Tuesday, June 27, 2023


 by Anthony King

Get it while you can.

This could very well go down as the release of the year. And as we're all celebrating this stellar release from Arrow Video of five Empire classics, we're also looking to the horizon for a second volume. Here's hoping!

As we enter the Arrow Video Store we come to our first disc with the Empire Pictures anthology of sorts, The Dungeonmaster (1984), written and directed by the Empire stable of filmmakers. After developing a super computer not unlike those that could be found in 2023, albeit a bit more aesthetically dated, Paul (Jeffrey Byron) and his girlfriend, Gwen (Leslie Wing), are transported to a medieval/post-apocalyptic wasteland where Gwen is being held captive by the evil wizard Mestema (Richard Moll). Mestema promises to free Gwen if Paul is able to pass several challenges and do battle with various monsters. Upon asking my wife if she wanted to watch this with me, she read the synopsis and watched the trailer during which many sighs were emitted and eyerolls were witnessed. “Sure,” came her unenthusiastic response. I am also not one to immediately jump to watching a fantasy-type movie, and I'm quite guilty of pre-judging such a movie before even pushing play. But halfway through she asked if I liked it, to which I had to reluctantly admit, “I actually kind of love it.” “Me too!” she exclaimed.
The Dungeonmaster is the definition of a “charming” movie in the more pejorative leaning of the word. Yet, as with most Empire movies, the make-up and visual effects are astounding to behold, this time courtesy of master John Carl Beuchler and David Allen. From the creature design to the stop motion giant statue straight out of Jason and the Argonauts (1963), we go from challenge to challenge led by our anticipation of what make-up effect we get to witness next. With segments directed by Steven Ford, Charles Band, Ted Nicolaou, Buechler, Peter Manoogian, Rosemarie Turko, and Allen, we're treated to everything from a serial killer tale to a Mad Max-esque road race through the desert. But the most memorable part of the movie comes in Richard Moll's performance of the evil wizard, Mestema. Having grown up watching Night Court, Moll is and always will be Bull to me. Yet here we see him lean ALL the way into his character to deliver an absolutely unforgettable performance.

The disc comes with three cuts of the film – the US theatrical version titled The Dungeonmaster (also the shortest of the three), a pre-release version, and the international version, both titled Ragewar. The main difference between the cuts is the US version completely drops the opening prologue scene giving allowance to a PG-13 rating. Otherwise, the pre-release and the international versions both include the prologue (which has full frontal female nudity), and the order of the challenges is different in all three.

We move on down the aisle of the video store and come upon our second disc: Stuart Gordon's Dolls (1987). This being the only one of the five films I'd previously seen, I was excited to visit it again because Dolls proudly sits upon its deserved throne of all doll/figurine/puppet movies. On a dark and stormy night in the European countryside, Judy Bower (Carrie Lorraine) sits in the backseat while her father (Ian Patrick Williams) and evil step-mother (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon) try to navigate their vehicle through the rain. Upon crashing, the Bowers abandon the car and walk to a nearby house they assume is unoccupied. To their surprise an older couple, the Hartwickes (Guy Rolfe, Hilary Mason), appear on the balcony and offer to put the family up for the night. Soon after, two punk-rocker hitchhikers (Bunty Bailey, Cassie Stuart) and their driver (Stephen Lee) also come knocking after being stranded. Mr. Hartwicke is a doll maker and his wife neither confirms nor denies being a witch. Throughout the night the lodgers are picked off one by one as the dolls come to life. Come morning only two remain and are sent on their merry way.
While Re-Animator (1985) is my favorite Gordon, I think Dolls is his technical best without a doubt. With a script by Ed Naha, Gordon is able to deliver a chilling and fun take on the Hansel and Gretel tale, while using a few of his players from his Chicago theatre company. Purdy-Gordon is diabolical as the wicked step-mother; Rolfe and Mason are great stand-ins for the witch of the original tale, both able to emit a sweet macabre that gives one pause; Carrie Lorraine is herself a human doll, with her creepy and hypnotic porcelain face. The real stand-out, though, is Stephen Lee who, naturally, gives off a comforting presence. He's got one of the most friendly faces to ever grace the screen, and his comic timing is priceless. Dolls is the cornerstone of this entire set.
We once again peruse the shelves of the Arrow Video Store and come to disc three: Cellar Dweller (1988). Thus far we have yet to encounter a movie over 80 minutes, and Cellar Dweller is no different settling in at a cool 77. The film opens with Jeffrey Combs as a comic book artist in the '50s. All of a sudden, his creature jumps off the page and kills him. Thirty years later, Whitney Taylor (Debrah Farentino), herself a comic artist, knocks at the door of a boarding house looking for a room. The woman in charge of the house, Mrs. Briggs (Yvonne De Carlo), runs the artist's colony, a tight ship no doubt, and poo poos the idea of comic books as art. Whitney has chosen this specific house because this is where the original artist met his doom, as she has plans to resurrect his original serial, “Cellar Dweller.” The movie is incredibly fun with great performances from Combs (albeit brief), Farentino, De Carlo, Brian Robbins, and Vince Edwards. But, as it should be, the real star is the creature, designed by Beuchler and played by Michael Deak.

We turn the corner in the video store and come upon our fourth disc. Arena (1989), I'll be honest, was my least favorite film of the five because of two personal hang-ups: I generally dislike space-centered sci-fi movies and I despise boxing movies. That said, Arena has the best (and most) special effects make-up of the entire box set. Paul Satterfield is Steve Armstrong, a concessions worker, and one of the few humans in the Arena, and all he wants to do is get back to earth. But Steve is also a skilled fighter and is forced to enter Arena to pay off debts. Coached by another human, Quinn (Claudia Christian), and managed by his alien co-worker, Shorty (Hamilton Camp), Steve vies to become the first human champion that Arena has ever seen.
There is a disclaimer in the menu of the disc warning of offset titles at the beginning of the film. This is because the only source material that could be found was a single 35mm print of the film, rather than sourcing from the negative. While jarring, especially compared to the flawless presentations of the four other films, the 2k scan cleans up the print as best as possible, and it all adds a retro charm to the film. Charm is the name of the game in Arena. Overhead shots reveal the model stadium to be populated with erasers and deflated balloons. Despite Arena combining two of my least favorite genres, the make-up is where it's at here. Buechler teams up with Screaming Mad George to deliver an absolute cornucopia of make-up designs. For that reason alone, Arena deserves a spot on the Empire High Court.

We're walking the final aisle of the Arrow Video Store and come to our fifth disc: Stuart Gordon's Robot Jox. Now, I realize this holds a special place in many a heart. I regret to say, though, there is no special place in my heart for Jox. Yes, the final line of dialogue and the final shot of the movie are incredible, but I was shocked at how little action there is in a movie about giant fighting robots. That might be my problem right there: unrealistic expectations. I mean, Guillermo did it in 2013 with Pacific Rim, right? Time and money, Anthony, neither of which Gordon had. I supposed Stuart did all that he could with the resources he had. Gary Graham stars as Achilles, America's top robot jockey. In his tenth and final battle before his retirement, Achilles will face off against Russia's top jockey, the top prize being Alaska. On top of facing off against his Russian equal, Achilles must also contend with up and coming rookies looking to take his place, coaches/engineers who may or may not be Russian spies, and politicians. While Graham is an ok protagonist, he comes off as a dollar store Billy Bob Thornton. The rookie jox are overplaying their characters, and the movie seems to drag on during the final battle. For a movie to drag on with an 85-minute runtime says something. All said, the few scenes where the giant robots do battle one another is really fun.
Arrow has really knocked it out of the park with this release. Five discs plus an 80-page booklet housed in a glorious case is something to behold. Grab it while you can because this limited release won't last long.

Blu-ray release date: June 27, 2023
Region: A
Bonus features
High Definition Blu-Ray (1080p) presentations of all five films
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
Limited edition packaging featuring newly commissioned artwork by Laurie Greasley
Reversible sleeves featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Ilan Sheady
Double sided posters for each film featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Ilan Sheady
15 postcard-sized reproduction artcards
Arrow Video Store “membership card”
80-page perfect bound book featuring new writing on the films by Lee Gambin, Dave Jay, Megan Navarro, and John Harrison plus select archival material

DISC ONE – The Dungeonmaster
New 2K restoration by Arrow Films from the original negative
Three different versions of the film via seamless branching: the US theatrical version (The Dungeonmaster), the pre-release version and the international version (Ragewar)
Original lossless mono audio
New audio commentary with star Jeffrey Byron, moderated by film critics Matty Budrewicz and Dave Wain
“I Reject Your Reality and Substitute My Own” – a new interview with star Jeffrey Byron (15 min.)
Theatrical trailers
Image gallery

DISC TWO – Dolls
New 2K restoration by Arrow Films from the original interpositive
Original lossless stereo audio
New audio commentary by David Decoteau, Empire alumnus and friend of Stuart Gordon
Archive audio commentary with director Stuart Gordon and writer Ed Naha
Archive audio commentary with cast members Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Stephen Lee, Carrie Lorraine, and Ian Patrick Williams
“Assembling Dolls” – a new interview with Lee Percy, editor of Dolls, Re-Animator and From Beyond (17 min.)
“Toys of Terror: The Making of Dolls” – an archive featurette with Gordon, Yuzna, Purdy-Gordon, Williams, Charles Band and Gabe Bartalos (38 min.)
Film-to-storyboard comparison (8 min.)
Theatrical trailers
Image gallery

DISC THREE – Cellar Dweller
Additional picture restoration by Arrow Films
Original lossless stereo audio
New audio commentary by special make-up effects artist Michael Deak who inhabited the Cellar Dweller creature suit, moderated by film critics Matty Budrewicz and Dave Wain
“Grabbed by the Ghoulies” – a new appreciation of John Carl Buechler, special make-up effects artist of many Empire Pictures films and director of Cellar Dweller, by film critics Matty Budrewicz and Dave Wain (16 min.)
“Inside the Cellar” – a new interview with special make-up effects artist Michael Deak (16 min.)
Original sales sheet
Original production notes
VHS trailer
Empire Pictures trailer reel
Image galleries, including behind the scenes photos courtesy of special make-up effects artist Michael Deak

New 2K restoration by Arrow Films from the last known surviving 35mm elements
Original lossless stereo audio
New audio commentary with director Peter Manoogian, moderated by film critics Matty Budrewicz and Dave Wain
Alternative full-frame presentation
“Not His Arena” – a new interview with co-screenwriter Danny Bilson (15 min.)
“Empire of Creatures” – a new interview with special make-up effects artist Michael Deak (16 min.)
Theatrical trailer
Image gallery

DISC FIVE – Robot Jox
New 2K restoration by Arrow Films from the original negative
Original lossless stereo audio
Archive audio commentary with director Stuart Gordon
Archive audio commentary with associate effects director Paul Gentry, mechanical effects artist Mark Rappaport, and stop-motion animator Paul Jessell
“Crash and Burn” – a new interview with actor Gary Graham (17 min.)
“Her Name is Athena” – a new Interview with actor Anne-Marie Johnson (14 min.)
“The Scale of Battle: David Allen and the FX of Robot Jox” – a new appreciation of stop motion animator David Allen by those who knew him, featuring contributions from fellow visual effects artists Steve Burg, Yancy Calzeda, Paul Gentry, Kevin Kutchaver, Dennis Muren and John Vincent (27 min.)
“Looking Back” – an archival interview with actor Paul Koslo (11 min.)
Original sales sheet
Original production notes
Theatrical trailer
Image galleries, including behind the scenes stills courtesy of associate effects director Paul Gentry

The Dungeonmaster
79 minutes / 78 minutes / 73 minutes / 1978
1.85:1 (1080p)
PCM Mono (English)
Subtitles: English (SDH)

77 minutes / 1987
1.85:1 (1080p)
PCM Mono (English)
Subtitles: English (SDH)

Cellar Dweller
77 minutes / 1988
1.85:1 (1080p)
PCM Mono (English)
Subtitles: English (SDH)

94 minutes / 1989
1.85:1 (1080p)
PCM Mono (English)
Subtitles: English (SDH)

Robot Jox
85 minutes / 1989
1.85:1 (1080p)
PCM Mono (English)
Subtitles: English (SDH)


  1. Got my copy in today. As you’d expect from an Arrow release, the packaging and presentation rocks. Def looking forward to revisiting all of these, most of which I haven't seen since adolescence. To second what you point out, I remember 'Arena' being annoyingly goofy at times (like the four-armed trainer guy), but the creatures and makeup being rad as hell. 'Dungeonmaster' made me truly nervous that a computer would one day suck me into hell. Dolls rocks.

    Would love to see a Vol. 2 set, but with 'From Beyond', 'Trancers', ‘Rawhead Rex’, and 'Ghoulies' all getting recent 4K releases, each from a different label, I'm not sure what the next go-to titles would be. Surely Arrow has a standalone 4K of ‘Re-Animator’ in the works. Personally, I’d go ‘Eliminators’, ‘TerrorVision’, ‘Ghost Town’, ’Troll’, and… ‘Prison’? What other MGM titles would be worth including? ‘Metalstorm’ would be rad, but I think it’s technically before the “Empire” era. Finally getting a complete release of ‘Pulse Pounders’ would be cool, although I’m not sure what the rights situation is there.