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A Look at Versus Movies

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema examined versus movies. Inspired by the release of Godzilla vs. Kong, the emphasis was on cinematic fisticuffs so legal dramas like The People vs. Larry Flynt were excluded in favor of fantasy and horror match ups.

Alien vs. Predator

The xenomorphs of the Alien franchise and the extraterrestrial hunters of the Predator series were first brought together on the comic book page. Throughout the 1990s, Dark Horse Comics produced an entire line of Alien and Predator comics, among them several crossover stories that brought the creatures together. The first of these was published between 1989 and 1990 and it was a perfect merging of the two franchises. Movie adaptations of the Alien vs. Predator concept were in development for years culminating in a 2004 film directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. The movie lifted elements from Dark Horse Comics’ original Alien vs. Predator story but didn’t do them nearly as well. The theatrical version was rated PG-13, betraying the darkness and violence central to the Alien and Predator brands. A sequel followed in 2007 which was both better and worse. It was a hard-R and had some great creature effects that were almost impossible to see because the film was so poorly lit. Ridley Scott’s Alien prequels effectively retconned and erased the Alien vs. Predator films from the canon. Hopefully the concept will someday be revisited in a way that matches that original Alien vs. Predator story.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

The middle chapter of Zack Snyder’s DC superhero trilogy pitted Gotham City’s Dark Knight Detective against Metropolis’ Man of Steel. As a versus movie, Batman v Superman faced a unique challenge. All stories are about conflict but Batman and Superman don’t have an obvious reason to come to blows. Superhero tales are usually about very clear confrontations between good and evil but a lot of versus movies pit villains or antiheros against one another. Fighting for its own sake isn’t really heroic and so Batman v Superman not only had to concoct a reason for these characters to fight but also do so in a way that was consistent with their heroism. Batman v Superman never really accomplishes that. The conflict is forced and it’s resolved in a whiplash reversal that’s also copout. Batman v Superman was generally regarded as a disappointment when it opened in 2016 although the movie certainly has a passionate base of defenders and the three hour extended cut is more coherent than the theatrical version.

Freddy vs. Jason

Freddy Kruger, the razor-fingered villain of A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Jason Voorhees, the hockey-masked killer of Friday the 13th, were long destined to meet on screen. In the late 1980s, when these franchises were at the height of their popularity, filmmakers and producers wanted to put Freddy and Jason in a movie together but at that time A Nightmare on Elm Street was owned by New Line Cinema and Friday the 13th was under the control of Paramount and no deal could be reached. In the 1990s the Friday the 13th series moved to New Line and the studio set about producing a match-up. This proved to be a long suffering task that went on for about a decade with a swath of writers pitching a wide range of ideas many of which reimagined the mythology of the franchises. It was writers Damian Shannon and Mark Swift who finally cracked Freddy vs. Jason not by reinventing the mythology but rather using what was already there. The result was a focused movie that mostly made internal sense and played for fans and newcomers alike. Director Ronny Yu gave the material a fresh and energetic look and Freddy vs. Jason was one of the best entries in either franchise and arguably the best versus movie ever made.

King Kong vs. Godzilla

2021’s Godzilla vs. Kong was not the first time the kaiju from Japan and the ape from Skull Island faced off in a movie. In 1963, Japanese filmmakers at Toho Studios produced King Kong vs. Godzilla. Aside from the title and the principal monsters, the 1963 movie has little in common with the 2021 film. 1963’s King Kong vs. Godzilla sees the ape captured by an advertising company and brought back to Japan as a publicity stunt. Kong arrives at the same time Godzilla reappears and the two creatures slug it out. There are two versions of this film: one that played in Japan and another that was reedited for American audiences. King Kong vs. Godzilla is not very good and it has aged poorly due to the cheap special effects and some unfortunate use of blackface. But the movie was a hit and an important pivot point in Toho’s Godzilla series. The original 1954 film had been quite dark and somber but King Kong vs. Godzilla was much lighter and appealed to children. The Godzilla franchise would follow that direction, pitting the atomic lizard against a variety of new monsters.

The Asylum

As digital effects became more affordable in the 2000s, low budget filmmakers created a new wave of monster pictures and The Asylum was at the forefront of this trend. The Asylum is an independent film studio that specializes in making schlocky science fiction and horror pictures. The studio found success creating knock offs of Hollywood titles like The Day the Earth Stopped and Transmorphers and AVH: Alien v Hunter but The Asylum is best known for its Sharknado series. Monster pictures are a major part of The Asylum’s slate and among the first of these projects to achieve success was 2009’s Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus. The studio would continue to put out monster versus monster movies such as Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus and Mega Python vs. Gatoroid and Mega Shark vs. Kolossus. The Asylum also put out titles such as Airplane vs. Volcano and Asteroid vs. Earth and Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman

While not strictly a versus movie, 1943’s Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman is worth mentioning in this company. This was the fifth installment of Universal’s Frankenstein series and the second of the studio’s Wolfman pictures. Larry Talbot, the lycanthrope played by Lon Chaney Jr., is accidentally brought back to life. He seeks out Doctor Frankenstein for a cure but instead finds the Monster, played in this film by Bela Lugosi. Despite its title, Frankenstein’s Monster is no longer really the same character seen in the earlier movies. In The Ghost of Frankenstein another character’s brain was placed in the Monster’s head and that’s who The Wolfman encounters and eventually fights. In the film’s original form, the Monster spoke throughout Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman but after a disastrous test screening all of the Monster’s dialogue was cut. Universal’s monster series was the original cinematic universe and Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman was the first of the franchise’s crossover titles. The studio would follow with House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula.

Dollman vs. Demonic Toys vs. Puppet Master

In the late 1980s, filmmaker Charles Band created Full Moon Entertainment, a company that specialized in making fantasy, science fiction, and horror movies. Full Moon Entertainment got a major boost early on with the success of 1989’s Puppet Master, a horror tale about murderous dolls. Puppet Master inspired many sequels and prequels and the franchise continues to be active to this day. Full Moon also created Demonic Toys and Dollman. Demonic Toys, which was written by David S. Goyer, was another piece of doll horror, this one about a warehouse full of evil playthings. Dollman sounds like a toy-themed film but it’s really about an intergalactic policeman who is only twelve inches tall. Full Moon Entertainment created crossover titles of these franchises starting with 1993’s Dollman vs. Demonic Toys and later with 2004’s Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys.

Sadako vs. Kayako

2016’s Sadako vs. Kayako brought together the evil spirits of the Japanese horror series Ringu and Ju-On: The Grudge. The crossover was originally suggested as an April Fool’s Day joke but when the concept caught the public’s interest the movie went forward. Sadako vs. Kayako plays as a mashup of the two franchises, intercutting familiar Ringu and Ju-On scenarios in which young people unwittingly get themselves cursed and try to get out of it by pitting the specters against each other. The movie doesn’t much deliver on the promise of its title but Sadako vs. Kayako does merge the franchises together in a way that mostly makes sense. 

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