The direct-to-video industry—home of the mockbuster, the top-billed cameo, and the Bulgarian action flick—operates in part by peddling semi-familiar product to undiscriminating viewers, late-night browsers who’ve given up on finding what they want and will settle for something they won’t mind. Low-budget sequels and spin-offs are a safe bet, especially if the property in question is both popular and cultish. But for every Starship Troopers: Hero Of The Federation or The Crow: Wicked Prayer, there are a dozen titles that are trying to capitalize on the haziest sort of name recognition—spin-offs that are several generations removed from the source material and franchises built around barely remembered flops. Turbulence—a forgotten “Die Hard on a…” variation that tanked at the box office in 1997—falls into the latter category. Capital Arts Entertainment, the company that pioneered the direct-to-video sequel business model, picked up the rights to the title for Turbulence 2: Fear Of Flying, in which a group of aviophobics end up on a jetliner hijacked by terrorists—a premise that would work as a hacky parody of ’90s action sequels (tagline: “They took the wrong flight to cure their fear!”) were it not played completely straight. Not to be outdone, 2001’s Turbulence 3: Heavy Metal added Satanic rock music hysteria and a ’Nam-damaged Rutger Hauer to the mix.
Air Bud, the 1997 film about a basketball-playing dog, spawned a slew of mostly direct-to-video sequels that established its star as a veritable Jim Thorpe of canine achievement, mastering soccer in Air Bud: World Pup, baseball in Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch, and football in Air Bud: Golden Receiver. Having exhausted his supply of sports and sports puns with 2003’s volleyball-themed Air Bud: Spikes Back, series producer Robert Vince decided to change direction; the result was Buddies, a seemingly endless talking-puppy franchise that has become a favorite of desperate parents, giggly stoners, and masochistic Netflix spelunkers. The Buddies movies are exercises in inadvertent, homegrown surrealism, which find their golden retriever heroes gaining super powers, traveling to the North Pole and to space, and searching for treasure in ancient Egypt. The fourth entry, Santa Buddies, ended up siring a prequel, The Search For Santa Paws, which was followed by Santa Paws 2: The Santa Pups. As of press time, the Air Bud extended universe encompasses 14 films.
Bob Clark’s Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2 is a thoroughly bad movie, the kind that repels even ironic appreciation. That didn’t stop rights holder Crystal Sky from producing 26 half-hour episodes of a spin-off TV series called Baby Geniuses: Baby Squad Investigators, helmed by kiddie-schlock specialist Sean McNamara (3 Ninjas: High Noon At Mega Mountain, Bratz, Soul Surfer). Starz bought the series—presumably in the midst of a dissociative fugue—but never aired it. Since then, Baby Squad Investigators’ 13 hours of talking-baby antics have been edited down into a series of direct-to-video releases that play like a nightmare version of the Buddies franchise, chock-full of lame jokes, horrifying compositing effects, and inexplicably pantsless toddlers. Jon Voight—who played the villain in Baby Geniuses 2—returned to play a different role in the series, because he has bills to pay.
5. Beethoven, post-Beethoven’s Big Break
The John Hughes-penned Saint Bernard flick Beethoven was one of the most enduring lowest-common-denominator hits of the early ’90s, producing an animated series and a clamshell-case direct-to-video franchise that continued running into the early 2000s. That’s when the series took a strange turn; Beethoven’s Big Break—the directorial debut of Mike Elliott, head of the aforementioned Capital Arts—was a meta-reboot in 2008 about a Saint Bernard ascending to the canine equivalent of movie stardom. Beethoven’s Christmas Adventure gave the previously non-sapient Beethoven the gift of speech—and the voice of Tom Arnold. Beethoven’s Treasure Tail, which is due out later this month, finds the titular dog—previously content with merely dragging mud all over a suburban home—looking for a buried pirate hoard. It features Udo Kier in a supporting role.
Prolific schlockmeister Uwe Boll was a popular Internet whipping boy in the mid-2000s, thanks to a string of aggressively shitty video-game adaptations that combined a blatant disregard for their source material with a pronounced disinterest in craft and competence. In those pre-Wiseau, pre-Birdemic days, bad-movie aficionados were quick to dub Boll the new Ed Wood, but the truth is Boll’s movies were too impersonal to develop much of a following; what separated his films from the true cult items—besides the presence of slumming stars and several million dollars’ worth of German financing—was a lack of oblivious earnestness. It was only once Boll’s work stopped getting theatrically released that it started to become genuinely weird, and his obsessions—genocide, mass shootings, his own bad-boy image—came to the fore. The direct-to-video sequels to Boll’s bargain-bin fantasy epic In The Name Of The King: A Dungeon Siege Tale introduced time-travel into the plot, sending modern-day mercenaries into increasingly cheaper looking medieval settings. The second direct-to-video sequel to Boll’s BloodRayne, titled BloodRayne: The Third Reich, turned out to be too small to contain all of Boll’s obsessions, and he ended up using its sets, props, and characters to make two additional features: Auschwitz, a kind of repository for the heavy-handed Holocaust imagery that is Boll’s forte, and Blubberella, a fat-joke remake of The Third Reich.
Guillermo Del Toro’s sophomore feature found the filmmaker learning the importance of final cut—the contractually stipulated right to have the last say on how a movie is edited—the hard way. While Del Toro, soured by the experience, shifted his attention from Hollywood to a long-gestating project set during the Spanish Civil War, his former producers at Miramax—who’d lost millions on Mimic—decided to have another go at the premise. Mimic 2, which played like a low-rent remake of the original, hit home video just as The Devil’s Backbone was beginning to play at North American festivals. A second direct-to-video sequel followed a few years later: Mimic: Sentinel, a resourceful Rear Window riff, only tangentially related to Del Toro’s movie, that was written and directed by Splinter Cell scripter J.T. Petty. Low-budget sequels are responsible for some of the weirdest (and worst) filmmaking in the direct-to-video industry, but they’re also home to some of the best; reduced expectations often equal reduced oversight.
Nominally based on Walter Hill’s largely forgotten 2002 prison boxing flick, Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing and Undisputed 3: Redemption are the gold standards of the unlikely direct-to-video sequel genre. Though Undisputed 2 shares a protagonist, “Iceman” Chambers (Michael Jai White, filling in for Ving Rhames), with Hill’s movie, its plot—which finds the heavyweight champ behind bars once again, though this time in Russia—is little more than a pretext for direct-to-video specialist Isaac Florentine to showcase his kinetic, no-frills brand of action filmmaking. The movie helped cement Florentine’s reputation as the king of direct-to-video action and made a cult icon out of Scott Adkins, whose heavy, Yuri Boyka, took center stage in the superior follow-up Undisputed 3.
Roland Emmerich’s Hollywood debut, Universal Soldier, was an obvious candidate for direct-to-video franchising; what’s surprising is the abrupt left turn the series took with its fifth entry, John Hyams’ Universal Soldier: Regeneration. Distinguished by its superb action sequences and surprising gravitas, Regneration disregarded the (admittedly inconsistent) continuity of the previous films; it was less a sequel to Universal Soldier than an attempt at using the blockbuster’s stars and imagery to explore memory, mortality, and aging bodies. Hyams’ Scott Adkins-led follow-up, Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning, was even more out there, drawing on diverse non-action-movie influences (Lost Highway, Videodrome, and Apocalypse Now, to name a few) to create a twisty, shadowy commentary on the nature of identity—with plenty of brutal fight scenes.