Through the mid-1980’s, Empire Pictures was a company at the top of its game. It dominated the B-Movie field. The ‘80’s was known for its inherent camp and cheesiness, which was largely what helped to separate it from the overwhelming grit of the 1970’s. Nobody did pure, fun cheese like Empire Pictures, the one-time home of Charles Band. Younger fans might know Band better for his follow-up company, Full Moon Entertainment. Before he created video hits like Puppet Master and Subspecies, though, he was the king of B-Movie gore on the silver screen. Or, at least his company was.
The credits of Empire really speak for themselves. Trancers, Dolls, Ghoulies, From Beyond, these are all huge cult classics and they’re only the tip of the iceberg. Troma may have become the company that proved to have more lasting power, but Empire made better films by and large. Nothing produced at Empire was ever intentionally bad, nor so zero-budgeted or over-the-top as even such masterpieces of schlock like The Toxic Avenger. The appeal of Empire, for the most part, was that these were campy, irreverent and often silly movies that were nonetheless made to look as professional as possible.
That approach gives a great mixed bag of titles. You have films like Ghoulies and the infinitely more entertaining Ghoulies II, which are totally off-the-wall popcorn flicks. But from the same company, you have true masterpieces of the genre like Re-Animator and From Beyond.I think it’s precisely because of these pictures that Empire has had a lasting legacy in the minds of fans while other indie production companies of the era simply faded away. Whatever the tone or even subject matter, you would always be able to look at something and tell that you were watching an Empire film. That’s the lasting appeal. Monster movie or gothic throwback, everything had a signature style that made it a part of the Empire brand.
It’s no wonder that this company, which died in the late ‘80’s, has been the subject of books and documentaries just in the last few years alone, is still so revered among the hardcore fandom. Some of their best titles have been getting amazing Blu-Ray treatment from Scream Factory, looking better than even the most hopeful admirers ever thought they’d be lucky enough to see.
I discovered Empire through Full Moon, which Band had founded after the predecessor’s bankruptcy. I fell in love almost instantaneously with Re-Animator and From Beyond, although I admit that starting out with those two was a tough act to follow. I had seen the Ghoulies movies often in my early childhood, long before I ever learned the name of the company that produced them. At the same time, I completely got how this led to Full Moon. As much as I loved the Empire films, they didn’t look like the types of films you would typically see in theaters.
That’s not a bad thing by any stretch. The Empire films were wholly original, they did their own thing and that excellent anarchistic style that defined their success was also ultimately their downfall. They didn’t play on a huge number of screens. It was a risky company from beginning to end, putting out exactly the kind of content that they wanted to make, which was mostly content that audiences had never seen before. Re-Animator was an incredibly ballsy, risky move. It’s a notoriously gruesome, over-the-top feature. Usually, pictures like that are torn apart by the MPAA, but Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna released Re-Animator unrated. They didn’t fight for an R rating, they didn’t want an R rating, because they knew what was best for the production. You don’t see that much today. Re-Animator’s lack of MPAA rating wasn’t even a part of the ad campaign. It wasn’t a marketing ploy, they just wanted their movie to get out there the way that it was supposed to be seen.
What was so great about Empire was that they could put out an over-the-top bloody comedy like Re-Animator, then do a more serious sci-fi/body horror hybrid like From Beyond and then the gothic and virtually bloodless Dolls. Three completely different films in three years, all from the same director. Yes, Empire Pictures was a B-Movie company. Yes, the pictures they made were more often than not pure cheese. But they were also completely uncompromised.
And that was ultimately their downfall. Their model of putting out unique, weird films that nobody else was making was unsustainable. Because these movies weren’t like everything else, which meant that they didn’t make as much money as everything else. The studio lasted for as long as it did because the features were made incredibly cheaply, but even then, they weren’t as low-budget as Troma or what the Full Moon flicks would eventually become. They weren’t released to a ton of theaters and instead became bigger hits on the video market.
With that in mind, it makes perfect sense that things went the way that they did and that Band followed the Empire bankruptcy by rising from the ashes with Full Moon, a company made to cater directly to the video market, bypassing theaters completely. It seemed to have worked. For better or worse, Full Moon lasted a lot longer. But there was something magical about Empire that stemmed from that time, that place and those creators, and it was a magic that simply can’t be recaptured no matter how hard you try.