EMPIRE OF THE B’S: The Rise And Fall Of The Ultimate ’80s Exploitation Empire

The death of the drive-ins and the slow fade of the video rental market took out many an exploitation mogul but they failed to break the spirit of Charles Band.  He’s been producing films since the ’70s and distributing them since the ’80s, grinding out quickies by the dozen that combine his proclivity for bubblegum b-movie takes on the fantastic with whatever new trends come along.

Band has survived for a half-century in the film business because he got a fast education in the rollercoaster highs and lows of the trade via his short-lived but legendary studio, Empire Films.  The combination production and distribution outfit lasted just under half a decade but managed to pump out dozens of sci-fi and horror films in that time, including cult faves like Troll, Terrorvision and Prison plus the occasional bonafide classic like Re-Animator.

Simply put, it’s an amazing story and you get a feel for its colorful, complex contours in Empire Of The B’s, a densely informative tome penned by Dave Jay in collaboration with Torsten Dewi and Nathan Shumate.  Its thoughtfully structured contents covers the history of Band’s productions through the end of the 1980’s, with individual entries for each film that mix history and critical thoughts plus an array of interviews that flesh out the facts touched on in each film entry.

Jay and company take their work seriously, devoting the first hundred-plus pages to the string of indie efforts that Band produced or directed and produced before forming his own distribution company.  This includes a roster of VHS/cable-t.v. favorites like Laserblast, Tourist Trap and Metalstorm: The Destruction Of Jared-Syn.  There’s also the occasional softcore venture like Cinderella and some interesting info on how Band pioneered the world of home video with companies like Media and Wizard (of course, there are entries on his popular compilation tapes The Best Of Sex & Violence and Famous T&A).

Things really heat up for fans around page 118, when Band gets his own distribution company going with Empire and starts cranking out the flicks at a higher speed.  From there, the entries on the films start flying by almost as quickly as Band produced them.  In addition to coverage of big Empire productions like Ghoulies, From Beyond and Eliminators, you also get entries on the array of direct-to-video quickies that Band released through Empire sublabels, including Dreamaniac, Psychos In Love and the infamous NYC-based productions of Tim Kincaid (Breeders, Mutant Hunt, etc.).

Jay writes the lion’s share of the entries, with Dewi and Shumate chiming in on the occasional item: Shumate has a particularly fun entry on The Dungeonmaster while Dewi makes a strong case for the abandoned-to-video production Arena.  That said, the three provide a pretty consistent voice for the book, mixing facts and interview quips from an array of filmmakers and actors with surprisingly rigorous critical assessments of the films.  Fans might be surprised to see them being tough on fan favorites like Dolls or Tourist Trap but they’re never unfair.

Better yet, the film entries are bolstered by a nice array of interviews that draw the reader into the head-spinning pace of the Empire story.  Charles Band is featured via a big chat that is spread out a couple of places in the book: his memory isn’t always as sharp as fans might like but he’s likeably self-deprecating and often insightful.  His brother Richard Band also pops up for an interesting sitdown about his prolific music scoring for the company.

Also worthy of note is an oft-hilarious interview with Tim Thomerson, a chat with director Peter Manoogian that offers insight into the difficulties of directing for Empire and sessions with Empire notables like Ted Nicolaou and C. Courtney Joyner (the latter provides an unexpectedly touching final remembrance that closes the book).

And that’s not all the book has to offer: the endpapers also include a piece on the history of Wizard Video and a piece on some unfinished or little-seen Band productions that have been lost to the sands of time.  It all adds up to a nice mix of information and insight, topped off with nice graphic design that makes the most of Empire’s eye-popping imagery with an array of stills and poster art presented in black-and-white.  If you have any interest in the Empire Films story, Empire Of The B’s is well worth investing in, offering a series of tales almost as colorful as Band’s filmography.

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