The Uncanny Valley: The Unceasing Strangeness of the SyFy Channel

Fair warning: most of the video clips posted below are not safe for work, and many are mind-boggingly stupid as well. Seriously, don’t watch them if there is anybody nearby who you want to respect you as a human being.

“After an African dinosaur ancestor of the crocodile is found, Dr. Campbell uses its DNA to create prototypes at Paula Kennedy’s Genetic Research Co. (Gereco) lab. However one must be put down after killing someone, another escapes and the information is kept from sheriff Harper. His daughter, county dog catcher Diane Harper, helps her ex (welding artist Tom Banning) with his kid brother Michael’s beloved dog. They bump into Campbell and discover the dinocroc is growing, having escaped down a tunnel. Although Gereco hires Australian crocodile specialist and intrepid hunter, Richard ‘Dick’ Sydney, the beast proves impervious to bullets, so the body count rises alarming.”

“A fisherman and his family fight to take down a greedy real estate developer who has released toxins into the ocean, turning the area’s sharks into bloodthirsty hunters.”

“After an overly ambitious businessman transports an 80-foot python to the United States, the beast escapes and starts to leave behind a trail of human victims. An FBI agent and a snake specialist come up with a plot to combat the creature by pitting it against a bioengineered, 70-foot boa constrictor. It’s two great snakes that snake great together!”

Does reading these IMDB descriptions pique your curiosity? Do you want to see any of these films? Can you already identify what movies they describe? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then go turn on the SyFy channel, because you will probably love whatever happens to be playing at the moment. Point of fact, as I am writing this, the SyFy channel is currently playing the movie Infestation, in which one of the nerdy kids from The Girl Next Door fights giant spider-beetle things.

For the record, those opening quotes are referring to Dinocroc, Shark Swarm, and Boa vs. Python, respectively. All SyFy channel original movies, produced for no venue other than the channel itself (unless you count hypothetical DVD sales, which may or may not exist, and a wealth of YouTube videos documenting terrible acting, terrible writing, and/or terrible CGI). I am not going to argue that SyFy channel movies are not objectively bad films, in the sense that they tend not to be very well made or very well thought out. Yet, the channel, nearing its 20th anniversary on December 10, consistently ranks in the top 15 most watched cable channels, and what does anybody associate with it besides these original movies? Sure, the network has a number of popular television series, such as “Face Off”, “Eureka”, and “Stargate SG-1”, but the most enduring cultural relic are the original movies.

For most people, they are nothing more than a punchline. There is the wide-held, not entirely inaccurate, perception that they are nothing more than vaguely exploitative and confusingly mediocre movies full of washed-up actors, plot holes, and bizarre monsters/mutants/zombies/sharktopi/etc. But I love them anyway, and with average viewership exceeding 1 million (which may not sound like a lot in comparison with theatrical releases, but compared to other TV ratings is actually pretty impressive), there is at least a market for them. You can argue that people only watch the movies because they are bad, as a form of hipsterish horror movie irony. That is certainly a driving force behind their appeal. It is fun to watch the original Bo Duke awkwardly waving his arms at a clueless horde of beach-goers, shouting “Watch out! Get out to the water! There’s a shark swarm coming!”

I might happen to be the biggest fan of SyFy channel movies there is. I can’t really say why, but there is something satisfying about seeing a couple of 80s teen icons getting eaten by a “gatoroid” and a “mega python,” respectively. (Actually, to be technically accurate, Debbie Gibson is bitten in half by the decapitated head of a mega python they had blown up in the film’s climax, after falling out of a helicopter, a fate that had been foreshadowed by an earlier, equally idiotic plot point).

Still, the appeal of these movies is hard to describe. It isn’t quite as simple as enjoying how bad they are, because I without a doubt prefer well-made movies, because I’m not insane. Part of it is genre-specific: I like horror and science fiction, which tend to be the purview of SyFy originals (shockingly enough). One of my favorite movies of all-time is Suspiria, a low budget 70s Italian surrealist horror movie full of gory deaths and a contrived plot, as well as gorgeous cinematography and a brilliant soundtrack. You can find most of the movie online if you are interested; the video below is the most infamous scene in the movie (and, in fact, the opening sequence). It is extremely graphic … fair warning, if you are at work or easily disturbed.

In fact, low budget horror movies are not unique to the SyFy channel. The 1940s through 1960s marked a bit of a renaissance in the film world (both the A-list and the B-list). “Talkies” and color were still relatively new, and it was no longer prohibitively expensive to make a movie due to greater availability of cameras and other equipment. Lots of historically great movies came out of that time period, as well as lots of historically bad ones. In the latter case, my favorite example is 1953’s Robot Monster, a film largely shot in front of a cave featuring a guy in a gorilla suit with a TV on his head, whose reception was so outrageously negative it prompted the director to attempt suicide. More famous examples from that era include Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Flash Gordon, and the original Night of the Living Dead (which, as a sidebar, is superior to most zombie movies made since).

Roger Corman was perhaps the most prolific director and producer of these types of B movies (and, at the age of 86, continues to work, including on many SyFy channel originals, such as Sharktopus and Piranhaconda). Without Roger Corman, the entirety of film as an art in the latter half of the 20th century would be different, for the worse. That may sound like a bold claim, until you realize that it was because of Mr. Corman that a few recognizable names got started in the film industry: James Cameron (started doing the visual effects for 1980’s Battle Beyond the Stars), Francis Ford Coppola (directing the completely unrelated Battle Beyond the Sun in 1962), Ron Howard (1977’s Grand Theft Auto), and Martin Scorsese (on 1972’s Boxcar Bertha); and other slightly less recognizable, but still significant, names like Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, Curtis Hanson, Jonathan Kaplan, and Robert Towne. All of them have noted in interviews that without Corman their careers may not have happened at all.

You can go back even further, as well. The silent movie era has its share of low budget horror movies (such as The Haunted Castle and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), though you may quite rightly point out that the standards of judging films from that era are different than those applied to modern cinema), and going back further into the 18th and 19th centuries you can find evidence of the popularity of the so-called “penny dreadfuls,” which were essentially the literary equivalent of the SyFy channel. Cheap serialized stories featuring ghosts and monsters of all sorts. In fact, it is due to the popularity of the penny dreadfuls that pop culture figures such as Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, and the Headless Horseman continue to endure in the popular imagination. Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle both cited penny dreadfuls as inspirations on which they built their now legendary careers. We could even take another step back and consider the roots horror stories seem to have in folklore and ancient storytelling. Dozens of books have been written on the psychological significance of horror movies, and why people watch them, arguments that we do not need to get into here (the best source, in my opinion, on this topic is Noël Carroll’s book).

The SyFy channel is the logical extension of a trend that has persisted for as long as humans have had artistic expression (you can even look to the so-called fine arts for what amounts to cheap horror; Francisco Goya, especially, was famous for his so-called Black Paintings, like this). It is simply a commercialized, commoditized, and centralized medium by which these cheap shlock and gore-fests can be marketed. People would be making these movies without the SyFy channel, but at some point a similar network would have necessarily been created. What makes the SyFy channel unique is tied in with its nature as a business; with these original movies, there is a strange level of self-awareness that is difficult to pin down, especially as it seems always to be leverage by a misplaced sincerity (here is a great article on Grantland about Asylum, the film studio responsible for many of the more outrageously pointless SyFy movies, like Snakes on a Train, Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, and Titanic 2, which touches on what I am talking about here).

This is where we get to what I refer to as the “unceasing strangeness” of the SyFy channel. It is not just that their movies are bad, or that they are consciously bad, it is that the movies are so full of dialogue, scenes, or plot points that are bizarre at levels that would frighten Dali. Many of them are so specific and sans context, even within the film they take place, it is impossible to dismiss them as incidental, yet are simultaneously too unnecessary to be sensible even ironically. Unfortunately, not all of them are available as clips on the Internet, but here are some of the highlights.

The first you might have already seen, as it achieved quite a bit of Internet notoriety when it came out. This is from Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus.

This one, from Shark Attack 3: Megalodon, warrants no description. It simply must be experienced for itself.

The same movie features some typically outrageous death scenes, as well.

The entire premise of the film 2-Headed Shark Attack (starring, oddly, Carmen Electra and Hulk Hogan’s daughter) is absurd, and the execution was no less puzzling.

Sand Sharks was about the same.

I could have written this entire article just about the film Megapiranha, in all honesty. It, for example, has the line of dialogue, “Sir! The reports are in. The explosion wasn’t caused by terrorists. It was caused by mega piranha.” An extended sequence of the film, in which the hero infiltrates a military base, makes no sense unless you presuppose that awkward karate poses on ladders are the secret to invisibility. Also, the heartfelt belief that everything that happens in this scene is entirely reasonable, and there’s no need to explain any of it.

The editing in Megapiranha is … special.

In Boa vs. Python, we have the scene in which a giant boa (or maybe it’s the giant python, I never could figure out which was supposed to be which) decides to provide cunnilingus to a horny young woman – after having already devoured her boyfriend, which she somehow fails to notice, and before devouring her.

Then there are movies like Abominable; in a ten-minute sequence, the size of the titular abominable snowman ranges from taller than a house, with a fist large enough to crush a busty co-ed in, to the size of a kinda tall guy in a cheap monkey suit. The entire plot of the movie Mimic 2 is based on the premise that splicing genes from ants and termites into cockroaches will create predatory 10-foot tall shapeshifting rape monsters (at one point in the film, the plucky entomologist that saves the day has a monologue about how ordinary cockroaches are more intelligent than most people she knows).Or Tyrannosaurus Azteca, in which Hernan Cortez has to fight a T-rex.

Even the naming conventions are bizarre in and of themselves: the titles are either just the name of a fantasy creature (e.g. Minotaur, Harpies, Yeti: Curse of the Snow Demon), something followed by the word apocalypse (Alien Apocalypse, Android Apocalypse, Stonehenge Apocalypse), a transparent rip-off of a better movie title (The Day the Earth Stopped), adding the word qualifier word to an animal name (Megapiranha, Ice Spiders, Fire Serpent) and/or having monsters that are almost-real-animals fight (Megapython vs. Gatoroid), and, of course, the ones that just plain don’t make any sense at all (Ghost Storm, Ice Twisters, Mansquito, Flu Bird Horror, Bats: Human Harvest, Beyond Re-Animator, Chupacabra: Dark Seas, Cube 2: Hypercube, Earthstorm, Frankenfish, Heatstroke (seriously), Jackie Chan Presents: Metal Mayhem, Man with the Screaming Brain, Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys, Dragonwasps, etc.).

In addition, there is the odd ability of some of these films to attract not-terrible/washed up actors. John Rhys-Davies (Gimli from “Lord of the Rings”) certainly doesn’t need the money, yet he gleefully appears in dozens of movies, usually as the evil businessman who was somehow involved in the creation of the monster that later kills him (I have personally seen him eaten by a sabretooth tiger, several different large snake monsters, a crocodile, and a chupacabra that was on a cruise ship for some reason). Famke Janssen (Jean Gray from “X-Men”) also appears in several. While they are probably the “biggest” names that appear with any regularity, there is a whole host of recognizable actors who simply seem to enjoy overacting and chewing the scenery before they get attacked by a crocosaurus. Tom Hardy, C. Thomas Howell, etc. You can say, fairly, none of these are superstar actors. But, on the other hand, they all work regularly, are well respected, and don’t seem likely to need the money (and it’s not like the SyFy channel is handing out huge paychecks, or that some sort of “Entourage”-style back room contract negotiations for other movies are landing them here).

The most puzzling thing about the SyFy channel is how inconsistent it seems to be: there is the overwhelming cynicism of the cheap exploitation, the tongue-in-cheek over-the-top ridiculousness, the unbelievable stupidity contrasted with the occasional flash of genuine creativity or originality, and the mixture of good actors on a vanity or irony kick, actors that never will succeed, and completely washed-up has-beens. Sometimes almost irritatingly self-aware, at times puzzlingly clueless. On the other hand, what else can you really expect from the intersection of business interests, creative bankruptcy, cult appeal of horror/sci-fi in general, ironic self-deprecation, desperate desire to climb the ratings charts, and a “fuck-it” approach to marketing? Is it really any different, any worse, than the major studios focus on formulaic action movies, rom-coms, sequels and remakes, etc.? Would you really rather watch, just in the recent memory, Battleship, Grown Ups, The Raven, Gigli, or The Hottie & The Nottie? Over 500 movies are released in the United States each year (and more than 10 times that internationally), and how many of them are unwatchable?

In the title of this article, I used the phrase “uncanny valley.” Some of you may be familiar with the term. It is a concept, studied extensively in psychology and artificial intelligence research, describing the feeling of revulsion felt by a human when looking at an artificial likeness of a human that just isn’t quite right. For example, when we see these robots that almost look human, but are just slightly off in a way that is very subtly disturbing.

Really? Nobody is surprised this is from Japan?

It isn’t quite applicable to the movies I have been talking about, in all honesty, but I think that there is a parallel here. The SyFy channel simultaneously resembles so many different things (some of them human enough to be relatable, others too idiotic or incompetent to have possibly come from a properly functioning human brain), yet can’t properly be called any of them. Maybe it was in recognition of that when in 2009 the name of the channel was officially changed from “Sci-Fi” to “SyFy”, preserving the origins of the network yet memorably rebranding it, and began airing reality shows, professional wrestling, and other seemingly anomalous programs. Or maybe the whole thing is just a strange accident caused by a complicated interplay of factors. Maybe it doesn’t even matter, and it would be more fun to just enjoy the unceasing strangeness and unbearable absurdity of it all.

The following clip is not from a SyFy channel movie, unlike everything else I’ve provided so far, but still manages to encapsulate this obscurity. Seriously, I dare you to figure out if this is supposed to be serious or funny, if they thought it was good or knew it was bad, or just something else entirely:

2 responses to “The Uncanny Valley: The Unceasing Strangeness of the SyFy Channel

  1. you’re forgetting my personal favorite: Doomtrooper-SS

  2. “Australian crocodile specialist and intrepid hunter, Richard ‘Dick’ Sydney” – This is the best part of the entire post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.