The History of Empire Films Part Three

Empire was notable for announcing far more films than it actually made. Explained Band, “That was another way people did business. That really was a way of saying, ‘Hey, filmmaking community, this is what I want to make, do you guys want to buy it?’ to a degree. If everybody gyrated towards three of the ten projects announced, those got made and the other ones for some reason didn’t. It was like a test.”

Suddenly, Empire Pictures seemed to blossom into a major player on the scene, becoming in effect the AIP of the ’80s. “Very, very quickly, from ’83 to ’85,” noted Band, “Empire went from a company that made a couple of pictures to a company that made—at most-eight in one particular year. We bought a studio— I bought the former De Laurentiis Studio in Rome because at that time the dollar was very strong and it was very affordable to make pictures in Italy. Any excuse to go to Italy was good for me; I grew up there and I loved it.” In 1985 Band even purchased a castle outside of Rome.

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Interview with Stuart Gordon

How did Re-Animator come to Empire?
Stuart Gordon: It was an arrangement between Empire and the film’s producer. Brian Yuzna. In exchange for post-production facilities, Empire would have the right to distribute the film. Initially, Empire was taking a backseat and then as we started shooting it and they saw the dailies, they got more involved. They made some suggestions and gave us more than was in the original bargain. They ended up letting John Buechler work on Re-Animator, although Tony Doublin and John Naulin did a great job. It was one of those projects where it was the more the merrier. They also suggested we get Mac Ahlberg as director of photography and that turned out to be a very good decision.

How did you get the re-agent to glow?
Stuart Gordon: The stuff really does glow It’s called Luminol and it’s used in flares. It comes in tubes in a glass capsule. You break the glass and it glows. We could only find it in these plastic tubes so we had to break open hundreds to get enough for the movie. We did a test with it and found it really photographed well. It looks like an optical effect in the movies, but it was really done live. In Re-Animator, that’s the only leap of faith that you’re asking the audience to make, which is to believe this stuff can bring the dead back to life. Everything else is as believable and real as we could make it.

How did you get the sound of the crazed cat?
Stuart Gordon: What they did was they took an actual cat’s screech and put it through these machines. lowered the pitch and raised the sound to give it an unearthly quality,

The way you make the dead walk in Re-Animator is jerky, awkward, If someone who was actually dead got up, that’s the way they would walk.
Stuart Gordon: Again, I was talking to doctors. One of the things I really appreciate about Lovecraft is that he really did his homework when he wrote these stories. He wasn’t just some horror writer coming up with these weird ideas and writing them the next morning. In the story Herbert West, Re-Animator,” he explains what kinds of chemicals would be used in the serum. In doing research, I found there is work really being done that is identical to what West is trying to do in Re-animator. The doctors’ point-of view is that this is not horrible but life-extending. They used to believe that when your heart stopped, you were dead, and now they have adrenalin and electroshock and all sorts of ways to bring the heart back after it has stopped. So why not be able to do the same thing with the brain? In the movie, they talk about the six-minute limit, brain death that’s something that people are trying to break. There’s work being done now with people who fall into icy water and are literally clinically dead for half an hour, then get revived and there is no brain damage.

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Re-Animator was, of course, released unrated, but you really had a battle to get From Beyond rated R.
Stuart Gordon: The thing is, there are no rules. It’s unlike the old Hays Office where you used to know exactly what was allowed and what wasn’t. If you had a woman’s garter belt showing you knew you were in trouble. With the MPAA, they’re the first to tell you they are not censors. They’re basically there to let an audience know what to expect when they buy a ticket. So, there are these ratings, but it’s all based on how these six people feel about the film they’re watching and what they call the ‘cumulative effect.” There are certain areas of concern-violence, sex, drugs, foul language. When they first saw From Beyond, they said, “You have 10 times too much of each of these things, and there’s no way we’re ever gonna give you an R.”

At first, I was depressed because it was like they were saying the whole basic concept of this movie was unrateable, that it was too disquieting to be rated. I argued that this is the way horror movies are supposed to be, that audiences will feel cheated if they’re not scared to death. What I ended up doing was making very small trims, not removing any sequences. This actually ended up making the movie stronger. It left more to the imagination and gave you just enough to get the idea of what was going on and see enough, but not enough time to study an effect and figure out how it was done or look for seams on the prosthetics. After resubmitting and re-submitting to the MPAA, they got used to the shocks. Our last message was to cut one frame from a scene, so we really got down to fighting over frames. There’s an R-rated version of Re-Animator that was done without my involvement that’s like an episode of Masterpiece Theatre.

All it needs is Alistair Cooke to introduce it. They’ve cut out any. thing they thought would be objectionable to anyone and put back in all the expositional scenes I had cut because they really weren’t necessary to tell the story. It’s very talky. little action.

How did you determine the visual look of From Beyond?
Stuart Gordon: The biggest problem we had was creating this other world, the beyond. Lovecraft gives you a few hints in the story with violet and purples. What Mac Ahlberg ended up doing on the photography was almost black-and-white but when we go into the beyond, suddenly. there are these intense colors.

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From Beyond (1986) Retrospective

How is your working relationship with Dennis Paoli, the co-writer of Re-Animator and From Beyond?
Stuart Gordon: We go back all the way to high school. We had a comedy group together and we used to write sketches and perform them. It was a summer job. Dennis and I are real simpatico. He has a real feel for character and comedy, as well as understanding how horror movies work.

How involved is Charlie Band in your Empire films?
Gordon: Charlie is very involved. He chose the story From Beyond, and always wanted to be kept abreast of all the various changes in the script. He visited the set a lot. He keeps his hand on things but never interferes. He’s a very positive force. He’s quite a good director. My only regret is that he hasn’t directed more pictures. Trancers, his last film, was terrific. His father. Albert, was on the set of From Beyond as a producer, and his experience was really invaluable. He has worked with John Huston, and directed some great films himself. Bury the Living and Face of Fire. He has worked in Italy, so he knew the best way to utilize the crew’s talents. Empire is very much a family. It’s not like these big studios where you have to go through committees before you reach the top. You can just go and sit down with Charlie and he’ll either like something or he won’t, and if he likes it, the next thing you know you’re making a movie. One thing he always says is ”There’s no such thing as a development deal at Empire. There’s no time for it.” You either make the movie or you don’t. and usually it has to be ready in two weeks! Now, we’re getting bigger budgets and longer schedules. Robot jox is $17 million, the biggest budget Empire has ever had.

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Tell us about Dolls.
Stuart Gordon: It’s a horror movie fairy tale. I viewed it as a version of “Hansel and Gretel, which is a very frightening story about abandoning children, although the storyline is more akin to The Old Dark House. It’s about some evil toymakers who turn people into dolls and then send these dolls out to murder, so you have an army of homicidal dolls running around this house. The effects for Dolls are primarily stop-motion animation by Dave Allen. It’s very similar to Robot jox in this respect, except in reverse, with Dolls, Dave creates the illusion of things being small and in Robot jox, he’s doing things huge, but it’s basically the same set of tricks that are being used.

What kind of research did you do for Dolls?
Stuart Gordon: I had been reading Bruno Bettelheim, particularly The Uses of Enchantment which discusses the importance of fairy tales. He really debates these people who say fairy tales are too violent. His attitude is that it’s a scary world out there and fairy tales are a way children are prepared for that world. We’re taught in fairy tales that yes, there are monsters and horrible things that can happen to you, but if you are brave and strong and good and don’t give up. you can succeed. He feels those lessons are important and to minimize it takes the whole punch and point out of fairy tales. Rather than toning down those elements, Dolls really plays them to the limit. something found very interesting. When I came upon Ed Naha’s treatment at Empire, I got very turned on by the whole thing.

And Barbara Crampton is going to play the pirate queen Bloody Bess?
Stuart Gordon: She’s very happy about that. She’s a perfect choice for the role. Empire is signing her to a three-picture contract. We sat down the other day and tried to figure out exactly what a Barbara Crampton movie is, and decided it should be a movie where she goes through a transformation, like she does in Re-Animator and From Beyond, where she starts out as one thing and becomes another by the film’s end, Bloody Bess is about this very proper English girl who is kidnapped by pirates and ends up becoming their leader, sort of a swashbuckling version of the Patty Hearst story.

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You’re also doing another Lovecraft yarn, Lurking Fear.
Stuart Gordon: Lurking Fear is a Lovecraft story set in the 1920s in upstate New York’s Catskill Mountains. It’s about a family that has degenerated into ape-like cannibal creatures through in-breeding They’ve burrowed these tunnels underneath the mountains so they have secret passageways. Whenever there’s a thunderstorm, which is fairly common in this region, it drives them absolutely berserk and they go running around tearing people apart and dragging them into the tunnels,

How about Berserker?
Stuart Gordon: We just found out we’re going to have to change the title. There’s another movie called Berserker coming out. This guy called up and said, “Excuse me, we’re calling our movie Berserker.” I said, “OK, we’ll call ours The Real Berserker. We originally wrote it for Arnold Schwarzenegger, Arnold came and saw Re-Antmator and really liked it, and afterwards, we were talking and he said, “Write me a horror film. I would love to make a horror movie with you.” So Paoli and I came up with this idea about an athlete who has been taking these steroids, and he finds out what the side effects are. He has a choice he can stop taking them which means that he’ll die, or he can be a berserker. He becomes a monstrosity, completely out of control. We sent it to Arnold, and his manager sent us a message saying that Arnold doesn’t want to play a monster, he only wants to play heroes. What I tried to get across was that this guy is the hero, someone the audience really sympathizes with being put into this terrible situation. The idea was to let Arnold really show some new sides of his acting ability. To have Arnold be in jeopardy for a change, to have him betrayed by his own body. would really be interesting.

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Troll (1986) Retrospective

Where did Troll come from?
Charles Band: “I had, and still have, a wonderful relationship with John Buechler and things were going great at Empire. I forget who actually came up with the name of the movie. It doesn’t much matter. I wanted to do that kind of a film. John and I were on the set of another film Ghoulies possibly – and we were talking about it. This is years ago but I certainly do remember the production side because once John and I worked a deal out and he came in with a treatment and then Ed Naha wrote the script, and I gave them some ideas of things I wanted to do and together we created this fantasy world.

“Then it came time to make it. Of course John was busy creating all sorts of weird little puppets and creatures and we really wound up with a completely bizarre and eclectic cast: Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Sonny Bono, it was a strange cast. At the time the young kid who was the lead was very hot because he was in The Neverending Story which was a big, big success. It had June Lockhart in it and Phil Fondacaro, who I literally just finished a film with; Phil and I, I don’t know how many movies we’ve done together but I’m sure it’s over a dozen. We’re making this movie in Italy and I also remember very fondly that my dad was involved in producing the film. He passed away a few years ago; we were very close and he was a great guy.

“It was just wonderful. I look back and it was a moment in time when I had a studio in Italy, we were making big movies. I just wish things had continued because everything changed, business changed, money changed, the dollar got weak against the lira, everything blew in the wrong direction. For a few wonderful years we shot these Empire movies that looked very American but were all shot outside Rome in Italy. I remember them very fondly, whether it was crazy Klaus Kinski in Crawlspace or one of the Trancers shows or Troll or Eliminators, which we shot in Spain. Seven or eight movies that are all part of that and probably Troll is the one that I’m most attached to. It did pretty well and people liked it and now years later people are reminding me of the name of the main character.”

It’s bizarre, isn’t it? You have a young boy named Harry Potter who discovers that he has magical powers and uses them to fight a troll.
Charles Band: “I’ve heard that JK Rowling has acknowledged that maybe she saw this low-budget movie and perhaps it inspired her. Who knows what the story is? Life’s too short for a fight as far as I’m concerned but, having said that, there are certain scenes in that movie, not to mention the name of the main character, and this of course predates the Harry Potter books by many, many years. So there’s that strange connection.”

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Phil Fondacaro

Interview with Phil Fondacaro

While he may be small in size, it’s hard to miss Phil Fondacaro. With over 20 years in the business, Fondacaro is a jack of all trades, having done costumes, stuntwork, theater, commercials, TV and film. You may recognize him as the angry elf from the Polaroid Christmas commercial, the fierce warrior Vohnkar in Willow, the Shakespeare-quoting Sir Nigel in Ghoulies II or Angie Everhart’s power-hungry underling in Tales from the Crypt Presents Bordello of Blood.

Born in New Orleans and raised in Fresno, CA, Fondacaro won his first role in the Chevy Chase film Under the Rainbow—while still in college and hasn’t looked back since. A longtime member of the Charles Band acting troupe, he has made numerous appearances in the horror genre, playing everything from a diminutive Dracula to a troublesome troll who turns Sonny Bono into a cucumber! But whether he’s starring in a big-budget studio movie or a one-hour Full Moon flick pitting Dollman against some demonic toys, one thing’s for certain: Fondacaro, like Domino’s, always delivers.

Was Empire’s Troll your first horror part?
Phil Fondacaro: No. I did a role for Charlie Band in a film called Dungeonmaster with my brother Sal before I did Troll. It wasn’t a very big part. Charlie needed two little people to play cliff dwellers who cause a lot of havoc. I ended up getting in really good with Charlie and Albert Band and met FX artist John Buechler, who was working with Charlie at the time and came up with the idea for Troll. The part I wanted was the professor, Malcolm Mallory, but they couldn’t find anyone to play the Troll, so I ended up doing both parts. There are scenes in the film where both of us are on screen at the same time, which is kind of interesting.

How did you like playing the Troll?
Phil Fondacaro: I thought it was a good character, but I compare it to the Ewok thing, because I was covered from head to toe. The only things that were mine were my eyes, and it was very hot and cumbersome and I was in it for a long time. But we were in Rome for eight weeks, which helped take the sting out of it.

What did you think of your Sir Nigel character in Ghoulies II?
Phil Fondacaro: I enjoyed it. It was a part where I didn’t have to wear a costume or be a monster. Parts like that don’t come along often, so I ate it up and loved every minute of it.

What was it like working with the Ghoulies II?
Phil Fondacaro: It was great. John Buechler did all the little monsters, and I had no problem working with them. I got very used to them, so it wasn’t a big deal.

You frequently work for the Bands. Do you have a good relationship with them?
Phil Fondacaro: Yeah. They’ve been a part of my career for the past 20 years, and I’ve done a number of films with them. They’re not real high-budget, high-profile films as much as I would like them to be, but they’ve given me a chance to work at my craft. So I can’t say anything bad about the Bands. They’ve been there.

On Meridian, you filmed in an actual Italian castle.
Phil Fondacaro: Staying in that castle for six weeks in Rome was fantastic. That was one of the big highlights of working with Charlie, because at that time he did a lot of his films in Italy. Now he’s doing them in Romania, but back then, if I had to do a film with Charlie, it was, “Well, I know I’m going to Italy.” And then to get to stay in a beautiful castle was just icing on the cake.

Was the one-hour Dollman vs. Demonic Toys the quickest film you’ve ever worked on?
Phil Fondacaro: That was two days’ work for me, and yes, it was probably the quickest. Charlie couldn’t find someone for the security guard part, so he called me and said, “I have your flight ready to go tomorrow. It’s either a ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ type of thing.” So I ended up doing it. I’ve done that many, many times for him, where he says, “Phil, sorry we didn’t just offer it to you, but we’ve got to look around.”

Little people will call me and say, “How come I didn’t see you at this audition?” And I’ll tell them, “Well, I didn’t hear about it. What was it for?” And the minute they say Charlie Band, I almost know he’s gonna eventually come around to me. He just likes to wait till the last minute, and we’ve had a couple of knockdown, drag-out fights about that. He’s made a lot of mistakes hiring little people who can’t handle a full day’s work. And I don’t mean a Hollywood full day, I mean a 14-16-hour day. None of this “eight hours and collect your overtime” stuff. Charlie doesn’t work that way.

Describe a typical Full Moon shoot.
Phil Fondacaro: It’s really gotten faster. Back when I did Troll and Meridian, they were six-to-eight-week shoots. But now I think the Romania shoots are less than eight-10 days. When we did Sideshow, we shot that whole friggin’ thing in eight days!

What’s the difference between doing major-studio films like Bordello and Willow and making the lower-budget Full Moon pictures?
Phil Fondacaro: On the bigger-budget ones, you have people waiting on you hand and foot. And with lower-budget films, you just don’t have the time or budget to play that game. They use their money where they need it. I mean, granted, not all the Bands’ movies are Academy Award-winning work, but considering the time and budget, it’s good stuff. And their films do have a following. I can’t walk down the street without someone mentioning a Charlie Band film that I’m in.

Which do you prefer playing more, the bad guy or the good guy?
Phil Fondacaro: I enjoy the evil side, because when you first see me, the tendency is to either feel sorry for me or laugh at me. So if there’s some way I can switch that and make people really be scared of me, I enjoy that.

Would you say that your turn as Dracula in The Creeps fulfilled that?
Phil Fondacaro: Well, first of all, the idea of me playing Dracula to begin with was an amazing opportunity, because, come on, a little person playing Dracula? But when Charlie gave it to me, I was like, “I’ve got to do this.” It was a very good part. I don’t know if it was my best, but it was a part I really sank my teeth into—and that wasn’t a figure of speech.

Did you base your character on any previous screen Counts?
Phil Fondacaro: Gary Oldman’s Dracula was amazing. I watched that a lot to try and get that type of feeling and the way he spoke. But it was really difficult. I had to make people believe that I was really Dracula, which is very hard to do when you’ve got a 3-foot Frankenstein running after a girl and grabbing her legs. And if you truly look at the reality of it, my God, how ridiculous is this? I mean, there’s a 3-foot Wolf Man and a 3-foot Mummy and a 3-foot Dracula and a 3-foot Frankenstein! But it was a great idea, and I had a lot of fun doing it.

How was your experience on Full Moon’s Blood Dolls, where you play a sadistic jailer?
Phil Fondacaro: I enjoyed it. I got to go over the top. My character’s yelling and screaming all the time and has this patch over his eye. I also got to get dwarf tossed, which is something I haven’t done in a long time and enjoy very much. It was fun. Like a little vacation.

Did the same hold true on Fred Olen Ray’s Sideshow?
Phil Fondacaro: It was my first time with Fred, and he was great. Excellent. He knew what I was capable of doing and wasn’t afraid to ask for it. And all the creature and effects stuff in the film was done by Gabe Bartalos, who I worked with on The Creeps, so that was old hat. A lot of the people I usually work with were all there, and it was very nice.

Full Moon now has an action figure line out. When are they gonna make a Phil Fondacaro figure?
Phil Fondacaro: That’s a damned good idea! I heard that Charlie was going to make The Creeps (figures], but I don’t know if he’s gotten that far yet. But you’re right, they should have a Phil Fondacaro action doll. And you could change it and put the Troll outfit on him, or make him into the Sideshow character or the security guard from Dollman vs. Demonic Toys. It would be great.

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Crawlspace (1986) Having recently moved, 27-year old Loni Bancroft inquiries at a small urban apartment building about an advertised vacancy. The landlord and building superintendent Karl Gunther, an older German man, hospitably gives her a tour of the apartment, telling her that its last tenant was a young woman who disappeared without paying rent. During the tour, Gunther secretly performs a masochistic ritual, holding his hand over an open stove-top flame.

Outwardly normal, Gunther leads a double-life is a sadistic, self-loathing psychopath, abducting and torturing his young female tenants and locking them in attic cages, where he removes their tongues and leaves them alive so that he can “have someone to talk to.” Once a respectable doctor, he made his living performing euthanasia (“mercy killing”) and being ashamed when he learned that his father, a Dachau concentration camp doctor, used the same justification when killing Jewish prisoners in human experiments. Besides regular self-harm, Gunther plays Russian roulette with a loaded handgun, hoping to one day kill himself to end his killing spree with what little morality he has left.

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After murdering one of his tenants and removing their eyes, Gunther is visited by Josef Steiner, who has been searching for him for three years. Steiner tells Gunther that in the five years he was chief resident at Buenos Aires hospital, 67 people in his care all died, including Steiner’s own brother. He confronts him about his familial history among Nazis, including how his father was executed for crimes against humanity and a photograph of young Karl in a Hitler Youth uniform.

Karl begins spying on and murdering his tenants via the reinforced ventilation crawlspace vents, and a series of mechanized traps he controls from his residence. Like his father, he begins displaying signs of a God complex, reveling in the ability to give life and take it away at will. Steiner attempts to assassinate Gunther, but is instead led into his apartment, where he is killed by one of his traps. Gunther proceeds to pose in an SS uniform in-front of a mirror and declaring himself his “own god, own jury, and own executioner.”

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Lori returns home to her apartment to find her refrigerator swarming with live rats and Steiner’s corpse in the bathtub, a swastika carved into his forehead. Lori tries to run for help as Gunther sets off security mechanisms that trap her inside the building. Running from door-to-door, she finds her neighbors all killed in similarly brutal fashion. Lori flees into Gunther’s attic hideout, where she finds his caged female prisoners. As Gunther approaches, she manages to sneak through a booby-trapped crawlspace vent. Gunther releases a cage full of rats into the vent after her, but she manages to avoid them and circle back to his room. Gunther pursues her, but appears to inadvertently set off one of his own traps and impale himself with a blade, Lori and the prisoner taking the opportunity to run away. The gaff, however, is only a ploy. As the two run to Karl’s apartment, he chases them with a knife. Lori grabs Karl’s revolver and fires it at him, it clicks empty several times before finally shooting its only round. Karl accepts his death before expiring, declaring “so be it.”

Director David Schmoeller claims he wrote the first draft of Crawlspace as an anti-Vietnam war tale revolving around a returning vet who decides to re-create a prisoner-of-war camp in his attic. He recounts: When I turned in the first draft … Producer Charlie Band, felt that America was not ready for a Viet Nam story (this was right before Platoon). He suggested we make the protagonist a Nazi! … I said: “You don’t think America is ready for a Viet Nam story – but you DO think they want to see yet another Nazi story?” He said: I’ll get you Klaus Kinski. I said: “You get me Klaus Kinski, and I’ll make it a Nazi story.”… and he got me Klaus …

Schmoeller also says that the second draft was written specifically for Kinski, and no other actors were even considered for the part. Schmoeller says that he was unaware of Kinski’s reputation as eccentric and difficult to work with. Prior to filming, the actor allegedly threw a fit over the wardrobe that had been picked out for him, and subsequently went out and bought his own clothes (charging them to the film and keeping them himself afterwards). On set, Kinski clashed severely with other actors and crew members. In his short film about the experience, Schmoeller claims that by the third day of filming, Kinski had started six fistfights and caused the film to fall significantly behind schedule. Schmoeller and the producers attempted to fire him, but Empire Pictures demanded that the bankable star remain. Aside from his combative behavior and bizarre demands (including an order that Schmoeller refrain from saying either “action” or “cut”, essentially forcing him to film Kinski continually so he could start and end his scenes whenever he wished) he also refused to say any lines which he didn’t like, to the point where, “Scenes were starting not to make sense because he would NOT say this or that line.” Co-star Tane McClure later recalled that Schmoeller begged her to stay on set because Kinski (who she claims was “unfortunately, very interested in me”) behaved better when she was around. Tensions reached the point of several crew members asking the director to, “Please kill Mr. Kinski”— Despite the troubled production, Schmoeller has praised Kinski as a performer.

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Now, you had made TROLL at that same Rome apartment and you wanted another movie shot there. Did you own that apartment, were you just renting it or?
Charles Band: No, no. I wish it was that simple. It’s even more awesome. I purchased, under my Empire company, the Dino de Laurentiis Studio outside of Rome, the same studio where they shot movies like THE BIBLE and BARBARELLA and every single thing that we made there, every movie we made in Italy from ‘83 to ‘88, we built at that studio, so some of the sets that were left over from TROLL were used. So CRAWLSPACE was all shot on a set we built on a soundstage…

I have heard that David wanted to make this Vietnam flashback filled, psycho-killer movie that was akin to PEEPING TOM and you kind of talked him into the Nazi subtext, why was that?
Charles Band: Again, like almost everything I did and probably still do, it all started with a great concept and title and poster and I would bring those elements to guys like David Schmoeller or Stuart Gordon and we would then develop the story. It was actually David, I believe, not me, who then invented this sort of Nazi origin or background story. But the idea of this creepy guy running around and having built this apartment unit, being able to roll around or crawl around in the crawlspaces and rent the units only to women, that was enough for me. Between CRAWLSPACE and that concept and when we got Kinski, it was a dream because I absolutely loved Kinski’s work and I knew we could make a great movie. I followed Kinski’s work and I always hoped his daughter Nastassja would come visit the set because she was incredibly hot and if Klaus was on board, I thought maybe his daughter would come and visit us in Rome. But that never happened. But the fact that we got Kinski as the creepy dude for CRAWLSPACE was a big win, also because at that time, almost everything we did we were pre-selling to primarily the foreign market and to have a poster of CRAWLSPACE starring Klaus Kinski was a real asset.

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Were you in Italy at the time when they were making the film or were you in LA?
Charles Band: Not only was I in Italy, but we were always shooting at least two if not three movies on those soundstages and it was for those few years, a very heady experience. If you grew up in this business and you dream of owning a studio one day and suddenly you do and movies are being shot on two or three different sound stages, which means it was two or three different crews. We had a fantastic restaurant on the location, we had a bar where everyone congregated, we had prop and wardrobe and it was just a fantastic few years. I was there alright. And the story that I’ve told on the road at conventions I appear at, is my best Klaus Kinski story.

What happened was I was there in the administration building which by itself was probably a sixty thousand square foot three story building where Dino, years before, had hung out with his wife and commanded his hundred acre studio. Anyway, one day a couple of my production guys run into the office, freaking out saying there’s a huge brawl between David and Kinski and they think that Kinski pulled a knife or a gun and you’d better come right away. And you know, my attitude is always, especially in Italy then, that there’s so much brouhaha but at the end of the day it usually boils down to nothing, a lot of yelling and screaming. But it sounded serious enough that instead of walking calmly to the bar which is where this was happening which was kind of outside that one soundstage, I moved a little quicker and sure enough as I got there, I was witness to the sort of pinnacle of whatever preceded and made both guys crazy.

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Kinski was an incredibly powerful guy. He wasn’t large in stature but he felt five thousand feet tall and scary. David Schmoeller was not that same kind of character and I just remember getting closer and seeing Kinski grabbing David by his lapel and I don’t remember if it was a gun or a knife but he was threatening him. David was sort of leaned back and eventually, as I got closer, they looked over and people sort of moved apart and I guess they had said whatever they said to each other and calmed things down and when I finally actually arrived right there five feet away, I don’t remember except that the vibe was, OK they’ve sort of settled their differences and I can tell Kinski was steaming and this was all about how a certain shot was to be framed. Kinski was not happy. He wasn’t happy with David to begin with. There was something about how a shot was to be framed where Kinski felt it had to be a certain way and David was against that and I think Kinski just wanted to kill David, to make sure the shot was the way he wanted it?

David’s got this video, you’ve probably seen it online, where he sits there and tells his own tale about working with Kinski. It’s called “Please Kill Mr. Kinski” and he claims that the Italian producers, or you, or one of the financiers had actually suggested putting a hit out on Kinksi?
BAND: Well, that’s completely ridiculous. How ridiculous is that? Come on. I don’t know where these stories come from and why they’re invented but there was no hit on Kinski. What would the point be? That’s the most ridiculous fabricated story?

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What did your Dad think about him?
Charles Band: My Dad loved him and Kinski and I got along great. I don’t know if ‘pussycat’ is the right word but I think he worked on several different levels and if he felt that he was able to intimidate you, it’s a whole thing that’s different, that’s more European I think than anything else. But if he respected you and he felt you were, I guess, on his level of God knows what, he was cool as can be. But if he didn’t respect you…well, he’s a very hard guy to work with and I think, at his core, dangerous. There was a danger there. With Kinski I felt that he was someone who would pull a knife and stab you if he was pissed off enough. But, yeah, I am so happy to have made at least one movie with Kinski, definitely one of my favorite performers.

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Dolls (1987)  Young Judy Bower (Carrie Lorraine) is spending the summer with her stupid, abusive father, David (Ian Williams), and nasty stepmother, Rosemary (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon). On a dark and stormy night, their car breaks down on a lonely road in the woods and they are forced to seek shelter. As they walk, Rosemary throws Judy’s beloved teddy bear into the woods, and the imaginative child envisions it coming to life as a great fanged beast which slaughters her tormentors. The idea of loyal toys protecting their young owners from the ravages of the adult world is forcefully made, and imbues the rest of the film. They come upon a creepy old house owned by elderly Gabriel Hartwick (Guy Rolfe) and his wife, Hilary (Hilary Mason). Gabriel is a doll-maker and dazzles Judy with his collection of exquisitely detailed creations. Another car breaks down in the storm as well, bearing amiable Ralph Morris and two trampy hitchhikers. What they and the Bowers don’t know is that the dolls are alive, and protect the young (Judy) and the young at heart (Ralph) from the evils of adulthood.

DOLLS, completed in six weeks on a $1.2 million budget from an Ed Naha script is Gordon’s nod to “old-fashioned horror films” of the Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur ilk. “The story about dolls coming to life—is one that people have seen before,” explained Gordon of the project Empire originally earmarked for a low budget video movie. “But I found the script so strange and funny because Ed Naha’s approach was to make it a kind of horrible fairy tale. I’d been reading Bruno Bettelheim’s ‘The Uses of Enchantment, and agreed with his idea that  fairy tales should be dark and scary.”

CinefantastiquFor the film, Gordon used the design talents of comic book artist Neal Adams
For the film, Gordon used the design talents of comic book artist Neal Adams

When Gordon’s interest bumped-up the DOLLS project in Empire’s esteem, its budget rose to match its aspirations. Using top-flight Italian designers and crews, Empire built an expressionistic old dark house set for the film which, in time-honored B-movie tradition, will be recycled for future projects. “The movie has a kind of child’s nightmare quality,” noted Gordon of the project featuring Organic Theatre alumni Ian Patrick Williams and Caroline Purdy Gordon, plus a largely English cast.

“What I discovered with the script.” Gordon noted, “was that it was Hansel and Gretel done as a horror movie, so the production reflects that-very expressionistic, lots of atmosphere, bloodstains on the floor, thunder and lightning. Although it gets pretty explicit, it’s not RE-ANIMATOR where you’re sort of wallowing in the gore.” DOLLS requires lengthy postproduction for stop-motion special effects by David Allen.

The film was released on March 6, 1987, grossing $3.5 million worldwide against a budget of only $2 million

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Stuart Gordon was, at one point, very interested in directing a sequel to this film. The initial storyline would have followed Judy and Ralph back to Boston in which Ralph would have indeed married Judy’s mother and they would all become a family. Until, one day Judy would receive a box sent from England which would contain the toy makers, Gabriel and Hilary, as dolls. The sequel never happened.

DOLLS…was wonderful experience. Director Stuart Gordon, producer Brian Yuzna and I saw a chance to make a really strange, contemporary fairy tale: a horror movie that actually had heart. We were totally in synch on this one from the outset. When Stuart was forced to change a scene or two, he actually called me up and asked me to write new dialogue to make the new scenes work. Bless him. The movie received pretty good reviews out here (better on the West Coast than in the East). I think the movie clicked because, basically, it was a story about kids and their parents. There’s a line in the movie: “Being a parent isn’t a right, it’s a privilege.” That about sums up the movie, Children are very special beings. Too many of us forget how special. – Ed Naha (writer of Dolls)

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The Caller (1987) One night, an unusual stranger in need asks a woman living alone in a house in the woods if he can use her phone. It soon becomes clear that they’re playing a strange mind game and that there’s something very wrong about the woods.

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