Mutant Popcorn #13

Nick Lowe


Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn series of essays on cinema fantastika has been an integral part of Interzone since 1985.

IZ Digital has managed to coil its many-suckered tentacles around the vast and unexpurgated Mutant Popcorn archive and will be serving up each and every insightful portion for your enjoyment.

The serving below – an end-of-year round-up for 1988 – appeared first in Interzone #27 (January/February 1989).

On tube and stage, it was a year like any other: Star Trek and Dr Who came back from the grave to haunt their children’s children; the BBC tried another duff space series (Red Dwarf, of which the best that can be said is that it makes Dark Star look like Dark Star); big names dipped a toe in sf waters (Hapgood, The Making of the Representative for Planet 8) and only succeeded in losing it to the sharks. But it was in some ways a remarkable, perhaps even a landmark, year for sf films. For one thing, there wasn’t a single hit science fiction movie Robocop, Innerspace, The Running Man are all, strictly speaking, last year’s films, and only the first of them was an international boxoffice killer. The two fantasy films that did make big money in 1988, Beetlejuice and Roger Rabbit, were novelty funnies: expensive style comedies, rather overinsistently unique and off-the-wall, but likable and even laudable in their willingness to be strange. By significant contrast, the one flop of truly apocalyptic proportions was the numbingly conventional Willow, so resolutely Solvited to its own particular wall that the combined efforts of a legendary producer, a reliable fantasy director, and the absolute most terrific actress inside the orbit of Saturn (J. Whalley) couldn’t prise it loose into some lumbering semblance of animation. It’d be a bold observer who read in these ambiguous entrails the imminent doom of straight genre pictures, but there is perhaps a hint that audiences are getting a tad fatigued with the more threadbare swash-&-buckle adventure scenarios. The new year already offers a couple of attractively deviant prospects: Gilliam’s Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Jools Temple’s alien sex comedy Earth Girls are Easy. Mind you, there’s also the sequels to Back to the Future and Aliens, and the ever-looming glut of comic-to-screen mutations – including Tim Burton’s increasingly strange-sounding Batman, the by now redundant Dredd movie, and of course that one about the giant exploding psychic octopus – so it’s perhaps best to suspend optimism for a while yet.

Still, what surely has to be the year’s milestone event in sf film passed unremarked outside the trade press: the death and strange rebirth of Charles Band and his once-legendary Empire Pictures. Band, you might remember, was the nearest thing to a Roger Corman for the 80s: a cheapie director-turned-producer who in under five years built up an astonishing production stable devoted to witty, small-budget exploitation quickies for a specialised but lucrative niche in a market transformed by the impact of a new category of consumer. For Corman in the late fifties, the golden goose was the youth B-movie: shoestring sf, beach ’n’ bike hepping, lashings of camp horror, all that timeless trash. Band wasn’t the only manufacturer to see that a clear equivalent was emerging in the early 80s from the rapid expansion of the homevideo market, particularly in the teen audience; but the shrewdness and panache with which he farmed it were distinctive from the start.

Empire productions varied chaotically in quality, but often managed to rise refreshingly above their competitors in the same generally sleazy marketplace. Early gems like TrancersTerrorvision, and especially Re-Animator established a distinctive studio profile of bizarre wit, off-the-wall genre scenarios, and snappy no-nonsense direction. These first ventures went for a limited theatrical exposure to spark interest prior to the video release that brought in the real pennies; but with a massive expansion in production in 85-7 a direct-to-video pattern tended to predominate, with only a few items with cult-circuit potential let out into drive-ins and late-night cult slots. By 1987 Empire had their own studios in Italy, production had increased to a dozen features a year, and the new subsidiary Beyond Infinity Pictures was churning out a string of bottom-of-the-market idiocies with arrestingly sophomoric titles that seemed to cost more than the film. (Remember Slave Girls from Beyond InfinityAssault of the Killer Bimbos? Has anyone actually seen these movies?) Unfortunately, this grandiose programme of Empire-building was supported by some apparently rather Cannonesque financial footwork, and when the bottom sank away from the international video market in 1987-8 the imperial foundations sank with them. In spring of this year a straitened Empire announced a major strategic shift, away from the diluvium of cheap video releases towards a few mid-budget and higher-profile theatrical features; but it wasn’t enough to convince the banks. In late summer Band was forced out by his backers, and the assets (including the Italian studios and a catalogue of some fifty features, many of them unreleased or in suspended stages of production) sold off.

What distinguishes this history from a hundred similarly Byzantine corporate fandangoes in the wacky world of film finance is what it signals about the changing state of the market in genre cinema. Band’s downfall owed a lot to his very success in exploiting a specific niche for a specific audience. But by the end of 1987 the video market was so saturated with cheap horror and fantasy that it more or less drowned in its own puke. Empire’s problem wasn’t so much that their product lost its innate distinctiveness (the Beyond Infinity line, at least, could hardly be accused of that) as that the customers couldn’t discriminate in the shops. After you’ve rented ten stiffs in a row off the same genre rack, you tend to look for something new even if the eleventh is relatively kosher. In particular, as any retailer can tell you, 1988 was the year the video nasty finally snuffed: not, as we once might have projected, under the censor’s knife, but peacefully and almost forgotten in its bed. Rambo and Terminator clonelets have inherited its dodgy mantle, and already the Robocop ripoffs are moving in at the far end of the shelf. But these too are mortal, and it really looks like childhood’s end for video as a force for innovation in the market – and with it, as a medium for unpretentious wit and inspired entertainment too quirky or unassuming for the traditional big-screen outlets.

Meanwhile, though, there are two ironic footnotes to the end of Empire. One is that most of the frozen Empire and Beyond Infinity releases will now appear, under the new Dutch-backed Epic Pictures masthead, so that we can look forward after all to the much-trumpeted Piranha WomenI Was a Teenage Sex MutantSpace Sluts in the Slammer, and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama, as well as Stuart Gordon’s Joe Haldeman-scripted Robojox and Band’s own directorial comeback in a combined followup to TrancersDungeonmaster, and From Beyond. (Great concept, but regrettably it’s only an anthology pic…) The second, perhaps less surprising, sequel is that Charles Band himself is already back in business with new money and many of the key personnel from Empire, including star director Gordon; and has even announced his first production, with a bigger-than-ever budget and theatrical rather than video release. Yes, it’s a remake, helmed by Gordon, of the Corman classic The Pit and the Pendulum. Plus ca change, eh, readers?

Oh, and film of the year 1988? No contest. In a year already strong on fantasy comedies, one stood out even above the hype and overkill surrounding its release: a technically dazzling big-budget reworking of a classic Hollywood tradition by one of the hottest writer-director teams in the industry, with some hilarious special effects, amusingly-characterised talking animals, inspired comic casting, great songs, and some of the most rib-busting dialogue ever heard on the screen. No, you silly, not that wabbit picture: I’m talking about The Last Temptation of Christ. Yeah, that cheap. Sorry.

Nick Lowe has been dispensing Mutant Popcorn for Interzone since 1985. By day he teaches Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London, where his books include The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative (2000) and Comedy (2009).

Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn appears in each issue of Interzone. Subscribe to the print magazine to get it delivered directly to your door, six times a year.

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