BY DAVE WAIN
DW: Dave, thanks so much for taking the time out for this interview. First things first, there aren’t enough superlatives to describe just how much I enjoyed reading this book. From a personal point of view my first encounter with Charles Band was renting Robot Jox on VHS as an impressionable 14 year old in 1991, and since then I’ve been obsessed. How did you begin to fall under his spell?
DJ: “Well, I take it from that question that I’m a little older than you, as my first notable encounter with the films of Charlie Band was thanks to EIV’s VHS release of Ragewar in 1984, when I must have been 13. I randomly rented out the tape to watch on a Friday night with my long-suffering friend, Spencer, who spent 70-odd minutes staring into the middle-distance while sighing loudly and shifting from buttock to buttock. I, on the other hand, was enthralled – there was something about the ramshackle ambition of Ragewar that really appealed to me, and I ended up watching it a couple more times before reluctantly returning it to the video store. There and then, I decided upon tracking down as many films by this Charles Band chap as possible. Now, today that would mean no more than pressing a few keys to find his page on IMDb. However, back in 1984 you had to be made of sterner stuff: I spent many an hour at my local ‘Mr. Video’ scanning the cover of every movie they had in the hope I would find Band’s name on there somewhere, anywhere!
The following year, I noticed there was a double-bill of Ghoulies and Trancers playing at a nearby fleapit cinema. So I again dragged along Spencer (poor Spencer) who spent the entire three hours tutting under his breath and nicking lemon sherbets from the foyer pick-n-mix. As for me, it was a done deal – I was a Charles Band fan for life.”
DJ: “Back in 2001, I put together a very scrappy-looking website solely dedicated to Band’s Empire output. It was nothing to write home about but was one of the very few Band-related sites on the web at that time. Through that, writer Torsten Dewi got in touch to say that he was considering putting together a book on Band, at that time intending to cover the entirety of his career. I initially signed up to the project as a researcher, but Torsten was busy writing screenplays for the likes of the Sci-Fi Channel and producer Harry Alan Towers (he wrote a great script for a proposed remake of Jess Franco’s 99 Women, which was greenlit by Towers but which unfortunately fell apart just prior to shooting).
During this time, Torsten encouraged me to contribute towards the book as a writer and once handed the baton I ran with it, tracking down the directors, producers, actors, etc. I’d grown up watching and admiring. This in turn led on to what would become a real journey for me: meeting David Schmoeller in Paris as Tourist Trap and Crawlspace were being screened at the Cinematheque Francaise in 2007; discovering that director Peter Manoogian had moved to the UK and spending almost five hours interviewing him at the Charing Cross Hotel, not only about his Empire and Full Moon experiences, but also his work on the likes of Humanoids from the Deep, The Slayer and The Howling, not to mention his father’s mentoring of Martin Scorsese; and spending time chatting with Tim Thomerson on the phone about Jack Deth, Richard Pryor, Robert Altman and, most surprisingly, his love of old UK crime thrillers and Stanley Baker in particular. Then there are the phonecalls with Band himself, discussing his remarkable upbringing and subsequent career. As a genuine b-movie fanboy, they’re all memories that’ll remain firmly lodged in my brain.
Additionally, John Klyza (producer of Sleepaway Camp IV) wrote a wonderful, detailed chapter about the rise and fall of Band’s Wizard Video and Cold Fusion founder Nathan Shumate also came on board, writing extensively about the likes of Band’s Moonbeam Company and his doomed association with J.R. Bookwalter’s Tempe Entertainment. Unfortunately, the book was growing at such an exponential rate that at some point we had to cut it in half, concentrating firstly on Band’s ‘70s/’80s output, and then on to the Full Moon years. Thus, Nathan’s contribution to the first book is minimal. But there’s plenty more to come!”
DW: One of the things that struck me in the book is that despite it being written from the point of view of a fan, you have retained a notable level of critical analysis – in fact you’re fairly damning about some of the Empire titles, especially those by Tim Kincaid!
DJ: “How could I not be? I’m passionate about Empire’s catalogue, but not blind to its occasional inadequacies. I truly feel that certain movies such as The Caller and Enemy Territory deserve more respect from the cult community than they currently receive, and I’m hoping that my championing of such titles will get a few more people to sit down and actually watch them. But I don’t think those people would take me seriously were I also to be defending the likes of Kincaid’s The Occultist or Gorman Bechard’s wretched Cemetery High (which might just be the single worst film that Band released during the Empire era).”
DW: Having been a close follower of Charlie’s career purely in an online capacity, it’s a common occurrence to run across his detractors. The book though is surprisingly light on negativity with regard to his business practices, with the only criticism being from the long-standing rift with Brian Yuzna (Re-Animator producer) and Jefery Levy, who felt he was due some Ghoulies money. It seems that in actual fact Charlie is very highly respected, do you think this is the case? Do you also think that any animosity is just simply a natural fallout of the low budget world of movie making?
DJ: “Well, Gorman Bechard also stated in no uncertain terms that he’d like to cut up Charlie’s face with a broken beer bottle! So I guess there’s no love lost there. But I didn’t lead the interviewees in any way, shape or form. I just tried to remain an unbiased listener. Had the likes of David Schmoeller, Ted Nicolaou, Stuart Gordon, Peter Manoogian or Albert Pyun had anything overwhelmingly negative to say about Band, I would have kept it in the book. But their most common criticisms were not necessarily financial, more that they found the Empire (and Full Moon) way of making movies rather restrictive from a creative point of view.
From what little I’ve read, Roger Corman may well be the personification of best business practice in the b-movie world. I’ve never heard a word said against him in that area. But if so, he was definitely in the minority. A lot of these companies (FVI, Trans-World, Cannon et al) were robbing Peter to pay Paul just in order to survive from year to year. And Band himself was often short-changed during the 1970s when he released his own films through the likes of Brandon Chase and Irwin Yablans. There was bound to be some fallout from such a situation, and I don’t shy away from making mention of it. But really, my main focus was the films, not the deals that begat them.”
DW: The people interviewed for the book are all so engaging, but did you find anyone who was reluctant to reminisce on their days working for Empire? Who was the most difficult to track down?
DJ: “The biggest omission from the book has to be John Beuchler. I approached him at least twice about being interviewed but he just didn’t seem interested. A real shame. But out of those I did manage to pin down, Tim Felix AKA Tim Kincaid was easily the most reluctant. I approached him very respectfully and, being a gay man myself, was not about to make judgements about his gay porn roots as some writers have. But he was not forthcoming in any way, and answered many a seemingly innocuous question with a terse ‘no comment’. Luckily, SPFX guru Ed French was far more lucid about his own work on the likes of Breeders, Robot Holocaust and Mutant Hunt. He proved to be both humorous and extremely informative, which saved the day.”
DJ: “Funny you should say that, as that’s the exact message I sent to Charles Band when he asked me if I’d seen the vidcast. I e-mailed back saying that it was surreal – partly because there he was holding my book in his hands and mentioning me by name, partly because said same book had been a looooong time coming, and mostly because 13 year-old me would have been pissing himself with disbelief! Those long hours spent scrutinising VHS covers in Mr. Video when I should have been out trying to get laid had been of some use after all. Who would’ve thought?”
DW: He seemed quite relaxed about the contents of the book which does have a notable amount of criticism in it – be it his overly ambitious “2000 films by the year 2000” agenda, the Dinocitta purchase that ultimately caused Empire’s collapse or the sheer ineptitude of some of the films. Was he quite reluctant to contribute to the project?
DJ: “Not at all. Charlie’s actually got a good sense of humour and good sense of self (if you doubt it, watch William Butler’s Gingerdead Man 2, which playfully rips into Band’s Full Moon ethos with abandon, much in the same way that Joe Dante and Allan Arkush satirised Corman in Hollywood Boulevard). Brother Richard and producer Maurice Smith (Spasms) kindly recommended me to Charlie, basically assuring him that I’m not just some random nutcase who wants to track him down! After that, he was relaxed, open and only concerned that the book represents the way that things actually were during the ‘70s and ‘80s, both the ups and the downs. Mention is made of the effect that his father Albert’s death had on him. I wanted to make this book personal – not uncritical but hopefully fair. He read through the finished manuscript and made suggestions for two very minor changes (as they were admittedly no more than slightly bitchy hearsay). The rest was left untouched.”
DW: The detail that is provided for some of these films is astonishing, along with the trivia, stills and interview snippets – especially as some of them are notoriously difficult to track down. Which was the most difficult film to locate?
DJ: “None of the movies were difficult to locate, bar one. Band’s first foray into film, Last Foxtrot in Burbank, remains lost to the elements. Charlie himself hasn’t retained a copy and film archivists the world over have yet to uncover a print. It has become the holy grail of the Band universe.”
DW: As a fan I’d imagine that having such in-depth knowledge about Charlie’s films meant that you had a certain familiarity with his filmography. Was there anything you discovered along the way though that surprised you in regard to its quality? (From a personal perspective, a friend leant me an HD transfer of Albert Pyun’s Vicious Lips last year and I was agog at how good it was – AND how good it looked).
DJ: “I’ve watched Band’s ‘70s and ‘80s oeuvre constantly over the years, so there were no major surprises. Vicious Lips is a strange beast but does look amazing considering it was shot for only $80,000 (with Pyun later shooting pick-ups on the set of Cannon’s Dangerously Close). Mansion of the Doomed has aged particularly well – a real shame that distributor Brandon Chase is currently making the rights so overpriced that no DVD label can afford to give it a decent release. And obviously TerrorVision has gained a legion of new fans by being such a concise encapsulation of 1980s excess. A genuine time capsule.”
DW: It’s baffling to me how Charlie isn’t afforded the level of respect or even notoriety given to Roger Corman or perhaps Lloyd Kaufman. Even a cursory glance at his IMDb page (inaccurate movie database as you refer to it!) there’s an absence of a photo, minimal biography and a forum that has seen only two threads started in two years. How do you think film historians / film aficionados will look back on the career of Charles Band?
DJ: “For me, that’s a real bone of contention. Whatever your view of his legacy, I can assure you that Charles Band LOVES movies, whereas I’m not convinced that Lloyd Kaufman sees them as much more than a means to an end – the end, of course, being his bank balance. To me, Kaufman patronises his audience, in effect stating, “I make shit because you like shit and don’t know any better.” There’s no genuine passion for the world that he inhabits, he’s just goofing off at our expense. However, I’m hoping that people are finally coming round to the fact that Empire Pictures, while not perfect, at least encapsulated a time when b-movies dearly wished to directly contend with major-studio product. They were, with the odd exception, made with care and ambition. They weren’t afraid to dream. There’s talk of a Band biography being written soon (I’m not in a position to say by whom, as it’s not my place), so I’m hoping that Empire of the ‘B’s is but the first in a long line of books that will give time and space to a man who deserves a little light shone on what has been an amazing 40-year career. Lord knows, we don’t need yet another book on Corman.”
DW: Any plans for a sequel to focus on 1989 onwards and Full Moon Pictures?! How do you view this next phase of Charlie’s career?
DJ: “As I mentioned earlier, we do plan on bringing out a Full Moon volume at some point. Originally, this book was meant to cover his entire filmography, so there’s a shedload of unused research, reviews and interviews waiting in the wings. The only difficulty I see is that Band’s ‘70s/’80s career encapsulated four or five companies (if including his video arms) and only 65-odd films. We were able to approach each title individually in the book and it was relatively easy to keep a handle on. By contrast, the Full Moon catalogue is currently running close to 250 films, with a near-maddening succession of sub-labels having been started up and swiftly abandoned since 1989. So we’re going to have to approach the material in a more generalised way while also attempting to do the subject justice.”
DJ: “Well, I’ll be contributing to the first issue in the form of a Tourist Trap retrospective (adapted and expanded from the book). I’d definitely be willing to contribute to further issues, but haven’t yet been approached to do so.”
DW: Finally, what are your top 5 Empire Pictures releases?
DJ: “This obviously shifts from week to week, but right now it’d have to include The Caller, Enemy Territory, From Beyond, Walking the Edge. And Trancers, always Trancers.”