‘Enter the Video Store: Empire of Screams’ is a Blast [Review]

Arrow Video
enter the video store bd 960x791 - 'Enter the Video Store: Empire of Screams' is a Blast [Review]

The recent resurgence of VHS is something I never expected, especially from a generation of kids who never set foot in a video store and (sadly) never will. I understand the hunger for nostalgia but, for me, a VHS tape is part and parcel of the rental process. Going to a local mom & pop video store (or a Wherehouse) on a Friday night, spending a solid hour perusing the aisles, looking for the eye-catching box art, whittling down your selections, and preparing for a weekend of watching tapes with no responsibilities outside of a few house chores. Those halcyon days of youth. But as I got older and video formats evolved, I dropped VHS like a hot potato and moved onward and upward to widescreen, increased resolution, and extra features—all the things video couldn’t provide.

Lucky for me and others who share the same sentiments, Arrow Video is here to replicate those glory days while still presenting films in high quality. Enter the Video Store: Empire of Screams brings together five features from Charles Band’s low-budget horror/sci-fi/fantasy factory, Empire International Pictures. Although the distribution company lasted a mere five years Band and Company managed to crank out dozens of titles that are still entertaining genre fans to this day. The set doesn’t include Band’s biggest hits but it does provide a smattering of mid-tier titles that run the gamut from horror to sci-fi and everything in between. Contained within the too-cool “Arrow Video” storefront packaging are The Dungeonmaster, Dolls, Cellar Dweller, Arena, and Robot Joxalong with double-sided posters for each, reproduction art cards, an 80-page “Arrow Video Magazine” booklet, and an Arrow Video store membership card. Radical.

enter the video store feat 1 960x655 - 'Enter the Video Store: Empire of Screams' is a Blast [Review]

The Dungeonmaster

First up in the set is The Dungeonmaster (1984), which is available to watch in three different versions: the U.S. theatrical cut; a pre-release version under the original title, Ragewar; and an international version, also called Ragewar, that features a few trims and changes. If you want to see it all, the pre-release version is the one to watch.

Paul (Jeffrey Byron) is a successful computer programmer who owns the ‘80s version of Apple’s new VisionPro glasses—only his are tethered to “X-CaliBR8”, a sophisticated semi-sentient personal computer with which Paul can openly communicate. Paul’s girlfriend, Gwen (Leslie Wing), is slightly jealous of the computer mainly because she worries it controls his life a little too much. One night, Paul & Gwen are transported from their bedroom to a fiery landscape by Mestema (Richard Moll), an ancient sorcerer who wants to test his magic against modern magic—a.k.a. X-CaliBR8. Gwen is taken hostage and Paul is armed with a wrist module containing X-CaliBR8 before Mestema serves up a series of seven challenges he must pass… or die.

Charles Band took the novel approach of having a different director helm each challenge, and though there are seven of them, the style remains consistent across the board. Not every segment is a success and the limitations of Band’s budget are evident. But that’s exactly what I love about these ‘80s horror movies. Rubbery masks, stop-motion animation, optical effects, creative creatures. Even the weaker stories are entertaining because they all contain some level of artistry and none lasts for long. Also, one story is basically a W.A.S.P. music video and it’s musical mayhem & madness.

The Dungeonmaster was previously released on Blu-ray by Scream Factory as a double feature with Eliminators (1986). But, Arrow has given the movie a new 2K restoration from the original camera negative. The 1.85:1 1080p image doesn’t look too dissimilar to the Scream release but the new work from Arrow has tightened up the picture. This is likely the best it could look anyway, given the low-budget roots and myriad optical effects. Audio comes in the form of an English LPCM 1.0 mono track and it sounds clean and clear, with no obvious defects. Subtitles are available in English SDH.

In addition to the three cuts of the film the disc also includes an audio commentary with star Jeffrey Byron, moderated by film critics Matty Budrewicz & Dave Wain; “I Reject Your Reality and I Substitute My Own” (HD, 15:07), a new interview with Jeffrey Byron; two trailers (theatrical and an alternate); and an image gallery (HD).

Dolls

Next on the video shelf is Stuart Gordon’s Dolls (1986). Running a brief 77 minutes, Gordon makes fine use of a classic horror trope wherein six strangers arrive at a house in the middle of nowhere during a thunderstorm and are invited to stay the night. The owners, Gabriel (Guy Rolfe) and Hilary (Hilary Mason), are a sweet old couple who have a fondness for dolls. Judy (Carrie Lorraine) is the protagonist, a young girl whose father (Ian Patrick Williams) is a jerk and her stepmother (Carolyn Purdy Gordon) is even worse. They’re joined by Ralph (Stephen Lee), a loveable schlub, and two English punk-rock hitchhikers who turn out to be thieves. The dolls take kindly to Judy but the rest of the pack, minus Ralph, get their comeuppances throughout the course of the night.

Dolls doesn’t overstay its welcome, with Gordon setting up the story and getting everyone to bed in short order. From there we get a great spooky house atmosphere, with the inside seemingly labyrinthine. The doll attacks apparently took nearly a year to finish in post-production and it was an effort well made because the little monsters move like creeps and are pretty vicious. Sure, being attacked by something six inches tall isn’t exactly frightening but these diminutive terrors succeed not in strength but by their numbers. Although my favorite bit comes when one would-be victim successfully smashes a doll to pieces before triumphantly yelling, “Fuck you, clownie!” All of the actors work well for their roles but it’s Guy Rolfe who classes up the picture with his geniality and warmth.

This is another title that got a Scream Factory release some years ago but Arrow’s edition features a new 2K restoration from a 35mm interpositive. The 1.85:1 1080p picture looks good to my eyes. It’s likely any improvement over the previous release is minor, like refining grain, improving shadow details, and maybe some color saturation is deeper. I’m a big fan of the lighting choices by cinematographer Mac Ahlberg, giving the house all the requisite creepy vibes you’d want to see. The house was actually built on a sound stage in Rome, and as a big fan of huge stage sets this one looks great. It was also re-used for Gordon’s film From Beyond (1986). Audio is available via an English DTS-HD MA track in either 5.1 or 2.0 stereo, the former of which has a fuller and more present sound. Subtitles are included in English SDH.

There are three audio commentary tracks – a new one with David DeCoteau, Empire alumnus and friend of Stuart Gordon, moderated by Matty Budrewicz & Dave Wain; an archival track featuring director Stuart Gordon and writer Ed Naha; and another returning track with actors Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Stephen Lee, Carrie Lorraine, and Ian Patrick Williams. “Assembling Dolls” (HD, 17:01) is an insightful interview with editor Lee Perecy. “Toys of Terror: The Making of Dolls” (HD, 38:31) is a carryover from Scream Factory’s release, and is well done. “Storyboard Comparisons” (HD, 8:30), a trio of trailers (theatrical, alternate, and U.K. home video), and an image gallery are also included.

Cellar Dweller

Third up is Cellar Dweller (1987), another directorial effort from legendary special effects artist John Carl Buechler, who ensures his creations are shot well and shown frequently in this cryptic tale that feels ripped from the pages of an EC comic book. Jeffrey Combs kicks off this story, playing Colin Childress, a popular comic book artist whose beastly creation comes to life straight from the pages, killing his girlfriend and causing Childress to accidentally kill himself. Cut to nearly 30 years later and the site of Childress’ chaos is now an art academy where eager new student Whitney Taylor (Debrah Farentino) enrolls due to her love of Childress’ work. But her fondness turns deadly when she goes messing around in the basement and uncovers old relics from Childress’ past. Specifically, the bloodthirsty ghoul that wreaked havoc all those years ago.

Buechler not only crafted a fantastic creature, which is a full-sized suit, but he imbues his film with all the proper trappings of a B-picture. A decrepit cellar. Satanic overtones. Cobwebs. A roster of actors ready to be offed. Constant terror. He even hired Yvonne De Carlo, the former Lily Munster, to play the mean old woman who runs the academy. The monster effects look convincing enough, and there are many scenes full of carnage. Buechler doesn’t hide his hulking brute until the final act; this thing is pretty much the star. And I love what he does with the ending.

Another prior Scream Factory release, Cellar Dweller has had additional color grading and restoration work done by Arrow. Again, the upgrade in picture quality is minor but appreciable. The image is clean and stable. Film grain is evident but not overpowering. The colors are punchy. An English LPCM 2.0 stereo track provides the audio, and while I did find it to be a little low on volume the effects and dialogue are well balanced and free from defects.

One major upgrade, however, is the extra material, all of which is new to disc. There’s an audio commentary with special make-up effects artist Michael Deak, moderated once again by Matty Budrewicz and Dave Wain. “Grabbed by the Ghoulies” (HD, 16:03) is a video essay appreciation of John Carl Buechler’s work, as narrated by Budrewicz and Wain. “Inside the Cellar” (HD, 16:30) is an interview with Michael Deak, who is also the man in the cellar dweller suit. Some fun trailers are included – a VHS trailer, More Films by Empire Pictures trailer reel, and More Films by Empire Pictures (VHS Mode!) which is another reel that, well, looks like it came straight from VHS tapes. Two image galleries—behind the scenes and artwork & stills—and the original sales sheet and original production notes are also available.

Arena

Up next is a film I remember renting on more than one occasion, Arena (1989). This Rocky-meets-Star Trek sci-fi fighting film is set in the year 4038, where wannabe champion Steve Armstrong (Paul Satterfield) lives on a space station working as a short-order cook. One day he stands up to some alien goons in the restaurant and his fighting skills catch the attention of Quinn (Claudia Christian), who manages arena fighters. She offers him a contract and he refuses on the grounds he’d rather return to Earth.

Steve’s friend and former co-worker, the four-armed Shorty (Hamilton Camp), tries gambling to help earn the money for Steve’s ticket but during a police raid he simply swipes the cash from the table. But, that cash belongs to local crime boss Mr. Rogor (Marc Alaimo). Steve reluctantly agrees to fight for Quinn and soon finds himself winning both money and matches, leading to a final showdown with reigning champ Horn (Michael Deak).

Arena wasn’t the most expensive film Empire ever made but you’d never know that from watching it. There are dozens of unique space creatures to be seen, the titular arena looks massive and filled to capacity, the set design does its best to look advanced yet still relatable to current tech, and the scope of the picture often feels grand. I was frequently impressed by the arena fighters. Sloth looks like a massive mutant grasshopper; Spinner is an alien-robot hybrid that looks like something out of RoboCop 2; Horn is a fearsome cyber-bull on two legs. Those are just a few of the many creative beasts seen throughout.

But the heavy lifting is done by Hamilton Camp as Shorty, who gives a solid performance as Steve’s trusted ally. Unfortunately, Steve, our lead, doesn’t have a commanding screen presence and is frequently the weak link, though he’s clearly trying. Still, even with that handicap, the movie works overtime to entertain and I was never bored, frequently dazzled by the ingenuity and effects work that are both ubiquitous.

Arrow searched high and low but wasn’t able to find any original film elements for Arena which is why every prior release was only on DVD. For this Blu-ray edition Arrow used a 35mm theatrical print, though it had the unfortunate error of the on-screen text and opening credits being incorrectly framed. That turns out to be a minor issue and the restoration work they’ve done is quite good all things considered. Contrast can be a bit iffy in some shots, and there are a few scratches, but overall this is better than any DVD.

Detail never quite approaches full-on HD levels but the picture is stable and consistent and is likely the best we’re ever going to get unless the negative is found. Audio is an English LPCM 2.0 stereo track with good separation and a nice balance of levels. There’s some minor hissing but nothing egregious. Subtitles are in English SDH.

In the extras menu, you’ll find an audio commentary with director Peter Manoogian, once again moderated by Matty Budrewicz and Dave Wain. There’s also an “alternative full-frame presentation” if you really want the VHS experience. “Not His Arena” (HD, 14:44) is an interview with screenwriter Danny Bilson. “Empire of Creatures” (HD, 16:21) is an interview with special make-up effects artist Michael Deak, who designed many of the creatures and also plays Horn. Trailers are included in both widescreen and full-frame, and there are also image galleries for behind-the-scenes and posters & stills.

Robot Jox

Last but certainly not least, we arrive at film number five, Stuart Gordon’s Robot Jox (1989). This was Empire’s most expensive film (a rumored $7 million budget) and also their last to be produced, since the company went bankrupt during production. Gordon’s inspiration was the then-hot Transformers cartoon which he thought could make for an exciting live-action movie using modern effects. Fifty years after a nuclear war decimated the planet only two nations remain: Market (American) and Confederation (Soviet Union). Instead of using conventional weapons, disputes are now handled using pilot-controlled hundred-foot-tall robots, operated by “robot jox”. Alexander (Paul Koslo) is the current Confederation champion, and his arch-enemy is Achilles (Gary Graham).

Both men have each won nine matches, with retirement eligibility after the tenth. During their match, a fatal error costs hundreds of spectators their lives, and referees call the match a draw. Alexander demands a rematch but Achilles refuses, stating he fulfilled the obligations of his contract and is now retired. But people are calling him a coward and a traitor in public. So his position as a robot jox goes to Athena (Anne-Marie Johnson), a genetically engineered soldier (“gen jox”) who is the first female to pilot a robot. She was created for this purpose, but the old rivalry between Alexander and Achilles refuses to go away.  

Robot Jox may have had the largest budget in Empire’s history but it looks like all of it went into the robots. The sets are austere and uncluttered and the cast is relatively small, with no creature effects necessary. The robot action is highly impressive, with fantastic designs and brutal battles. I wish there had been at least one more but the two big skirmishes we see feature a lot of engineering and painstaking miniature work.

Paul Koslo steals the show as Alexander, with a portrayal that is searing. This was during the Cold War and Russia was still “the enemy” (funny how history repeats itself…) and Koslo excels at being a massive prick with a huge ego. My other favorite character is Tex Conway (Michael Alldredge), the former ten-fight champion who is now a mentor to Achilles. Re-Animator fans will also notice we get a minor cast reunion with Jeffrey Combs in a small role, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon as Achilles’ step-sister, and Dean Halsey himself, Robert Sampson, as the commissioner.

This is another title I rented a handful of times on VHS and it’s still just as entertaining today. I’m a sucker for desert-set films and I like the vast plains on which these robot jox do battle. This was a novel concept for live-action in 1989 and it has influenced many future films. In particular, Pacific Rim (2013) clearly owes Gordon’s vision a debt. If I have any complaint it would be the ending, which is slightly anti-climactic and it ends on a note that feels incongruous with the characters up to that point. Otherwise, this is the definition of Saturday afternoon matinee fun.

A new 2K scan from the original camera negative was used for this 1.85:1 1080p picture and it is by far the best-looking film in the set. The image is incredibly sharp, depth is evident, colors are robust and vibrant, and film grain is smooth and filmic; it’s a strong effort from start to finish. There are many optical and special effects shots and those look as you’d expect, grainier and a bit rougher. Still, overall this is a nice improvement on Scream Factory’s previous release. Audio is once again an English LPCM 2.0 stereo track and this one sounds great. Dialogue is clean and clear; no hissing or garbled words to be heard. Frédéric Talgorn’s score is heroic and bold, delivering big themes to match the big robots. Subtitles are included in English SDH.

Arrow loses some features from Scream’s release but adds a few more to make up for it. There are two audio commentary tracks: one with director Stuart Gordon, another with associate effects director Paul Gentry, mechanical effects artist Mark Rappaport, and stop-motion animator Paul Jessell. “Crash and Burn” (HD, 17:09) is a new interview with actor Gary Graham. “Her Name is Athena” (HD, 13:25) is a new interview with actress Anne-Marie Johnson. “The Scale of the Battle: David Allen and the FX of Robot Jox” (HD, 26:35) is an appreciation of the late artist with tributes from his peers and colleagues. “Looking Back” (HD, 10:24) is an archival interview with the late Paul Koslo. “Salvaged from the Wreckage” (HD, 8:19) looks at many behind-the-scenes photos and schematics for the robots and sets.

A trailer (4×3), image galleries – behind-the-scenes and posters & stills, the original sales sheet, and original production notes complete the bonus features.  

Special Features:

Special Features and Technical Specs:

  • High Definition presentations of all five films
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Limited edition packaging featuring newly commissioned artwork by Laurie Greasley
  • Reversible sleeves featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Ilan Sheady
  • Double sided posters for each film featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Ilan Sheady
  • 15 postcard-sized reproduction artcards
  • Arrow Video store “membership card”
  • 80-page perfect bound book featuring new writing on the films by Lee Gambin, Dave Jay, Megan Navarro, and John Harrison plus select archival material

DISC ONE – THE DUNGEONMASTER

  • New 2K restoration by Arrow Films from the original negative
  • Three different versions of the film via seamless branching: the US theatrical version (The Dungeonmaster), the pre-release version and the international version (Ragewar)
  • Original lossless mono audio
  • New audio commentary with star Jeffrey Byron, moderated by film critics Matty Budrewicz and Dave Wain
  • I Reject Your Reality and Substitute My Own, a new interview with star Jeffrey Byron
  • Theatrical trailers
  • Image gallery

DISC TWO – DOLLS

  • New 2K restoration by Arrow Films from the original interpositive
  • Original lossless stereo audio
  • New audio commentary by David Decoteau, Empire alumnus and friend of Stuart Gordon
  • Archive audio commentary with director Stuart Gordon and writer Ed Naha
  • Archive audio commentary with cast members Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Stephen Lee, Carrie Lorraine, and Ian Patrick Williams
  • Assembling Dolls, a new interview with Lee Percy, editor of Dolls, Re-Animator and From Beyond
  • Toys of Terror: The Making of Dolls, an archive featurette with Gordon, Yuzna, Purdy-Gordon, Williams, Brian Yuzna, Charles Band and Gabe Bartalos
  • Film-to-storyboard comparison
  • Theatrical trailers
  • Image gallery

DISC THREE – CELLAR DWELLER

  • Additional picture restoration by Arrow Films
  • Original lossless stereo audio
  • New audio commentary by special make-up effects artist Michael Deak who inhabited the Cellar Dweller creature suit, moderated by film critics Matty Budrewicz and Dave Wain
  • Grabbed by the Ghoulies, a new appreciation of John Carl Buechler, special make-up effects artist of many Empire Pictures films and director of Cellar Dweller, by film critics Matty Budrewicz and Dave Wain
  • Inside the Cellar, a new interview with special make-up effects artist Michael Deak
  • Original sales sheet
  • Original production notes
  • VHS trailer
  • Empire Pictures trailer reel
  • Image galleries, including behind the scenes photos courtesy of special make-up effects artist Michael Deak

DISC FOUR – ARENA

  • New 2K restoration by Arrow Films from the last known surviving 35mm elements
  • Original lossless stereo audio
  • New audio commentary with director Peter Manoogian, moderated by film critics Matty Budrewicz and Dave Wain
  • Alternative fullframe presentation
  • Not His Arena, a new interview with co-screenwriter Danny Bilson
  • Empire of Creatures, a new interview with special make-up effects artist Michael Deak
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Image gallery

DISC FIVE – ROBOT JOX

  • New 2K restoration by Arrow Films from the original negative
  • Original lossless stereo audio
  • Archive audio commentary with director Stuart Gordon
  • Archive audio commentary with associate effects director Paul Gentry, mechanical effects artist Mark Rappaport, and stop-motion animator Paul Jessell
  • Crash and Burn, a new interview with actor Gary Graham
  • Her Name is Athena, a new Interview with actor Anne-Marie Johnson
  • The Scale of Battle: David Allen and the FX of Robot Jox, a new appreciation of stop motion animator David Allen by those who knew him, featuring contributions from fellow visual effects artists Steve Burg, Yancy Calzeda, Paul Gentry, Kevin Kutchaver, Dennis Muren and John Vincent
  • Looking Back, an archival interview with actor Paul Koslo
  • Original sales sheet
  • Original production notes
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Image galleries, including behind the scenes stills courtesy of associate effects director Paul Gentry
  • The Dungeonmaster
  • Dolls
  • Cellar Dweller
  • Arena
  • Robot Jox
  • Special Features
3.6

Summary

Enter the Video Store: Empire of Screams is a fantastic box set that delivers three-star films full of five-star entertainment. Arrow has done a great job of upgrading all video transfers across the board and creating new, worthwhile bonus content for fans of each title. The packaging is fun and thoughtfully done, and all of the extra paper goodies included only further sweetens the deal for such a well-made collection. From what I’ve read this set is selling quickly so place those orders ASAP – and I can only hope the positive response to this box will inspire Arrow to announce a second volume in the future.

Sending
User Rating 0 (0 votes)
Comments Rating 0 (0 reviews)
Share: 
Tags:

Categorized:

Sign up for The Harbinger a Dread Central Newsletter