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‘Enter the Video Store: Empire of Screams’ Blu-ray Box Set (review)

Includes The Dungeonmaster (Ragewar), Dolls, Cellar Dweller, Arena, Robot Jox
Produced by Charles Band, Brian Yuzna, Irwin Yablans
Directed by John Carl Buechler, Stuart Gordon, Peter Manoogian,
Charles Band, Steven Ford, Ted Nicolaou
Written by Don Mancini, Ed Naha, Danny Bilson, Stuart Gordon, Paul De Meo
Starring Ian Patrick Williams, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon,
Hilary Mason, Jeffrey Combs, Michael Deak, Yvonne De Carlo

 

Contemporary physical media is for aficionados, either of a particular genre or of cinema itself, which is why it feels like you’re way more likely to see big time Blu-ray releases of obscure gialli than something like The Pink Panther or Ordinary People. It’s also created a somewhat schizophrenic identity for many of the best labels who happily alternate between prestige silent classics and obscure horror schlock and give both types of releases the same care with regards to presentation and restoration.

Perhaps no label exemplifies the new reality of physical media better than UK stalwart Arrow who have cultivated a fanbase that relishes Hong Kong action and Euro cinema with equal relish.

Enter the Video Store is a box set that strives to give top level special features and beautiful restorations to a grouping of obscure low budget genre films from the mid 80’s. The concept being that this is a set of movies that represent what you could have brought home from the video store on a random Friday night, sight unseen.

The set features five films: Robot Jox, Dolls, Cellar Dweller, Arena, and The Dungeonmaster. Each film has either a 2K or 1080p restoration from Arrow and some combination of commentaries, interviews with filmmakers, and trailers. Finally, the whole set is rounded out with a lovely art book detailing additional information and publicity photos from each film. From a technical perspective this is a lovely set, and no complaints can be made about production value.

But what about the movies?

Robot Jox

The headliner of the set is assuredly director Stuart Gordon’s (From Beyond) *ahem* homage to BattleTech and Japanese animation, Robot Jox. Written by Hugo Award winner, Joe Haldeman, and financed by shady Eurotrash this is a perfect hidden treasure guilty pleasure about a post apocalyptic world in which the successor states to the United States and the Soviet Union have foregone open war in favor of gladiator matches between bipedal giant robots. Like Escape From New York this film is conceptually way more interesting than its budget will allow and has remained in the imaginations of those who saw it decades ago by just being so very different from anything else at the time.

Extras include commentaries, interviews, archival interviews, special effects documentary, trailer, and various ephemera.

Highly recommended, this film deserves its cult status.

Dolls

We stick with Stuart Gordon for another 80’s genre picture, this time the horror film Dolls. The film follows six people taking shelter from a storm who unfortunately find that the mansion they’ve taken refuge in contains toys that contain the souls of dead criminals and, as the poster breathlessly proclaims: “they walk, they talk, they kill.” This might feel like a quick cash in on the killer toy trend of the 80’s, but it actually was inspired by Freudian analysis of European fairy tales, particularly Hansel and Gretel.

Gordon’s training comes from the theater and he’s well served in this small cast, limited location thriller even with the shaky script.

Extras include commentaries, making of, interview, trailers, and image galleries.

Recommended, but it’s no Robot Jox, ok?

The Dungeonmaster

This is a really interesting one: it came out at the height of Dungeons and Dragons’ mainstream popularity and the Satanic Panic of the 1980’s and is a sword and sorcery anthology that presupposes the audience’s knowledge of the game, while not being like an officially licensed adaptation.

Most anthology films are budget savers, they were particularly common amongst the British gothic horror studios in the late 70’s when the fad was dying, but this tries to replicate the feeling of old fantasy pulps with a single hero and episodic structure, with the twist that the heroes are from our world using a computer to hold back the forces of a demonic sorceress.

Extras include three versions of the film, commentary, interview, trailers and image gallery.

Ambitions are much higher than attention to detail here, and the core gimmick grows tiresome after a while making you wish they had played the concept more straight and dropped the technology gimmick.

Cellar Dweller

DTV horror job with a fun, Twilight Zone premise: a horror comics artist brings a real demon to life in his basement by drawing him particularly well.

This film is the opposite of the first three: no real literary ambitions but the simple story is aided well by really good practical creature effects and an attention to pacing and atmosphere.

Extras include commentary, special effects appreciation featurette, interview, trailers, galleries, and ephemera.

I was shocked at how much I enjoyed this one, and I really consider it to be the find of the set. Recommended.

Arena

We round things out with 1989’s Arena which puts us in another gladiator fantasy, this time with a Euro sci-fi feel. This could have been a segment of Heavy Metal with its space diners, sleazy promoters, and wild aliens which are all infused with a wonderful sense of humor and fun from writer Danny Bilson.

The plot is a naked rip off of pulp sci-fi stories and Star Trek and the hero is a piece of wood but the winking, Franco-Belgian sense of humor saves it and it’s got an early role from Babylon 5 crewmember Claudia Christian.

Extras include commentary, alernative full frame presentation, interview, trailers, and galleries.

Recommended.

Final Analysis

These are not classics by any stretch, but as a “concept box set” of direct to video and obscure genre pictures they do give you the nostalgic feeling of picking films off the shelf based on box art and the thrill of going into a movie knowing nothing.

I found that what each film had most in common was that because they were so limited in budget and what they could show they had to allude to so much more in expanding their worlds, which means that these are the kinds of films that when you saw them as an adolescent, could stoke your imagination about the larger worlds unseen in them.

I don’t know if I could recommend a box set at this price point for four guilty pleasures, but if this goes on sale and you want some quality schlock to watch with friends, you could do a lot worse.

 

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