Hey everyone. I was relaxing last night, enjoying Scream Factory’s great release of Ted Nicolaou’s 1986 monster film TERRORVISON, when I thought that it would be fun to go over my five favorite films that Charles Band’s Empire International Pictures had released during their very impressive run. Sure, they went on to form Full Moon after Empire’s end, but I’ve always been more inclined to revisit the Empire days, as I felt like those films were more ambitious and were approached better. So, here they are: My five favorite Empire movies. Read on!
*Not in any particular order*
Based on an H.P. Lovecraft story, Stuart Gordon’s RE-ANIMATOR isn’t just one of the best films made by Empire, it’s one the best movies made by anyone. It’s a perfect blend of humor, gore and everything that Gordon’s films are known for, and is a film that I revisit multiple times every year.
RE-ANIMATOR follows Herbert West (played excellently by Jeffrey Combs), a very eccentric student of science, that rents a room from fellow student Dan Cain and begins experimenting with bringing animals (and later in the film, people) back to life, “re-animating” them. Dan’s the only person who isn’t completely turned off by West, as Dr. Hill, a rival to West, does his best to get Herbert kicked out of school after Hill is accused by West of stealing his ideas from his former professor. Also not on the Herbert bandwagon, is Dan’s girlfriend Megan (played by, in my opinion, a staple of ’80’s horror, Barbara Crampton), who after seeing that he has killed and re-animated her cat, isn’t all too happy to be anywhere near West.
Eventually, Herbert is able to succeed at re-animation and after being kicked out of school, Herbert and Dan sneak into a morgue and they re-animate a corpse, which goes well, until the body flips out and eventually kills Megan’s father, who is also the dean. Quite a few bad decisions later in the film, Hill gets decapitated by West, and the never using his head Herbert, re-animates him as well, leading into one of the most uncomfortable scenes around, in which Hill’s body holds its own head and attempts to do some pretty interesting things to a kidnapped Megan. It’s a creepy but funny scene, definitely not for the easily offended.
Without giving too much away, it’s a fun as hell movie, and has a really great ending, complete with multiple re-animated corpses running around, and some really great blood-soaked practical effects. What’s great about RE-ANIMATOR, is that various future collaborations between Stuart Gordon, Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Gordon resulted from this film (including FROM BEYOND, which is also on this list). It’s a classic horror film, filled to the brim with some impressive effects, top notch performances and a wit that is unfortunately absent from a lot of today’s horror entries.
Already have gushed about my love for TRANCERS (Exploitation Alley: TRANCERS), I won’t go super into the plot as much as that article, but I will say that it is definitely a great time.
A futuristic tale, which was obviously Band’s attempt to cash in on BLADE RUNNER and more specifically, THE TERMINATOR. TRANCERS follows Jack Deth (A role that eventually typecasted Tim Thomerson), a cop from the future that is sent back in time into the body of his ancestor, in order to stop his arch-nemesis. What instantly throws up the TERMINATOR card, is that Jack’s nemesis, Whistler, is travelling back in time to kill the ancestors of a futuristic council, stopping the group from existing.
What sets TRANCERS apart from THE TERMINATOR or BLADE RUNNER though, is the playfulness and humor to the film. While the films that it obvious is cashing in on are amazing movies, they’re played for the most part very seriously. Band’s film instead makes its main character Jack Deth a sly, arrogant buffoon that goes through the film grumpy and full of one-liners.
A good amount of the movies that are on this list have recently been given exceptional releases onto BLURAY via the always amazing Scream Factory, and TRANCERS is a great candidate for that, it’s only release thus far is a dvd that is obvious just a transfer over from the VHS copy of it. Hell, in the middle of one of the best scenes, the screen goes blank for 5 seconds…yeah. A good re-release in HD would be awesome to see, and if we’re talking about updates, a good remake of the film (I’d give left arm to see the Astron-6 boys take that on) would also be fun as well.
The second Stuart Gordon/Empire collaboration on this list is a film that I hold just as high as RE-ANIMATOR, and that’s Gordon’s FROM BEYOND. The second film that featured Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton together, FROM BEYOND is one that combines science, dreams and sexuality into one gore-filled movie, giving viewers a fun time.
Adapted from an H.P. Lovecraft story (of course), FROM BEYOND follows Combs’ Crawford character, a man who is arrested for the murder of his boss, Doctor Pretorious. Committed to an asylum, Crawford’s taken care of by Dr. Michaels (another awesome performance by the great Barbara Crampton), who Crawford explains events that we saw at the very beginning to: Pretorious had developed a machine that allowed its surrounding people to see beyond normal realities. The flip side to that, was that Pretorious went crazy, and when the cops showed up, he was missing his head.
Dr. Michaels examines Crawford, doing a full scan of his head, and after discovering that Crawford’s pineal gland has grown larger than it should be, she comes to the conclusion that maybe Crawford isn’t making up his stories of the machine, or “The Resonator”. Michaels enlists a detective named Brownlee to join them (played by genre favorite Ken Foree, DAWN OF THE DEAD, THE LORDS OF SALEM), and decided to take Crawford back to the house in which the fiasco happened.
What follows is interesting to say the least. Crawford, with the help of Michaels, rebuilds the resonator and it releases creatures, along with a mutated Dr. Pretorious, which is the image of the film’s poster, and to this day, is still pretty gruesome. After a small struggle, the trio turn the machine off, which causes Pretorious to disappear, and as odd as it is, the trio go on about their day. Michaels, thinking the machine could cure diseases such as schizophrenia, turns on the machine without everyone else’s knowledge, and sets forth a chain of events that fill up the rest of the film.
It’d be a disservice to give away the last half, but it’s full of some weird as hell, yet thoroughly enjoyable scenes, such as Crawford being sucked into a monster and coming out hairless and unconscious, and Michaels putting on some serious S&M gear and trying to seduce Crawford…yeah, the movie is full of odd scenes, but they fit the film so well. It’s a weird, fun and slimy film, and though it doesn’t make sense 100% of the time, it’s well worth watching a time or twenty a year..who am I kidding, I worship this movie. Do yourself a favor and pick up Scream Factory’s recent release of it, which has its share of awesome special features, including a nice interview with Crampton, who mentions that FROM BEYOND was her favorite experience working with Gordon. It’s a wild ride and definitely a lot of fun!
Definitely the most tongue in cheek and kitschy of this list, Ted Nicolaou’s hilarious TERRORVISION is a movie that some people won’t appreciate, but those looking for a jab at the upper-class, swinging, aerobic obsessions of the ’80s, will find this film to be one that holds up with time.
TERRORVISION follows the Puttermans, an eccentric family full of some of the weirdest characters around. Stanley and Raquel (Gerrit Graham and Mary Woronov), the parents, are swingers obsessed with television and working out; Suzy (THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN) is a punkrock, MTV obsessed daughter dating O.D. (Jon Gries, THE MONSTER SQUAD) and just wants to rock; Rounding out the gang, Sherman and Grandpa Putterman, are two army-loving obsessives that try to find a conspiracy in everything.
While trying to fix their new satellite dish, the family accidentally causes it to bring a load of monster garbage through the satellite and into their home. The garbage eventually morphs into a huge, always hungry creature ready to devour the whole family, and the creature eventually does, with gusto.
It’s a crazy movie, full of some very impressive practical effects, all which are lathered with enough K-Y Jelly to keep a whorehouse in business. Everything about TERRORVISION works for me, the creature effects, the quirky performances, the set design, you name it. You can tell that Nicolaou jumped right into the movie and did everything he could to make it a colorful, weird ride, and it’s a funny movie that never takes itself too seriously.
It’s another Empire film that was lucky enough to receive a pretty awesome release from Scream Factory, this time as a double feature with another gem, THE VIDEO DEAD. Check it out!
Last but DEFINITELY not least, is Renny Harlin’s American film debut, PRISON. This film holds a special place in my heart for multiple reasons, the first of being its director. I’ve always been a massive fan of Harlin’s, the guy has made some of the best action films of the ’80s and ’90s (DIE HARD 2, CLIFFHANGER, DEEP BLUE SEA..the list goes on and on), and has an eye for some very interesting set pieces and some of the most outside of the box approaches.
Another reason PRISON is a big deal with me, dates back to me loving the film that Harlin director directly afterwards, which was A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4. I had seen ANOES 4 in the theaters as a kid, and after finding out that Harlin had made PRISON before that, I went to my local video store and rented it, and it blew me away. I actually think PRISON is a superior film, which says a lot, because those who know me can attest to the fact that I worship Freddy’s fourth venture into Elm street with a passion that’s unrivaled by most. Ok, enough gushing.
PRISON tells the story of a prisoner named Charlie Forsythe, who was wrongfully executed for a crime he didn’t commit. Years later, the prison he was in is about to close for good and Warden Sharpe, the warden who oversaw the execution, lives with fear and regret over the mistake. When a group of new prisoners arrive at the prison headed by Burke (Viggo Mortensen, LEATHERFACE: TCM III, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, a little film series called THE LORD OF THE RINGS), the ghost of Forsythe comes back, killing people left and right, making his way to Sharpe. It’s up to Burke to escape, stop Forsythe’s ghost, or die trying.
Other than some of the coolest set design work of the ’80s, what makes PRISON so effective, is how utterly amazing the effects are. Not to beat the whole “practical over CG!” thing into the ground, but seriously..WOW. If anyone needs a reference to how talented John Carl Buechler is, just check out PRISON. The kills are beyond gruesome, with everything from a prisoner getting fried to death inside a cell that becomes an oven, quite literally, to one of the craziest barbed wire deaths of all time, it’s all in this crazy, imaginatively brutal film. It’s an insane horror film, and a very early glimpse of the scope of Harlin’s visionary talent.
What are some of your favorite EMPIRE INTERNATIONAL films?? Leave a comment below and let us know!