One Man Band
88 Films looks back at the weird and wacky world of Charles Band: the B-movie maverick whose obsession with pint-sized shocks created an entire cottage industry...
By Calum Waddell
One day, in the near future, it is surely not too farfetched to predict that there will be a museum which attempts to recapture a small snapshot of late 20th century life by rebuilding your average, unassuming, family-owned video rental shop from around1991. This, after all, was the peak of the VHS era: almost every home in Britain had a cassette-recorder and entire film-franchises were produced for the small screen (although we hear that only the hardiest of souls have dared to brave the entire Children of the Corn or Hellraiser catalogue). Yet, going against the grain, and competing with some of Hollywood's biggest and best in these heady days were the likes of Troma (The Toxic Avenger), Roger Corman's New World Pictures (who birthed the Slumber Party Massacre series) and, most prolific of all, Charles Band's terrific twosome of Empire and Full Moon Entertainment. These were the punk rockers of this era - boasting a DIY approach to filmmaking, concentrating solely on cheap and cheerful genre productions and often relying on some colourful box covers to sell otherwise utterly obscure (and often idiotic) creature features.
All the same, we at 88 Films - and any self-respecting student of the video shop period - loved them, and no VHS outlet could have possibly saved face without at least a few of these weirdies weighing down their shelves.
Sure, the end product was just as often garbage as it was good, but for at least attempting to make movies with titles like Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, Cellar Dwellar and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama, at least you knew these schlock-services had their hackneyed hearts in the right place. Suffice to say, though, it was Band's outfits which were the most reliable insofar as quality, as well as quantity, went - boasting a resume of distinguished classics that even includes 1985's zombie romp Re-Animator. Moreover, thanks to a fascination with small and psychotic villains, it was not too hard to spot a Full Moon movie in the horror section of many a pre-Blockbuster rental shop, which is where Band's reputation really resides. So much so, in fact, that when The Dark Side talks to Band he is about to be subjected to a brand new book on his life and legacy entitled IT CAME FROM THE VIDEO ISLE!.
Not bad huh?
"I must have done over 300 movies now," claims Band. "Some of these might not be the best films ever made but I have really good memories of doing them and there are a few which I think really hold up. They spawned sequels and franchises and even today I have fans who are excited at a new Puppet Master movie. So I guess I did something right [laughs]."
The son of fringe-filmmaker Albert Band, whose credits include such wonderfully-monikered madness as I Bury the Living (1958), Charles worked as a production assistant for his father before making a move into overseeing his own low budget lunacy. This he did by setting up Empire Pictures, an exhaustingly industrious outfit which gave the eighties such genre gems as the Demi Moore-starring 3D monster-marvel Parasite (1982), the futuristic fantasy classic Trancers (1985) and the tawdry terror title Troll (1986), a ridiculous romp in which Sonny Bono is magically turned into a caesar salad.
"You know, even I can't believe I made some of these movies," laughs Band when reminded of inflicting such ritual humiliation on Cher's one-time muse. "I have VHS sized covers of everything I have ever produced on my wall and I still find myself saying, 'wow, did I really make that?' Those Empire days... they were good times [laughs]."
Empire prefigured Band's better known Full Moon Entertainment - and usually indicted an eccentric knack for rubber-reality monster mash-ups, as indicated by such esoteric oddities as Ghoulies (1985), Stuart Gordon's colourful Dolls (1987) and the cheapie Aliens take-off Creepozoids (1987). To the surprise of many pundits this even allowed Band to finesse his own franchises - although anyone who has seen the stillborn sequel Ghoulies go to College may not agree that this was always for the best...
"The eighties was really the end of an era," mentions Band of Empire. "It was a time when an independent company could take out a small horror movie theatrically and make a modest profit. But as we were doing this, the big studios were also putting out their own genre pictures, which started with Star Wars, and there was no way to compete with them. Stuff like the Friday the 13th films were playing everywhere - which was because they were backed by Paramount Pictures - and we could only do limited releases with something like Re-Animator, which was a far superior movie."
As such, it was still the trusty old video shop that Band counted on to make the bulk of his cash...
"Back in the days of VHS you were more or less an equal player with the bigger Hollywood movies," he admits. "You had just as much chance of being picked up and rented by the horror and sci-fi fans. But what you really needed was something lurid - the more lurid, the better in fact - and you also had to have a really cool trailer. Something that would make people say, 'Yeah, I have to see this.' I think one of the best examples of that was Ghoulies. We had a ghoulie coming out of the toilet bowl, with a big smile on his face, and the tagline was 'they'll get you in the end.' Well who could resist that, right? So we put a lot of effort into a cool poster as well. That was how you could catch people's attention and say, 'Hey, look at this'. In a cinema you couldn't do that because the studios booked out the screens. In a video shop, at least, you had a chance..."
Indeed, and with hits such as Ghoulies and Re-Animator, Band was on a roll. Although as theatrical business took a dive at the close of the decade, the entrepreneurial B-movie master opted to end his 'Empire' and instead go the straight-to-video route. This was the goal of his new company, Full Moon Entertainment, which launched with 1989's Puppet Master. As with Dolls, Ghoulies and Troll before it, this was yet another story of small, but deadly, psychotic-critters..
"I honestly have no idea why I keep producing films about scary small things," laughs Band. "I guess it is because when you do low budget movies about little creatures that come to life - like puppets or ghoulies - they are far more manageable than a 40 foot giant. Another influence on me was an anthology film called Trilogy of Terror which featured an iconic episode called 'Amelia'. It is about this African doll which comes to life and chases Karen Black around her house and it is really, really scary. That has an impact on me and I guess ever since I have been wrestling with it in my deepest darkest psyche [laughs]."
Certainly, after the success of Puppet Master, which has inspired nine (count them: nine) instalments to date, as well as a collectible toy line, Band went on a bender of identikit-themed features. Choice cuts include 1991's Dollman (a miniature superhero from outer space), 1992's Demonic Toys (about, erm, demonic toys) and1993's Seedpeople (carnivorous alien plants. Pretty tragic, this one). In addition Band would continue the mythology of the Trancers series with four follow-ups, undress the stunning Twin Peaks star Sherilyn Fenn for 1990's Phantoms and venture into Romania to shoot the atmospheric vampire shocker Subspecies (1991), itself spawning three sequels. To this say, Subspecies is actually one of Band's finest achievements - a movie made for video that looks as theatrical as anything else of the era.
And ever want to learn about franchising a film? Band is your man.
"I think that when you have something that works it is inevitable to do a part two and three," admits Band. "My idea of Full Moon was to model it after Marvel. Growing up, I was a huge fan of Marvel comics. I liked how they would introduce characters and then do a series with them - including bringing Spider-Man into the world of the Fantastic Four or The Incredible Hulk. That is why I produced and directed Dollman vs. Demonic Toys. More recently I did a film called Gingerdead Man, in which Gary Busey becomes a pissed off, crazy cookie - an actual cookie, as crazy as that sounds, and it did really well on DVD. So now we're making a fourth one and we are intending to make a Gingerdead Man vs. Evil Bong movie, which is about a cursed marijuana pipe. I think that whole idea goes right back to the comics of the Marvel era. Nothing was too strange or too outlandish in that universe."
Consequently, Band has no plans to slow down and, in this day and age of corporate big studio carnage, it is quite refreshing to know that Full Moon remains active - even if the company is no longer the home video juggernaut that it once was. Alas, as VHS turned to DVD and DVD turned to downloading, Band's budgets have shrunk and the comparatively lavish lacerations of Demonic Toys and Puppet Master are a thing of the past. That said, the fine fellow is still splattering the screen blood-red with ambitiously cut-rate craziness such as last year's demented duo of Evil Bong 3-D: The Wrath of Bong and The Dead Want Woman. In other words - Band's knack for a lurid title and an equally lascivious leaning towards gratuitous nudity, cash-strapped special effects and satirical storylines have not mellowed with age.
"You know, this is a tough business to work in," he mentions. "It is easy to get carried away on these movies - it is never one thing that kills you, it is death by 1000 blows. So you might have an idea for a really great special effect but maybe it will take another day to shoot it, right? And then you need some more crew. Then it comes down to maybe having another day on top of that to get it looking really good. Well just like that, you have doubled the budget and that is when you start going into the red. It is tricky to stay in business today, I can tell you that."
However, with a fresh slate which includes a 3D spin on Puppet Master, the tantalisingly titled Zombies Vs. Strippers and even more gory gloriousness, one thing is for sure - Band and his Full Moon Entertainment continue to keep the spirit of the video shop alive. Tasteless, tawdry and trashy, a Charles Band film is like 1991 revisited. But without the techno music. And with many of these top titles now running out of stock and license - now is the best time of all to relive them via 88 Films!
- 88 Films