Empire of the Dark (1990)

Empire of the Dark DVD CoverEmpire of the Dark is like what would happen if your fat, out-of-shape, middle-aged dad who liked to stand around in the yard on the weekends with his douche friends waving swords at each other ever decided that merely being the embarrassment of the neighborhood was insufficient when there was a whole home video market he could be humiliating his relatives in. Hopefully any family members would be smart enough to steer clear of any involvement. After all, the only thing worse than one man having delusions about a career in film is passing those delusions on to his child. In some of our more liberal states, such antics may even amount to child abuse!

So it is that we find ourselves again face-to-goofy-looking face with Steve Barkett and his unfortunate son Christopher. First seen in the ultimate do-it-yourself post-apocalyptic amateur fever dream that was The Aftermath, it would be eight long years before Steve’s next writing/directing/starring/editing/ monstrosity scuttled onto the darkest, most bottom corners of the least traveled aisle of the most dilapidated video store in your town.

Certainly those who saw The Aftermath have a perverse interest in whether Barkett had managed to hone his craft (you can’t possibly imagine that he got worse, but you can’t shake the feeling that somehow he violated the law of physics and did) and wonder what he could follow up destroying the Earth and dying slumped up against a VW Microbus while his son looked on with.

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Well you don’t think that Steve spent those eight years just eating pizza, drinking beer and not working out, do you? Okay, based on the grody sweatpants and unflattering $3 t-shirts stretched over his lumpy body that made up the bulk of his wardrobe (he also went undercover as a ninja demon briefly in his bathrobe), that appears to be exactly what he was up to. To his credit though he still made sure he was the centerpiece of the majority of the action, running, jumping, and lunging with all the gasping gusto you would expect from an overweight forty year old who looks ten years older.

Steve plays Richard Flynn, a former cop turned bounty hunter who likes to sexually harass his sword fighting instructor in his backyard after his reporter girlfriend goes off to work. We learn during the prologue that his ex-girlfriend and her baby somehow got mixed up with a satanic cult. Naturally, this cult is attempting to sacrifice them in order to bring a stop motion monster to our world to wreak havoc on our expectations of competent visual effects. With only one bullet left, Flynn has to save the baby and let his ex die. (An understandable choice since she had just broken up with him.)

Twenty years later, a young man, Terry, comes looking for Flynn and hooks up with a cop, Eddie, in an effort to track him down. They find Flynn at a grocery store where he is doing a hilariously bad job of tracking a wanted criminal. Once all of these people encounter each other, a low budget shoot out in the store occurs (they studiously avoid damaging any products but some rolls and paper towels) that is only brought to a conclusion when Terry turns the tide against the bad guy by throwing a loaf of bread at his head!

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Still Flynn wants nothing to do with Terry, believing him to be the son of the evil guy his ex dumped him for. Once the nun who raised Terry points out what has surely been painfully obvious to every single person in their town, that he is Terry’s father, he starts to listen and work with the kid and Eddie to battle the satanic cult which has returned and is not only intent on killing Terry (I think we can all agree based on Terry’s looks and personality that he is most definitely still a virgin and thus prime sacrificial material) but killing his girlfriend again! (She’s in suspended animation which I guess explains why she keeps appearing to Steve in his dreams but doesn’t explain anything else like what’s the point of killing her again or how she didn’t die the first time or why someone who had a child out of wedlock would ever be a candidate for sacrificing.)

Once Terry is kidnapped from Flynn’s home, Flynn makes his way back to the other dimension where the cult is doing its ceremony and Flynn has to fight through a bunch of robed demons, bad background paintings, half-assed composite shots and cheesy-looking sets before saving Terry and ultimately rescuing his girlfriend who has not aged but is probably wondering why the hell Flynn can’t take some pride in his personal appearance or at the very least get a decent haircut.

In front of the camera, Steve Barkett’s repertoire of acting tools consists of making exaggerated faces, standing around awkwardly, speaking in the stilted unnatural manner common to all people who can’t act and humiliating himself whenever physical exertion is required. His son Christopher (who is now old enough to know better) is completely convincing as the son for all the wrong reasons. (Most obviously because of the skeevy mustaches both he and his father sport through much of the film as if some hairy demon fungus had infected their upper lips.)

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Behind the camera, Steve makes you wish he was in front of the camera. Has there ever been someone who edited and directed a movie that understood editing and directing a movie less than Steve? Constantly cutting between reaction shots and close ups, using multiple still images to set up a single scene (and sometimes repeating them later in the movie) and having no idea how to put together a fight or action sequence so that it isn’t slow, repetitive and feels as if it’s just random shots of Steve stabbing guys in robes makes you think his only experience and training in filmmaking was a book someone lent him that he never bothered to read!

It may have taken Barkett almost a decade after The Aftermath to get around to making Empire of the Dark, but you could easily spend that long talking about everything that’s wrong with it! For instance, there’s the worst training montage in the history of cinema which culminates with the Barketts posing with their swords crossed. There’s the painful scenes with the psychic characters who spew out background exposition to the girlfriend and Flynn in a feeble attempt to make sense of any of this for the audience and so that Flynn knows how to kill the bad guy. And there’s exploitation movie legend Richard Harrison as the bad guy who must have lost some horrible bet as this has to be the lowest point in a career that also consisted of Italian sword and sandal movies, Filipino action movies and Hong Kong ninja movies.

Nothing except The Aftermath can prepare you for Empire of the Dark but even that is like thinking you’re ready to swim the English Channel just because you spent the afternoon at the local YMCA pool.

© 2016 MonsterHunter

3 thoughts on “Empire of the Dark (1990)

  1. Boyd

    I LOVE this movie. Its terrible beyond hope. The guy is fat, the plot is stupid yet too ambitious for its budget or the director’s capabilities. Everything is bad. The robed guys are always the same three or four, and you can clearly see a guy with jeans and boots get “killed” at least four times in a row. The dummies are terrible. The “old guy” is embarrasing. Barkett even uses a replica from Conan The Barbarian’s sword (it’s in your picture, even). The demon, oh, my Lord! And the last death is stupid beyond belief, almost a physical impossibility.

    But what makes this movie great, aside from its unintentional comedy, is how it reflect the dying echoes of a time where there used to be a LOT of movies done with passion, although not with talent or money. I read somewhere that a number of guys who handled the technical aspects of this movie went to do bigger and much better things (this shouldn’t have been too difficult). So even if Barkett didn’t manage to do a good movie, he at least did what he wanted, gave us a hell of a comedy, and opened the doors to a number of much more capable guys.

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  2. admin Post author

    What I love about movies from this era is that it is all deadly serious. There’s no irony or winking at the audience as if to excuse how bad a movie is because the people making it are in on the joke, too. I find the intentionally “bad” movies of today (like shown on SyFy) to be unwatchable.

    I would love to hear what Richard Harrison has to say about working on it and working with Barkett.

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  3. Boyd

    Exactly. For example, the first Birdemic. A tragedy in movie form. Terrible on each and every aspect. However, once it became a cult film, they churned a “tongue in cheek” sequel, which was worse than the original since it wasn’t even an unintentional comedy. The same, IMO, with Sharknado. The first one was more or less serious, the sequels amped up the campiness and, at least for me, failed horrible.

    Actually, having an overweight, balding, middle aged guy directing, editing, wrtiting and starring in an action role would lead today to something like a Paul Blart movie. Done seriously like here, is 1000% funnier.

    Harrison once made a joke about Clint Eastwood owing him his career, since Harrison declined the starring role in a western which subsequently went to Eastwood and made him known. I’d have loved to have a chat with Harrison, he seemed a great guy (I think he died not too long ago).

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