Color, 1984, 78 mins. 59 secs. / 78 mins. 23 secs. / 73 mins. 35 secs.
Directed by Dave Allen, Charles Band, John Carl Buechler, Steven Ford, Peter Manoogian, Ted Nicolaou and Rosemarie Turko
Starring Jeffrey Byron, Richard Moll, Leslie Wing, R.J. Miller, Cleve Hall, Danny Dick, Diane Carter
Arrow Video (Blu-ray) (US/UK RA/RB HD), Scream Factory (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

Color, 1987, 77 mins. 29 secs.
Directed by Stuart Gordon
Starring Stephen Lee, Guy Rolfe, Hillary Mason, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Carrie Lorraine
Arrow Video (Blu-ray) (US/UK RA/RB HD), Scream Factory (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), 101 Films (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), MGM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Hollywood (HK R0 NTSC)

Color, 1987, 77 mins. 36 secs.
Directed by John Carl Buechler
Starring Debrah Farentino, Brian Robbins, Yvonne De Carlo, Pamela Bellwood, Miranda Wilson, Vince Edwards, Jeffrey Combs
Arrow Video (Blu-ray) (US/UK RA/RB HD), Scream Factory (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

Color, 1989, 97 mins. 18 secs.
Directed by Peter Manoogian
Starring Paul Satterfield, Claudia Christian, Shari Shattuck, Brett Porter, William Butler
Arrow Video (Blu-ray) (US/UK RA/RB HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Scream Factory (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)

Color, 1989, 84 mins. 27 secs.
Directed by Stuart Gordon
Starring Gary Graham, Anne-Marie Johnson, Paul Koslo, Robert Sampson, Danny Kamekona, Hilary Mason, Jeffrey Combs, Ian Patrick Williams, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon
Arrow Video (Blu-ray) (US/UK RA/RB HD), Scream Factory (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), MGM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

Between his The Dungeonmasterindie directing projects like Crash! and Parasite and the founding of Full Moon Pictures at the height of the VHS era, The DungeonmasterCharles Band had a short but glorious run with Empire International Pictures, founded in 1983 and shuttered in 1988 (though some of its films kept trickling out well after that). A contemporary of Cannon Films but dedicated entirely to horror, sci-fi, and fantasy, Empire struck gold at the box office with a handful of films like Ghoulies and introduced the movie world to Chicago theater pioneer turned filmmaker Stuart Gordon with the instant classic Re-Animator. Thanks to its initial distribution deal with Vestron and later New World for its VHS releases, Empire became a much-loved name for young genre fans and delivered a streak of films whose cult appeal continues to grow. Five representative films from its earliest days to its final ones have been collected in a 2023 Blu-ray set from Arrow Video, Enter the Video Store: Empire of Screams, pitched as a salute of sorts to the glory days of video store rentals right down to its stylized retro packaging (with art by Laurie Greasley), double-sided posters for each film including new designs by Ilan Sheady, 15 postcard-sized reproduction artcards, an Arrow Video store "membership card," and an 80page book with essays by Lee Gambin, Dave Jay, Megan Navarro, and John Harrison, plus archival material. The films themselves have all been given visual improvements to varying degrees depending on the existing materials, and a barrage of new special features has been added as well.

First up is the first Empire film to go into production and perhaps the one with the weirdest history: The Dungeonmaster, a fantasy and sci-fi sort-of anthology film that turned up in the U.S. and abroad in significantly different editions. Thanks to its killer poster art, this one was a big favorite on VHS shelves and, thanks to a stable of directors helming one segment each, it manages to pack an awful lot into less The Dungeonmasterthan 80 minutes. Repeatedly experiencing vivid dreams involving beautiful women and monsters, computer programmer Paul Bradford (busy TV actor Jeffrey Byron) is experiencing tension at home with The Dungeonmasterhis girlfriend, Gwen (Retribution's Wing), over his dependence on his computer, X-CaliBR8-- which becomes a wrist-sized asset when the couple get nocturnally lurched into the realm of the imposing sorcerer Mesterna (Night Court's Moll). Determined to test his skills against modern technology, Mesterna hurls the duo into a variety of scenarios involving monsters, caves, samurai, zombies, post-nuke combat, and... hair metal band W.A.S.P.

Thanks to plenty of practice by Band and his cohorts, the Empire brand was already intact with this effort despite the fact that the various challenges got shuffled around depending which version you saw. (It doesn't really matter much though.) Regular Empire composer Richard Band supplies an enthusiastic score, the monster effects are lively and inventive, and the handling of each segment by a different filmmaker gives it some nice variety including the participation of familiar names like John Carl Buechler and Ted Nicolau. (Charles Band himself handled the framing device, and most of the directors have cameos as does makeup effects favorite Cleve Hall as a flamboyant Jack the Ripper.) The title is a bit misleading as this doesn't really have a Dungeons & Dragons vibe at all, but it was effective enough to get this one off the ground and in front of viewers' eyeballs. When the Empire library mostly fell into the possession of MGM, a nice remastered HD print turned up on their MGM HD channel and hit DVD from Scream Factory in 2013 as a four-pack with Contamination.7, Catacombs, and Cellar Dweller, followed by a Blu-ray release two years later as a double feature with Eliminators. Interestingly, the source used was a pre-release version of what would become the international cut, Ragewar, including an opening dream sequence with full-frontal nudity that changes the tone considerably from what is otherwise a PG-13 genre romp. The Scream Factory Blu-ray has a theatrical trailer in HD and a video interview with one of the directors, Peter Manoogian (32m30s) covering his career as a The Dungeonmasterwhole.

The DungeonmasterThe 2023 Arrow Video Blu-ray offers a choice of no less than three cuts: the bona fide U.S. theatrical cut (73 minutes), the pre-release cut, and the actual international Ragewar version which drops a little bit of the nudity and has the different story sequencing. The new 2K restoration from the negative by Arrow looks about as good as you could expect for such a patchwork film, using seamless branching to maximize the video quality. The biggest difference here is the deeper blacks compared to the earlier Blu-ray, now giving it a richer look throughout; the LPCM 1.0 English mono audio is also in good shape and, as with the other films here, comes with optional English SDH subtitles. Byron turns up for a new audio commentary with the engineers behind the special features throughout the set, The Schlock Pit's Matty Budrewicz and Dave Wain, speaking via teleconference about his family connection John Ford, the family community on the set, the various directorial attributions, and other tales from the set. Byron also appears for a video interview, "I Reject Your Reality and Substitute My Own" (15m7s), which takes its title from the film's most famous line of dialogue (later utilized prominently by Mythbusters); here he recalls first meeting Band auditioning for Metalstorm, the evolution of this film (which started first thing the morning after Metalstorm wrapped), his writing and casting of one episode, and the use of his real apartment for the film. Also included are the trailer, an alternate Ragewar trailer sourced from VHS, and a 12-image gallery.

DollsDuring his tenure at Empire, Stuart Gordon took time out from his delirious DollsH.P. Lovecraft adaptations (Re-Animator and From Beyond) for the second film in this set, Dolls. A twisted, comparatively low-key fairy tale for adults, this bears a closer resemblance to The Company of Wolves than a standard '80s gorefest. Fans tend to be split down the middle over this one, but horror buffs willing to savor atmosphere and craft special effects should find more than enough to enjoy.

On a dark, spooky night, little Judy (Lorraine) rides in a car with her spineless father, David (Ian Patrick Williams), and his nasty new wife, Rosemary (Purdy-Gordon, the director's wife). An automotive mishap sends them seeking shelter at the isolated home of the Hartwickes, Gabriel (Mr. Sardonicus himself, Guy Rolfe) and Hilary (Don't Look Now's Hilary Mason). Soon more stragglers appear, namely man-child Ralph (Stephen Lee) and an obnoxious group of punks who decide to rummage the place for possible loot. However, the Hartwickes are also compulsive doll makers and collectors, and those hundreds of creepy-looking dolls have a very nasty tendency to come to life at night.

Skillfully shot, scored, and edited, Dolls is easily one of the classiest films from the Empire canon; in fact, the mixture is so effective that many of the effects crew Dollswent on to shine in the similar Puppetmaster series from Full Moon. The sly casting of old pros Rolfe and Mason works wonders, as the couple projects a potent combination of suppressed menace and twisted attentiveness that carries the story through some Dollsof its slower patches. Running less than 80 minutes, this can feel like more of a sketch than a fully developed film at times, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do and demonstrates a director as comfortable with slowly mounting, psychological terror as overt bloodshed. Gordon does deliver a handful of brief but nasty, E.C. Comics-style violent moments worth mentioning, including a nasty bit of ankle trauma and the screen's most unusual firing squad.

As with other Empire titles, Dolls suffered from a smeary, colorless transfer from Vestron Video in both its VHS and laserdisc incarnations. Though not perfect, the first DVD out of the gate from Hong Kong offered a far more colorful appearance. When the film passed over to the domain of MGM, they issued a nice DVD in 2005 featuring two great commentaries: the first with Gordon and writer Ed Naha, and the second with Lee, Ian Patrick Williams, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, and Carrie Lorraine. Also included were a storyboard-to-film comparison (8m30s), a trailer, and a photo gallery. A subsequent Scream Factory Blu-ray in 2014 ported over all of those for a superior HD presentation that also adds a robust new extra, a Dolls"Toys Of Terror" (38m1s) featurette with Gordon, producer Brian Yuzna, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Ian Patrick Williams, and executive producer Charles Band. The Arrow disc sports a new 2K restoration from the interpositive, offering some refinements in Dollsdetail and contrast without swerving far off from the look of the previous HD master; as with the Scream Factory disc, 5.1 and 2.0 English tracks are included. Around this time Empire had switched from mono mixes to employing Ultra Stereo on most of its titles, using the format well with lots of active channel separation for both the music and manipulative sound effects. This one is no exception, and the two tracks sound very similar with a great deal of presence throughout. Both prior commentaries are ported over along with the trailer, storyboard comparison, and "Toys of Terror," but you also get a new audio commentary by filmmaker David Decoteau who always provides entertainment chat tracks. It's an in-depth rundown of his history with Empire Pictures (starting with Dreamaniac), his first exposure to Gordon seeing Re-Animator on Hollywood Blvd. at what became Disney's El Capitan theater, and his memories of lots of folks affiliated with this production. "Assembling Dolls" (17m1s) a new interview with Lee Percy, editor of Dolls, Re-Animator and From Beyond, about his path that his career after starting out in acting and the elaborate process of cutting films for Gordon to get the right genre balance. Also included are an alternate trailer (scored with Pino Donaggio's music from Dressed to Kill like the standard one) and a U.K. home video trailer, plus a 52-image Cellar Dwellergallery.

Cellar DwellerAn ambitious creature feature that somehow ended up going straight to VHS back in the day, Cellar Dweller rears its head on disc three with the special edition it should have gotten long ago. As mentioned above, this was given a DVD release from Scream Factory several years ago in that four-film pack, and it hit Blu-ray in 2015 as a double feature with Catacombs (with only a commentary by David Schmoeller for the co-feature as a supplement). The transfer was culled from the best available element, a film print, but it's really impressive given the source with nice contrast and color. That said, there was intermittent damage throughout (including some water stains popping in and out) that have all been cleaned up on the Arrow edition. The English DTS-HD 2.0 mix is shockingly spacious and rich for such a quick and cheap film, using the rear channels and front speakers throughout and replicating how the Ultra Stereo presentation would have operated had this played in theaters.

The film itself is a fun meta exercise starting off in the '50s as artist, Colin Childress (Combs), is distressed to find out that the occult imagery he's been using from a book he found has been bringing his work to life -- namely his popular comic book, Cellar Dweller. When the creature gets out of hand, Colin manages to set it aflame but ends up taking himself out in the process. Flash forward to the present day at the same site, an artists' colony run by Mrs. Briggs (De Carlo) who Cellar Dwellergives an Cellar Dwellericy welcome to the newest arrival, Childress buff Whitney Taylor (Farentino). Among the other artists are Phillip (Head of the Class' Robbins, now the head of Paramount / Nickelodeon), who starts a bit of a tentative romance with her, while various projects within the house range from therapeutic performance art to video time-lapse pieces. Of course, it isn't long before Whitney disobeys Mrs. Briggs and roots around in the cellar where she finds a certain pivotal book and unleashes the monstrous menace all over again.

Cellar Dweller boasts an impressive pedigree including direction by Buechler (hot off of Troll) who also supervised the great monster design, cinematography by the great Sergio Salvati (Zombie, The Beyond) who became an in-house name at Empire, and a pseudonymous script by Don Mancini who went on to write most of the Chucky films (and direct many as well). The very small scale is obvious with the action limited almost entirely to one location, but it's solid monster movie fun including a surprisingly grim finale. The making of the film gets covered extensively here in a new commentary by special make-up effects artist Michael Deak (who was inside the monster suit) moderated by Budrewicz and Wain, Cellar Dwellertalking about his work on this film, the notorious unreleased Empire anthology Pulse Pounders, Spellcaster, and others, Cellar Dwelleras well as the quick and cheap shoot on this one (with Combs only on set for one day) and the challenges of finding basic supplies in Italy. "Grabbed by the Ghoulies" (16m3s) is a new video appreciation of Buechler by Budrewicz and Wain chatting about the late horror pioneer's career including his influence of horror make-up design and his direction of Troll, this film, and Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood. "Inside the Cellar" (16m30s) features a new interview with Deak, reiterating some points from his commentary while including a broader look at his output for Empire over the years. Also included are the original 2-image sales sheet, a 12-image replica of the production notes, behind the scenes photos (1m40s) from Deak's collection, 45 images of artwork and stills, and a VHS trailer. In a nice touch, you also get an Empire Pictures trailer reel sourced from film (including Ghoulies, Ghoulies II, Breeders, Eliminators, Crawlspace, From Beyond, and Prison), plus a "VHS Mode" reel featuring SD iterations of the previews for Ghoulies, Eliminators, From Beyond, TerrorVision, Troll, Enemy Territory, Ghoulies II, Catacombs, Ghost Town, Arenaand ArenaCrawlspace.

Now we get to the films that were made during the twilight days of Empire but didn't come out until it ceased to exist, starting on disc four with the extravagant creature bash Arena. The ill-timed production was shot in 1987, finished in 1988, and released sporadically in theaters and on home video around the world from 1989 through 1991 (Trans World ended up releasing it in the U.S. on a few screens before RCA/Columbia issued the VHS). That bumpy rollout didn't do the film any favors, which is too bad since it's quite engaging as a ridiculous WWF-style futuristic piece of drive-in entertainment. Paul Satterfield stars as Steve, a space station cook whose impressive performance against an alien fighter ends up getting him recruited as the only human for The Arena, a popular interspecies combat sport. After several ups and downs involving manager Quinn (the always welcome Claudia Christian) and the connected Shorty (Camp), Steve becomes a controversial competitor and faces off against imposing foes in front of crowds of thousands.

Complete with another robust score by Richard Band and a nonstop variety of visual effects, Arena really delivers when it comes to the practical beasts on display who tussle around in the best kaiju tradition. It's all very PG-13 in the tradition of Band's later Moonbeam titles, but the action is brisk and it's hard to resist any Arenafilm Arenawith that premise. MGM didn't give this one much attention for a long time compared to higher profile Empire catalog titles apart from a VHS release sold direct through Amazon, but eventually Scream Factory issued it on DVD in 2013 as part of a 4 Sci-Fi Movie Marathon set with Eliminators, America 3000, and The Time Guardian. Element issues were cited as the reason it didn't go Blu within the next couple of years, but Arrow has given it their best shot here with the best option around, the last known surviving 35mm print. This time the nature of the source is obvious given the less than optimal contrast and detail, but it's about as good as what you'd see in a theater and definitely better than the standard def options we've had for ages. As an opening disclaimer notes, for some reason the prints have all optical text (including the main titles and a few overlays here and there) printed very off center for some reason and have been left that way here; it isn't a flaw of the transfer itself. The Ultra Stereo mix once again sounds really dramatic here with tons of activity in front and back, making it a real treat for the ears all the way. The SD fullframe version is also included here for posterity since it has those different framing aspects in some scenes, though the framing of the Blu-ray is definitely superior with quite a bit of extra horizontal info added. (See comparison shots below.) A new commentary by Arenadirector Peter Manoogian, moderated by Budrewicz and Wain, talks about the film's belated release after its production in 1987, the challenges Arenaof doing a sci-fi movie on a limited budget, his other work with Charles Band going back to Parasite, and his experiences working in L.A. It's very comprehensive and makes up for the absence of his archival interview featurette from the Dungeonmaster disc. In "Not His Arena" (14m44s), co-screenwriter Danny Bilson goes into his distaste for the horror genre, his apprenticeship under Mac Ahlberg, and the "wrestling in space" poster idea that led to creating this film, among many other topics. Finally in "Empire of Creatures" (16m21s), special make-up effects artist Michael Deak looks back at his work on this film and Cellar Dweller (and others including Ghost Town), his love of doing action scenes, his performance as the horned combatant, and the impressive scope of this production that required an army of technicians including Screaming Mad George. Also included are widescreen and 4x3 theatrical trailers, plus image galleries of behind the scenes shots (1m6s) and posters and stills (28 images).

Finally on disc five we return to Stuart Gordon territory with the most infamous delayed Empire production, Robot Jox, which seemed to take forever to come out after its extensive genre press coverage. Essentially this is the opener to a trilogy of sci-fi pulp Robot Joxepics from Gordon, followed by 1992's Fortress and 1996's Space Truckers, and its excellent stop-motion effects are still a delight today. Like Arena, this was made in '87 (sometimes announced under Gordon's initial title of Robojox) but got stuck in the disintegration of Empire, finally getting a marginal release in 1990 Robot Joxafter numerous false starts. Since then the film has amassed a cult following, affirming Gordon's track record of having no misfires among his big screen theatrical work; though Gordon passed away in 2020, it's a body of work that's remarkably high in quality and cohesive for its embracing of the wide variety of genre possibilities. Of course, it also doesn't hurt that this film was way ahead of the curve, anticipating not only the very similar Pacific Rim from 2012 (which tossed kaiju into the mix) but the transposition of the animated Transformers to live action as well.

Following a devastating global nuclear war, the morphed versions of Russia (now the Confederation) and the Western conglomerate known as the Market rely on a new form of score settling: a frequently fatal showdown between gigantic human-operated robots in what amounts to huge-scale gladiatorial combat. Reigning Market champ Achilles (Graham) decides to bow out after a tragic combat accident, paving the way for the first female competitor, Athena (Johnson). However, her impending duel with the Confederation's biggest star, Alexander (Koslo), is mired in political machinations and potential espionage, forcing a concerned Achilles to step back in and make a final stand alongside his replacement.

Possibly the most epic title in the Empire stable, Robot Jox took a long time to really find its audience after its belated theatrical release (with the U.S. version slightly trimmed for a PG rating and now obsolete since the initial home video editions). All three Robot Joxleads do fine work here, with Johnson making for a fascinating variation on the tough action female lead that was really coming into prominence throughout the '80s. A fine, energetic Robot Joxscore by Frédéric Talgorn (who worked with Gordon again on Fortress) lends solid support and has been a favorite of soundtrack collectors for ages, and the colorful aesthetic also anticipates the look of sci-fi films that would come long after this. Of course, the Gordon touch is evident throughout including his offbeat sense of humor and a supporting cast peppered with welcome familiar faces like Hilary Mason, Jeffrey Combs, Ian Patrick Williams, and Carolyn Purdy-Gordon (with a quick cameo by Gordon himself).

MGM issued a DVD of Robot Jox in 2005 with a Scream Factory Blu-ray following in 2015 (as well as a bootleg Spanish release that's best avoided). Extras on the Scream disc include two commentaries: one with Gordon in conversation with Michael Felsher about the project's development, painful fate, and some creative speed bumps along the way, and a second with associate effects director Paul Gentry, mechanical effects artist Mark Rappaport, and stop motion animator Paul Jessel about the ins and outs of the complex effects. On the video side you get "Looking Back with Paul Koslo" (10m24s) about his experience playing the antagonist in an unusually demanding physical role, plus archival interviews with Gordon (7m27s), pyrotechnic supervisor Joe Viskocil (7m57s), Gentry (7m14s), Jessel (7m48s), and animation and visual effects artists Chris Endicott and Mark McGee (9m29s), plus a reel of behind-the-scenes footage (14m16s), a trailer and TV spot, and separate location (7m) and illustration (3m40s) galleries. The Arrow release features an uncut 2K restoration from the original Robot Joxnegative and offers some very visible improvements right off the bat including more image info visible on the sides in non-effects shots, more consistent and slightly punchier color grading, and deeper blacks. Once again the DTS-HD MA 2.0 English track is a boisterous way to Robot Joxexperience the Ultra Stereo mix, with plentiful multi-channel activity from start to finish. The previous commentaries are carried over here along with the Koslo interview and trailer; if you have the Scream disc, you may want to hang on to it since the other older interviews are jettisoned here in favor of a slate of new ones. In "Crash and Burn" (17m9s), Graham focuses on the many physical challenges of the production, including accidentally nailing Paul Koslo in the mouth during their big showdown. Then in "Her Name is Athena" (13m35s), Johnson talks about getting cast while appearing on What's Happening Now!! and the forward-looking nature of her heroine character at the time, with many facets she enjoyed exploring along with the requisite physical training. "The Scale of Battle: David Allen and the FX of Robot Jox" (26m35s) is a new appreciation of stop-motion animator Allen by his colleagues including visual effects artists Steve Burg, Yancy Calzeda, Paul Gentry, Kevin Kutchaver, Dennis Muren and John Vincent, who explore the appeal of that type of animation and ways Allen influenced his peers. Other extras include a 2-image sales sheet, a 12-image production notes rundown, a "Salvaged from the Wreckage" (8m19s) video piece covering the many models used on the film from Gentry's archive, 9m14s of behind-the-scenes photos courtesy of Gentry and 114 posters and stills.


THE DUNGEONMASTER: Arrow Video (Blu-ray)

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THE DUNGEONMASTER: Scream Factory (Blu-ray)

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DOLLS: Arrow Video (Blu-ray)

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DOLLS: Scream Factory (Blu-ray)

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CELLAR DWELLER: Arrow Video (Blu-ray)

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CELLAR DWELLER: Scream Factory (Blu-ray)

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ARENA: Arrow Video HD version

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ROBOX JOX: Arrow Video (Blu-ray)

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ROBOX JOX: Scream Factory (Blu-ray)

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Reviewed on May 18, 2023