The Virus episode of WTF Happened to This Horror Movie? was Written and Edited by Ric Solomon, Narrated by Adam Walton, Produced by Andrew Hatfield and John Fallon, and Executive Produced by Berge Garabedian.
The ’90s are chock full of some great sci-fi horror films. Who can forget Event Horizon, The Lawnmower Man, Mimic or Deep Blue Sea…. ya know, the one where Samuel L. Jackson gets eaten by a shark? Anyways, let’s fast forward to the end of the decade, 1999 in particular. It was, and still is, considered to be the best year movies were released. In January, director John Bruno would bring us the film, Virus (watch it HERE). A movie that makes us ask the question “WTF Happened To This Horror Movie?”
Back in 1992, writer Chuck Pfarrer and Canadian artist Howard Cobb brought to life the comic series Virus. The story revolves around a group of scientists who encounter an alien virus that takes over a Chinese Navy research vessel and reconfigures it. The virus infects and takes control of dead bodies of the crew. It propagates itself by making various creatures that are created out of both organic and inorganic parts. As the infected machines and human creatures threaten humanity, the scientists must find a way to stop the virus and save the world from its impending doom. At the time Pfarrer said when he wrote the original story as a script, the special effects for a film adaptation wouldn’t have been possible, so he sold it to Dark Horse comics as, you guessed it, a comic series.
Let’s discuss John Bruno. In the early 80’s he started off as a director of special effects for Heavy Metal, which some consider to be one of the best animated films of all time. He would then work on visual effects for various films including Ghostbusters, Poltergeist II: The Other Side, and Fright Night. In the 1990s, he began working as a visual effects supervisor for James Cameron’s problematic film The Abyss. He would continue working with James on Terminator 2: Judgement Day, True Lies and was the visual effects supervisor, as well as director for T2 3-D: Battle Across Time, a defunct theme park attraction that used to be at Universal Theme Parks. In 1997, he was the production visual effects consultant for Titanic. It even earned him an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects! In 1997, he was approached to direct a comic book adaptation for a film called Virus.
As the 90s went on, Chuck Pfarrer would see the rise in visual and special effects. It came time that technology had finally caught up, so he revised his original script into a movie. The plot of the film is similar to the comic book except it follows a salvage crew that discovers a Russian research ship that has been infested with an alien life form. The alien takes over machinery and starts building robotic creatures. Along the way, the crew finds a lone survivor from the alien’s massacre of the crew. With her, the crew must find a way to destroy the ship and prevent the spread of the virus-like organism to the mainland.
The cast hired for the film included Jamie Lee Curtis, William Baldwin, Donald Sutherland, Joanna Pacula, Marshall Bell, Cliff Curtis and Sherman Augustus. Universal, impressed by Pfarrer’s script, would helm the project. Production would commence on January 30, 1997 and would last until June of that year. This film was an international co-production between The United States, United Kingdom, Japan, France and Germany. It was mostly shot in Newport News, Virgina on a ship that was anchored in the James River.
The ship that was used for production was the retired Missile Range Instrumentation Ship USNS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg…try saying that three times fast. The ship had been decommissioned since the mid 80’s, and was covered in rust. It was in disrepair, and when filming commenced, one side of the ship was painted and dressed up. The other side of the ship was left in poor condition. Only one side of the ship was filmed on camera in the movie. A miniature used for filming, was a reworked model left over from The Abyss. During the production, one of the ship’s satellite dish antennas was intentionally damaged for the film’s final scene where the ship was destroyed. Not to jump too far ahead, but on May 27, 2009, the ship was sunk outside Key West, Florida to serve as an artificial reef and for recreational diving. The ship still had the Russian name, from the movie, inscribed on it as the ship went down.
This movie had its fair share of complainers. The biggest being Jamie Lee Curtis, who has gone on record saying she considers it to be “the worst movie ever made”. She stated that she lobbied hard to have John Bruno fired, because of how bad she thought the film was, and replaced by her Halloween H20 director, Steve Miner. He wasn’t available because he was working on making James Van Der Beek and Katie Holmes stars on Dawson’s Creek.
In the film, Donald Sutherland gets taken over by the alien virus, and is transformed into “BioEverton”. He spent six hours in the makeup chair and wanted to film all of his scenes, which required special makeup effects, to be filmed in one day so we would not have to go through the makeup application process again.
Several special effects companies were hired to create the robots’ look and feel real for the film. All Effects Company made the “Goliath” Robot come to life. It was approximately 9’ tall and weighed an estimated 4,000lbs. All Effects Company had only three-and-a-half months to produce the robot from its initial drawings and designs to the finished product. All Effects Company partnered with XFX Images to make all the robots in the film come to life and move properly so they looked realistic. The legendary Phil Tippet, and his company Tippett Studios were also hired as Robot Animation Supervisors for the film.
The film was originally scheduled for a summer 1998 release, but was eventually pushed to January of 1999… which anyone who follows movie releases and distribution can tell you that’s a bad sign.
Virus released on January 15, 1999, which is what was called peak dump month, when studios would push a film out in theaters that they didn’t have much hope for. And as predicted by the studio, it was both a critical and commercial flop, grossing less than half of its budget of $75 million, and earning negative reviews. It opened in Ninth place on its opening weekend against Varsity Blues, which opened that same weekend to Number One. It fell behind You’ve Got Mail’ and Prince of Egypt’s fifth weekend in theaters…yikes! Most critics found it to be derivative and unoriginal, while many reviewers hated its underlit cinematography. The film currently holds a 12% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes with the consensus being “Despite its great special effects, this movie’s predictability greatly undermines its intensity.”
Virus had a very ambitious marketing strategy behind it. There were a line of action figures called the Virus Collector Series thatwere developed to promote the film. You could buy your favorite characters such as Foster, Baker, Richie, and the Goliath Machine, which came with a Nadia figure. If you bought characters such as Captain Everton or the Russian Captain, they would come built with their cyborg implants. They included parts to restore their human appearance. Each toy came with one or more firearms. The Goliath would feature three sound clips of his lines from the film.
There was even a European-only tie-in game called Virus: It is Aware. It was released on the Sony Playstation in June of 1999 and was reminiscent of survival-horror games like Resident Evil and controlled like Tomb Raider. The plot of the game had little to do with the film, apart from its introduction and ending cinematics which featured creatures infesting a ship. Unfortunately, the game was rated very low and never received the proper distribution for Americans to play. I’ve played some poor tie-in movie games, such as The Fifth Element, and would love to try it one day, despite its bad reviews.
Virus was released for home media on VHS and DVD on July 20, 1999. The DVD Supplements included commentary by John Bruno, some deleted scenes and featurettes as well as a Documentary entitled “Ghost in the Machine” which covered production design and f/x. As always, the wonderful people at Shout Factory would give this film a proper release on Blu-ray. It was released on May 2, 2017. The picture quality was scaled up to 1080p and has a gorgeous transfer. The disc released with a bevy of new extras including three new interviews with John Bruno, writer Dennis Feldman and actor Marshall Bell, with each diving headfirst into the production. There’s even a new Special Effects making-of feature entitled “Men, Monsters and Machines”.
Over the years, the film has gained a cult following and some have praised it for its moments of suspense and tension, while others revel in its 90’s B-movie charm and nostalgic value. Personally, I always thought this movie was a fever dream growing up and definitely owned at least one or two of these toys. There’s something about 90’s toy packaging that was just so iconic.
Yes, this film falls short in terms of plot and its character development and the story can definitely feel disjointed at themes with things that just don’t mesh well or get fleshed out entirely. Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Sutherland’s characters both lack depth and aren’t given enough development to truly engage the audience. The most memorable parts of this film are the robots and all the practical effects used.
Overall, Virus is a visually impressive film with an intriguing premise, but its execution falls short due to weak character development, a disjointed plot, and clichéd writing. While it may appeal to fans of science fiction and B-movie enthusiasts, it may not satisfy those looking for a more cohesive and thought-provoking cinematic experience. Since 1999, Jamie Lee Curtis has made some true bombs, including Christmas With the Kranks, You Again and Halloween Ends. I would love to sit her down now and ask which of these movies she thinks is her actual worst film.
A couple of the previous episodes of WTF Happened to This Horror Movie? can be seen below. To see more, head over to our JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!