Watching SyFy Original movies so you don’t have to!
Happy Sunday, all, and welcome to a SPECIAL installment of SyFy Sundays. Why ‘SPECIAL’? Read on, weary internet traveler, and you will hear a strange tale of that tenuous calm between film crews and the men and women who critique them.
But first, let me speak of Piranhaconda, an admittedly decent entry in the SyFy Original collection, albeit being the third of three SyFy films that generally follow the same story structure.
Why do you call it “decent” then if it’s just the same old story? What separates Piranhaconda from last week’s movie, Supergator, is that Piranhaconda didn’t nearly put me to sleep. Also, as I review these films, I’m rapidly being forced to change my approach to critiquing them, lest every one of my SyFy Sundays columns read exactly the same and become very boring for both you and me. It also hasn’t taken me long to figure out what these films are going after in terms of style, approach, and focused demographic.
And that is? Hilariously overgrown monsters, hilariously endowed women, and hilariously by-the-numbers plot that throw the former two ingredients together as many times in 90 minutes as possible. If I make it through 100 columns, I now realize that I shouldn’t expect this formula to change much.
Let’s hear about what happens in Piranhaconda. The film takes place in Hawaii, obviously a prime locale for SyFy film crews (Supergator also filmed there). Michael Madsen (yes!) plays a herpetologist of some sort who has come to Hawaii after rumors that the local legend of the “river devil” may be something besides a legend. He’s accompanied by a small team who go looking for this river devil. Meanwhile, a film crew is also in the area, making a goofy-looking slasher film called Head Chopper 3. The river devil (which is, of course, the piranhaconda) shows up and chews on people.
You sound like you hated it with a synopsis like that. I actually didn’t. It’s just that these movies are really easy to summarize. In the broadest sense, that really is all that happens. But there were a lot of things that surprised me with their cleverness:
1) Michael Madsen played his role with a meek nerdiness that I wasn’t expecting. He doesn’t outwardly help any other characters, he almost survives to the end of the movie by hiding, and he basically spends his screen time just trying to get the hell out of there with one of the piranhaconda eggs so he can get rich off the discovery. Think Wayne Knight’s character from Jurassic Park. Made me chuckle more than once.
2) There is actually more than one piranhaconda. This fact is not trumpeted beforehand and is a reasonably clever reveal. When one beast is injured by a rocket launcher, no sooner did “I’m not sure that really has the same color pattern as it did before” enter my mind than another piranhaconda showed up out of nowhere to kill its injured brethren. As surprising as that was, it doesn’t hold a candle to the end, when the two survivors blow the head off the gigantic monster with a makeshift detonator and embrace in a relieved kiss, only to be suddenly eaten by a third piranhaconda as the movie ends.
3) The Head Chopper 3 subplot appears to me to be a pretty sly dig at film critics. It could be argued that this subtext is not the original intent, but I bet it was. A reasonably length of time is given to some funny scenes where a very Rob Reiner-ish director is trying to complete a take where the eponymous head chopper is stalking a couple bikini babes. One of them is horrid at acting and the director keeps having to coach her to scream properly. The payoff, of course, is that once the piranhaconda shows up, she screams terrifically, right up to the part that she’s turned into a cloud of bloody mist. While watching these scenes, it seemed pretty obvious that Piranhaconda director Jim Wynorski (more on him shortly) was making a statement. It seemed really obvious that he was making a statement when… well, I said I’d get to that.
So those are a few things you liked about it. There must have been some groaners, right? True, true. Allow me to list what puzzled me in a handy-dandy stream-of-consciousness motif.
1) In all three films I’ve reviewed thus far, two animals of sorts are combined and then grow to gargantuan proportions that far exceed the original animals’ size capabilities. All three have mentioned “genetic mutation” as a cause for this. Do any of these SyFy movies offer a different explanation for their particular monster origins? Because there’s gotta be an origin story out there besides ‘genetic mutation’.
2) Speaking of gargantuan, it may not surprise you to know that every single woman on screen, extras included, has been smiled upon by the bosom gods. Handsomely. Now I’m not complaining about that, mind you. It’s just not applicable to any kind of reality that I’m familiar with.
3) Two female botanists of some sort are in the forest looking for what is claimed to be a super-rare plant. Just before they’re both eaten by the piranhaconda, they excitedly stumble across a few specimens… literally two feet off a paved walkway. I’m suspicious of the supposed rarity of these plants.
4) While impressively huge, the monster’s design is a bit of a letdown. The special effects are quite acceptable for a television movie, but the piranhaconda is little more than a snake with some sort of ridges on its head. It also has a full set of teeth, so that’s something too, I guess. I think the problem is that piranhas and anacondas are just too similar. The ‘pop’ factor of monster design is more obvious when the two combined animals are wholly different.
So that’s Piranhaconda. I understand what it’s trying to achieve. And it does a pretty great job of achieving it. The problem with last week’s Supergator (sorry to kick a dead horse) is that many of the above mentioned plot points did happen, but not in a very entertaining fashion. Syfy movies cater (or pander, depending on your opinion) to a mostly-male audience that enjoys cleavage, monsters, blood, and explosions. Piranhaconda at least handles all that with a silly and mildly entertaining approach.
During this, my third SyFy Sundays column, I freely admit to puzzlement over the criteria with which I should be judging these films. How am I to decide whether success or failure was achieved? If I were to grade this on a scale where The Godfather scores a 5/5, then I’d wager that all of these films would score 0.5/5, if not worse. If, however, I grade these films against each other and the expectations of its demographic, then that makes for a more useful scoring process, I reckon. It would be impossible for somebody to convince me that the makers of these films really believe they’re making the next Godfather. So instead, I figure it’s fair to give them the benefit of the doubt, in the sense that I will assume that these are purposeful B-movies being made for B-movie fans. So in that vein, I give Piranhaconda a…
And now we come to the necessary postscript of this story, the recent Piranhaconda… activity… that prompted me to move it to the top of the Syfy queue this week. On June 18, well-known horror website Dread Central posted a review, written by Scott Foy, that gave Piranhaconda a 2/5 score. A slightly unkind rating, yes, but nothing out of the ordinary for a direct-to-TV movie, most would say. Piranhaconda director Jim Wynorski, mentioned briefly above, thought otherwise. The first comment on Foy’s review was from Wynorski himself. It said simply:
What followed was an hours-long diatribe of sorts that saw 61-year-old Wynorski verbally filet everyone who agreed with Dread Central’s negative review and heap praise upon those who defended him. Eventually, a commenter (me) opined that such a reaction to a specific review might be a little on the ‘overdoing it’ side. Here were my two cents on the subject, in all its crass glory:
“… I just figured I’d say something amusing about what has happened here, which is a 61-year-old director with 30 years of moviemaking experience making a fool out of himself by picking fights with anyone who dares besmirch a movie about a fucking piranha/anaconda hybrid that eats big-[breasted] women. How do you make movies like that and NOT have a sense of humor??? You’ve made films called THE WITCHES OF BREASTWICK, CLEAVAGEFIELD, and BUSTY COPS GO HAWAIIAN, for God’s sake. Don’t tell me you’ve never heard criticism before.”
Wynorski relented, agreed in principle, and would cease further communication on the thread from there on out. Although not apologizing per se, Wynorski elaborated on the reasons behind his unhappy reaction:
“… After 30 years in the business, I don’t give a damn about reviews or criticism. It’s part of the creative process. What I take exception to is Scott Foy writing a review based on ME and not the film. By his own admission, he talks of “going too far” once before and amending his review. I had a time here yesterday being more than a dick but I’m calling it a day now.”
That occasion of Foy “going too far”? Piranhaconda producer Forest King soon solved the brief mystery by posting this snippet of a Foy review from an earlier Wynorski film, that King claimed “upset” Wynorski:
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to say farewell to the late Jim Wynorski. No, the prolific b-movie auteur is still alive, but after sitting through his newest film, ‘KvC: Komodo vs. Cobra,’ I swear to God if I ever meet the man, I just might kill him.”
I’m reminded of a scene in 12 Angry Men, where Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) opines to his fellow jurors that phrases like “I could kill you for that” are generally spoken out of irritation or humor and rarely mean that you wish to actually kill that person. It appears that attempt at humor was lost on the Piranhaconda director, who evidently treated the blurb as a personal affront. Remarkably, Scott Foy’s Komodo vs. Cobra review was posted in July 2006. It appears, then, that Wynorski waited for years before blowing his top against the Dread Central critic. (If you’re interested in reading more, the Dread Central article, and its associated comments, are here.)
But the story doesn’t end there. As I considered my exchange with a film director in the midst of an online meltdown to be reasonably newsworthy and, at the very least, of quirky interest, I spent the next couple days casually and occasionally directing people to the Dread Central thread. Although a frequent user of social media, I can only currently brag of a few hundred Facebook friends and Twitter followers. Lady Gaga I ain’t. Also, I know that inserting oneself into breaking news (of sorts) is a bit of a faux-pas when you’re an aspiring journalist. But I don’t get into arguments with directors every day. (Besides, I participated as an interested observer, not as a reporter, so cut me a break!)
However, just as I began moving on to more pressing matters, Piranhaconda producer Forest King suddenly messaged me on Twitter to complain about my involvement in the thread, which set off a quite lengthy and perplexing Twitter ‘conversation’ between the two of us, which included this exchange:
So that happened. As insensitive and unfortunate as Jim Wynorski’s words were against Scott Foy and everyone else who was caught in the Piranhaconda review crossfire, I have a harder time understanding King singling me out for denunciation. Recognizing a negative review as written by a reviewer who once joked about killing you might trigger a loss of temper and error in judgment. It’s not an agreeable reaction or even a defensible one, but it’s understandable. I get it. What’s harder to explain is why a Wynorski colleague should, days later, seek out someone who had a few brief words with his director (especially the person who semi-accidentally defused the situation) and denounce him as a “troll” who is “fixated” on an argument.
Further conversation with King elicited responses where he accused me of “beating a dead horse” and being a “small [person]” who takes “glee in harming others”. This is especially peculiar considering that my brief comments towards Wynorski were quite benign, especially in comparison to a few other participants. Also amusing is the fact that, at the time of our conversation, I hadn’t even seen Piranhaconda yet. As such, I had not questioned the quality of the film, merely the actions of its director.
I don’t mind these accusations, although I naturally don’t agree with them. I’ve been called worse before. What bothers me aren’t the comments themselves, but what I consider to be a pretty damn strange reaction from seasoned professionals in the face of negative criticism, criticism that they must surely already be accustomed to as creators of made-for-TV SyFy movies. Digging deeper into both Wynorski’s and King’s public Facebook posts reveals a general suspicion of critics, who the pair (along with many like-minded Facebook friends), appear to view as industry outsiders who don’t appreciate the hard work that goes into filmmaking. At the same time, though, critics who have given Piranhaconda (as well as Wynorski’s previous films) good marks are treated with respect and praised for their insight.
It’s this ‘with me or against me’ outlook that seems a very unnecessarily personal approach to criticism. Not all reviewers have the same talent at getting a point across or insight into film critiquing, nor are we all on the same page. We’re not in cahoots. There are a million reviewers out there with a million opinions. No film has ever been “universally” loved, not will any film ever be. As such, with so many different moviemaking styles, tastes, and markets out there, a “Like my movie or you’re stupid!” mindset doesn’t much befit a Hollywood veteran or his loyal crew, especially in public forums for everyone to witness. Yes, filmmaking is hard work. And, yes, some critics are terrible at their jobs. But it’s obvious that Scott Foy didn’t really threaten to commit murder while reviewing Jim Wynorski’s movies. It was a joke, designed the highlight the humor in tolerating what he perceived to be a terrible movie. To think otherwise is to be deliberately cantankerous.
I look forward to seeing more films by Jim Wynorski, if only for the level of strange lunacy that only his B-movie style can bring. When you’re into those kind of films, they’re comfortable, easy to digest. You know what to expect. You know that you’ll see boobs, butts, beasts, and blowing shit up and you won’t have to think too hard about any of it. Above all, if it’s done right, everything will be carried out with a tongue-in-cheek humor that says “We know this isn’t an Oscar winner. We’re just having fun out here.” It’s just a pity that such a legendary creator of goofy schlock, along with the crew that has helped him make it, appears to not be having much fun after all.