This month, in Houston, I’ve programmed Charles Band Camp - a monthlong series dedicated to the work of Charles Band, producer-extraordinaire. Band, during his time with Empire Pictures, was responsible for some of the most memorable creature features to emerge from the '80s. We could spend all summer playing films from this era of Band's filmography - but we only have room for three gnarly double-features, packed with pint-sized monsters, copious amounts of gore and all the kills and spills you could hope from a VHS-era horror flick. For more information about the screening series, click here.
Because not everybody is lucky enough to live in the great state of Texas and thus attend these screenings, I thought I would share some recommendations from Band’s Empire Pictures catalog - so readers could play along at home. Over the next three weeks, I’ll talk about the films I’ve programmed for Charles Band Camp - feel free to watch along and share your memories of your favorite Empire Pictures films.
There are two kinds of movies Charles Band released during his time at Empire Pictures. The first are the horror films - full of blood, guts and - a lot of times - cool-looking monsters. But Band was not content just being the horror guy. He dreamed of building a true empire with Empire Pictures - and a key to that success, it seemed, was with low-budget movies that he could trick audiences into thinking were massive Hollywood blockbusters. Troll is that second kind of film. It’s a movie that was produced on a relatively tiny budget yet released in 1,000 theaters nationwide. Just to put that into perspective, that’s more theaters than The Beguiled was released in earlier this summer.
The original intent for Troll was not as a kid-friendly fantasy film, though. In the beginning, Troll was developed by John Carol Buechler while working for Roger Corman. Buechler had cut his teeth working on special effects for films such as Forbidden World and Android. His dream was to direct though and during his off-time, Buechler started to put together a project called Goblin. The original plan was to create an R-rated film about a creature that would systematically butcher the residents of a seedy motel.
After Buechler left Corman and went to work for Charles Band as his F/X guy, he was given the chance to direct a full-length film, having proven himself on a segment of The Dunegeonmaster.
Band’s rule, though, for shooting Troll was that the film needed to be a PG-13 fantasy epic. Gone, then, were the bloody dismemberments of Goblin, instead replaced with amazing supernatural transformations. And I do mean amazing - at one point Sonny Bono is transformed into a throbbing, hairy pickle and it is just about the best thing you’ll see in a movie during your lifetime.
The film was shot over five and half weeks in Rome, at the famous Empire Pictures Studio that Charles Band had purchased from Dino De Laurentiis. Empire Pictures aficionados will recognize the apartment building built for Troll‘s set - almost immediately after Troll‘s production ended, it was used for the film Crawlspace starring Klaus Kinski.
While it didn’t break records on its theatrical release, the film did admirably on home video. Buechler went on to have an outstanding career in effects work - elevating even mediocre projects like the Australian crocodile pic Blood Surf with his animatronic work. (If you haven’t seen Blood Surf, you totally should - it’s essentially The Shallows but with a croc!)
Troll often gets a bad rap among Band-heads due to the relative lack of horror. And it’s true - Troll is not a horror film. But it does feature monsters. Lots of them. And singing mushrooms. And a muppet that looks like Danny Trejo. And June Lockheart from Lost in Space as a sassy tree stump. This movie is pure childhood imagination - given fleshy, oozy form by Band and his merry gang of monster makers.
Troll 2 tends to hog all the attention - and I love Troll 2 - but Troll is absolutely worth watching thanks to the smorgasbord of ‘80s era practical effects, sitcom-esque humor and one truly unforgettable scene featuring Michael Moriarty dancing.
If you grew up in the ‘80s, this movie is your childhood. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never seen it until now - it’s the childhood you never knew you were missing.
GHOULIES II (1988)
Charles Band is part of a great line of artists. His grandfather was impressionist painter Max Brand. His son is Alex Band, lead singer for the early ‘00s band The Calling (most famous in my household for releasing the non-Evanescence single from the Daredevil soundtrack). Charles’ father, though, is Albert Band - a man who produced his fair share of films for Empire Pictures, as well as contributing scores to many of the film’s soundtracks. Ghoulies II has the distinction of being the only film Albert directed during the era of Empire Pictures.
Albert has a lengthy history in film including directing I Bury the Living, a genuinely amazing work of ‘50s era horror, and co-writing John Huston’s wartime epic The Red Badge of Courage. Band spent time in Italy producing spaghetti westerns such as The Hellbenders and A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die. And, yes, Band did direct a movie called Dracula’s Dog about, well, Dracula’s dog. Band is a master of many trades and a tremendously talented man - with a great body of work to his name. So, naturally, it makes perfect sense that Albert Band would be responsible for, in my opinion, the finest entry in the Ghoulies quadrilogy.
In Ghoulies II, the ankle-biting mini-monsters on the run. The Ghoulies, summed to this earth by horny college kids in the last film, take shelter in a traveling carnival - inserting themselves into the decor of a fun house. But where Ghoulies are involved, fun is decidedly off the menu for any unlucky humans who find themselves in their vicinity. Audiences’ eyes will feast on creatures both big and small as the Ghoulies terrorize punks, eat yokels and wreak havoc on the delicate sensibilities of carnies. This over-the-top creature feature bonanza is bigger, nastier and packed with more death-by-rubber-monster than the original. It even introduces new mythology into the Ghoulies universe - such as giant-sized Ghoulies! And really, can’t our lives always use more wrinkles in the mythology of Ghoulies cannon?
Phil Fondacaro, who starred in Troll as both Torok the Troll and Malcolm Malory, returns in a great ensemble cast also featuring Royal Dano (fresh from a role as Gramps in House II), Damon Martin (one of those awesome BMX kids from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure) and Kerry Remsen (who would go on to star in Pumpkinhead and is the daughter of character actor Bert Remsen). But really - the humans are just croutons in this Ghoulie salad. One does not come to a Ghoulies film for human actors. Sorry, human actors.
The true stars are the Ghoulies themselves - incredibly designed creatures that transcend their potential origin as Gremlins-knock-offs. And calling the Ghoulies Gremlins knock-offs is extremely debatable - as Charles Band had been working on a similar project since 1982 - the Stan Winston collaboration Beasties. In fact, production had already begun on the original Ghoulies when Empire learned that Spielberg was working on a movie called Gremlins. Band, ever the opportunistic, originally planned to rush production of Ghoulies and release it on the same weekend as Gremlins, hoping audiences would get confused and go see his movie. In fact, it was this rushed release that cause Band to drop plans to release the original film in 3D and smell-o-vision. Band had famously stated that Ghoulies would be the film with the most gimmicks ever – instead, it was released a year after Gremlins.
Perhaps the most memorable thing about Ghoulies is their proclivity to pop out of toilets. The first film was marketed with a striking poster and trailer campaign that saw a Ghoulie emerging from a toilet - with the blissfully on-point tagline “They’ll get you in the end.” This idea, though, was a last-minute addition, born from the studio’s marketing team. In fact, the idea of having a Ghoulie emerge from a toilet was developed during the poster design session - and a scene featuring a Ghoulie coming from a toilet was added during re-shoots once Charles Band and his team realized the level of genius they were being presented with.
Like Ghoulies, Ghoulies II was released as a PG-13 film. Famously, there does exist an unrated cut of the film - featuring 60 seconds of a Ghoulie eating somebody’s ass. Just recently, a German blu-ray was released containing that exorcised footage - so for those out there that demand more ass-eating from their Ghoulies, you are in luck!
Quick note - Dave Jay’s book Empire of the ‘B’s – The Mad Movie World of Charles Band is absolutely essential reading material for any fans of Empire Pictures. The book features interviews, reviews and behind-the-scenes anecdotes about every film Charles Band produced up until his time with Full Moon Pictures. Much of my research was gleamed from Jay’s tome. Pick up a copy post-haste!