A BAND APART: Charles Band and the rise of Home Video in the 1980s and 1990s
The following is an excerpt from an unpublished work on the career of video innovator Charles Band. It is presented here as a “for dummies” primer to the early history of home entertainment, as seen through the eyes of a child who lived through these crucial eras. As such, it is highly personal, but also pretty informative. It is presented as a supplement to my series of RETRO 13 articles at Dread Central, and their accompanying blog postings here at The Express. Enjoy!
If you were there to see it with your own eyes, you didn’t really notice how tacky everything was.
The cars, the clothes, the music, you just took it all on faith. Sure, it was all a silly multicolored freakshow, and technology was primitive and disconnected, but what did it matter to the natives? Happy Days was the most popular thing on TV. People still roller-skated to disco music for fun at local rinks. There was no cable, no digital streaming. No such thing as the Internet. Hand-held phones that played entire motion pictures on three inch screens were still the stuff of science fiction—but even future hip “cyberpunk” writers like William Gibson and ultra-cool movies like Blade Runner would not predict them. The type of ironies in pop culture that would one day inform the youth of the Year Zero—TV shows about serial killers, cartoons featuring ultra violent school kids with potty mouths and tentacle raping monsters—simply did not exist in this garish urban wasteland known as the 1970s. Movies like The Hills Have Eyes, Alien, Phantasm, Halloween and Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead were the most shocking cinematic entertainments yet invented by man, and the new generation was craving more, more, more. Old fashioned late night rabbit-ear TV gave exploitation movie nerds a quick, watered-down fix. But mostly, you were forced to venture into the world to get whatever else you needed.
You still had to go out to the movies.
There were two types of theatre in this day and age. First you had the standard auditoriums—or the more extreme “Grindhouses,” which were usually dangerous places filled with sleazy human entertainment to accompany the weirdness on screen. And then there were the drive-ins. Outdoor Grindhouses, like mile-wide slices of some bizarre world gone wild, where people parked their cars in front of 60 foot screens, broke out the beer and had a party. You could lose your virginity here and have the shit kicked out of you on the same night. So long as you kept it in the back seat, nobody ever knew the difference. Even if you didn’t, well, it was a world gone wild. Anything goes in a world gone wild once night falls, with mayhem and anarchy flowing like rivers of punked-out, screwed-up, falling-down humanity between the rows of cars and trucks. The double and triple features always ran way past midnight. ‘Till dawn, even.
1979 was a glorious year for that.
A landmark year.
The Age of the Drive-In, in its third decade and at its ultimate apex.
Besides stuff like Alien and Dawn of the Dead, you had Mad Max, The Amityville Horror, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Black Hole, Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, The Warriors, The Brood, Hardcore, Rock and Roll High School, Over the Edge, Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens, Love at First Bite, Meteor, The Driller Killer, The Onion Field, Vengeance is Mine, Buio Omega (Beyond the Darkness), Don’t Go in the House, Roller Boogie, Winter Kills, The Disco Godfather, The Bitch, Savage Weekend, Penitentiary, Galaxy Express . . . and thousands more. All revolutionary cannon fodder for a world gone wild.
I was nine years old and I pestered my father into taking me to a particularly dangerous backwoods drive-in because a film called Starcrash was playing—a cheesy Italian Star Wars rip-off. I didn’t realize that night that both my father and his girlfriend were tripping on acid while I watched the movie, but it was all the same to me. They kept it in the back seat, mostly.
Starcrash turned out to be the greatest thing I had ever seen.
The bottom half of the double feature that night was something still held over from the previous year called Laserblast. It was about a kid who finds an alien ray-gun in the desert and the ray-gun turns him into a green monster with pointy teeth.
Sounded cool to me.
The Drive-In Age was ending and none of us even knew it yet.
But it was a strange ending.
Some things never really die, after all.
They just mutate.
Home entertainment technology was evolving before our primitive, incredulous eyes. You could now watch movies on tapes that slid into big machines called Video Cassette Recorders—VCR, for short—but the machines and cassettes were really expensive, and the trend had just started a few years ago. Only a handful of films were available on tape. Cable TV was similarly brand new—an odd, prototypical luxury which very few average Americans possessed, full of forbidden fruit like adult programming and uncut, commercial free movies.
This year, The first 35mm feature film made expressly for the home video market was released. It was called The Best Of Sex and Violence. The film didn’t seem to know how special it was—never called attention to it’s own uniqueness in the trade ads. Or maybe that was the point. In today’s infant age of video rental—with just a few ma-and-pa stores starting to dot the landscape of the very early eighties—what most people wanted were the big hits. We wanted to see The Towering Inferno and John Carpenter’s Halloween at the press of a button. Something made just for video? Who wants that? So Sex and Violence coyly creeped onto the market as a bit of a curiosity. It was actually not a real feature film at all, in the strictest sense. It was a trailer compilation hosted by John Carradine, who sat in a dark room spouting off bad Henny Youngman-style one-liners between each clip. The trailers themselves were schlock exploitation nirvana, and they ran the gamut from 1979 horror classics like Lucio Fulci’s Zombie to obscure sexy romps like Dr. Minx. The concept was genius because it required very little in the way of actual production cost, and provided a solid hour-and-a-half of weird entertainment. All they had to do was hire Carradine, point and shoot—then cut in some previews.
The company that released the film was called Wizard Video.
They were one of about six commercial video labels that now existed, and one of the first. All of their titles were lurid and nasty and available from full page coupon ads in the back of Fangoria Magazine. In 1981, a copy of Sex and Violence would set you back over fifty bucks (including postage) if you wanted to own it forever. That was a fortune back then. All videotapes were priced high like that. It made buying an official packaged copy of virtually anything next to impossible for the average kid on the street. Hence, those awesome Ma-and-Pa video rental places, which had actually mutated from the back of camera and electronics stores, as an answer to our quandary.
So I rented the John Carradine trailer film, and then I watched it at my grandma’s house, because she had a lot more money than anyone else in my family and owned one of those expensive video machines. It was a two foot long monster that made this crashing deep-bass KAH-CHUNK sound when you popped the tape in the slot. You really felt like you were getting something done when you did that—like a man truly working for his entertainment.
The tape went KAH-CHUNK and my mind was blown.
The Best of Sex and Violence ruined me forever.
Whenever I visited Grandma, I would return to that video rental place. It was, as I mentioned, mostly a camera/electronics store with a few rows of tapes in back, and you had to write a pre-approved check for 75 bucks as a security deposit for each movie you checked out. But just entering that place was truly special. I remember each and every time I did it. The very air there smelled like something new, something different. Revolution. I rented The Best of Sex and Violence again and again. Along with all the other flicks. Everything I could get my hands on. I was what they called the “target audience” for this type of low budget exploitation film. Even though I was only eleven years old.
The film, it turned out, was produced by someone named Charles Band.
I could have sworn I’d heard that name before . . .
I was older and wiser—13, going on 21—and I was visiting a friend on the set of a McDonald’s commercial in Houston, wandering around with my well-read copy of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead novelization tucked under one arm like a true geek. One of the grips whistled me over. He was a pretty big guy, pear shaped, thick armed, with long hair and a big handlebar mustache. He smiled goofily and said:
“I see from the book you’ve got there that you’re a fan of sci-fi. So . . . you’d be familiar with a film called Laserblast?”
“Oh sure,” I told him, wagging my head and smiling like a dork. “Saw it when it came out. Classic stuff.”
The guy chuckled once, then said: “Oh, well you know, I directed that.”
My head stopped wagging. My smile went away. I was totally stunned.
Laserblast? That was a hit movie on the drive-in circuit in 1978-1979. Everybody was talking about it then. Sure, it had been panned by all the critics . . . but . . .
. . . to a kid like me . . .
. . . holy shit, man, this guy directed Laserblast?
“Yeah, I wasn’t much of a director. But Charlie was a nice guy. The whole thing was chaos, man. The one thing I liked was they let me blow up lots of cars. I liked blowing up cars.”
Charlie? Wasn’t that the fella who . . .
. . . wait, THIS GUY DIRECTED LASERBLAST?
I actually stepped back and pictured the scene, as if I was directing it in a movie:
Here it is, folks.
Michael Rae, director of my second-favorite Hollywood sci-fi movie, pulling cable three years later in Texas for Ronald McDonald.
Just three years after that, The First Age of Home Video was in full bloom.
My favorite places to go in Houston were the new local rental stores—which were worlds beyond a single rack of tapes in camera shop. These awesome “video stores” were colorful homespun palaces like EZ Video and Audio/Video Plus, owned by private entrepreneurs who saw the Coming Thing and weren’t afraid to chase it to the horizon. Only a select elite could afford the machines just a few years earlier. Now, everybody had a goddamn VCR. It was like owning a vacuum cleaner. The machines didn’t make a lot of noise anymore. They purred like household pets.
The home video biz had turned out to be a Wild West of competing formats, labels and filmmakers of every stripe, all reaching for the brass ring. The tapes—thousands of titles now—came packaged in awesome boxes of many sizes and colors, and those boxes lined the walls of each rental store like garish double-dares, goading you on to learn their secrets. The boxes with the best designs and coolest artwork belonged almost exclusively to science fiction and horror films—from labels like Wizard Video. They had more to lose, so they tried harder. The boxes on these babies were full of half naked breasts, horny cannibals and mutant murderers. They smelled like faded ink on abused cardboard, jaded promises of anything and everything wafting like tangible elements in the room. I took it all in great greedy lungfuls every time I was in one of these magical, sleazy places, skipping from row to row, like a child living some wild Technicolor waking dream. I literally could not ever make up my mind about which two or three flicks I wanted take home for the night. They all looked so awesome, after all. Even though we’d all been burned so many times by films with titles like Torture Dungeon, Virgin Among The Living Dead and Microwave Massacre.
The Drive-In and Grindhouse scene was getting smaller and smaller by the day.
We hardly noticed.
The war was at home now.
Most of the films that filled video stores during that time were refugees from the theatre circuit—regurgitated cinematic cannon fodder licensed for home use and transferred to tape, often very cheaply and from bad prints. This added a layer of sleaze to even the most well-meaning exploitation effort, double-amplifying the schlock value and fiercely dividing the consumer public, who might or might not have been getting a little smarter every day about the type of movie that lurked beneath those garish double-dares on the box covers. Some of us had seen these films before in those sleazy ghetto dives on 42nd Street and in the world gone wild of outdoor cinema . . . but I still had no idea what the fuck to do with Microwave Massacre.
Even though the art on that box cover was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.
(As an adult, I would come to know that Microwave Massacre was a very special film. A bizarre horror comedy with Jackie Mason in the lead as a cannibalistic construction worker who makes sandwiches for his co-workers out of female body parts—one of those things that truly must be seen to be believed.)
But something very new and exciting was happening amidst all of the low-budget flotsam and jetsam being chummed into the market—all those H.G. Lewis and Andy Milligan movies getting their long-awaited second life on video, staggering back out there like reanimated corpses. You see, cropping up every now and then, were movies that nobody had ever heard of before. They were coming out just on tape. They never were in theaters. The boxes for these babies were extra flashy and had a new angle that made them triple-dares: A WORLD PREMIERE IN YOUR OWN LIVING ROOM! These were films made for home video. Not “best of” clip movies like The Best of Sex and Violence—but actual, original full-length narrative features with slimy special effects and screaming damsels. It was all pretty tacky, sure, but what the hell, right?
Breeders from Wizard Video was among the most successful of these strange new releases—a zero-budget NYC horror movie about alien rapists that shipped many thousands of copies, becoming a phenomenal hit. The box art sold the film like a carnival barker shoveling it with both hands, showing horny monsters reaching out of a flying saucer with big tentacles, ripping the clothes off screaming virgins. There was something very renegade about that. Even though it was garbage in a way . . . it belonged to us and us alone. This was our 42nd Street. We were the first children of the Video Age. We ate it with a spoon. We wanted to be fooled. The boxes on the shelves and the posters on the walls brainwashed us and we came back like abused junkies in a testing lab for more. In this brave new world, there was not just “one born every minute” . . . but several million re-born again and again as we returned to the corner video store. It was a place and an era that never existed before. It was the end of the Drive-In age. And the start of the Information Age.
One of the guys leading the charge was Charles Band.
I totally remembered his name by now. So did everybody else. He not only produced Laserblast, he not only owned Wizard Video . . . but now something called Empire Pictures, a theatrical distribution company with lots of ties to the home video circuit, which seemed to be where every monster movie in the world was coming from these days . . . and a few good ones too. In fact, Charles Band was the executive producer of Re-Animator, which came out just last year in theatres and on tape. It made history for its exploratory uses of genre and technique at a time when very few monster flicks were known for original ideas, and it would finally go down in the history books as one of the most beloved horror films of all time. Band also made and released a pretty notorious feature not too long ago through Empire called Ghoulies. It wasn’t nearly as good as Re-Animator, but I went to see it in an honest-to-god movie theater in 1984, just like everybody else did, because of the ad in the paper—which had a weird-looking creature in suspenders emerging from a toilet, just below a line of ad copy that screamed in large letters: THEY’LL GET YOU IN THE END. That ad line and that film made Charles Band a millionaire. He was rapidly becoming a major player and had big dreams.
His company motto: A THOUSAND films by the year 2000!
He was also the uncredited executive producer of Breeders.
Video was still booming, and billions were still to be made . . . but the unfortunate side-effect was that the days of selling low budget sci-fi and horror schlock in movie theatres were rapidly closing. Video was killing the Drive-In star. Almost literally.
Empire Pictures, having grown over just a few years into a pretty big independent studio, complete with overseas shooting facilities, and an ambitious slate of sci-fi and horror pictures eagerly awaited by fans—went broke almost overnight, and Charles Band became the laughing stock of Hollywood. He was forced to sell his soundstages in Rome and nearly the entire Empire Pictures film catalogue to survive.
Still a dazzled teenage fanboy at the time, I hung on every new Empire development like was the true News of the World—which, of course, it was. In all of the newspaper and magazine articles I devoured, there were filmmakers bitching about how their movies were ruined and mishandled by Empire, others rallying to defend the company, all of them incredulous and reeling in shock from the wild rise and hard fall of Charles Band. In the wake of the company’s destruction, there were dozens and dozens Empire films in release on video, like gaudy headstones traced in neon on the grave of a fallen giant. Some of these films turned out to be very good.
But mostly it was stuff like Sorority Babes in the Silmeball Bowl-O-Rama.
Emerging from the rubble of defeat, Charles Band surfaced miraculously with a new movie. Made on a shoestring and capitalizing on the ever-growing public hunger for video-only titles, The Puppetmaster exploded like an atom bomb in rental stores, shipping almost 50 thousand VHS copies. This netted a small fortune for Band’s brand-new Full Moon Entertainment and shocked the hell out of Hollywood. Again. Puppetmaster 2 quickly followed, along with many others—none of them released in American theatres, all of them great successes in stateside video stores. Charles Band started to build his empire one more time.
His motto: A HUNDRED films by the year 2000!
In an ironic full-circle, the days of movies on video tape were suddenly numbered.
Laserdisc and a new format called DVD was staring to creep into the rental stores and retail outlets, as theatrical features upped their game, churning out huge blockbusters of unprecedented budgetary proportions to compete with the billion dollar video market. The little guy was feeling the competition hard. Full Moon had never actually gotten close to making a hundred films, but their output was impressive. Charles Band was born again hard, having set up new overseas soundstages—this time in Romania—and he had hundreds of staff employees, resident filmmakers, and a lucrative distribution deal with the video wing of Paramount Pictures. After decades of trial and error, he’d finally developed a formula that seemed to work consistently. They made low-budget spectacles such as Demonic Toys and Doctor Mordrid. People wanted to see them. They’d developed a strong and loyal fan base. But the market was changing. Growing smaller, improving its technology—demanding bigger and better films.
A cover story appeared in Cinefantastique magazine later in the year, lionizing Band and his legacy of horror and sci-fi videos, but even they saw the bleak future, with sales numbers rapidly plummeting on even Band’s most popular titles.
Rental places were dying badly everywhere, like soldiers on the front lines of a war. It was eerily like the massacre of the Drive-In more than ten years before—but the war was still at home, and the battlements and dividing lines were harder to see clearly. In the weird wake of it all, Charles Band was hanging on by his fingernails. The Paramount deal was long gone. Newly-produced ultra low-budgeters from Full Moon like The Dead Hate The Living and Confessions of a Trick Baby—made for less than 60 grand each—ate a lot of dust in a market no longer tolerating such things. The dominoes began to fall. Everyone at Camp Band started counting the days.
Nobody else really noticed.
Because this was the first year of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.
Video tape was dead—long live Digital.
The dinosaurs sank into the tarpits, everyone else adapted and survived, and Charles Band was forced to sell almost everything he owned to get through the wringer.
It made news, but not much.
After all, Harry Potter 4 and Batman Begins just came out.
Welcome to the future.
The First Age of Video was not even a memory for a lot of people, more than ten years past doomsday. Very soon, over two thirds of the population would be under twenty-five. Since the invention of the home video market more than thirty years ago, other ages had come and gone. Laserblast was long since lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3000. (It’s the funniest episode of the show, actually—just ask any fan.) People watched movies on giant high definition screens and hand-held devices now—devices never dreamed of by the ’80s cyberpunks. We all—every damn one of us—had gotten used to this magic way too fast.
Tragedy? Guess it just sort depended on how old you were.
Video cassettes were no longer manufactured in large numbers or made available in stores. By the year 2013, home video delivery was mostly all about DVD, which was rapidly being eclipsed by an even newer format called Blu-ray. And there was this even faster thing called streaming and downloading, where you could jack in your phone to that cyberpunky internet thing and get those movies instantly, right in the palm of your hand.
In a touch of king-hell irony, only a few rental places existed now—it was just like 1981 again, with those super hip boutique operations you had to drive way out of your way to find. But they were much cooler and more exclusive clubs, existing by the skin of their teeth, in danger of going under every day, manned by film school dropouts and chronic pop culture bloggers who really were just like those guys in Clerks. The rental chains like Blockbuster had all gone belly up. Movies were downloaded in surplus. David Lynch went on You Tube to bitch about what a crime it is that people are watching movies on a “fucking telephone!” Such a quaint old man.
Vintage video cassettes and their garish double-dare boxes were now being sold on Ebay for hundreds of dollars as historical artifacts and kept in private collections by thirty and forty-something movie geeks. That, and the one or two video stores left, plus the odd reference book on such subjects, were the only evidence that the First Age of Home Video ever existed.
Charles Band was still out there, though.
And still making movies.
Some things never really die, after all.
They just mutate.