Combustible Celluloid Blu-ray Review - Enter the Video Store: Empire of Screams
Combustible Celluloid

Enter the Video Store: Empire of Screams

Tape on Me

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

June 27, 2023—Arrow Video released this awesome five-disc set, packaged in a 7" x 6" x 4" box designed to evoke an old-fashioned video storefront from the 1980s. Given that I worked in a video store back then, I had to check it out. (The only movie from this collection I remember actually having in our store is Dolls.) All five movies are from Charles Band's legendary "B" movie company Full Moon Features. Some of these films have been previously released by Shout! Factory and by Full Moon itself, but it's still a fun collection, full of great bonuses.

The Dungeonmaster (1984)

This is probably the most unintentionally funny film in the box set. It tells the story of a computer programmer, Paul (Jeffrey Byron), who has created a Siri-like device with a female voice. Paul's girlfriend Gwen (Leslie Wing) is jealous of the gizmo. They both get teleported to some sinister realm where a sorcerer Mestema (Richard Moll) has decided that, having defeated many enemies over the centuries, Paul may be a worthy opponent. (Huh?) Paul's gizmo is transformed into a wristband that shoots lasers. The sorcerer sends him through various scenarios that he must survive, which he does by shooting lasers. Each of these scenarios is helmed by a different director. The 1980s metal band W.A.S.P. appears in one scene and plays a full song, "Tormentor." This disc comes with three different cuts, the pre-release version (78 minutes), the international version (77 minutes), and the theatrical version (73 minutes). (The alternate title was Ragewar.) Bonus features include a commentary track by film critics and Empire Pictures fans Matty Budrewicz and Dave Wain, and actor Jeffrey Byron, an interview with Byron (15 minutes), trailers, and an image gallery. "I reject your reality and I substitute my own."

Dolls (1987)

Next up we have an actual good movie, by a great director, Stuart Gordon. Gordon began his career in Chicago underground theater, and then directed two notable H.P. Lovecraft movies, Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986). Dolls was his third feature, and though it has no Lovecraft origins, it's still just as perverse and bizarre. It begins with an ages-old setup: during a storm, several different travelers take cover in a mysterious old mansion. The residents are a kindly old couple (Guy Rolfe and Hilary Mason) that make extraordinary dolls. Among the visitors, only a little girl (Carrie Lorraine) — the child of an anxious father (Ian Patrick Williams) and a vicious stepmother (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon) — and a sensitive, teddy bear-ish man (Stephen Lee) who loves toys — seem to avoid getting brutally murdered my mysterious, tiny, predators. Gordon infuses the gory attacks with his own infectious brand of nasty humor. Bonuses include commentary tracks by director Gordon and screenwriter Ed Naha, a cast commentary, and an archival cast commentary, an interview with editor Lee Percy (17 minutes), a making-of featurette (38 minutes), a storyboard comparison (8 minutes), trailers, and an image gallery.

Cellar Dweller (1987)

Written by Don Mancini (Child's Play) and directed by John Carl Buechler (Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood), this one sounded promising, but wound up a little on the dull side. In a prologue, Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator) plays comic book legend Colin Childress, whose monster creation "Cellar Dweller" comes to life, and then is destroyed by fire. Thirty years later, Whitney (Debrah Farentino), a Childress fan studying to be a comic book artist herself, gains admission to a special college that happens to be located in Childress's old home. She moves into the basement, goes through Childress's papers, and draws her own version of the monster, which, of course, comes to life and goes on a killing rampage. This one could have had more fun with the comic book idea, but instead it puts its faith in its low-budget, not-very-scary monster. Yvonne De Carlo, perhaps best known as Lily Munster on The Munsters, plays the school's mean headmistress. Bonuses include a commentary track by special makeup effects artist Michael Deak along with film critics and Empire Pictures fans Matty Budrewicz and Dave Wain, a 16-minute featurette with Budrewicz and Wain, an interview with Deak, photo galleries, trailers, production notes, etc.

Arena (1989)

To be honest, I couldn't finish this next one. It struck me as too tame and even kid-friendly for a movie that could have been more intense or bloody. Set in some outer space place where aliens and humans co-mingle, it tells the story of Steve Armstrong (Paul Satterfield), who gets into a fight with an alien and wins. It turns out that the alien is a professional fighter in a popular tournament. When Steve finds he needs money, he reluctantly joins the tournament. There are some fun, practical alien costumes, however. This disc includes a commentary track with director Peter Manoogian and film critics and Empire Pictures fans Matty Budrewicz and Dave Wain, an alternate full-frame presentation with different framing and color grading, an interview with screenwriter Danny Bilson (15 minutes), an interview with make-up effects artist Michael Deak (16 minutes), plus trailers and image galleries.

Robot Jox (1990)

Our final film is another good one, once again courtesy of our friend Stuart Gordon. It's a post-apocalyptic future, and two superpowers (essentially the U.S.A. and Russian) agree to forego all wars and instead settle disputes with giant robot fights! The good guy, Achilles (Gary Graham), a robot pilot, is under contract to fight ten fights, and he has fought nine of them. His next one is against the Russian champion Alexander (Paul Koslo), with the territory of Alaska at stake. Their fight goes horribly awry when Achilles tries to protect a nearby crowd from a missile, but winds up falling and crushing them. Achilles decides that his contract has been honored and retires, angering just about everyone. There's a subplot about a spy leaking information to the enemy, and robot jox that are genetically engineered, including the pretty Athena (Anne-Marie Johnson). And of course, there's a mighty rematch/showdown between Achilles and Alexander. Gordon supplies many little touches that elevate the movie well past "Z"-grade level, and the stop-motion animation is admittedly quite cool for the low budget. Sci-fi author Joe Haldeman (The Forever War) wrote the screenplay. (I wonder if Guillermo Del Toro saw this before he made Pacific Rim?) Bonuses include a commentary track by director Gordon, and a track by three members of the visual FX team (Paul Gentry, Mark Rappaport, and Paul Jessell), a new interview with actor Gary Graham (17 minutes), a new interview with actor Anne-Marie Johnson (13 minutes), a new appreciation for stop-motion animator David Allen (26 minutes), an archival interview with actor Paul Koslo (10 minutes), behind-the-scenes photos, image galleries, a trailer, sales sheet, and production notes.

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