FANTASTICA Presents: The Empire Way, or Retro Mockbuster MasterFearful Features,Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
Among the horror community, as well as savvy film goers in general, the production entity known as The Asylum has either one of two definitions. The first definition, and most common, is that of a rip-off artist, using similarly titled and themed premises to big budget films to release to crowded video marketplace to prey off of the confused and inattentive. The other, and more complimentary, is that of a new age schlockhouse, blending the economic strategy of New World Pictures with the needs of the “so bad its good” subculture to create these so-called “mockbusters”. And while both definitions have their supporters, the one thing The Asylum doesn’t get (and almost proudly so) is respect, even if their post-SHARKNADO success has earned it begrudgingly from the industry itself.
But if fans are so willing to condemn The Asylum for their particular brand of imitation, then why does the same horror crowd high Empire Pictures in such high regard? If the question is quality, then one might want to revisit Empire’s output as a whole; for every genuinely awesome endeavor RE-ANIMATOR and TRANCERS, there’s a PULSE POUNDERS and ZONE TROOPERS to go with them. And in Charles Band’s post-Empire rebranding as a campy nonsense savant, his exceedingly cheaper ventures into bad taste are finding how low the lowest common denominator of genre fans can be.
That’s not saying that Band’s Empire output doesn’t necessarily deserve respect; in fact, Band was a particular genius at the forefront of the VHS boom and he helped usher in some of the genre’s most versatile filmmakers that still work today. And for all the low points in Empire’s fright fare, there’s a wealth of imagination to their execution that even the most hardened genre fan can’t deny. But to say that Empire Pictures wasn’t the ‘80s equivalent to The Asylum is denial incarnate, taking advantage of similar titles, marketing images and root concepts of Hollywood and reworking them into his low budget terror titles, which would sell well on the VHS market and pull in high numbers in cable in an era where consumers didn’t have the internet to let them know better.
After all, how many fantasy fans might have discovered 1984’s THE DUNGEONMASTER confusing it for 1982’s CONAN THE BARBARIAN or THE BEASTMASTER? Or perhaps fright fans who might have discovered 1985’s minitature monster movie GHOULIES by mistakingly thinking it was 1984’s box office smash GREMLINS? Or maybe fans of trippy sci-fi fare might have stumbled upon 1985’s TRANCERS believing it to be either 1984’s THE TERMINATOR or 1982’s TRON?
In any case, Empire Pictures can be matched up to era-appropriate mockbusters across many genres, including WALKING THE EDGE (DEATH WISH II), CREEPOZOIDS (PREDATOR), THE TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE (ROBOT JOX) and their surge of H.P. Lovecraft adaptations following the repeated success of Stephen King films. Giving credit where credit is due, Empire Pictures did start venturing away from mockbuster territory towards the end of their run for the most part, even if they were riding aesthetic choices often used by these Hollywood productions, impressively so given their budgets. And in some cases, Empire Pictures were ahead of the game, with Stuart Gordon’s DOLLS beating CHILD’S PLAY as one of the first toy horror films of the era (even if CHILD’S PLAY was technically in development before it).
Yet even if Empire has been a big part of many childhoods with their particularly less-serious genre fare, that fact still doesn’t add a particular level of ethical justification to their reputation, especially when paired against that of The Asylum. For every green screen and empty beachfront property that The Asylum can use for their mockbuster, Empire had empty castles in Eastern Europe or desperate production houses around the globe with a marketing mindset to sell a mockbuster to craving horror fans. If anything, the only difference between the two is time; had The Asylum started in the ‘80s, there’s a chance ALIEN VS. HUNTER and SNAKES ON A TRAIN would have been practical SFX fright favorites, and had Empire only started a decade ago… well, GHOULIES would look a lot more like THE GINGERDEAD MAN, no?