Hollywood will eat itself

Film - Philip Kerr despairs at the institutional plagiarism in the movie business

Perhaps you remember a band called Pop Will Eat Itself that was popular in the late 1980s. I never liked the group's music so much as the novelty of hearing a vaticinatory Andy Kershaw announce, on Radio 1, "Any minute now, Pop Will Eat Itself." And so indeed it has. Cover versions, imitations and sampling have reduced the music industry to the level of some anthropophagous savage, chewing on the near-fleshless bones of his own feet.

Movie producers are more outrageous cannibals than their recording industry counterparts, if only because movies cost more and wear their origins more openly than pop music. Naturally, ripping off your own movie in a sequel is one thing - possibly several things: with the Friday the 13th movies, I think we're already up to part viii of the same ugly little story. But you would think that movie industry producers would be rather less sanguine about other people ripping off their work.

Not so, pace Art Buchwald, the producer Alain Bernheim and their successful plagiarism lawsuit against Paramount Pictures, which stole their idea and made Coming to America (1988), starring Eddie Murphy. A film producer friend of mine who has been ripped off by Hollywood aristocracy not once, but several times, shrugs off the experience and tells me that taking on studio lawyers would be self-defeating. "Besides," he says generously, "there are a lot of zeitgeist movies that just look like rip-offs. And it's always difficult to say where hommage ends and a rip-off begins." So there's influence and inspiration and there's even Georges Polti's excellent book The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, which argues that all plots available to writers can be reduced to just 35 more than have ever been seen in all eight Friday the 13th movies. According to Polti, there are no new stories; there are only the stories you haven't already read and, by extension, the movies you haven't already seen.

Hommage and Polti aside, it seems to me that there are as many other occasions, however, when the film business is guilty of institutional plagiarism; the plain truth is that writers and producers routinely rip each other off with shameless disregard for their creative reputations and the intelligence of the cinema-going audience.

William Malone, last seen at the worm-eaten helm of House on Haunted Hill (1999), a truly dreadful remake of the 1958 camp classic starring Vincent Price, seems never to have had an original thought in his head, and may have learnt his craft not in Hollywood, but at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Not content with ripping off Alien (1979) in his 1985 movie Creature (in space, no one can hear you snore), Malone now brings his apish, imitative skills to ripping off the cult Japanese film Ringu (1998), which was remade quite respectably by Gore Verbinski last year as The Ring, a thoroughly creepy picture starring Naomi Watts.

Fright fans will remember how in Ringu there was a rather frightening videotape that caused all those unfortunate enough to see it to die of shock within seven days. In Feardotcom, there's a website that shows a similarly unpleasant montage of disturbing film images which causes those unfortunate enough to see it to die of fright within 48 hours. But hardly content with merely copying Ringu, Malone and the bottom-feeding producers who found the $42m needed to make this garbage also manage to copy the style of David Fincher's Se7en, which is to say Malone's film is shot in near darkness with a lot of supposedly atmospheric rain. And because accidents often come in threes, Malone's murderer even borrows the clown-style face worn by Brandon Lee when he played Eric Draven in The Crow (1994).

This is the worst film I've seen this year, but the most astonishing thing about it is that the likes of Stephen Rea, Natascha McElhone and Stephen Dorff agreed to be in it. "It's a piece of shit," says one character in the movie, when asked about a book he has written. "But I needed the money for a car." Try as I might, I can't think of a better way of summing up this movie and the knuckleheads who were connected with its making.

Feardotcom (18) is on general release