FURIOUS ). 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.
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.”
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:
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  and ALICE IN WONDERLAND ) 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 ) 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.