Need a little Sharktopus or Dinocroc in your TV diet? Syfy delights in delivering low-budget horror goodies.About 20 minutes into Mega Python vs. Gatoroid, park ranger Terry O’Hara (played by ’80s pop star Tiffany) rages in the wake of her fiancé’s death at the hands of supersize, humanivorous snakes. “The snakes destroyed my home!” she sobs. “They’ve ruined EVERYTHING!” She then mourns as any suddenly single individual would: by feeding chickens stuffed with industrial-grade steroids to the alligators that populate a nearby estuary, in the hope that they’ll do to the local megapython population — protected by guerrilla environmental preservationist something-or-other Dr. Nikki Riley (Debbie Gibson) — what the local megapython population did to her fella. Shockingly, her plans go awry. Before long, Tiffany and Debbie are having the all-out catfight that somehow never found its way into a circa-1987 music video; a plus-size python is making an appetizer out of the Monkees’ Micky Dolenz, on hand as entertainment at O’Hara’s environmental charity fundraising gala; and Miami’s freeways are teeming with comically inauthentic-looking CGI gators that dwarf the downtown skyscrapers. Then the survivors get smart and explosion-y, and the reptiles get what’s coming to them (which is to say: parts-strewn obliteration).
So goes a typical Saturday night on cable’s Syfy, which started broadcasting original films of Mega Python’s ilk in 2002. Since then, the network has aired more than 200 of the low-budget flicks to impressive ratings: 3.21 million viewers tuned in for the premiere of Lake Placid 2 on April 28, 2007 — an astounding number, given the multitude of cable options and the Saturday-night time slot. And while cinema snobs may never fully embrace movies in which a mutated subspecies eats living beings from the inside out (Larva) or those in which an experiment gone astray sparks a deadly weather phenomenon (Ice Twisters), they’ve become a staple in the junk-tube diets of millions of fans.
Why? Well, just read the descriptions above. At a time where a profound self-seriousness pervades so many cultural offerings, the Syfy Saturday-night flicks have a singular purpose. “They are made for pure entertainment,” says Thomas Vitale, Syfy’s executive vice president of programming and original movies. “To entertain. That’s it.”
The premises of the films — a megashark and a giant octopus tussle, Greco-Roman style, in the ocean depths! A second Noah’s Ark unleashes ancient evils and unspeakable-ish horrors on an unsuspecting town, at what appears to be the height of tourist season! — don’t exactly rival The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in gravitas, nor do they make a lot of scientific or practical sense. The effects are primitive; the snakes and gators in Mega Python appear to have been grafted onto the screen using Scotch tape. “Character development” generally begins and ends with the character meeting a less than pleasant end.
But the films don’t pretend to be anything they’re not, and, in a shrewd tactical move, Syfy airs them on a night when stay-at-home movie buffs are happy to put their brains on ice for a few hours. “What Syfy has done is colonize Saturday night, which is the perfect night for these movies,” says Robert J. Thompson, a Trustee Professor of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, as well as the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture. “They are a phenomenon.” Adds Mark L. Miller, editor of AICN Horror on the website Ain’t It Cool News: “[Syfy] has given an outlet to lower-budget horror films when no other channel has been able to do it. For that, they should be applauded.”