Magic in the Mirror (1996), Prehysteria! (1993), and the Half-Hearted Spectacle of the Moonbeam Fantasy Picture

While discussing our current Movie of the Month, the 1996 children’s fantasy picture Magic in the Mirror, a recurring theme in our conversation was the film’s blatant frugality. Magic in the Mirror was a kind of recycled production made from the scraps of a never-completed project titled Mirrorworld. In its same year of release, notoriously frugal producer Charles Band managed to squeeze a direct to video sequel from its leftovers, titled Fowl Play. Boomer noted in our initial conversation that part of Magic in the Mirror’s charm was that its rushed, amateur quality makes it feel as if anyone could have made it, including the audience at home. That charm extends to Charles Bands’ Full Moon Entertainment brand at large, which has a subpar batting average of great-to-terrible releases, but is admirable in its financial scrappiness and ability to stay afloat in an ever-shrinking indie movie market. Full Moon was likely at its height as a force in indie film production in the home movie market era of the early to mid-90s, which emboldened Band to extend his brand into several sublabels. This included both two softcore pornography branches and a children’s entertainment wing: Moonbeam Entertainment, which produced Magic in the Mirror. Full Moon features have always felt a little like children’s movies that happened to depict R-rated sex & gore, so in a way a Moonbeam Entertainment children’s fantasy wing was a totally natural progression for Band. The cheap, amateur delights of Magic in the Mirror seem to be typical of the sub-brand’s offerings, even if some of its earlier projects were better funded and of a higher profile. For instance, the premiere Moonbeam Entertainment release, Prehysteria!, should theoretically be of an entirely different class than Magic in the Mirror, but is more or less mired in the same concerns of amateurish craft & militant frugality. It’s the Charles Band way.

I can’t pretend to know the difference in budget between Magic in the Mirror and Prehysteria! (Magic in the Mirror is our first Movie of the Month selection without a corresponding Wikipedia page), but it’s easy to tell from context clues which was the more prestigious Moonbeam Entertainment release. The very first production of the Moonbeam sub-brand, Prehsyteria! is both the more prestigious and the more successful picture. Prehysteria! was directed by Charles Band and his father Albert Band (who also helmed my beloved Ghoulies II) themselves, while Magic in the Mirror was left in the hands of small time Full Moon player Ted Nicolaou (who, to be fair, also directed one of Full Moon’s best offerings in TerrorVision). Magic in the Mirror was sparse with special effects, leaving most of its visual spectacle to the over the top costuming of its killer duck-people and fairy queen. By contrast, Prehysteria! is practically a special effects showcase (by Charles Band standards, anyway). Its miniature dinosaur creations are achieved with a mixture of stop motion animation and animatronic puppetry, which is seemingly where all the film’s effort & financing was sunk. Charles Band’s dream for Moonbeam was to create a sublabel of children’s sci-fi & fantasy films with “no hard edge” and it’s something he intended to achieve on the back of Prehysteria!’s success. The gamble paid off (for a while), resulting in two direct-to-video sequels and keeping Moonbeam afloat for half a decade. It’s an effort that required the same frugality that resulted in Magic in the Mirror, though. Band pushed the allure of owning VHS copies of the film by including a behind-the-scenes “Moonbeam VideoZone” featurette after the credits. That featurette reveals that the reason the film required co-directors was so that two units could shoot separate scenes simultaneously, wasting no production time. It was rushed to market in 1993 in the first place to ween off the anticipation for Spielberg’s dino spectacle in Jurassic Park. Artistically, it didn’t have much on it its mind beyond getting dinos on the screen in front of kids as quickly as possible because of that deadline. Prehysteria! may have been more of a top priority for Charles Band in building the Moonbeam brand than scraping together Mirrorworld’s leftovers into an afterthought feature in Magic in the Mirror, but the two films share his remarkably frugal thumbprint all the same.

In the tradition of the drive-in exploitation era, most Charles Band productions don’t feel the need to accomplish much beyond selling the premise of what’s on the poster. Magic in the Mirror promises a magical land of evil duck-people on the opposite side of a child’s mirror and once it gets there the film is content to remain inert. Prehysteria! is much the same in its own promise of a miniature Jurassic Park. The special effects behind the tiny dinos on the poster receive most of the film’s care and attention. The dinosaurs are given pop star names (Elvis, Madonna, Hammer, Paula) and are featured dancing to rock n’ roll. Although they could conceivably fuck you up even at the size of toy chihuahuas, they’re instead made to be as cuddly as Gizmo. They’re undeniably cute and that’s all most children are likely to care about when watching the film. Charles Band knows this and makes no effort to fill out the world around them. The kids onscreen who adopt the dinos (including The Last Action Hero’s Austin O’Brien among them) are bratty siblings with an archeologist dad. The dino eggs wind up in their possession because of an unintended cooler-swap, which angers the colonizing asshole (Stephen Lee doing his best Wayne Knight) who cruelly stole them from South American tribesmen. The villain wants “his” dinos backs. The kids want to hide them from the rest of the world. This conflict is established early in the first act and doesn’t change much form there, leaving everything outside how cute the dinos are in a state of stasis. The villain gets in exactly one campily amusing line: “I’m getting prehysterical over here!” The children, for their part, are only interesting in how queasy their relationship with their father’s sexuality can feel at times; they openly mention his desperate horniness as a single man, complete with his potential girlfriends for his affections and, worst yet, refer to him as “daddy” in prepubescent squeaks. Terrifying. Charles Band may not have invested as much characterization into the children as he puts into the dinos, but his inability to grasp the difference between a childlike & an adult tone occasionally makes for an interesting moment, if not only for the cringe factor.

If there’s anything that distinguishes Prehyteria! from the majority of the Moonbeam Entertainment output, it’s that it appears to have been an intensely personal project for Charles Band. He not only chose this film to launch Full Moon’s child-friendly sublabel and co-directed it with his own father, but the movie also reflects the one subject that could be said to be an auteurist preoccupation for the VHS era schlockmeister: miniature bullshit. From Puppet Master to Dollman to Demonic Toys to Evil Bong and beyond, Charles Band has basically built a career around stop motion and puppetry visualizations of (often evil) tiny beings in action. Prehysteria! isn’t one of the more exceptional specimens in that catalog in terms of filmmaking craft, but it is interesting to see his usual fixations filtered through a children’s entertainment lens (as opposed to his R-rated horror productions that just feel like children’s films). It’s the distilled ideal of a Moonbeam Entertainment production it that way. Still, for all the film’s special care and attention from the top man in the company, Prehysteira! largely feels on par with the half-assed, good-enough-to-print spectacle of Magic in the Mirror. Oddly, Magic in the Mirror feels like a more special picture than Prehysteria! because of that lack of attention. The animation & puppetry behind the dinos in Prehysteria! are impressive, but they raise questions in contrast to the rest of the picture on why none of that energy was matched elsewhere. Magic in the Mirror’s own scrappiness is noticably thorough by contrast. Its humanoid duck costumes are obviously handmade & amateurish, but there’s a sinister quality to their design anyway and the rest of the film matches that off-putting, off-brand, off energy in a way that feels more consistent than Prehysteria!’s super cute dinos dancing in a charisma void. Prehysteria! is the higher profile picture that’s likely to be more fondly remembered (i.e. remembered at all), but Magic in the Mirror is a much more honest, ugly picture of what Moonbeam’s commitment to frugality truly looked like. It wasn’t pretty, but it was bizarrely fascinating.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, the Full Moon Entertainment fantasy piece Magic in the Mirror, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its direct-to-video sequel Fowl Play.

-Brandon Ledet

The Dungeonmaster (1985)

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Although there’s no way to ever again think about or mention the proverb “too many cooks spoil the broth” without calling to mind the short film that took the internet by storm last year, few statements are more accurate when it comes to the abysmal failings of 1985’s The Dungeonmaster. The title is inaccurate, as there are absolutely no dungeons in this movie, nor is there a master of these unseen dungeons. The alternate title, Digital Knights, is also incorrect, as there is only one person who could reasonably be called a knight in this film. In fact, even the original title, Ragewar: The Challenges of Excalibrate (as it was known before the reaction from a San Antonio test audience convinced the producers to change it), was also wrong, as there is no war in this movie whatsoever, and, despite it being mostly garbage, you’ll feel more unfulfilled by the movie’s underwhelming 73 minutes than moved to any strong emotion; this movie can’t inspire mild interest, let alone rage.

In 1989, Charles Band founded direct-to-video production company Full Moon Entertainment. Although it’s easy to ignore how revolutionary this was at the time, Full Moon was the first studio to create features exclusively for the burgeoning home video rental market in much the same way Netflix began creating content for its subscribers when streaming video began to catch on as an alternative to broadcast TV. Their first film was the surprise hit Puppet Master, which was not only a sharp and commercially successful film but also included a featurette about the film’s production on both the VHS tape and the Laserdisc, a novel idea at the time. When Full Moon released its fifth feature, the sequel Puppet Master II, it also introduced VideoZone, a video magazine that featured introductions from Band, featurettes, ads for Full Moon merchandise, and interviews that spotlighted upcoming releases. It was a brilliant and inventive business model that reflects how Band was an innovator, despite a less-than-stellar reputation that features (probably true) accusations of plagiarism and failure to properly credit artists involved in his ventures.

The strange thing about Dungeonmaster is that it also demonstrates innovation, or at least attempts to. The film is about handsome computer programmer Paul (Jeffrey Byron), who has created an inexplicably advanced computer named X-CaliBR8, which, in addition to acting as his FitBit/Google Glass/smartwatch, allows him to interface with ATMs and control traffic lights while being kind of a dick to commuters. Also, “Cal” (voiced by an uncredited actress) can process data like some kind of god, answering seriously open-ended questions featuring an anxiety-inducing number of factors with more speed than it took me to construct this sentence. Paul’s girlfriend, Gwen (Leslie Wing), is jealous of Paul’s relationship with the sultry-voiced computer, but she accepts his seemingly impromptu marriage proposal with only minor hesitation.

That night, the couple is kidnapped by Mestema (Night Court‘s Richard Moll–in fact, TV legend has it that he shaved his head for this role and then auditioned for the sitcom, leading the producers to suggest he keep it that way for all nine seasons), a sorcerer or demon or something, who transports Gwen and Paul to a quarry somewhere. He turns Paul’s magic computer into a gauntlet with buttons, and it is just as ridiculous and terrible as you are imagining; Cal identifies Mestema as the devil himself, which, were I Satan, I would find terribly embarrassing. Mestema exposits to Paul, to whom he gives the awful, awful name “Excalibrate,” that he has waited a long time for a challenger who’s up to his level or something and issues Excalibrate a challenge to seven trials, or else Mestema gets to keep Gwen. That’s where Band’s innovation comes into play: the rest of the film plays out as an anthology, with each of the seven trials being directed by a different person. This makes the story mostly incoherent overall, but some segments are better than others. In order to give the film a fair star rating, I’m going to rate each segment individually and then average them out.

The first trial contains the images that intrigued me most when I saw the trailer, as it features a Ray Harryhausen-esque stop motion statue monster. Entitled “Stone Canyon Giant,” this sequence was directed by David Allen; unsurprisingly, Allen’s earliest credit is for cult classic Equinox, where he worked on the movie’s beloved (if campy) visual effects. His only other feature directing credit is for the aforementioned Puppet Master II, but he was a stop motion artist and puppeteer on both classics like Willow, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and *batteries not included as well as disputably nonclassic but beloved movies like The Howling, The Stuff, and Prehysteria (which was released on Moonbeam Entertainment, Full Moon’s family-oriented division). The titular giant is bound to induce nostalgic reminiscence of Harryhausens of yore, and the segment also features an appearance by New Orleans native Phil Fondacaro, formerly the second most well-known little person in show biz (Peter Dinklage has knocked him down to third place, with Warwick Davis still in first by a wide margin, in my book). Overall, though, it’s mostly mediocre, and it isn’t helped by the fact that it includes the first of many times we will see Paul inexplicably shoot lasers from the wrist-mounted Cal. 2.5 Stars.

The second segment was directed by Band himself, and is a headache-inducing music video for W.A.S.P. in which Paul must force his way through a group of “scary looking” punks at a metal show before Blackie Lawless (as himself, I guess) can turn into Mestema and cut Gwen in half. It’s titled “Heavy Metal” and is just awful. 1 Star.

The third segment is titled “Demons of the Dead” and was directed by John Carl Buechler. Two years later, Buechler would direct the underrated classic Troll starring The NeverEnding Story‘s Noah Hathaway, a movie which has long been surpassed in popularity by its (notoriously and endearingly) awful not-really-a-sequel sequel. He went on to direct the seventh Friday the 13th as well as Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go To College (wait, what?), as well as a bunch of stuff I’ve never heard of. I knew that this would be Buechler’s segment from the moment I caught sight of Ratspit, a highly detailed and technically perfect goblin puppet who rules the dead. Most of the segment is utterly forgettable. Fighting reanimated corpses should be more exciting than this! 3.5 Stars.

The fourth segment, “Slasher,” relocates Paul to contemporary New York, where he spends most of the time he’s supposed to be saving Gwen from a serial killer trying to escape from the custody of two clumsy cops. This sequence does have some striking visual elements in its favor, but it, too, is largely forgettable. This was the only directorial effort ever put forth by actor Steven Ford, whose roles include such noteworthy appearances as “Secret Service #2” in Escape from New York, “Nuke Tech” in Armageddon, the nameless “Four Star General” in Transformers, and “Prometheus First Officer” in Babylon 5: In the Beginning. 1.5 Stars.

If I remember correctly, the fifth segment was Rosemarie Turko’s “The Ice Gallery,” which works in the sense that it feels like an homage to Hammer Films. Paul and Gwen are once again separated in a cave full of fictional and historical monsters frozen like wax figures in a museum. Marie Antoinette and Jack the Ripper are there, alongside the Wolfman, a mummy, a samurai, and, for reasons that I cannot begin to fathom, Albert Einstein. This is probably the most visually interesting segment overall, even if it’s dumb. Turko’s only previous film experience was writing, producing, and directing a film titled Scarred, about an underage girl who turns to prostitution to support her baby. She never directed, wrote, or produced anything after Dungeonmaster. 3 Stars.

“The Cave Beast” is the penultimate trial. It makes no sense. Paul gets lured into a cave and vanquishes a monster that is actually revealed to be an angel once defeated, or something, by figuring out how to reflect laser beams off of stuff. Director Paul Manoogian also directed Full Moon’s Demonic Toys and was the first AD on James Franco’s bombed directorial debut The Ape. 1.5 Stars.

The final segment was directed by Ted Nicolaou, director of TerrorVision and all of the Subspecies movies. He also directed Bad Channels, a Full Moon release about a radio station that is taken over by an alien infestation and features a Blue Oyster Cult soundtrack (I have a fondness for Bad Channels that I know is indefensible). His contribution to this film, “Desert Pursuit,” however, is a lazy Mad Max rip off that features, as you might have guessed, a pursuit through the desert in ridiculous vehicles. 1 Star.

Paul wins all the trials, challenges Mestema to a physical fight that the warlock loses, and throws Richard Moll into a convenient lava pit. The end. Wraparound story: 1.5 Stars. So, the average is just shy of 2 Stars (1.9375, if you want to get obsessive about it). Despite an intriguing approach, Dungeonmaster is a lousy movie overall. If you want a positive experience, track down and watch the film’s trailer, as it consists of the three good minutes of this movie and leaves out the chaff.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond