LIST CANDIDATE: EMPIRE OF THE DARK (1990)

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DIRECTED BY: Steve Barkett

FEATURING: Steve Barkett, Christopher Barkett, Tera Hendrickson, John Henry Richardson,

PLOT: A bounty hunter haunted by the memory of an old flame who was killed by a Satanic cult swings into action twenty years later to bring them to justice and solve the remaining puzzles.

Still from Empire of the Dark (1990)

COMMENTS: The first thing you will notice about Empire of the Dark is that it’s a passion project by writer/director/star Steve Barkett, he of only two directing and three production credits. But give it a chance. Barkett is at the opposite end of the shoestring auteur spectrum from the likes of Neil Breen. Barkett is self-aware, has a sense of humor, and places the audience first. He has every opportunity to turn his story into an ego fulfillment fantasy, but cheerfully writes his script with a female character turning down his advances just to deconstruct that trope. Every decision he makes is based on producing the most entertaining movie possible, given his limited means. Even though Empire of the Dark is a low-budget production with plenty of rough edges, it is by far the best budget vanity project your humble reviewer has ever watched. You can even riff on the silly parts. Recall my rule about distinguishing brainless movies from stupid movies. This is one of the brainless, fun ones.

We open on a Satanic cult hiding out in a cave which is accessed by a portal in the wall of a house. Blades aloft, cultists are about to sacrifice both a woman, Angela (Tera Hendrickson), and her baby on the same altar. Enter our hero Richard Flynn (Barkett), who fights his way through the fanatics, making it to the altar with one bullet left. Two cultists are bringing their knives down on two victims, so he has to choose. Angela screams at him to save her baby; Richard obliges by shooting one executioner and rescuing the kid, running away with him in his arms even as Angela meets her fate. 20 years later, that baby grows up to be Terry Nash, returned to town with a mysterious photo of the cult leader and some news that the Satanists are behind a present-day string of murders deemed the “demon slasher” case. Meanwhile, Angela appears to Flynn in dream sequences, to get good use out of that fog machine.

What follows is a swashbuckling yarn as Flynn, an unlikely action beefcake who knows exactly how out of shape he is, shoots and stabs his way through bad guys. This will take him through a painfully amateur and yet thrilling pursuit within a small-town grocery store, an ambush in the woods from sword-wielding cultists dispatched with exactly one bullet each, and ultimately back to the foam-rock caves of the cult’s lair to confront them and a testy summoned demon. Flynn’s sidekick in this quest is local cop Eddie Green (John Henry Richardson), who plays it hilariously straight as a hard-boiled stereotype who is not the least bemused by demon-summoning Renaissance-fair rejects. Consultations with a nun and a psychic take just long enough to drop a clue, throw in some ham, and move on to the next body-count scene. While the dialog is hokey, with the occasional glib line, there is mercifully little of it. The pace jogs along nicely, with just enough reflective inter-action palette cleansers to allow you to catch your breath. Even though the gins never run out of ammo and can be blessed by the local clergy in preparation for taking down Satanists, Flynn and his team will sometimes abandon them for swords.

While Steve Barkett isn’t exactly a major talent, as a producer he has a talent for spending the money where it counts. Empire of the Dark is chock full of ballsy stunts, cheesy late-80s monster-madness special effects, and a full orchestral score which punctuates the whole movie with a trite, but ear-friendly, action soundtrack. Cinematography is on point and the shooting location (which I’m guessing is in the U.S, Northwest?) does it many favors. Just be advised, it still gets silly! Every cultist is dressed in an identical Dollar Tree hooded robe and mask costume. One after another, they die like flies, yet there seems to be thousands of them, like a video game level you can’t clear. The big bad demon is sometimes a puppet and sometimes stop-motion animated. The fake blood is played by what appears to be dainty smears of raspberry jam. Vast plot holes are never explained. But this movie doesn’t care beans whether you’re cheering it or laughing at it, as long as it kept you amused.

Let’s not kid ourselves: this is the exact movie all of us would have liked to make when we were 14 years old. Empire of the Dark is best served with a bag of Halloween candy and an ice-cold Mountain Dew. The fact that this movie is not better known, even as a cult weird-o fan favorite, is flabbergasting. But that’s life when you’re a vanity project.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Enveloped by an exceedingly melodramatic and non-stop symphonic score, and peppered with delirious optical effects and endearing stop-motion monsters, Empire of the Dark is a trampoline of a movie, repeatedly reaching its ambition before hilariously tumbling down into sublime silliness.”–Laser Blast Film Society

(This movie was nominated for review by “Penguin” Pete Trbovich, whom stumbled upon it thanks to a lucky random Tumblr click. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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