from his suit but he refuses, deciding instead to rescue the girl. Suddenly Sebastien has a combat equivalent of Kyle's Metal Man suit, and a magic nanobot helmet for himself. Kyle wins the showdown anyway.
"Kyle, you have become the most advanced human species on this planet."
As far as I can tell, Metal Man is Tom Cat's first superhero mockbuster and was released in 2008, the same week that Iron Man hit stores on DVD. Aside from featuring both goodies and baddies, the plot is unrelated not only to Iron Man but also to the basic concepts of dramatic structure adhered to since Greek playwright Aeschylus laid them out over 2,000 years ago. I'm going to guess the whole thing, from the start of writing to the end of post-production, took less than a week to concoct. The shoot must have been pretty straightforward because it only takes in four locations, all of which seem to be within a few metres of each other. Dr Blake's laboratory appears to be the same garage as Sebastien's office (except for one scene when the office inexplicably becomes a lavish Georgian living room... presumably the result of these hacks getting 20 minutes on their own in a hotel lounge), which is also the same garage used by Sebastien's scientists, albeit with black drapes and random equipment.
By far and away the most elaborate set
"Go to my parents' farm. It's a three hour drive on the road. Just look for the signs."
(Worst directions ever?)
The rest of the locations, bar some stuff in a house, are just random residential streets. When the script calls for a girl to be raped, it just happens on the pavement outside the house they've been filming in. In broad daylight. You see a member of the public wander past in the background. Presumably the house belongs to one of the producers, all of whom I'm tempted to name and shame Gene Siskel-style. But it's not worth it. And nor is saying any more about this thing. With more movies to go I need to pace myself.
Better get used to that wall
Video: Around a Minute of Metal Man
Tom Cat Films
The Black Knight Returns (2009)
Country: USA | Runtime: 87mins | Director: Juan Avilez
Starring: Adam Salandra, Win De Lugo, Cheryl Texiera, William A. Majors, Rick Corbett
Just tell me what happens: North America, the present. After much searching, Max Grail (De Lugo) finally locates his wayward grandson, Evan (Salandra). Although he doesn’t yet realise it, Evan is the scion of an ancient crimefighting dynasty dedicated to fighting evil as costumed vigilante The Black Knight. Max initiates Evan into the family business. An archaic terrorist organisation is planning to release a deadly virus, and for some reason only Evan knows about it and can stop it. Evan starts a relationship with Alex (Taxiera) just in time for her to be kidnapped by Simon (Corbett), leader of the terrorists. As The Black Knight, Evan rescues her but she dies of the pox. Simon’s men kill Max before The Black Knight can save him, but he does manage to stop the missiles that are carrying the virus from launching.
One scene re-uses a location we saw not only earlier in this movie, but in Metal Man too. It even manages to re-use curtains we saw outside just minutes earlier
As inconceivable as it seems, The Black Knight Returns is actually worse than Metal Man. Generally speaking it’s the same movie, but where there are minor deviations, they are anything but welcome. Neither lead actor has a single redeeming feature, but where Metal Man’s Kyle is devoid of charm, the Black Knight’s Evan achieves negative charm, somehow hoovering up likeability from those around him. It might be easier to appreciate him if we didn’t spend the movie leaning back trying to get away from his face. For some reason director Juan Avilez is obsessed with extreme close-ups and constantly parks his camera just inches from Salandra’s pasty, sweaty nose. And because nobody on set had any idea what they were doing, the lighting constantly blows out his features, creating a flat block of glowing white where his forehead should be. This botching of the highlights is mirrored neatly in the lowlights, with the blacks of his ‘costume’ (overalls with skate pads and a homemade helmet) permanently crushed..
Nobody bothers to put sheets on the bed or the duvet
"This is not a bio-weapon that terrorists around the world have been creating. This is a world-killer."
But these are superficial differences and there are far more similarities. Many of the locations are recycled from Metal Man, with the white brick garage/lab/office making a triumphant return, and the Georgian lounge popping up as the bad guy’s HQ. And the few sets that are used are similarly shambolic afterthoughts propped up in a warehouse. You can clearly see the pattern of the OSB board through the thin grey paint that’s supposed to make them look like impenetrable steel. Large sheets of paper are used to partition rooms, and we see the same lights, curtains and ornaments over and over again. Plus the Grail family are meant to be fabulously wealthy, yet this is what their superhero lair looks like:
The plot is essentially the same: a reluctant youngster becomes a superhero, then we get a middle act in which nothing happens, followed by a finale driven by the kidnapping of the girlfriend. But this is definitely less fun than Metal Man with vaguer characters and a heavier tone. Let’s hope that’s because bad movie logic dictates a Batman rip-off needs to be darker than an Iron Man rip-off. I couldn’t stand another one like this.
The camera spends most of its time doing this
Video: Around a Minute of The Black Knight Returns
Tom Cat Films
Avenging Force: The Scarab (2010)
Country: Canada | Runtime: 85mins | Director: Brett Kelly
Starring: Mark Courneyea, Jody Haucke, John E. McLenachan, Alix Pasquet, Jurgen Vollrath
Just tell me what happens: North America, the present. Rose (Pasquet), a trainee with some sort of secret government agency, is given her first assignment. She is to be Red. Elsewhere, Professor Joab (Vollrath) is hassled by baddies who want something. Joab's old student, Professor Peter Ward (Courneyea), decodes a message from Joab and discovers the location of a magical stone that gives him special powers. He teams up with Red and mercenary Black Terror (McLenachan) and together they raid the base of supervillain Sphinx (Hauke).
"A gauntlet is standing up and facing a challenge."
Tom Cat's third superhero movie is a return to form after the excessively moody and technically painful Black Knight Returns. It appears the budget may have been upped a little too; the plug-in muzzle flash effects that are slapped on the gunfights seem slightly more advanced. Gone is the tiny white garage that was home to much of the first movies' filming, instead we luxuriate in a slightly larger garage with slightly less distinctive walls. The villains are even treated to an enormous hideaway; a mattress storage warehouse that nobody has bothered to dress. Stacks of mattresses are piled up everywhere, but we're supposed to pretend they aren't. These movies are getting almost avant-garde.
Look, a visual effect!
"Did you know the name Wendy was made up for the book Peter Pan?"
Somehow the acting standard across the board is a little lower than in the previous movies, and if you cut out the titles and interminable opening crawl this one is just 55-minutes long. In spite of the bells and whistles (everything's relative) it feels like the most slapdash effort so far. The lighting is shocking, with some shots so eerily dark they look like day for night, and others so oversaturated it's as if someone pressed the wrong button in the grade. But, of course, there's no way this thing ever saw the inside of a grading suite, so it must be down to simple technical incompetence on the set.
Didn't even bother finding a cowl that fits, huh?
Video: Around a Minute of Avenging Force
Tom Cat Films
The Return of Thor (2011)
Country: Canada | Runtime: 90mins | Director: Brett Kelly
Starring: Ray Besharah, Celine Filion, Jody Haucke, Emanuelle Carriere, Gabrielle Mackenzie
Just tell me what happens: North America, the present. An evil cult lead by Evan (Haucke) is attempting to collect the pieces of The Dragon's Cross so they can summon Ragnarok, who is some sort of demon. To that end they rob a series of museums. Grant Farrel (Besharah), a scientist working on a supersuit for the government, is contacted by Thor (played by director Brett Kelly) and told he needs to sort shit out. He is struck by lightning and must don the supersuit in order to contain the powerful electrical charges he now spews from his hands. Farrel, or Thunderstorm as he now calls himself, teams up with Glenda (Filion), a cop investigating the museum robberies. The final face off takes place outside the industrial unit Evan uses as a base, and sees Thunderstorm fight a mighty dragon (yeah, right) on his way to triumphing over evil.
"You hath not been to hell. T'is no celebration!"
Somehow these things are getting more enjoyable without getting any better. This one features a hero who's actually likeable, the first time that's happened during this marathon from hell. And the villain is by far the most amusing so far, even though he's technically the same villain we just saw in Avenging Force. Incredibly it seems he's trying to become a real actor, there are 21 credits on his IMDb page, which is about as many as all the leads from the first three movies combined. Just as Metal Man and The Black Knight Returns feature exactly the same plot (kid reluctantly becomes superhero, watches mentor die at hands of criminal gang, saves girlfriend and the day), so do Avenging Force and Thunderstorm. Both feature a scientist given magic powers by something ancient, who must team up with an official law enforcer and go after a crazy cult trying to destroy the world. There are fewer mattresses in this movie, but otherwise it's the same, just with more gags. It's certainly not meant to be a comedy, but the tone is lighter thanks to the dynamic between Farrel and his colleague Earl (Randy Kimmett... why do the actors in these movies invariably have more exotic and interesting names than their characters?). The banter they share wouldn't pass muster in a high school drama class, but for these movies it kind of works.
"What are you gonna do about the dragon?"
A grand finale involving a brief appearance from a CGI dragon (worse than the eagles in Birdemic, but still immensely opulent by previous standards) must have drained the production's coffers, but it's well worth whatever they paid for it for the chuckles it provides. And at 75 minutes (excluding the now traditionally interminable title sequences), this is a veritable epic by Tom Cat standards.
Video: Around a Minute of Thunderstorm
Tom Cat Films
And that's as far as I'm going. The infamous Amazing Bulk will have to wait for another time. But those who have seen it will have some idea of what to expect from Tom Cat's lesser known properties (though it's worth saying these pieces of crap have none of the self-aware humour The Amazing Bulk has been accused of). If you want to dip into this realm of despicable dismay it's an experience worth having… probably… maybe. But there's no need to watch multiple movies. I'd go with Avenging Force on the grounds it's lighter and shorter than most, but Thunderstorm would be a good choice too. Just make sure you take a shower afterwards.