The History of Empire Films Part Six

What are you doing with Ghoulies II?
Charles Band: That should be fun. Ed Naha’s writing the script. It’s still a bit early to talk about exactly what the plan is , but we’ll shoot this year and have it out next year. We’ll have some fun with it. Ghoulies not only did well at the box office not a blockbuster, but it did well but it has done huge videocassette business. It’s one of the top 10 or 15 video releases of ’85. and it has been sold to cable and syndication. That just means that for whatever reason, people like it. In my opinion, it’s a very weak film, but it had a few redeeming moments. I hope that in the sequel, we’ll be able to take what was good about the original and do that throughout the entire picture.

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Vicious Lips (1986) Sometime in the distant future, a fledgling band gets an opportunity for a breakthrough, if they can make it in time to a faraway planet to perform in a very popular club.

Early Ghoulies II Art.

Ghoulies II (1987) Ghoulies are shanghaied by a priest who intends to exterminate them, but they manage to escape to a low-rent carnival. There they take up residence in “Satan’s Den,” a foundering, old-fashioned haunted house attraction run by Royal Dano, who fears he may lose ownership of the show due to sagging attendance. The presence of the ghoulies at first gives business a much-needed boost … until the slimy little buggers start dining on the patrons.

At first, Empire Pictures president Charles Band couldn’t find anyone who would touch the project unless changes were made in the script. something he was adamantly opposed to doing. Finally, he took it to the one person he knew he could trust to make the movie exactly the way he wanted it, a man with both the talent and experience in low-budget filmmaking to pull it off, the same man who had, in fact, taught him everything he knew about the motion picture business: his father, Albert Band, an old hand at horror.

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Ghoulies II, the director is completely in charge, seems quite happy with the results and expects that the sequel will do even better than its successful predecessor. Not that he really has the time to sit and worry about it; Empire Pictures has 12 more movies due before Christmas, which means everybody at Empire has to hustle. And nobody hustles with any greater enthusiasm or verve than Albert Band, the company’s executive vice president of production.

“Albert has as much energy as any of the teenagers in my crew.” praises John Buechler, whose ability to whip up monsters faster than a short order cook flips burgers has made him an integral part of Empire’s operation. Buechler has worked with Papa Band a number of times. “He has a strong background in filmmaking and he knows exactly what he wants.”

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He should, having been in show business for four decades as a producer, writer and director. “Actually.” confesses Band, producing is what I enjoy the most. I only became a director to save myself a director’s salary.”

“Albert wrote a helluva good script,” says Royal Dano, one of the cast members. In Ghoulies II, Dano portrays the drunken operator of a sideshow attraction who accidentally picks up the dreaded title creatures.

To that end, David Allen, whose special FX have enhanced many of Empire’s pictures, was brought onto the project. According to him, the reason the FX succeed is that Band was willing to spend whatever it took to make them that way.

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“I’ve never actually worked with him on the set.” Allen reveals, but I know he cares about the pictures. If he didn’t there have certainly been times, especially on Ghoulies II, when he could have made more economical choices.”

As with most Empire movies, the principal photography was completed in Rome, where near-freezing temperatures gave birth to one of the fastest-moving crews in movie history. “They wanted to get the hell out of there,” confirms actor Dano, who had the foresight to pack long thermal underwear.

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Directed by Peter Manoogian, produced by Band and distributed by Empire. Enemy Territory (1987) Barry (Frank) is a formerly successful insurance executive whose career and life are being destroyed by alcoholism. As the day ends, he is sent to a notorious New York City housing project, the Lincoln Towers, to try and complete a life insurance policy sale to a nice elderly woman named Elva (Frances Foster). Meanwhile, a man named Will (Parker), a soft-spoken but tough employee of the telephone company, also heads to the building to hook up with his girlfriend and repair the phone lines. Unfortunately for Barry, while inquiring where Elva’s apartment is, he taps a boy, Decon (Theo Caesar) on the shoulder and quickly becomes the hated target of a savage, fanatical gang called the Vampires, who run the Towers. They’re led by their ruthless but charismatic leader the Count (Tony Todd), who runs his gang like a cult and is seen to be indestructible by himself and his followers. An attempt to kill Barry leads to the deaths of the building’s security guard and Decon. With Barry’s entrapment inside the building, he crosses paths with Will and makes his first reluctant ally willing to help him. They take safety in Elva’s apartment, but escape when the Vampires trap them. Leaving Elva behind, they find Elva’s determined granddaughter Toni (Stacey Dash), visiting with her neighbors. Toni suggests they go to the apartment of Mr. Parker (Vincent), a bigoted, crippled and unstable but yet still vicious Vietnam vet the gang fears (along the way Barry is forced to kill one of the gang members leaving him with mild PTSD). Paid for his help, Parker lets the trio in (revealing he’s modified a wheelchair with an arsenal of concealed weapons). Then Toni leaves to check on her grandmother, but when she arrives, she discovers Elva had been beaten and forced to reveal where Barry and Will are.

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The Vampires, holding Elva and Toni hostage, arrive at Parker’s apartment with Barry surrendering himself to save them. As Barry and Will exit, Parker and the Vampires engage in a shootout. In the midst of the gunfire, Barry, Will, and Toni escape. When Elva and Parker retreat back inside his apartment, Parker is shot in the chest and a short time later dies as Elva struggles to save him. Next, the trio head to the apartment of Chet Cole (Deon Richmond), a little boy, living with his mother, whom they heard is the only one who knows a way out of the building that no one else knows, not even the Vampires. According to Chet, the way out is in the building’s basement, with Chet offering to show them, but his mother sends him to bed, leading him to sneak out.

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After saving them from being killed by Psycho (Robert Lee Rush), the Count’s crazed relative (by knocking said gang member down a elevator shaft with a baseball bat), Chet joins the trio as they descend to the basement through said elevator shaft. In the basement, Chet shows them the way out, but the opening is too small for either Barry or Will to fit through. Toni however is able to fit through (but as she is leaving, gets grabbed by a badly injured Psycho who Barry forcibly finishes off with some power tools) and runs to get the police. But when she arrives at the station, the officers refuse to help, due to two cops being shot on a previous visit to the building.

While Barry and Will wait, Will comes up with another plan. Using the money that Elva gave Barry earlier in the film, they send Chet back upstairs. With sunrise approaching, Chet litters the money out a window to the Vampires guarding the basement door to the outside. At the same time, the Count and other Vampires realize that after checking every apartment in the building the basement is the only place left to look (on entering said basement the Count is stunned to see Psycho is dead). When the money distraction works, Barry and Will escape just as the Count and his remaining Vampires arrive, and Barry is shot in the ankle.

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Outside, Will and a wounded Barry start running as they are being chased and tormented by the last of the gang (with the Count ordering his followers to let him avenge Decon and Psycho). Cornered, Will uses the one shot he has left in his gun to protect Barry and himself, he does this by having a final showdown with the Count. As the Count closes in, Will shoots and struggles with him, until he knocks him briefly to the ground. The Vampires are momentarily demoralized when they see the Count is not invulnerable, despite his claims he still is, with Barry using this distraction to slam a swing seat into his head repeatedly until the Count collapses and dies while the other Vampires, now enraged at their leader’s death prepare to gun down Barry and Will. But Elva, using Parker’s machine gun, fires shots at them from the apartment window to hold them at bay. Seconds later, Toni and the police finally arrive, with the remaining gang members fleeing back into the apartment complex. Having survived a deadly night against a vicious gang, the film ends with Will and Toni accompanying Barry as he is taken to an ambulance.

Catacombs (1988), Concept Art
Catacombs (1988), Concept Art

Catacombs (1988) In the 17th century, an order of monks in Italy capture and entomb a demon that has possessed a member of their group. 400 years later, school teacher Elizabeth Magrino (Laura Schaefer) visits the monastery in order to do some research. What she and the current monks do not realize is that the evil hiding within the catacombs has unwittingly been released.

Despite a somewhat hackneyed story, an ancient evil buried in the title location beneath a remote monastery, and the utterly insane casting of Timothy Van Patten as a monk, this is a pretty good little film. Emphasis is on mood instead of gore and there is an honest attempt to develop the characters before they become victims of the revived terror. Director Schmoeller makes good use of his European locales and piles the atmospheric visuals on thick to make a film that could almost pass for genuine Italian semi-classic from the heyday of Mario Bava.

The film was the last officially completed film by Empire Pictures before the company was seized by Crédit Lyonnais for failure to pay on loans. As a result, the film’s release was delayed for five years. It was eventually given the new title Curse IV: The Ultimate Sacrifice by Columbia TriStar Home Video, and was released direct-to-video on VHS in 1993.

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Transformations (1988) Wolfgang is traveling in outer space when a monster, which he sees as a beautiful woman, appears in his spaceship and makes love with him. Then the ship is forced to land on a planet which is a penal colony. Here he meets Miranda who falls in love with him. A group of prisoners uses him and his spaceship to fly away from the planet. But the monster which is by now inside Wolfgang arouses and only Miranda’s love can save him.

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Ghost Town (1988) Retrospective

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Arena (1989) Steve Armstrong (Paul Satterfield) is working as a short order cook on a space station somewhere in the galaxy. Overwhelmed by the volume of orders, he repeatedly fouls up and soon finds himself in a confrontation with an alien patron named Vang. After a fight which smashes up the diner and leaves the alien injured, Steve and his friend and co-worker Shorty (Hamilton Camp) are fired. As it turns out, Vang is an Arena fighter, and his manager Quinn (Claudia Christian) confronts Steve. Amazed that a human could beat one of her best fighters, Quinn offers him a contract, but convinced that humans no longer have a place in the Arena, Steve refuses, intending to make his way back to Earth.

Lacking sufficient money for a ticket, Shorty attempts to raise the cash by gambling in an underground casino. The game is raided by the authorities and in the confusion, Shorty pockets the money. Caught in the act by crime boss Rogor (Marc Alaimo) and his enforcer Weezil (Armin Shimerman), Shorty is held for ransom. Steve promises to pay off the debt, so he reluctantly returns to Quinn and agrees to a contract. Remarkably he wins his first match with an alien named Sloth in an upset. He continues fighting, determined to prove that a human has what it takes to be champion, and soon becomes a top contender. Despite Rogor’s multiple attempts to cheat, Steve ultimately wins the championship from Rogor’s top fighter, an alien named Horn (Michael Deak).

Deadly Weapon (1989) A teenager named Zeke, who fantasizes that he is from outer space, is bullied by some other teens at school and deals with a drunken father, runaway mother and a sister who delights in being nasty to him. He finds a lost experimental military weapon in a river near his home. The weapon fires anti-gravity X-rays. Zeke uses it for self-defense as a means to deal with his persecutors, both at school and at home.

An army team led by the overzealous Lt. Dalton, responsible for originally losing the weapon, is sent to recover the weapon before its unstable reactor overloads and causes a meltdown. The situation degenerates into a siege.

Michael Miner
Michael Miner

Although planned as a sequel to Laserblast, while writing the script – and partially due to financial constraints, Band and Miner decided to make an original film, based on the central idea.

Michael Miner,  who had just finished co-writing RoboCop with Edward Neumeier, saw in that Deadly Weapon poster the chance to “blast the Spielberg mythical suburbia and the warmth of childhood,” to create a “neo-Lucas, neo-Spielberg
flick.

More than that, it was a chance to direct, an opportunity Miner missed out on when his then in-production RoboCop blossomed from a low-budget picture into a big-budget, extravaganza that the studio felt had to be given to a veteran director.

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So, Miner called a physicist friend, quizzed him about the kinds of weapons scientists have on paper these days, and found his deadly weapon-an anti-matter pistol powered by a “backpack reactor about the size of two shoe boxes.” Then, he and writer friend George Lafia started thinking-what if the transport train carrying this hi-tech weapon derails, and the gun is found by “a 15-year-old, heavy metal loser?”

They had their movie. A concept that Miner’s RoboCop partner Ed Neumeier neatly boiled down to four simple sentences: “He’s 15. He’s got nuclear capability. He’s got 24 hours to live. He’s the kid with the ray gun.” Charles Band was sold.

The film was shot in May and June of 1987 at various locations around Southern California on a budget of $2 million. Although the budget restricted Miner somewhat, he doesn’t resent the limitation. “Empire gave me the permission to make a dark film with a dark ending. I think it takes a little company like Empire to make a picture like this –people who want to make interesting pictures and are willing to allow the freedom necessary to do it.”

“The upside was I could pretty much do what I wanted,” says Miner. “I had a pretty long leash. The downside was I could only work with $3 million.”

The budget obviously limited the scope of the special effects used, but Miner made do with what he could afford. Whenever Zeke shoots the pistol, he’s hit by an air cannon and a reactive light, with the desired effect being that of an exploding concussion grenade. The pistol is used several times in the film, setting the target on fire each time, and there’s one particularly notable shot of a head bursting into flames and writhing (an articulated puppet head was used for this).

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Miner sees Deadly Weapon as “science fiction meets Badlands” and insists it’s not just another exploitation flick. “At its root, it’s a personal film, but there’s a mean edge to it,” he says. “I’m very proud of Deadly Weapon. I think I did a good job.”

Miner hopes to reach a young audience with the picture. “The film starts off being a Charles Bronson type revenge picture and then takes that desire for revenge and puts it into the mind of a 15 year-old who is still wavering about what to do,” said Miner.

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Spellcaster (1991) Orphaned siblings Jackie and Tom are elated to be chosen to participate in a treasure hunt alongside other players, for a prize of one million dollars. Set in an Italian castle owned by the mysterious Diablo, all they must do to win the contest is be the first to find the check. Also hunting for the money are several others that are highly competitive and willing to do anything to win. The contest is to be recorded for a MTV-esque music channel and sponsored by the recording company of pop star Cassandra Castle, who is to accompany the contestants throughout the hunt along with VJ Rex. Cassandra, however, is unwilling to spend any time with the contestants and prefers to spend all of her time drinking excessively in her private room. Upon a whim Cassandra makes a deal with Rex to hide the money on her person so none of the contestants can find it. Upon the end of the competition the two will split the winnings.

Once the contest begins the contestants begin a frantic search for the check, unaware of Cassandra’s duplicity or that supernatural forces are picking the players off one by one. Cassandra’s plans are waylaid when the forces begin to torment her and cause her to lose the check, which is carried throughout the castle on a magical breeze. Eventually only Jackie, Cassandra, and Tom are left, upon which point they are unable to ignore that something is very wrong. As Jackie frantically searches for answers she discovers a room at the top of the castle containing a crystal ball and Diablo, who reveals himself to be a demon. He also tells her that he has captured the souls of the other contestants in the sphere and will take them all to Hell, as well as that his next victim will be her brother. Meanwhile Cassandra and Tom have romantically connected with one another. He also discovers the check, which has landed near him and Cassandra. Tom is shocked when Cassandra chooses to burn the check and warns him that the money comes with strings attached that he wouldn’t want. She throws the check into a fireplace, only Diablo to magically summon her to his room and chastise her for ruining his plans, revealing that Cassandra had formed a contract with him and that he will be taking her soul to Hell as well. In exchange for her soul she gained fame and wealth, which she quickly realized was not worth the bargain and took to alcohol and drugs to numb herself to her reality. In order to save both Tom and Cassandra Jackie tries to bargain with Diablo, offering her soul in exchange for the both of them. Horrified, Cassandra chooses to destroy Diablo’s crystal ball, which puts an end to his evil plans and brings all of the contestants back to life. This also frees Cassandra, who reveals that she convinced Diablo to give her back her soul and to instead VJ at the music channel. The film closes with Diablo hosting a music broadcast and announcing a new contest that will bring him all new victims.

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The film began shooting during July 1986 near Rome, Italy. Executive producer Charles Band allowed the filming to take place in a 12th century castle he had purchased for filmmaking, Castello di Giove. Spellcaster’s script was written by Dennis Paoli and Ed Naha, frequent collaborators with Stuart Gordon. The film was produced by Band’s Empire Pictures, which went defunct in 1988, and Spellcaster’s release was delayed until 1992, when it was released through Columbia TriStar Home Pictures.

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Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death (1989) The U.S. government, eager to protect the nation’s avacado supplies, recruits feminist professor Margo Hunt to make contact with the Piranha Women, an all-female tribe who believe men are only good as a source of food. Accompanying Dr. Hunt on her trip are Jim, a guide of questionable competence, and Bunny, a student of unquestionable incompetence.

Empire Robot Jox primer poster

Robot Jox (1989) Retrospective
The reasons for the prolonged delay for Robot Jox (1989) are numerous, all related to the toppling of Band’s Empire beneath the weight of a staggering $46 million in debts. Empire ran out of money when the company saw the film’s budget balloon from $7 to $9 million. Whether due to inferior product or the company’s attempt to distribute its own films, Band was forced to relinquish control of Empire and regroup under the banner The Band Company (its video arm called Half Moon Productions), where Gordon has an office on a film-by-film arrangement. (TWE now owns the Empire catalog, including films that were not yet complete at the time of the takeover.)

Gordon scoffs at the industry talk that Robot Jox was responsible for the fall of the Band Empire. “I don’t believe that this picture sunk Empire, though it certainly didn’t help,” he admitted. “It is true, however, that it was the most expensive picture Empire ever produced-three or four times their normal budget. It also had the longest post-production schedule. But even if everything had gone like clockwork, it would still have required a year of post. Charlie had envisioned that Robot Jox would put Empire on the map, financially speaking. Unfortunately we were not able to get the movie done in time to save the company.”

Even though Empire was clearly in the midst of severe financial woes by this time, Allen insists that he was never pressured by Band to finish. “He understood what we were battling, which was the weather. Empire’s loan money was costing them interest, but we weren’t that expensive-our effects came in at less than 25% of total budget.”

But Band’s video Empire was about to fall. Explained Band, “Basically, in a nutshell, we had some bad timing. We’d just set up a big operation in Italy and suddenly the dollar absolutely fell apart and the cost of living in Italy quadrupled, so suddenly we were in the wrong country in terms of getting a shop set up and making movies. We were there to save money, and the last few pictures we made at Empire cost 20 or 30% more than it would have to make them in this country, which is totally insane considering that just to shoot the picture offshore there is an awful lot of effort that goes into traveling, etc.”

Added Albert Band, “In the beginning, you got 2000 lira to the dollar. When we left, it was 600. The whole Italian experience marked us for life, me and my children, because those years were very formative, not just in growing up, but growing up in a different culture, living with a different language, making movies we liked, building an empire.”

Fango_56_037What happened to Empire Pictures?
Charles Band: The problems really were two-fold. There were all the normal problems with all the independents because the business has changed radically. These independents, including Empire, became too big too fast, driven by a worldwide home video fever that dried up. The fever mainly for B movies in the home video markets was very forgiving; anything sold. Today, it’s just not the case. It’s an A-driven market, but the occasional B movie will work. The premise of Empire in the early ’80s made sense, but in the late ’80s, it makes no sense. Control your own distribution? That’s not necessary today. Make 4,000 movies a year? You can’t do that anymore.

The other thing that happened to Empire is that in the early days, when we made a dozen or so video hits, pictures that did very well internationally as well, we sold the rights to several video distributors at a bargain price. Had Empire been able to control its own video destiny while the video world was exploding, and reaped the benefits of its video successes, it would not have had any financial problems.

Typically, we would make a picture on a small loss, assuming we would see overages from video, but the deal we made from video, which would sometimes help get the picture made, just didn’t have a chance of showing us overages because it was written in such a way that we would have to sell truckloads of tapes to make any money beyond the advance. It doesn’t take too many of those kind of movies to ultimately create a deficit. Empire never had any huge amount of debt, but the only way it would have been able to turn itself around would have been to get a lot more money to make bigger movies and do business differently. It got to be very wearying at the end, as well. You have to be on call morning and night to the banks you’re involved with, and that’s just not what I wanted to do.

So you were operating on a kind of brinksmanship policy that worked fine when the market was flush, but when the market went away, you toppled over the brink?
Charles Band: Yes. Some companies went down in flames, other companies went bankrupt. Neither of these things happened to Empire. It was a graceful end to a five-year history of making 50-odd movies. And I left with an enormous amount of experience, hopefully some of it useful to me now, and with a rare opportunity in a whole new world to start again, in a sense, but doing things the right way. I’ve been very, very lucky. 1988 was a great year for me. I’ve no regrets.

The quality of the Empire movies varied, and tended downward somewhat over the years.
Charles Band: I don’t know how to say it without sounding like I did everything over there, which I clearly didn’t, but the less time I spent involved in a production, the less the picture showed any real magic. We had good filmmakers and bad filmmakers; we took chances with a lot of new filmmakers, and some of those worked out real well and some were disappointments. The earlier pictures, even though they were all modest efforts, were better than the later ones, because for the last year and a half of Empire, I barely had five percent of my time and energy left to deal with filmmaking. That’s why with the new companies, I plan to do just one thing, and that is to make these pictures.

At Empire, I spent most of my time dealing with things that were outside what I love doing, which is making movies and being on a motion picture set. So I decided to set up my new life in a way that would really divide the two areas I wanted to concentrate in. I set up Bandcompany and Full Moon Productions. Bandcompany basically will be making one or two larger-budgeted films a year, the first one of which is Pit and the Pendulum , which Stuart Gordon is directing in Italy. There are a couple of others in preparation that will probably wind up being deals directly with studios, where we won’t be involved in any of the sales or marketing, but those movies are few and far between. Sometimes, seven or eight months go by between projects. Sometimes years, if you’re really unlucky.

Why were so many films still on the shelf when Empire was sold?
Charles Band: Because for the final four or five months, the president of Empire, the chief financial operator and myself were trying to convince the banks to allow Empire to change course. There was a whole list of things we wanted to do, and it required more money. During that period, we had films that would have fit nicely into that new Empire; we didn’t want to give every last film away to various home video companies. We wanted to start off with a bit of a head start. So there was a kind of moratorium put on finishing certain pictures, selling certain pictures. We kind of kept everything to try and make this deal. When the deal didn’t work out the way I wanted it and this other offer came about, another four or five months went by, only because it takes that much time for new people to come in and figure out what they’ve got. So the pictures are being finished, and now through God knows what convoluted deal they are coming out. There were about seven or eight of them, the best of which, the absolutely last picture Empire made, was Robot Jox. It would be ironic if’ it became a big hit.

CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
love-it-loud.co.uk
Cinefantastique v13n06
Cinefantastique v12n02
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Cinefantastique v16n01
Cinefantastique Vol 08 No 2-3
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DELIRIUM#01
DELIRIUM#03
DELIRIUM#04
DELIRIUM#05
FANGORIA#30
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FANGORIA#56
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FANGORIA#215
FANGORIA#69
MONSTERLAND#39
MONSTERLAND#10
GOREZONE #8
starburstmagazine#03
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Famous Monsters of Filmland#161
tomboftheunproducedhorrormovie
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Starlog#127
Rue Morgue#136
Horrorfan#03
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Draculina#14
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