The History of Empire Films Part One

“In 1977, from being a film collector and videotape guy, which at that time was a very small club,” said Band, “I recognized there was something very wonderful about having even a bad print of a movie for screening in the privacy of your own home. When I got wind of the Beta format, and of Andre Blay, who licensed 20 films from 20th Century-Fox and set up a company called Mag Video in the Stone Age of video, I thought it was absolutely wonderful and was going to be very successful. So I decided to go out and do my own video label.

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“I went around to a bunch of independent distributors who had successful films out theatrically, pictures like TUNNELVISION, FLESH GORDON, THE GROOVE TUBE, HALLOWEEN, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and I put this limited catalog together of these kind of successful, high-profile theatrical releases. I called it Meda Home Entertainment. Meda was my first wife’s name. In 1978 I started that label.

“Originally I started it up as a hobby, it was just in the back of my little facility that we were making movies out of. We started very simple and very low key, and within two years it just totally overtook my life. It became a hungry beast sort of business.”

Unfortunately for Band, to gain capital to expand his business, the inexperienced entrepreneur took on some partners who gained control of the business, a business that according to Band was doubling every month. “The video business just exploded,” he said, “and every time we needed money, which was virtually every month-I needed cash flow I’d do a deal with these people. They’d take two more points of the company in return for a certain loan. If the business was predictable, which at the time it wasn’t, then the cash flow and all the planning would have worked out, but I’m a player, the business doubled, and suddenly we needed more tape, more machines and more everything. So little by little they kept eating away at my stock until finally they had control.”

Charles Band sold out his interest in the company in early 1980 and about 18 months later, that was sold to Heron, who bought the company for $20 million. When Band sold the company, his partners added an “i” to the name so that Meda became Media. Band was also behind the Wizard label, which distributed a number of rare and cult European films in this country for the first time, sometimes under alternate titles, as well as films like the infamous I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, which became an incredible seller on video.

Born into a movie-business family, his film making ambitions started very early; as he puts it, “My ambitions were there basically when I could walk. I grew up on motion picture sets.” Band spent his growing years in Rome where his father, Albert Band, was producing and directing a string of genre pictures, ranging from Steve Reeves epics to such Italian Westerns as A Minute to Pray …. A Second to Die. As soon as Band was old enough to work, his father trained him in just about every facet of movie making, Band had enough know-how to produce his first picture, a horror thriller called Mansion of the Doomed. Since then he has concentrated on the horror-sci fi field with such features as Laserblast, End of the World and Tourist Trap. Band has always been in touch with this genre: “I’m a fan myself. When these movies come out-good, bad or indifferent I’m there.”

Early Filmmaker/Pre-Empire Years 

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The first film you’re credited with is Mansion of the Doomed, although you had done some earlier work in Italy with your father. How did you get Mansion of the Doomed together?
Charles Band: “You know, I’ve made enough mistakes. I just jumped into it. I wanted to make my first movie. I wanted it to be a horror film. At the time, unrelated to the film business, I had a successful little gift item business. I was real young, I was 21, and even though I’d grown up on a movie set and apprenticed with my dad and certainly knew a lot about the craft of film-making, I had no business training – which I really regretted later in life. I was thinking: boy, if I could just have spent a few years in a business school I would have avoided a lot of pitfalls. But I certainly had all the energy and passion to make my first movie. Between my own money, and I brought in a few investors, we jumped into Mansion of the Doomed.

“It was originally called The Eyes of Dr Chaney. That was the title I would have preferred to release it as – this was years before The Eyes of Laura Mars – and it would have been kind of a cool title. But I learned the first of many lessons: when the picture was done I gave it to a distributor, got a very small advance, never saw another penny – or a report, for that matter. And that’s one of the great pitfalls of making small movies. Small distributors, even if they have good intentions, have nothing but problems. Usually they don’t pay the producers.

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“Eventually if a producer or director is looking at being prolific and having some longevity in this business, they will realize that the only way to protect themselves is to do their own distribution, not give their baby away to someone who will do everything including putting a bad title on it. That was his title. There was a distributor called Group 1 who wanted to call it Mansion of the Doomed which, even back then, sounded terrible. At least The Eyes of Dr Chaney was a little classier.

“I put it together and at the time interesting people were involved. The editor was John Carpenter who was a friend at the time – and no-one knows that. Andy Davis who became a big-time director was the director of photography. Stan Winston, who was a very close friend, did the effects. And I forget who else, there are probably a few I’m forgetting. It was Lance Henriksen’s first movie. When I look back, it was an interesting group of people. I’m proud of the movie. It’s actually a well-made small movie, it’s classy, and it just suffers from the terrible title.”

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A few years before that was a film called Last Foxtrot in Burbank which has been obliterated from history. I’m guessing that’s one you’re not so proud of.
Charles Band: “That’s obliterated for good reason! I was involved very peripherally. In some cases my name was attached or wasn’t attached. So somewhere in the mix I did have some involvement in the movie and I’m glad if it’s substantially erased because it was just something I helped someone out with and the next thing you know it somehow got stuck to me as a movie I made, which is not the case, nor did I direct it or anything. So the first real movie that I put my name on officially, that was my first genre film – I pulled in people who were friends – was: I want to say The Eyes of Dr Chaney but it really was released as Mansion of the Doomed.”

You then went straight into making a whole series of films: Crash and Cinderella and End of the World – that whole production line thing. It wasn’t a faltering start. Was the plan to make one movie and then immediately start making the next and so on.
Charles Band: “That’s what I did. On those first seven or eight movies, unfortunately, I had no involvement with distribution and it was a miracle I survived that period because you don’t even really get enough money to get the next movie going. It’s just torture, and it’s still extremely difficult if you control distribution, and I can look at all the differences over 30 years. I can’t believe it’s been 30 years. And of course there have been some years when the video business was amazing and it really fuelled thousands of movies, most of which probably shouldn’t have been made, but nonetheless there were good years for people making small movies and bad years.

“But back then it was extremely difficult because there was no video, there was nothing. This was a theatrical world. You made a movie, it had to be on film, you had to cut a negative, you had to release it in theatres and try to make a few dollars. There were no ancillary markets. Home video didn’t really exist, of course the internet didn’t exist, there were really no television sales, maybe just a few local stations. That was in the days when these were truly B-movies; they would be the B-side of a double bill. They would get released theatrically and you just hoped a few dollars would be collected because they played at drive-ins and around the country. That was it, there was nothing else.

“The price of entry to the industry back then was steep. Because we weren’t in a digital world, there was no real cheap way of anyone getting in. No matter how many friends would work for free, you had to rent the equipment, you had to buy the film, you had to cut the negative, you had to make prints which were expensive back then and are still very expensive today. So whereas today a kid with some talent (or lack of) can buy a digital video camera and a computer and for literally a few thousand dollars make a little movie. If that person has some training and is talented it can actually look and feel like a movie. Those tools did not exist thirty years ago.”

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You worked with two of the horror greats during this period: John Carradine in Crash and Christopher Lee in End of the World. That must have been a thrill.
Charles Band: “It was a thrill, absolutely, because I grew up watching all of their famous movies. It’s funny: you wish you could go back with a little more maturity and enjoy the moment. I was certainly excited and aware of the people I was working with – but I was in my early twenties and I could have done things a little differently. But just the fact that I worked with them. I worked with a lot of wonderful people.

“I also worked with people who, at the time, were just young actors or actresses who went on to become very famous. I guess I could make that point 20 different times. But to have worked with Christopher Lee and John Carradine, you’ve actually cited the only two – well, Richard Basehart was also a thrill. I loved his work and he was another fantastic actor. But when it comes to the genre of horror movies, working with Carradine and Christopher Lee was really amazing.”

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Last Foxtrot in Burbank (1973) Cult director Charles Band brings you this “Last Tango in Paris” spoof with editing by acclaimed filmmaker John Carpenter.

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Mansion of the Doomed (1975) Four ruthless escaped convicts looking for a safe place to hide out from the law with their terrified hostage stumble across an isolated hunting lodge, only to fall into the deadly grip of an ancient curse in a blood-spattered satanic shocker from filmmaker Olaf Ittenbach. From the outside it looked like the perfect hideaway. Once inside, however, a deadly secret that has festered for generations begins to awaken, and the devil-worshipping backwoods family emerges from the darkness to torture, maim, and murder anyone who crosses their path in the name of the Prince of Darkness. As the sun goes down and darkness rises, the evil of man will fill the night with the screams of the damned until the light of dawn.

1976 Crash! (1976)

Crash! (1976) After a woman is nearly killed in a car accident, a doctor investigates the collision, which points towards revenge, destruction and occult.

End of the World (1977) Prof. Andrew Boran (Kirk Scott) is a research scientist who discovers strange radio signals in space that appear to originate from the Earth. The signals seem to predict natural disasters occurring around the globe. When he and his wife (Sue Lyon) decide to investigate the source of the signals, they end up being held captive in a convent that’s been infiltrated by aliens. These invaders plan to destroy the world with the natural disasters. As the human, Father Pergado and alien leader Zindar (Christopher Lee) explain – the Earth is a hotbed of disease that cannot be permitted to continue polluting the galaxy.

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Cinderella (1977) An adaptation of the fairy tale, Cinderella traces the misadventures of our heroine, who, via the help of her “fairy” (i.e. gay) godmother, is granted heightened sexual prowess to win over Prince Charming. After a blindfolded orgy at the royal castle, the nerdy Prince must sleep with every willing woman in his kingdom until he finds that one, mysterious lover who so “stood out” on the night of the sex Ball.

1978 Auditions (1978)

Auditions (1978) American erotic pseudo-documentary directed by Harry Hurwitz (credited as Harry Tampa). It was written by Albert Band and Charles Band, and stars Bonnie Werchan, Rick Cassidy and Linnea Quigley. Hurwitz also appears in the film as the director, although he is not credited. The film follows the process of casting actors and actresses for a pornographic film. Although several actual porn stars are in the film, it does not depict any actual sexual acts. It was remade in 1999 as Auditions from Beyond.

During the week of March 15, 1978, an ad appeared in the Hollywood Variety that the producers of films Cinderella (1977) and Fairy Tales (1979) were on the talent search for their new motion picture Fairytales Part II. They were looking for “the world’s sexiest woman” for the role of Sleeping Beauty, “the world’s sexiest man for the co-starring role of Prince Charming and “the world’s most unusual act or personality”. Two sets were constructed in a Hollywood studio: a medieval dungeon and a French boudoir. Across from these sets was a mirrored wall behind which cameras and sound equipment was concealed. Hundreds of people responded to the advertisement and on March 25 the two days of auditions began.

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The Primevals (1978-1989) Part One
DEVELOPMENT/BACKSTORY
Hollywood is a strange microcosm of phenomenal flukes and broken dreams, peopled by filmmakers young and old who take years developing pet projects which never get off the ground due to economic factors or a lack of enthusiasm on the part of producers. Drastic compromises are imposed on the artist by the powers that be until he’s forced to toil somewhere in the middle of the road, a world of low budgets and technical limitations. On the other dark side of the coin, a work often gets produced but fails to pump adrenaline into the hearts and souls of distributors, and what we have left is an orphan in a storm. For the stop motion animator and special effects artist, this dilemma is usually a stark reality, with no alms given for talent or concept. Prejudice against animation never helped matters much: surrealistic conflicts between real beings and the chimeras of stop motion netherworlds are sadly aborted, pieces of dreams that evaporate into the stratosphere and just maybe, by some fluke, condense and precipitate on a Hollywood sound stage or in someone’s converted garage.

The Attack of the River Lizard A preproduction sketch by Randy Cook of a special effects sequence in THE PRIMEVALS, based on an original script written by Cook and David Allen. Allen designed the River Lizard, one of numerous stop-motion creatures to appear in the film. The River Lizard animation model
The Attack of the River Lizard A pre-production sketch by Randy Cook of a special effects sequence in THE PRIMEVALS, based on an original script written by Cook and David Allen. Allen designed the River Lizard, one of numerous stop-motion creatures to appear in the film. The River Lizard animation model

THE PRIMEVALS is a ten year-old dream come true for thirty-three year-old animator David Allen. Without trying to toot his own horn too loudly, Allen sums up his feelings toward the awesome task that still lies mostly before him: “There’s not anything in THE PRIMEVALS that is all that revolutionary: a few of the concepts maybe. The style is the thing. I don’t have all that much experience, admittedly. And twenty years from now I might wish I had some simpler film to cut my teeth on. But I think the personality of this picture will really triumph over any possible shortcomings.

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Now under the auspices of executive producer Charles Band who is finally gearing up for an ambitious, higher-budgeted product, THE PRIMEVALS becomes a reality and promises to be a big prestige adventure-fantasy film for 1980. The blow-by-blow account of how all this came about is something of a saga in itself and an object lesson, perhaps, for would-be animators and filmmakers who lean towards a more idealistic conception of the ways of Hollywood rather than a pragmatic one.

In 1975, a young actor-filmmaker and former artist at Disney’s named Randy Cook came into the picture. Randy had been approached by an independent producer on the East coast who asked him if he’d be interested in directing a film. In order for the producer to get some money together, he needed a property. “I didn’t know Randy very well then,” remembers Allen, “but he knew about RAIDERS OF THE STONE RING (never produced). He called me up and expressed his interest in the project. I briefly explained what had happened to the property over the years and that I felt the old script was no longer workable. I told Randy I had a very brief synopsis for a new story, but that it needed fleshing out. He suggested that we both put our heads together and write up a complete synopsis for presentation and approval. After two or three months, we had it down on paper, but around the time we were winding up, we heard that this producer had been thrown in jail! In any case, I was happy to get the treatment into presentable condition. Then, more or less on our own, we decided to continue working on it even though we had nowhere to turn, hoping that something might come up. We did a lot of further collaborating based on the treatment, producing a first draft script. That, in fact, is the script we have for THE PRIMEVALS now, although I am constantly rewriting and improving it.”

Randy Cook's sketch of the Hominid man-apes, which play a key role in the plot of THE PRIMEVALS, which spans from the prehistory of mankind to our future destiny. Left: Cook sculpts the Hominid makeup. The Hominids will be played primarily by actors in suits, although stop-motion Hominids are required for certain special effects sequences.
Randy Cook’s sketch of the Hominid man-apes, which play a key role in the plot of THE PRIMEVALS, which spans from the prehistory of mankind to our future destiny. Left: Cook sculpts the Hominid makeup. The Hominids will be played primarily by actors in suits, although stop-motion Hominids are required for certain special effects sequences.

Makeup artist Steven Neill provided the final link in the long chain of events by attracting producer Charles Band’s interest in THE PRIMEVALS. Neill recommended Allen to Band for the stop-motion work required in Laserblast (1978), which Band had in production at the time. As an example of his work, Allen dug out his footage on the RAIDERS OF THE STONE RING presentation reel, which he had begun revamping in 1976. “I went way, way back into the old stuff and shot a few inserts just to round out a couple of effects shots.” Neill made the reel available to Charles Band, and Allen got the job on LASERBLAST. In fact, Band wanted to use the presentation reel’s lizard man for his own film, an idea nixed by Allen who wanted to save the model for his own project. When work on LASERBLAST was complete, Allen managed to get THE PRIMEVALS script on Band’s desk, and suddenly the project was no longer a pipedream.

Financed by Charles Band Productions, pre-production work on THE PRIMEVALS is in full gear, and the budget is promising to spiral well over the million dollar bracket. David Allen has assembled a talented corps of artists, many with whom he has had long-term affiliations. Among them are Phil Tippett who is busy casting models; Dave Carson, noted illustrator known for his Ray Harryhausen Portfolio, who is serving as art director; Ken Ralston, whose prior work at Cascade and photographic background are assets to the production; Tom St. Amand, a skillful model and armature builder; Robin Loudon, Allen’s production assistant; Randy Cook, assistant animator, writer and sculptor; Dave Stipes, and Dennis Gordon, miniature makers; and Jena Holman, the matte painter on the show.

The most intriguing aspect of THE PRIMEVALS’ effects work is the fact that Charles Band has requested the picture be done in Panavision. While this might sound benign to the layman, it complicates the old Dynamation technique quite a bit. Panavision, being an anamorphic system, is basically a “wide-angling” field of view process.

In a sense, THE PRIMEVALS will face the same problems Ray Harryhausen encountered on First Men in the Moon (1964). Matte shots still have the quality of looking less virgin than the footage which is not composited, but the mattes will look better in quality than the composites achieved by using miniature rear projection. “The same degradation ratio is there,” says Allen, “it’s just on a higher plane. This kind of work can seldom be absolutely perfect. When you’ll see a cut to an effects shot in THE PRIMEVALS, it’s no doubt still going to have a different characteristic. I’m trying to create a film in which that’s not going to be fatal.

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“I’m no magician,” Allen continues. “Ray Harryhausen is an excellent magician. I think that’s one of the problems with Ray’s movies we keep going back to his tent to see the same act. It’s a different lady that gets in the box that gets sawed in half, but it’s still the same trick. It’s bound to start wearing a little thin. Harryhausen and Schncer imply these darkly secret and political rationalizations for the way their films have to be. Although I have a great respect and admiration for many of their efforts, I just don’t see it as they do. Because they’re part of the establishment, they elect to proceed in orthodox ways, to keep the system lubricated. I am hopeful I can avoid those obligations and any of those concerns and do only what’s right for the project.

“I’m sure the long shadow of Ray Harryhausen will leave its mark not only on THE PRIMEVALS but my entire career, just as he works in the shadow of Willis O’Brien. I’m just trying to take the good and add something to it. And I’m attempting to make a well-rounded film for a lot less money than Schneer spends, to show others and myself that an undertaking such as THE PRIMEVALS can combine this kind of work and also have real film values.”

To reveal the storyline of THE PRIMEVALS at this time would be counterproductive. What can be said, so as not to leave the reader totally out in the twilight zone, is that it delves into an extraordinary aspect of evolution, territory that no filmmaker has trespassed to date. In a sense, it deals with moral concepts right and wrong, good and evil-in a manner that is not abstract or superficial. “I’m trying to give it some stature,” says Allen, “trying to make it more worthwhile than 95% of what we’ve been seeing.” While certain stock ideas established in the original RAIDERS OF THE STONE RING script and other works of the genre are largely intact-lost civilizations, surrealistic locales, anachronistic conflicts, etc. the film will be more on the level of FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH. Allen stresses the need for more gray matter in the standard adventure-fantasy film format. “I’m not looking for the excellence of THE PRIMEVALS to lay strictly in its special effects.

That’s my specialty and my handle on the entire project, the reason why I have the credibility and bankability to do it. But if people are talking about this film twenty years from now, I hope it won’t be simply because of the animation.”

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As far as directing is concerned, David Allen will be doing most of the honors with Randy Cook doing some sequences. Although Allen readily admits his directorial inexperience as far as feature films are concerned, he feels confident enough to tackle it. Moreover, he recognizes the danger inherent in bringing in someone from the Guild. “If you get a well-known director,” Allen points out, “he’s going to want to meddle with it in order to serve his own interests. I don’t want that kind of problem. As a director, I’m likely to be a bit straight but I think the film will benefit from being shot in a ‘classic’ manner. I’m not intimidated directing it. I think that what I may lack in directorial technique I will make up for in the feeling of what I know the script needs in order for it to work, which is something a journeyman director would not know. I think we’ve seen that enough times in the past.”

Executive producer Charles Band sees it all as an extreme departure from his usual low-budget programmers, but a solid project. In David Allen, Band has found the dedicated artist with the kind of knowhow and integrity it takes to pull-off a film like THE PRIMEVALS. Interestingly, the relationship is not unlike that which developed between Ray Harryhausen and producer Charles H. Schneer back in 1957 when The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) began production. “It’s really the most exciting project that I’ve ever been involved with,” says Band. “I’m used to shooting a film and having it ready in 120 days from inception to execution. With THE PRIMEVALS, we’re talking about a year and a half! The use of Panavision was my idea. It’s really a spectacle of sorts, and I felt that the wide-screen look is meaningful for the show. We took on a lot of trouble for the sake of Panavision, not so much in the principal photography, but in terms of special effects work. It’s something that really hasn’t been done before when you consider the amount of animation going into it.

“The budget promises to spiral into the $2 million bracket,” says Band proudly. “We’re talking about the possibility of going on location in the Himalayas for some sequences. But a good chunk of the budget will either directly or indirectly go toward the special effects. We’re not going to cheat this one out of anything!”

“It’ll be one of those films that when you come out of the theatre, you’ll say to yourself: ‘Of course, of course this picture. Why hasn’t it happened before now?”

1979 Fairy Tales (1979)

Fairy Tales (1979) On his twenty-first birthday, a prince is approached by his father (the king) and other courtiers. They present him a girl as birthday gift. The king asks him to enjoy sexual life and to produce the next heir. However, the prince experiences erectile dysfunction and is unable to perform sexually. He discovers that his sexual attraction is focused towards a long forgotten princess whose picture is hanging on the wall. He goes in search of this princess, and encounters many people along the way. Ultimately, he finds the princess and is able to perform sexually with her.

From the fans’ point of view, your business model seems to be based to some extent on Roger Corman’s. Is that true to any extent?
Charles Band: “I guess to some degree. I don’t really think that way. I know I’m compared to Corman just because I’ve made almost 300 movies and he’s made twice that.”

I was going through some old trade mags and found the Screen International Product Guide from the 1986 AFM. Empire had 32 full-page ads. It looks like it had got out of hand.
Charles Band: “For a few short years we were second only to Canon because sometimes it seemed like they bought the whole magazine! I think it did and I’d love to go back and do things differently. I have only myself to blame. I, ultimately, was the one who made the decisions – but you have partners, you have investors, you have advisors, suddenly you’ve got a few hundred people working for you. And I have no formal business training, I just wanted to make movies and I should have stuck to that. I could now write a book about it, I could certainly point out things and say why I wouldn’t do that again, but back at the time these ideas and proposals made sense. They made sense short term, they never made sense long term.”

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Laserblast (1978) Retrospective

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Tourist Trap (1979) Retrospective

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The Day Time Ended (1980) Retrospective

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