When I got the press release for this massive collection the first thing I zeroed in on was Arena (1989)! In the initial news it was mistakenly stated Arena was also getting blued, but later that day it was cleared up it would be a DVD only. The original elements to master a high definition print are currently MIA. But don’t worry there are people looking, and I, and others, are praying they get found. The moment I heard I was getting a review copy of this set, I immediately knew how I was going to review it. Most of the movies included in this set were already released by Scream Factory (Shout! Factory’s genre sub-label) and I’ve reviewed a majority of them on this site, not counting Crawlspace, Prison, Troll and Arena. Crawlspace I was never a fan of, Prison. Arena and Troll I could not get review copies of at the time, but Arena was that coveted title of Empire’s Shout had not blued, and I remember liking it a lot when I saw it on cable decades ago, so that’s why you’re reading this double review of that movie and the set.
My first exposure to Arena was, as usual, through the pages of Fangoria, but Fang never covered it. The VHS, however, was reviewed in #113. There was a photo of one of the aliens (see below) in issue #79 (December ’88) in the article, ‘The New Faces On Elm Street,’ and I was very impressed by it! The article was about rising FX artists, R. Christopher Biggs and Scream Mad George, doing the FX in A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988) and George had apparently just finished the FX on Arena. The article didn’t even go into any detail about what the movie was about, saying only it was still unreleased and “loaded with aliens,” but I was already sold. The entry for it in the included booklet reminded me there were a bunch of films shelved for years when Empire was going under. Arena was one of them and it didn’t hit VHS until 1991, so I probably didn’t end up seeing it on cable until 1992. I have a vague memory of watching it one morning after having set a timer and recorded it the previous night. Saw it only one more time several years ago when either Showtime or HBO aired it. Haven’t seen it since, and I’m hoping it holds up . . .
I didn’t realize there were some familiar faces in this film. Paul Satterfield plays the hero and the only other thing I’m familiar with of his work is “The Raft” sequence (the best sequence, if you ask me) from Creepshow 2 (1987). Then there’s Claudia Christian from The Hidden (1987), Mom (1990) and probably better known as Commander Ivanova from Babylon 5 (’95-’98). The only other actor I recognized was Armin Shimmerman better known to me as Quark from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (’93-’99), though Shari Shattuck’s name sounds awfully familiar. I had to check out her IMDB page and see she’s been in quite a few movies and TV shows, so that probably explains why her name struck a cord with me.
Seeing Arena now in my late 40s was a different experience than when I first saw it. Sometimes it gave me a Star Trek: The Original Series (’66-‘69) vibe, as if Gene Roddenberry decided to do a low-budget Trek flick with actual alien looking aliens, and then sometimes it felt like a movie that would fit in nicely with that Buck Rogers series from the 80s (’79-’81) I also used to love watching. There was also a moment where the movie had me thinking about that chess scene in Star Wars (1977) with those little holographic stop-motion monsters, like someone saw that and said, ‘hey, let’s do a movie of that!’ But in all reality this just might be Rocky (1976) in space with aliens. Too bad Empire Pictures folded when it did, Band could have franchised this mother and chronicled the rise and fall of Steve Armstrong, Arena fighter.
Set in some far flung galaxy, far, far away aboard a “star station,” as it’s called in the film, Steve Armstrong (Satterfield) has come with dreams of being a professional Arena fighter. Arena fighting is the big time, and up to now Armstrong has only made it into the minors. He’s disillusioned now and working as a short order cook with his four-armed alien friend from the planet Nebulos, Shorty (Hamilton Camp). Armstrong gets fired from his job after he kicks the alien ass of an Arena fighter by the name of Vang (Wayne Brewer). Vang hails from the world of Innsmouth it appears. Yeah, he’s got a severe case of that “Innsmouth look.” Anyway, Vang was being a royal douche in the restaurant and Steve handed him is fishy ass right through a window.
Shorty takes him in after that firing also cost him his place where he crashes. Basically, Steve just wants to go back to Earth. Fuck this Arena thing. I don’t blame him. Vang worked for Quinn (Christian) and Quinn is pissed her best fighter is all fucked up and unable to fight, so she sends a couple of her men over to fuck up Armstrong. They do, then he fucks them up, and Quinn gets it in her heard to offer Armstrong a job fucking up aliens in the Arena. Only problem is humans aren’t made for fighting in the Arena, there hasn’t been a human Arena fighter in fifty years. I’m guessing because aliens have so many advantages like weird appendages and cybernetic augmentation. How does a two-armed, two-legged human compete with shit like that? They don’t, hence the fifty-year absence.
The second hurdle Steve has to then get over is Arena fighting on this particular station is run by a gangster named Rogor (Marc Alaimo). You don’t get into Arena fighting without dealing with this dude and his rat-faced right-hand-alien, Weezil (Shimmerman). Rogor fronts the current Arena champion, Horn (Mike Deak), and they aren’t above using dirty tricks to make sure Horn stays champion either.
Armstrong gets the hots for and eventually plows Rogor’s chick, Jade (Shattuck), but Rogor doesn’t mind, because he uses Jade to get close to him and poison Steve at one point. I know, what a dick. With all this against him, Steve actually manages to prevail and end up being the first human champion of Arena fighting. Yay! All hail, Steve Armstrong!
The alien FX is what makes this movie, with Screaming Mad George’s creation of Sloth being the best looking and the weirdest looking extraterrestrial in the film. Horn is a pretty good design too, with Stitches being another, but Stitches only gets a sparring scene with Steve.
I was in high school in the heart of the 80s and there were two movie studios—Cannon Films and Empire Pictures—that had their fingers on my pulse and it seemed like every movie they cranked out was catered specifically to my tastes. A good chunk of the “memory movies” I review and collect I can trace right back to them, and in the last few years it seems everything’s coming up Empire Pictures again. A book came out back in 2014 called, ‘Empire of the ‘B’s: The Mad Movie World of Charles Band,’ unfortunately it’s out of print now and if you want it I suggest hitting up ABE Books; they specialize in selling used books. You could hit up Amazon, but you’ll end up shelling out triple digits. At least at ABE you can score it in the 40s range. The authors, Dave Jay, William S. Wilson and Torsten Dewi have a second installment coming out later this year called, ‘It Came From The Video Aisle: Inside Charles’ Band’s Full Moon Entertainment Studio.’ It documents Band’s studio he created after Empire Pictures went under, and to an extent Full Moon managed to pump out a handful of “memory movies” in the 90s I still cherish. Need more, perhaps, something in a different medium? Well, there’s a full-fledged documentary in the post production stage titled, ‘Celluloid Wizards In The Video Wasteland: The Saga Of Empire Pictures,’ which as I understand it should be the definitive word on the rise and fall of Band’s Empire. I’m expecting it to at least equal the extensive and entertaining talk that was done for the 2015 documentary about Cannon Films, ‘Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films.’ If you need something immediate to simmer down your Empire cravings, might I suggest this new limited edition box set Charles Band put together?
Below is the 22-page booklet included with the set (front, back and the From Beyond last page photo). After a “forward” by Filmmaker and Editor of Delirium Magazine, each movie in the set gets its own brief chronicle of how it was created, shot, etc, etc.
Basically this is just an elaborate re-package of most if not all of the Empire Pictures movies Shout! Factory released through their Scream Factory sub-label with the exception of Arena and Trancers. Arena was part of a set dubbed the 4 Sci-Fi Movie Marathon (Arena/Eliminators/America 3000/The Time Guardian) that Shout did not give the Scream Factory stamp and Trancers was remastered and released on blu back in 2014 by Full Moon. If you’re like me and own most, or all, of these films through Shout then your incentive to buy this set would be the autographed-by-Charles Band box, the booklet, and the variant cover art. As far as I can tell eight of them have variant art from overseas, while the others are the same art found on the Scream Factory versions. Now, if you don’t have any of these movies, or a small amount of them, obviously your incentive to own it would be to have the films themselves, along with the signed box, booklet and alternate cover art. Keep in mind, though, this mother of a collection will set you back $250 and Band only had 600 of them made, plus they can only be purchased on Full Moon Direct’s site. Band will also be selling them at whatever conventions he does throughout the year as well.
Since these are the exact same discs Scream has you get two extra surprises, presuming you’re a fan of these movies I’m about to mention. The Scream versions of TerrorVision (1986) and Troll (1986) were double features, so you’ll also be getting The Video Dead, which was paired with TerrorVision, and Troll 2, which was paired with Troll. I wasn’t a fan of the Video Dead until I saw it on that double, and now I love that movie to pieces! I can’t say the same about Troll 2. I’ve tried twice to watch that turd and can only get 20-minutes into it before I have to turn it off and endure a 10-minute dry heave. One of those rare bad movies that just doesn’t do a damn thing for me.
Video/Audio/Subtitles: 1.33:1 full frame—2.0 English Dolby Digital Stereo—No subs
As to the transfer. Well, it’s certainly not as vivid as that scan I added of Sloth from Fangoria, but it’s also not even remotely as blurry as those two screenshots of Sloth and Horn. If it was that bad, Shout wouldn’t have released it. Bottom line, it’s certainly watchable, a little dark, but I can see where it could use a remastering. In fact I think that airing I saw on cable looked brighter than this version.
Extras included . . .
(Note: Even though Arena is a copy of the Shout DVD it was still packaged in a blu-ray case with matching sized art, so don’t freak out thinking, ‘holy shit, Arena got blued!’ Putting it in a DVD case would have thrown off the symmetry of the set).
. . . oh, and, yes, it held up.
As an extra treat horror magazine, Delirium, has put together a special issue celebrating Empire Pictures!
The main article, “Robots, Monsters And Time Travel: The Essential Guide To Empire Pictures,” is a condensed companion piece to Empire of the ‘B’s: The Mad Movie World of Charles Band book. It runs a satisfying eighteen packages, and much like the included Empire Pictures set booklet it covers the creation of Metalstorm, The Dungeonmaster, Ghoulies, Trancers, Troll, Eliminators, Terrosvision, Crawlspace, Dolls, From Beyond, Prison, Ghoulies 2, Cellar Dweller, Ghost Town, Robot Jox, Arena, and Catacombs. Sprinkled within are a couple of asides, “Unmade Empire,” some of the flicks Band never made, and “Micheal S. Deak: The “Cellar Dweller” Speaks,” a brief chronicle of suit performer Deak. There’s also a handful of behind-the-scenes photos I’ve never seen before that was a real treat, and a two page article, “Strange Love: Empire Of Nudity,” covering Band’s soft-core exploitation flicks.
You can buy this issue and/or buy a subscription by going to Delirium’s website here.