It Came from the Video Aisle! Inside Charles Band’s Full Moon Entertainment Studio (Book)
Written by Dave Jay, William S. Wilson, and Torsten Dewi
The story of Charles Band and his Full Moon Entertainment studio is a lot like “The Little Engine That Could”, assuming the engine frequently derailed and due to crippling budgetary restraints the train would sometimes be replaced with a pedal car.
Like Roger Corman with perhaps an even greater degree of hucksterism, Charles Band has kept going in the entertainment industry, onward and upwards, sideways and downward, for longer than most of us have been alive. Rebuilding, rebranding, reinventing himself — from the video store to the rental box to streaming on demand, Band has often been at the forefront of the ever evolving low budget film industry even when it was more out of necessity than visionary.
Band followed up the financial collapse of his theatrical production company Empire Pictures in 1988 by creating a two-word production company that has become synonymous with the golden age of the video rental store: Full Moon.
Anyone of age to remember these magical places called video stores no doubt recall the fantastical works of box art for Full Moon films sucking them in like moths to a flame to take a chance on horror/sci-fi/fantasy films with equally fantastical titles and premises. For better and worse, these cheaply made, hastily assembled, “Blockbuster Night” movies helped turn Full Moon into a brand name that stood out above and beyond the usual slop tossed into the video store hog farms for the masses to consume when they needed a break from the big budget Hollywood blockbusters.
Band’s innovative idea to include “Videozone” segments following Full Moon’s movies – a forerunner to the modern DVD extra – offered viewers a glimpse behind the curtain, a taste of things to come, and solidified Band’s brand as one of the most fan friendly out there. The go-for-broke mentality making b-movies with these premises both wacky, tacky, and even retro before retro was cool was his attempt to do for cinema what the likes of his idol Jack Kirby had done for comic books. Unfortunately, sometimes Band went broke (literally!) and a number of these b-movies were more fun in spirit than execution.
It Came from the Video Aisle! – Inside Charles Band’s Full Moon Entertainment Studio walks a fine line between being a historical document, a love letter to these films and the people making them, and an honest critique of the good, the bad, and the ugly of a little company that produced small films often about tiny terrors.
Co-written by Dave Jay, William S. Wilson, and Torsten Dewi; It Came from the Video Aisle! is a massive 480 page tome containing probably everything you ever wanted to know about the wild, rocky history of Full Moon. I took one look at the thickness of this book and wasn’t sure I ever wanted to know this much. While Band may be the king of the B’s and a proponent of the popular three B’s of b-cinema (blood, boobs, beast), I can best surmise this Full Moon field guide using three E’s: entertaining, extensive, and exhausting.
Why exhausting? Simply put, I found a good deal of what I read to be a tad depressing. A lot of the folks quoted clearly worked their asses off to try and make something they could be proud of when deep down even they clearly knew between the time, budgetary, and creative restraints their work was in the service of something with no chance in hell of being what they wanted it to be. If only we had the money… If only we had more time… If only we had more creative freedom. If only Charles Band didn’t keep butchering the scripts during production… If only: such a common theme it practically becomes as much a mantra as Band’s own overly ambitious “200 movies by the year 2000” plan.
Many a writer, director, special effects artist, cast, and crew member appeared to be more than well aware of the frequently compromised nature of their work; hence film credits littered with an endless array of pseudonyms by a slew of Band regulars. Scam artists and escaped convicts use fewer aliases than the people responsible for Full Moon’s output. “Benjamin Carr” still insisted that alias be used instead of their real name in a book celebrating his career.
It Came from the Video Aisle! is a hell ride through the constantly changing landscape of the low budget movie industry and how a one-man Band and his Full Moon brand continues to survive in it by hook or by crook. This is very much a Hollywood survival story, and not just Band’s.
What I read in many ways echoed my own sentiments regarding Full Moon. I have an unabashed love for many of these films, warts and all, and some I simply have a deep rooted nostalgia for because of the formative role they played in my movie-watching youth. When it comes to a good number of these films, the brutal honest truth is if they were books you could say they weren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.
Following a foreword by Full Moon workhorse C. Courtney Joyner, whose name, alongside Benjamin Carr, are the only ones to appear almost as much as Band himself (except maybe David DeCoteau, who, strangely, declined to contribute in any way to the book), the text is divided into eight chapters presented is a somewhat muddled fashion. More on that momentarily.
Chapter One: The Paramount Years – Can you call it a “chapter” if it runs approximately 109 pages? There are full-length books that aren’t even that long.
If you’re a fan of Full Moon today, it’s almost certainly because of the movies pumped out during the five-year run with Paramount. I would dare say this is the most cheerful chapter of the book, at least until you get to the aggravatingly vague portion when Paramount pulls the plug due to what can only politely described as questionable decision-making on Band’s part. Hard not to get the sense there might be more to the story that for whatever reason, probably legal, gets sugarcoated by the authors. For certain hard not to read this chapter and be left wondering what greater heights Full Moon might have reached had that deal not turned sour so quickly. If only…
One of the biggest surprises of this chapter is the near twenty pages devoted to Band’s kiddie movie off-shoot Moonbeam Entertainment. I had no idea that these family flicks that littered video store shelves during this time period had proven to be so lucrative they often outsold the actual Full Moon titles and frequently were given considerably larger budgets. Moonbeam was such a financial success that when the big Full Moon/Paramount divorce went down Paramount, shall we say, wanted custody of the children.
Chapter Two: The Kushner-Locke Era – When one door slams shut Charlie Band finds a way to stick his foot in another. The other would be the Kushner-Locke Company with whom Band partnered with beginning in 1995 and continued with until about the turn of the millennium when the company financially collapsed. The prevailing theme of this chapter is a determination to try and make even more movies of a wider variety with even less money, time, and creative freedom.
For every success during this period, like the wonderfully loopy Head of the Family, there was an awful lot of movies put out that were just that. The Killer Eye, anyone?
Part of the problem would be overexpansion. Specifically, the various sub-labels Full Moon created to cater to specific genre needs. Amazing Fantasy, Monster Island Entertainment, Action X-Treme, Shriekers, PulsePounders, and Filmmonsters, oh my! The greatest intriguing tale to come out of this failed experiment would be the Skinemax-quality softcore sexcapades of Torchlight Entertainment (later Surrender Cinema) that, surprisingly, even Band was so uncomfortable with he preferred to keep his name off of them as much as possible.
Chapter Three: The Tempe Era – This chapter was guest written by Nathan Shumate, presumably because these were such dark times for Full Moon (no longer even called Full Moon at this stage) that none of the main three authors wanted to revisit any of these film. I can personally testify to having only ever viewed two of the movies mentioned here: William Shatner’s disastrous Groom Lake and the monster movie Demonicus, which I know I saw but have zero recollection of. Nothing I read here did anything to make me want to go seek out any of these titles I overlooked back in the day.
That said, my own unfamiliarity/avoidance with this early 2000s era during which Band went the micro-budget route with distributors Tempe Entertainment, working with the likes of DIY filmmaking kingpins J.R. Bookwalter and David Sterling, made for an interesting read. Of particular interest, tales of the production fiasco that was William Shatner’s bungled directorial effort Groom Lake and how it led the iconic actor to become the host of Band’s short-lived series “Full Moon Fright Nights”.
Chapter Four: The Shadow/Full Moon Features Era – As I like to call this, my PTSD years. These were the movies that came along right as I was just beginning to write reviews online, many of which were scathing, many of which I had completely forgotten about until I re-read about them here and all the bad memories returned.
Oh, Decadent Evil 1 & 2, why – just why?
On the other hand, there’s The Gingerdead Man, a movie I wrote a rave review of that I still get grief for even to this day; as if a film about a killer cookie voiced by Gary Busey could ever be deserving of anything less than four stars.
This chapter begins in the mid-2000s with Band’s attempt to rebrand once more as Shadow Entertainment before fully relaunching Full Moon and striking a distribution deal with this company you may have heard of called Redbox.
Chapter Five: The Pick-Ups – Until l read this short chapter I didn’t even know Band had created yet another sub-label in 1999 called Edge Entertainment with the intent to distribute more respectable, predominantly non-genre films. Robert Altman’s Gun and Matthew Bright’s Freeway follow-up Confessions of a Trick Baby found their way onto store shelves via Edge. As did John Landis’ forgotten comedy Susan’s Plan; a fact that did not sit well with him. Charlie Band is a criminal! decried Landis. And that’s coming from a guy who actually had actors die on his film set.
Chapter Six: Full Moon Streaming – The shortest chapter (9 pages) discussing Band’s move to create his own online streaming service. Makes sense this would be the shortest as this is his most recent venture, the history of which is still being written.
Chapter Seven: The Vault – Another short chapter (10 pages) focusing mainly on late stop-motion master David Allen’s long-gestating passion project The Primevals. An epic fantasy adventure in the tradition of Ray Harryhausen; what would have been Allen’s magnum opus began life in 1968, experienced numerous starts and stops for decades, nearly got finished by Full Moon in 1994, and even to this day Band swears he’ll see it to fruition eventually. If only…
Chapter Eight: The Franchises – Pretty much everything you ever wanted to know about the history and making of what are considered the seminal Full Moon franchises: Puppetmaster, Trancers, Subspecies, The Gingerdead Man, Evil Bong, Killjoy, and the “Moonbeam” adventure series Josh Kirby.
If there’s one major complaint to be made towards the book, it would be the oft clunky nature of how all this information is laid out there. Putting “The Franchises” at the end seemed an odd choice since they could have easily started the book with a whole chapter on Puppetmaster alone seeing as how that film launched the company and the series is Full Moon’s most well-known property. The ginormous opening Paramount chapter could have easily been divided with mini-chapters devoted to Trancers and Subspecies, with others delved into greater detail where it fit.
The narrative flow of chapters periodically come to a screeching halt for lengthy interviews with the likes of poster artist Lee MacLeod, Fred Olen Ray, Benjamin Carr, Danny Draven, J.R. Bookwalter, writer Shane Bitterling, special effect mavens Mike Deak and Mark Rappaport, just to name a few. Sometimes they fit the story being told; other times it felt intrusive. There are already so many quotes and anecdotes I kind of wish many of the longer interviews had been held off for their own chapter towards the end instead.
The mere existence of “The Vault” chapter alone struck me as odd. An entire chapter devoted to unfinished films yet only really discusses two such films at length while the entire book is already loaded with little asides about unmade Full Moon productions?
For the record, based on what I read here about the unproduced Doctor Mordred 2, we should all be heartbroken that we lost out on what could very well have gone on to be regarded as one of the very best films Full Moon would ever produce.
Another layout quibble was how certain personalities got introduced in one chapter and then re-introduced again in a later chapter, sometimes with even more biographical info and how they fit into the Full Moon family the second time around. I swore Jacqueline Lovell got re-introduced two or three times while someone who was a staple of early Full Moon films like Megan Ward was almost completely glossed over.
You expect lots of images from a book like this. Oh, you’ll get plenty of production art and behind the scenes photos but not as much as you might have hoped for and you may have trouble fully appreciating the details given many are bordering on postage stamp size. Now that I think about it; a book about a movie company known for making movies about mini-monsters filled with tiny images actually sounds strangely appropriate.
All in all, if you’re a fan of Full Moon then this is a must-have book. If you’re just a fan of filmmaking and want an inside view of what it was like deep in the trenches of the direct-to-video market from 1990 to today then this is again a must-read.
One of Band’s cohorts tells him with his experience he could get a job as an executive at any studio in Hollywood. Band doesn’t want that. Band wants to be his own boss. If that means jeopardizing his deal with Redbox because they’ve made it abundantly clear that no matter how much he insists on making Gingerdead Man vs. Evil Bong they absolutely will not distribute such a movie in their machines, then so be it.
As John Carpenter is quoted in the book: “Only two things will still be around after the apocalypse: cockroaches and Charles Band.” He meant that as a compliment.