Netflix is the most disgusting crème brulee the entertainment industry has ever served up.
It is a sweet, appealing crust of blockbusters, independent films and Oscar nominees covering a deep cistern of some of the most obscure and sometimes unwatchable crap imaginable. Chuck Alessi loves it just for that reason.
Chuck is a game tester for Harmonix, the company that brought you Rock Band and the nation of terrible karaoke singers that regularly congregate at your local electronics store. Two of his greatest loves are video games and bad film, which intersect on Netflix more often than you'd imagine.
Remember the film versions of Street Fighter, Double Dragon or Super Mario Brothers? There's no correct answer to that question. Ever see a film by Uwe Boll, the Golden Raspberry Worst Career Achievement Award-nominated director who adapted the games House of the Dead, BloodRayne and Alone in the Dark to the screen with help from German tax credits and then challenged the critics who panned said films and compared them to boxing matches? Netflix is basically sponsoring Chuck's love-hate relationship with the man.
"Now that I can get Netflix through my Xbox 360, I want to have a big Uwe Boll-watching party," he says. "It's going to be great."
He has no idea. While Netflix has no shortage of competition from Blockbuster's mail program or cable and satellite on-demand services for mainstream releases, a library of more than 100,000 titles gives the Big Red-Enveloped Machine a sizable advantage in absolute dreck. Not that they're happy about it, mind you.
Within the last year, Netflix's new DVD releases have included a host of downmarket gems including:
The Day The Earth Stopped: From the folks at The Asylum who brought you "mockbusters" Alien vs. Hunter and Transmorphers. What happens when Brat Pack-era actors outlive their usefulness? If you're C. Thomas Howell, you direct a straight-to-video parody of The Day The Earth Stood Still and cast Judd Nelson as your co-star.
Los Angeles: Originally entitled Michael Madsen Has No Conscience, Mr. Blonde plays yet another gangster and co-stars with the film's no-name director and a gun-toting Dick Van Patten in the not-at-all-formulaic tale of a drug deal gone bad. Fortunately for Madsen, there's another seasoned screen veteran on hand to help with the heavy lifting, and Sticky Fingaz is just as convincing playing a concerned friend in this flick as he was playing a gangster rapper in Onyx's videos for "Slam" and "Judgment Night."
Attack Girls Swim Team vs. The Undead (aka Girls Rebel Force of Competitive Swimmers): Because they can't all be Ringu (later The Ring), Ju-on: The Grudge or Battle Royale, this Japanese horror offering turns an entire high school into zombies. Somehow the girl's swim team is immune to the zombie virus and... well, the rest isn't really so important. Scantily clad schoolgirl heroines run around shedding a lot of blood. Print and ship.
Ordinarily, Netflix would be applauded for taking a chance on such swill and giving the next incarnation of Troma Films' Lloyd Kaufmann a chance at immortality. The company, however, seems to want no such laurels. The best way to find these films is to find Netflix's "All DVDs Releasing This Week" page, which is the company's equivalent of weapons of mass destruction.
The page has been exiled to the bowels of the Netflix site, replaced in 2008 with a "Popular New Releases" offers no such thing and actually recommends stale offerings that are in greater supply. The unintended consequence distracting people from The Dark Knight is a page that also hides A Viking Saga: Son of Thor and all of its low-rent buddies.
Netflix's peasant class has exacted its revenge as Internet-based instant viewing grows in popularity. In the week after Netflix finally opened its instant service to Mac users last December, stoner documentary Super High Me, Paris Hilton B-grade sex bomb National Lampoon's Pledge This! and Toby Keith's economy-class comedy Beer For My Horses share space in the instant Top 50 with No Country For Old Men, Enchanted and Ghostbusters.
This doesn't shock Stuart Skorman, an ex-video store clerk who founded defunct New England chain Empire Video and Reel.com and recently teamed up with other ex-clerks to launch the review site ClerkDogs.com. While viewing a poll asking for the closest match to the film Platoon, Skorman saw that the most frequent response was Top Gun and identified the poll's participants immediately: Teenage girls. Platoon and Top Gun have one common denominator, hot young actors in uniform, that would fall beneath the radar of Netflix's nerdy, algorithm-based recommendations.
"In theory, we all have different tastes and it all comes down to what makes you happy," Skorman says. "In the stock market, there's only one right answer to how to beat the market, but with movies there are many answers, so it's a whole other gestalt."
But wasn't the whole point of Netflix, the iPod and every other me-based entertainment platform to help people avoid the snickering video store clerks and the sneering music store rack jockeys? Hasn't bad taste become every American's basic human right. By shunning its steaming stockpile of obscura, Netflix risks alienating the very people it set out to help. The folks behind the Red Envelope are no better than the people they replaced if they can't help customers with the simplest of tasks, such as helping Chuck find the craptacular Christmas classic Santa Claus Conquers The Martians.
"I want to see it so bad, but I can't find it anywhere," he says.
It's on Netflix, in the instant viewing section and on DVD in a Mystery Science Theater 3000 installment. Sometimes you have to crack the cold layer of condescension to get to the sweet, steamy goodness beneath.