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Q&A: Author Dave Jay talks “EMPIRE OF THE ‘B’S”

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With his latest book, UK-based author and horror movie enthusiast Dave Jay set his sights on none other than tireless indie genre film warrior Charles Band, specifically on those storied days in the early 80s when budgets were large and the personalities even larger.

EMPIRE OF THE B’s: THE MAD MOVIE WORLD OF CHARLES BAND (co-penned by Torsten Dewi and Nathan Shumate) is a heavy tome in weight and content, charting every single picture made by Charlie and his dad Albert during their run under the name Empire Pictures. From PARASITE to METALSTORM to RE-ANIMATOR to LURKING FEAR, each picture is examined with a critical eye, never soft shoeing around the fact that not every Empire flick was a classic, or even any good. But many were, and remain landmark examples of indie genre craft and commerce.

FANGORIA took a minute to talk to Jay about his critically acclaimed book.

FANGORIA: When was the first time you noticed that the words “Empire Pictures Presents” meant something?

DAVE JAY: Strangely enough, the words ‘Empire Pictures’ meant something after the very first Charles Band movie I saw. Previous to THE DUNGEONMASTER being released to US theatres in 1985, the film was distributed in the UK as a straight-to-video feature under its original title, RAGEWAR (not for the first time, as for some reason we also got SWORDKILL/GHOST WARRIOR over here prior to its US release).  As a none-too-worldly 13 year-old, RAGEWAR contained just about everything one could wish for in a movie: zombies, wizards, computers, animated battling dragons, heavy metal, stop-motion canyon gods, Einstein, midgets and jazzercise. Needless to say, I was bedazzled. The name ‘Charles Band’ was all over this baby, so the very next day I sprinted to my local video retailer and, this being the pre-internet days when such information wasn’t available at the touch of a button, spent many an hour scouring the credits of just about every video cover in the store, in hope of finding more movies by Charlie. And the Empire obsession just grew from there.

FANGORIA:  Did you find the films scary? Funny? What was the hook that planted the seed for obsession?

JAY: Midgets and jazzercise aside, I’m a child of the ‘80s video revolution – surely the last generation for which B-movies were simply part of mainstream culture. Any film fan of my age will happily regale you with stories of ‘the video store as temple of iniquity’: a place packed to the brim with vivid VHS clamshells and equally lurid posters, perpetually luring you in with ‘sights and sounds far beyond anything you’ve tested’. During this era, the genre B-movie was king and no birthday party or general gathering would be complete without a viewing of, say, TEXAS CHAINSAW, THE BOOGEY MAN or THE BURNING. They were the ultimate playground test of supposed manhood during the early eighties and carried as much peer-group kudos as whatever bland Hollywood blockbuster might be playing on the big screen that week. All of which is a rather long-winded way of saying that I was already naturally attuned to Charlie Band’s output before I saw any of his films. I was a B-movie child, and over the thirty years since that time have progressed little further than becoming a B-movie manchild.

FANG: When did the idea of a book become a reality?

JAY: Quite honestly, only on the day I finally held the elusive bugger in my hands! Myself and co-writers Torsten Dewi & Nathan Shumate had been working on this book (and the Full Moon follow-up) for many years before I finally approached a UK publisher, Hemlock. Following that, it took another three years to be published as Hemlock had many other projects in the pipeline (they’ve also released great books about Corman, Hammer and the like). For almost a decade, I’d been yakking at length about my plans for EMPIRE OF THE ‘B’s to friends and family and, while they often nodded sagely and offered words of encouragement, I’m sure they thought I must have been in the middle of some nervous breakdown or other. It was a relief to be able to hand the finished article to them, if only to prove that I’m not a delusional fruitcake.

Book 14 Empire of the BsFANG: For every great Empire flick, there is a pair of duds. Was it hard for you to be critical of the films when writing the book?

JAY: Not really. Whether it be Empire, New World, Cannon or Avco-Embassy, every company has had its share of hits and misfires. There are no unblemished track records and you have to be willing to separate the shit from the Shinola in order to properly celebrate the films that deserve praise.

FANG: Did you encounter any resistance when scouring the world for interviews? Any subjects unwilling to talk?

JAY: Tim Kincaid was definitely the most reticent interviewee. He did reply to a handful of my questions but answered most others with a curt ‘no comment’. By all accounts, he’d previously refused to get involved with the DVD releases of BAD GIRLS’ DORMITORY and RIOT ON 42ND STREET, so I guess I should be glad that he was willing to contribute towards the book in any way, shape or form. Maybe he’s a little burned out on the derision he’s received over the years for no-budget blunders such as BREEDERS and ROBOT HOLOCAUST. And I also attempted to interview Cherie Currie (of The Runaways) about her role in Band’s 3-D gloopfest PARASITE, but her manager told me I would have to pay cold hard cash for the privilege of discussing Cherie’s career in film. Considering her career doesn’t extend much beyond PARASITE, FOXES and the (admittedly underrated) sci-fi flick WAVELENGTH, I didn’t feel I’d be getting my money’s worth no matter how much or little I paid, though it would have been pretty damn cool to have her featured in the book.

FANG: Was Charlie on board from frame one? Did he provide art?

JAY: Charlie was one of the last people I approached to be interviewed for the book. His brother Richard and producer Maurice Smith (SPASMS) both kindly vouched for me, but the project was almost completed by the time Charlie and I finally talked. Charlie’s been extremely supportive and, though the book isn’t always 100% positive, he hopefully feels it fairly represents the crazy years spent making movies at Empire. I’m a genuine Empire Pictures devotee, so I tried to write the book that I’d personally like to read as an enthusiast, rather than just approaching the project as some jaded, disinterested ‘film critic’. Ultimately, this is an exercise in film celebration, not criticism.

FANG: What is the greatest Band/Empire film in your estimation? Which is your personal favorite?

JAY: I’m sure just about everyone agrees that RE-ANIMATOR and TRANCERS jointly represent the pinnacle of the studio’s achievements.  But I’d like to take a little time out to mention some of Empire’s lesser-known but no less worthy output, such as Peter Manoogian’s kinetic gang war pic ENEMY TERRITORY and the truly bizarre sci-fi/character piece THE CALLER, featuring an on-form, truly intense performance from Malcolm McDowell. Hell, I even love RAWHEAD REX. There, I said it.

FANG: What has the fan response been like to the book?

JAY: Reviews have been positive, which is great. But the icing on the cake has been the personal messages I’ve received from fellow Empire fanatics who, like me, grew up on these movies and who have seemingly enjoyed reliving a small piece of their lost youth. Ultimately, if they’re happy it’s ‘job done’ for me.’

EMPIRE OF THE B’S is currently available from publisher Hemlock Books.

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About the author
Chris Alexander
Author, film critic, teacher, musician and filmmaker (not to mention failed boxer) Chris Alexander is the editor-in-chief of FANGORIA Magazine. He got his first professional break as the “Schizoid Cinephile” in the pages of Canadian horror film magazine RUE MORGUE before making the move to FANGO in 2007. His words have appeared in The Toronto Star, Metro News, Wired, Montage, The Dark Side, Tenebre and many other notable publications and he appears regularly on international television and radio.
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