Charles Band Reviews: Low Budget Films of the 1980s and 1990s

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I suspect that, much like how many look back fondly on the low-budget films associated with Roger Corman in the 1970s, we’ll look back in appreciation of the low-budget films of Charles Band from the two decades that followed.  Charles Band was the director of many of the films that his name was associated with and, if you look up his filmography, you’ll find a number of interesting titles.  From “Trancers” to “Puppet Master” and “Demonic Toys”… his family’s productions were cut from the Roger Corman mold. The fact that they didn’t use CGI in their films from that period and relied on traditional model work or rear projection actually made some of the films hold up a little better than newer schlock.

It was only recently that I realized how much exposure I’d had to the films of Charles Band while growing up in the 1980s and 1990s.  I was more cognizant of Mr. Band’s involvement with Full Moon Entertainment, but I had unknowingly seen a number of films released by his predecessor company Empire Pictures.

An uncle of mine rented pretty much every B-grade movie (often produced by either New World Pictures, Empire Pictures, or Full Moon Entertainment) that came out widely back in that era and we’d watch them together. Under that guidance, the late-1980s and early-1990s was a major foundational movie-viewing period of my life and it was filled with quite a bit of obscure direct-to-video schlock. That said, I’ve always liked the mantra of how every movie always has a good idea in it somewhere and watching those bad sci-fi/fantasy movies, there was often some image that I’d nostalgically go back to or some idea that just sounded cool.  An example?  “The Barbarians” (1987), starring twin Arnold Schwarzenegger wannabes… it’s Conan x2!!! How could that not sound interesting to a teen?.

Thus, I still look back fondly on some of Mr. Band’s films and I’d recommend checking out the following:

Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn” (1983) was a strange little film that was likely the first associated with Mr. Band that I ever watched.

I re-watched it about a year ago after having distant but fond memories of it from around age 10. I shouldn’t have been surprised to see 1980s b-movie staple Tim Thomerson show up in it. I chuckled when realizing that the plot revolved around control of various ‘crystals.’ Richard Moll, later on “Night Court,” also showed up playing a toughie.

Contrary to the film’s title, critics have noted that the villain, Jared-Syn, was not destroyed at the end of the film.  I distinctly remembered being annoyed as a kid that the bad guy got away at the end and that the movie ended before it was, in my mind, finished. It was an obvious ploy for a sequel that never happened. One note that the film has been often confused with “Spacehunter,” another lower-budget sci-fi film of the same vintage.

Re-Animator” (1985) shocked me by being so graphic in the era of its release and it was just as shocking today.

Trancers” (1985) has long been a particular favorite of mine, with its time travel plot obviously inspired by “The Terminator.”  The film gained quite a bit of new attention in the mid-1990s after people realized that it co-starred a young Helen Hunt.  Tim Thomerson was great in it too, as he delivered a fun comedy element to what could have otherwise been a rather uninspired film.

Ghoulies” (1985) cashed in on the success of “Gremlins” and I only vaguely remember it.  It turned into a long franchise for Mr. Band though, spawning several sequels.

Zone Troopers” (1985) had Tim Thomerson leading some World War 2 soldiers against crash landed aliens in Europe.  When the soldiers came across an alien ship, there was almost an “Alien” vibe at first.  The crashed ship obviously signaled a looming threat, but the viewer wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen next.  There was also a pulpy feel to the film that seemed to pay homage to 1950s ‘weird war’ comic books.

Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama” (1988) had one of those titles that would make anyone curious to see the film, even if it seemed quite obvious that it wasn’t going to be critically-acclaimed.  It came as a shock that the film was actually about an imp with supernatural, wizard-like powers.

Arena” (1989) seemed inspired to be a “Rocky”-like sports tournament/martial arts film that came out of a craze going on at the time, with the twist that it involved alien combatants   Not a bad twist.

Robot Jox” (1990) was right in my junior high wheelhouse, over a decade before the first “Transformers” film would come out and wow the world with giant robots on the big scream. The IMDB page for “Robot Jox” mentioned how it was delayed for two years upon release. I remembered seeing the trailer and greatly anticipating it, but then it seemed like it took forever to come out.

Crash and Burn” (1990) shared the odd distinction of using some of the same effects models and footage from “Robot Jox” for a completely different story.

Budgetary constraints of both of the giant robot films meant that they couldn’t do anything quite like one might have had in mind, but they were interesting films just the same and it was a shame they couldn’t have capitalized on making the ideas more world-encompassing. “Robot Jox” was pretty much contained within a single arena and was set in the future, but the theme of using mecha in single combat was still certainly there.  That said, I don’t know if anyone ever get world governments to ever agree to settle disputes in the fashion depicted in the film.

Dollman” (1991) continued Tim Thomerson’s long association with Mr. Band, this time by turning the ‘shrinking’ genre on its head.  Thomerson played an alien cop who came to Earth, only to find out that he was tiny in size when compared to humans.  The bad guys were criminals from Thomerson’s character’s home planet, who were also minatiure.  Of course, the bad guys were savvy enough to join forces with a gang of Earthlings, while Thomerson’s allies were a single mom and her son.   Predictably, all heck broke loose.  It should be noted that Thomerson’s character in “Dollman” was oddly similar in attitude and behavior to Jack Deth from “Trancers.”

In the 1990s, Band ran into financing issues just as I was getting more intimately familiar with his company’s output. My introduction came via comic book writer Peter David, who contributed to two “Trancers” sequels. David wrote both “Trancers 4: Jack of Swords” and “Trancers 5: Sudden Deth“… they were basically one 2.5 hour movie but Full Moon milked it into 2 parts by splitting the movies at about 75 minutes each. The premise had future cop Jack Deth ending up in a medieval setting, not unlike “Army of Darkness.” David was in eastern Europe for the filming due to the obvious cheap production values for such a storyline. Part 5 was Tim Thomerson’s last ride as Jack Deth.

Amusingly, both of these later “Trancers” films were directed by David Nutter, who at the time was also directing television shows and had concurrently done some good “X-Files” episodes.  20 years later, he became a staple of the directing corps for “Game of Thrones” and actually won an Emmy by directing some of the show’s more-notable episodes. I bet that he gets asked about “X-Files” but I’d also bet that he never gets asked about “Trancers.”

Peter David also did the two-part original work “Oblivion” (1994) for Band and it used the same sort of cliffhanger split of two 75 minute films that were really a single 2.5 hour movie. It was a western set in space with alien characters in some of the traditional western tropes. The first film ended on a cliffhanger and, to stretch revenues, what could have been a 2 hour film became two 90 minute films.  Unfortunately though, it took nearly two years before “Backlash: Oblivion 2” (1995) appeared.

Again, “Oblivion” was an interesting idea but it was obviously limited due to its microscopic budget. I will say that David’s trademark humor helped lend some appeal to all of the films, thus leaving some lasting appeal. Also, George Takei was a standout performer in the two “Oblivion” films as a failed, drunken doctor.

As the availability of Mr. Band’s films on my local video rental store’s shelves started to dwindle in the mid-1990s, I assumed that Full Moon Entertainment had come on hard times.  One didn’t really think of low-budget film production firms as being long-standing businesses though, so it wouldn’t have been a surprise if that was the truth. Full Moon entertainment had produced all of those films and they ran into some financial issues around the time of their releases. Wikipedia says that “Trancers 4” and “Trancers 5” came out about 8 months apart in 1994, so maybe the VHS distribution of it just wasn’t good in my area. “Oblivion” had a documented 2 years between releases and that was a pain at the time. It looks like Shout! did a 2011 DVD release.

That said, a bit of research showed that Full Moon did not disappear, but the consensus opinion seemed to be that their budgets and quality were decidedly lower in recent years than in those 1980s and 19990s heydays.  Having not seen the newer films, I can’t comment on their overall quality.  Rather, I wanted to simply look back and recommend some favorites from the back catalog for film fans to discover or re-discover.

 


Band, Charles. Crash and Burn. 1990. Film.
—. Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn. 1983. Film.
—. Trancers. 1985. Film.
Bercovici, Luca. Ghoulies. 1985. Film.
Bilson, Danny. Zone Troopers. 1986. Film.
DeCoteau, David. Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama. 1988. Film.
Deodato, Ruggero. The Barbarians. 1987. Film.
Gordon, Stuart. Re-Animator. 1985. Film.
—. Robot Jox. 1990. Film.
Irvin, Sam. Oblivion. 1994. Film.
—. Oblivion 2: Backlash. Film.
Manoogian, Peter. Demonic Toys. 1993. Film.
Pyun, Albert. Dollman. Film.
Schmoeller, David. Puppetmaster. 1990. Film.

 

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