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80s Horror Cinema: The Empire of the Eighties

GhouliesThe release of Steve Kostanski’s quite marvellous Manborg, soon to be reviewed elsewhere on the This Is Horror site by my good self, has this month had me thinking about the movies that inspired it, and the circumstances under which I discovered them.

It was a wild time; a crazy time. It was the early 1980s and the video revolution had just begun. The British version of this was, perhaps typically, not the glamour-tinted blockbuster-filled rosy future we were all led to believe, but rather a way to discover the grotty arse end of cinema that many never knew existed, and far fewer actually had any interest in. While mainstream studio hits like The Godfather and Star Wars remained unavailable in British video stores due to all sorts of rights issues, it was easy to pick up Bruno Mattei’s Zombie Creeping Flesh, Sergio Garrone’s SS Experiment Camp and many other choice pieces of rubbish, many of them directed by either Jess Franco or Joe D’Amato under such a variety of pseudonyms that for a brief time spotting the various noms de film of Messrs Franco and Massacessi became a popular schoolboy hobby.

It wasn’t to last, of course, and I well remember spending one weekend watching the uncut Palace release of The Evil Dead five times, not just because I loved it, but because there was a good chance it would have been seized from the rental shop by next week.

A little later, and the Video Recordings Act had well and truly kicked in, leaving us staring in bewilderment at copies of Videodrome and Halloween III with all their effects sequences removed. Unbelievably, the UK DVD release of Halloween III is still this cut version, and in a crop-boxed pan and scan edition no less, all of which made me very unhappy indeed when I first put it in my player – thank heavens for the multi-region world in which we now live.

Into the middle of all this arrived Charles Band’s Empire Productions, released on the mighty Entertainment in Video label. EV, as they were known, had already endeared themselves to me by releasing Enzo G Castellari’s Mad Max ripoffs The Bronx Warriors 1 & 2 and The New Barbarians, all of which featured as many Rome stunt men and trampolines as the tiny budgets would allow. They had also brought out Charles Band’s Parasite, about which the less said the better. From reading quite a lot about him, Band always reminded me a bit of an American Harry Alan Towers, able to get movies off the ground on a wing and a prayer and no money at all. Band had been in the home video market as a distributor for some time, but his influence was properly felt for the first time on the horror scene when he started producing a string of micro-budgeted ripoffs of popular mainstream SF and horror successes of the time. A couple of these films were just marvellous. Trancers, directed by Band himself, riffed on The Terminator’s concept of travel to the past to alter the future. It managed to become something rather special of its own thanks to a witty script and a winning central performance by Tim Thomerson. Peter Manoogian’s Eliminators was a similar comic book romp of a picture, with a super hero team of a Mandoid, a martial arts expert, alcoholic Andrew Prine and Denise Crosby as a scientist who takes her shirt off because, if nothing else, Band knew his target audience, all teaming up to defeat villain Roy Dotrice. A quick search reveals that criminally, Eliminators isn’t available on DVD at the moment; someone needs to get that sorted now. Other Empire productions were a little more desperate. Ghoulies played on the success of Joe Dante’s Gremlins in name only. Directed by Luca Bercovici, Empire’s Ghoulies were actually little rubber puppets brought into the world by a satanic ritual. Much was made of the poster art, which featured a bald-headed little monster emerging from a lavatory with the tagline ‘They’ll get you in the end’. It was enough of a success to warrant two sequels – Ghoulies II and Ghoulies Go To College, neither of which I have seen as the original didn’t impress me that much. The only reason I mention it is because it features an early playful music score by Richard Band, who quickly became one of my favourite 1980s movie composers with, amongst others, his superb scores to Mark Rosman’s House on Sorority Row, Mutant, and of course, Stuart Gordon’s Reanimator.

Reanimator may well have been Empire Pictures’ greatest success, even though the company only released it and had very little to do with its production. Based in Rome (you knew that was coming, didn’t you?), by the late 1980s the company was already in financial trouble and so Empire folded, having allegedly had a production schedule of twelve theatrical and twelve direct-to-video movies a year. I’ve probably mentioned the best. The worst had titles like Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama and Assault of the Killer Bimbos – watch at your peril.

Band was down but not out. He formed Full Moon Productions, and released many flicks with Paramount as distributor. After he split from Paramount, the company underwent many name changes, as well as introducing more labels. Band finally settled on Full Moon Pictures and Full Moon Features, releasing straight-to-DVD movies with the usual complement of pretty girls and the ‘rubbery’ special effects Band’s movies are known for.

While his films will never be praised for their quality, Charles Band and Empire pictures remain an important part of the 1980s horror scene, and to many of us horror-hungry fans of the era, stuff like Robot Holocaust and Mutant Hunt helped to while away dull Sunday afternoons when the only alternative was a copy of Videodrome where you didn’t even get to see Barry Convex explode. Thanks Charles Band – I know you were probably only in it for the money, but you made my childhood more fun.

JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT

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1 comment

  1. Jasper Bark

    Excellent article as usual John, every bit as informative as it is entertaining.

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