Whenever a movie does well, there's usually a horde of pale imitators that pop up shortly after (Now that The Hunger Games is set to top box office records a second time, we're placing bets on when a direct-to-DVD movie called The Thirsty Games shows up). But Rip-offs get a bad rap. In fact, they’re often better than remakes, since their legal need to differentiate themselves from the originals often inspires them to get wacky. Take, for example, the films below, which take concepts from box office hits and run with them off a cliff, only to take off into the sky and fly to the land of lunacy (not unlike the protagonists in E.T., which had its own share of wonderfully aberrational knock-offs).
The Bollywood reimagining of the first five (!) Nightmare on Elm Street films is a smorgasbord of total insanity. It serves up recreations of everything from the infamous “Tina in a bodybag” sequence from part one, to Joey’s waterbed of death in part four, to Nancy’s comforting but strong pink sweatshirt in part 3. Much more importantly, it intersperses the murder and mayhem with musical numbers (including one about a picnic) and hideous comic relief by a Michael Jackson impersonator. 2 hours and 12 minutes of jaw dropping wonderfulness.
How can one write about schlock-meister William Castle’s ingenious Psycho rip-off without ruining its many, many wild twists? Let’s just say this: It involves a random wedding that ends in mass murder, a leggy blonde terrorizing an old lady in a wheel chair, a freak out in a flower shop, a lead actress who looks like a drag queen (possibly for good reason), an inherited fortune, sibling rivalry that transcends intensity, and possibly the most batshit crazy use of vocal dubbing that you will ever see. The film includes a “fright break” right before its climax. During its original theatrical release, audience members who could not take the suspense could leave the theater. However, anyone who left had to walk up the middle of the theater alone, get laughed at by the rest of the audience, step into a booth called “Coward’s Corner,” and sign a certificate stating that they were a “bona fide coward.” Can you handle it?
“Abby doesn’t need a man - the devil is her lover now!,” screamed the posters for this blaxploitation adaptation of The Exorcist (1973). Warner Brothers sued Abby’s producers for copyright infringement, successfully! This victory was a travesty. Did The Exorcist feature an exorcism in a disco? Nope. Did Regan get possessed by a sex demon that speaks jive, and hit single bars looking to cheat on her husband? You get the picture. Abby overflows with innovation. Watch out for the brilliant, legendary Juanita Moore (Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life) talking about the sanctity of marriage and her love for fried chicken, and looking justifiably offended by her dialogue. Interesting fact: Before she gets possessed, Abby is a marriage counselor. In Tyler Perry’s Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor, its main character also commits adultery, begins hanging out in nightclubs that look suspiciously like hell, and gets subjected to an exorcism. Tyler Perry, give Abby the credit it deserves! The sound is out of alignment in this clip, but it oddly works:
If you fed a cat the plots of The Exorcist, The Omen (1974), Audrey Rose (1977), and The Bad Seed (1956), a sugar cube covered in acid, and an Alka-Seltzer tablet, and then videotaped what went on inside the cat’s head for an hour and a half, you’d probably have a film that strongly resembled Cathy’s Curse. A family moves into the mother’s ancestral home, which has hideous ‘70s wallpaper treatments. Daughter Cathy becomes obsessed with a dirty old doll that belonged to mom’s sister, who died in a car accident at a young age. Soon, the dead aunt (who apparently had one hell of a dirty mouth on her, and hated women) possesses Cathy. She also gives Cathy powers to make food rot, to inspire her mother to hallucinate that she’s in a bathtub full of leeches, and to throw old ladies out windows and poison dogs. Words cannot do justice to this film’s editing and sound design, which are so intensely jarring that they almost become effective. If you only watch one clip in this article, let it be this:
Deafula is the first and last movie shot in SignScope, meaning that all of its actors speak in American Sign Language. That is not why it’s insane. It’s insane because it features a child tearing out a puppy’s throat. It’s insane because before Deafula randomly transforms into a vicious bloodsucker, he goes around saying that he wants to give everybody rainbows. It’s insane because Deafula hypnotizes a hippie on a motorcycle and makes him drive his girlfriend off a cliff, and it looks like the director threw the camera off the cliff to capture their journey. Deafula, tragically, includes the only existent cinematic overacting in sign language.
The Swarm (1978) was already pretty crazy, so its tacky rip-off had to really go over the top. An evil corporation tries to ship super-intelligent killer bees from South Africa in order to use them to make cosmetics. They escape, attack the Rose Bowl parade in Los Angeles, and begin world domination. Scientists (John Saxon and John Carradine) try to stop the crisis by spraying the bees with a chemical that will make them gay, so that they will sleep with each other instead of creating more bees with the queen. To the religious right’s shock, they discover that you can’t turn bees gay. Finally, Saxon has no choice but to communicate with the bees, who tell him that if humans and bees can’t begin to share social power, they will eradicate our species. Also, John Saxon has a Kung Fu fight with an assassin.
House of Exorcism started its life as Lisa and the Devil (1973), Mario Bava’s gorgeous, lyrical, oddly romantic masterpiece about a woman (Elke Sommer) trapped in a gothic castle with a twisted family, an unhappy couple, a bunch of mannequins, and a butler who may or may not be the devil (Telly Savalas!). The film’s producer, Alfredo Leone, thought that the off-kilter, leisurely paced affair would fail with audiences, and that it needed to copy The Exorcist. After production completed, Leone brought back Sommer to shoot scenes in a hospital in which the glamorous star swore like a sailor, vomited frogs, flew across rooms, and harassed a priest played by Robert Alda. He then juxtaposed those sequences with scenes from Lisa and the Devil, creating an utterly incomprehensible but riveting whack-job of a film. It shockingly made a ton of money. Stumbling upon this movie unexpectedly during its many late night screenings in the 1980s was enough to make any child cower under the covers, terrified that there need not be any semblance of order in the media or the world.
She talks like Chucky. She sounds like Chucky. She kills like Chucky. She dresses like an American Girl doll. This incongruence proves delicious. A man puts his life savings into restoring an old doll factory in Mexico (not the most surefire plan). His family moves in next door to the factory and his angelic daughter naturally becomes obsessed with one of dad’s dolls. Soon, she begins acting like Joan Crawford on a bad day and cleaning ladies start to die. An archaeologist (Rip Torn, with a bad British accent) reveals that the factory was built over the former habitat of a Mayan cult. They raised a goat-headed demon boy and fed him the blood of children, and he has possessed Dolly Dearest. Can mom save the world? Of course she can, Denise Crosby plays her.
The English film I Don’t Want To Be Born (released in the U.S. as The Devil Within Her) gives you a lot of bang for your buck. It rips off not only Rosemary’s Baby (1968), but also The Exorcist and It’s Alive (1974)! Joan Collins goes through a nasty labor and ends up with a big baby who bites, punches, and drowns people, puts a dead rat in Joan’s housekeeper’s tea, and screams like a maniac anytime Christian values are hinted at around him. Joan thinks that his evil might be rooted in a curse placed on her by a little person in a jester’s outfit who she rejected when she was a stripper in her youth. This might be the only film to include an infant’s exorcism.
Take 7 parts Alien (1979) and 3 parts The Thing (1982). Throw in scenes of an over the top Klaus Kinski eating lunch. Add three dashes of parasites that turn the alien monster’s victims into blood-thirsty zombies. Shake vigorously, and you have Creature. Even if it didn’t co-star It’s a Living’s Wendy Schall, Creature would be a must see for those who crave the derivatively insane. .
Admittedly, it is sort of cheating to put Last House on Dead End Street on a list of rip-offs. It was not made in order to rip off Wes Craven’s classic Last House on the Left, although it shares similarities with that film. In 1972, director Roger Watkins originally made a 175-minute epic titled The Cuckoo Clocks of Hell. Very long story short, the film didn’t get released until 1977, at which point its distributor cut it down to 77 minutes and re-titled it The Funhouse. Finally, shortly after, they re-released it again to capitalize on the success of the Craven film. A small time drug dealer gets released from prison and wants to avenge those who put him there. He hooks up with a couple of prostitutes and an insane acquaintance, and they decide to make snuff films. From here, things get seriously weird, as our killers put on extremely creepy masks and enact increasingly bizarre rituals on film. The sinister ceremonies resemble 1960s experimental films by Kenneth Anger as much as they do grindhouse gore flicks. This incredibly unique film creates an all-encompassing atmosphere of pathology and grotesque, uncanny horror that will likely get under your skin. It proves that you should check out a movie even if it looks like a rip-off. You might stumble on something bizarrely visionary.
The Turkish version of Jaws, featuring car chases, kung fu, a shark that resembles a giant bathtub toy, and an extremely grandiose performance by legendary actor Cüneyt Arkin.
You think Carrie had it hard? Try dealing with a weight problem when you go to high school in Beverly Hills, your mother is Lee Grant, and your sister (the preferred sibling) is a simpering little snot-nose played by Helen Hunt. Rita, the heroine of The Spell, naturally seeks revenge on her many oppressors using supernatural powers. Anybody who was “that kid” in elementary school will find himself deeply distressed and profoundly vindicated when Rita gets humiliated while trying to climb a rope in gym class while her skinny, leotard-clad classmate arrogantly practices Cirque du Soleil moves. Rest assured, things don’t end well for little miss agile. SPOILER ALERT: In The Spell’s secret weapon of a climax, Lee Grant reveals that she also has “the gift,” and she and her daughter have a supernatural, ultimately therapeutic face off.
Ben Raphael Sher is a Ph.D. candidate at UCLA, where he also teaches. His work has appeared in Fangoria, Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide, and Back Stage. You can read more of his work here.