Friday, November 20, 2015

Satanic Panic: EMPIRE OF THE DARK (1990)

Sorry for the lack of reviews on my end as of late, but I’ve just not been feeling motivated to writing up anything. It seems it has to be something really special to get me to put fingertips-to-keyboard (like my last review for FURIOUS [1984]). Well, I finally stumbled upon something to wipe that gloom away in EMPIRE OF THE DARK (1990), the insane second film from low budget auteur Steve Barkett.

Barkett might not be a household name in the real world, but in cult film circles he is known for his over-the-top self financed star vehicle THE AFTERMATH (1982). A post-apocalypse flick of the highest order, it starred Barkett as an astronaut who returns to earth after a nuclear holocaust and then wages war with a gang led by Sid Haig. What is not to love there? I can’t remember exactly when I first saw THE AFTERMATH, but I definitely remember it was in the context of Tom telling me, “Dude, you have to see this!” It is first and foremost an ode Oklahoma native Barkett made to himself, but it is also a entertaining-as-hell flick filled with tons of action and special effects. Is it a masterpiece? No. But it is damn sure entertaining. For years we’ve always wanted to see his sophomore effort, but it was really hard to find and possibly never released. So imagine my surprise when I found out that VCI Entertainment released EMPIRE OF THE DARK on DVD-R this past spring.

The story opens with police officer Richard Flynn (Barkett) getting a call from his old flame, Angela (Tera Hendrickson), where she tells him she needs to talk about her latest beau. Turns out she has the age old “I accidentally left you for a Satan worshipper” relationship regrets. Flynn heads to the warehouse where she is being held and is attacked by some monsters in hooded robes (shades of PHANTASM [1979]) before discovering an opening to hell. Inside there Angela and her baby are being lined up for sacrifice by her new man, Brian, and the cult leader, Arkham (Richard Harrison). And when I say lined up, I really mean it as Arkham lifts the knife high and sloooooowly lowers it, only to lift it up again to repeat it in the world’s slowest sacrifice. I guess he is a proponent of the “measure twice, cut once” carpentry rule. Anyway, Flynn gets there with only one bullet left in his gun so he has to decide who to save. He shoots Brian in order to save the baby and Angela gets stabbed so Flynn beats Arkham to death. In her dying breath, Angela asks Flynn to save her baby and he does as the confines of hell collapse around him.

Fast forward twenty years and things have changed quite a bit. Flynn is no longer on the police force (he now works as a bounty hunter), he trains sword fighting for some reason, and, more importantly, he has grown a mustache. Naturally, this makes him irresistible to the ladies as Barkett has himself the object of two ladies’ affections (reporter Stacey Brent and a sword trainer) in back-to-back scenes. Meanwhile, Flynn’s old partner, Eddie Green (Jay Richardson), gets a visit from a young guy named Terry Nash (Christopher Barkett). Terry wants to find Flynn because of some strange things afront. There have been two attempts on his life and Terry recently took a photograph of Arkham and Brian alive and well. Green agrees to introduce them and they find Flynn at a local grocery store (literally the line is “Oh, look, there’s his car.”). Good timing as Flynn just tracked a criminal wanted by the FBI into this store, so Green and Nash get to see Flynn’s full badass-ness on display. Imagine the grocery store shootout from Stallone’s COBRA (1986) done by your local theatre troupe.

Meanwhile, our fearless reporter Stacey Brent (Patricia Schiotis) has been tracking down this cult for...jeez, I don’t really know why. Oh yeah, there has been a series of murders every full moon that the press has dubbed the “Demon Slasher.” We get to see one attack on necking couple, which offers this amazing dialogue exchange.

Girl (hears sound): “What was that?”
Guy: “It’s just my shorts expanding.” 

Stacy visits old man Guy Zupan (DAY OF THE DEAD’s Joe Pilato, made up to look old by frosting his hair white) - whose daughter was killed by the cult - and psychic Madame Oleska (Dawn Wildsmith, the former Mrs. Fred Olen Ray). The group is apparently called The Perennials (not to be confused with Millennials) and they are immortal “soldiers of Satan” that have a direct bloodline to ol’ Beelzebub.  Flynn meanwhile (we’ve got a lot of “meanwhile”s in this flick) thinks all this “Arkham is back from the dead” business is hogwash. Because that is, you know, crazy. You’d think a dude who went to hell and back might be a little more open minded. Of course, he does finally go all in when he finds out that Terry is the baby he saved twenty years ago (apparently after getting out of hell he dropped it off at a convent was all like, “Hey, your problem now.”). Not only that, but he learns that Terry is also his son. This results in a hilarious scene where a nun says, “Doesn’t he look familiar” and it slowly dawns on Flynn. I mean slowly. With the realization that hell is about to be opened, Flynn, Nash, and Green do what must be done - they get some sword training in so they can head back into hell and stop this cult before they take over the world.

Like THE AFTERMATH, this flick is one big Steve Barkett vanity piece. Again he assumes the roles of actor-writer-producer-editor-director. And again he also casts his son Chris (having grown up quite a bit from THE AFTERMATH) in the piece. It is hilarious how much they look alike and I about died when they had separate scenes where they answered the phone in bed looking like this:

And, of course, you know when Barkett is looking for someone to play a handsome stud that all the women fall for, he is going to cast his favorite actor - Steve Barkett (sporting a toupee that oddly recreates his thinning hairline from eight years previous). But, damn it, I’m glad he cast himself in this role as it makes it all the more entertaining. I can’t tell you the number of times he did a wide-eyed stare (see various pics). And he is up for the challenge - running through the wilds of Hat Creek, California kicking demons in the face. The last half hour is non-stop action in hell as Barkett punches, shoots and slices every little demon minion he can get his hands on. Sure, Barkett isn’t going to win any acting awards for sure or be mistaken for Clint Eastwood, but goddamn it, he is entertaining as hell.

Speaking of awards, it might shock you the number of folks who worked on this (and THE AFTERMATH) that had some very incredible credits. Musician John W. Morgan delivers another score like THE AFTERMATH that sounds like it belongs in a 1930s serial; he went on to work on stuff like Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2005). The orchestra was conducted by William T. Stromberg, son of William R. Stromberg (THE CRATER LAKE MONSTER [1977]), who has also had a long career. Effects legend Jim Danforth - twice nominated for his work on 7 FACES OF DR. LAO (1964) and WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH (1970) - does some sword fighting in here. Bret Mixon, twin brother of FX artist Bart Mixon, does some of the cool rotoscoping animation. And, finally, the film is photographed by the aforementioned William R. Stromberg and and his other son, Robert Stromberg. They use a lot of miniatures, matte painting, some stop motion and forced perspective shots to create hell and the demon. Robert Stromberg went on to win multiple Emmys (for STAR TREK, JOHN ADAMS, and BOARDWALK EMPIRE) and Oscars (for AVATAR [2009] and ALICE IN WONDERLAND [2010]) for his visual effects work. I’m not sure why but the fact that one guy worked on EMPIRE OF THE DARK and AVATAR fills me with so much joy. It is fitting that this was finished around 1990 as this film is kind of the last gasp of this kind of DIY independent effects filmmaking (that sort of started with EQUINOX [1970]) and if you dig this kind of stuff, you’ll enjoy the hell out of it. A blast from start to finish, EMPIRE OF THE DARK is already on my list of best films I’ve seen this year. Of course, it isn’t as good as TERROR SQUAD (1988). Nothing is as good as TERROR SQUAD.

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