Directed by Peter Manoogian
Available on Blu-Ray in Arrow Video’s Enter The Video Store: Empire of Screams Boxset
Steve Armstrong works as a short order cook on a space station. Overwhelmed by the volume of orders, he repeatedly fouls up and soon finds himself in a confrontation with an alien patron named Vang which leaves Vang injured and Steve plus his friend and co-worker Shorty fired. As it turns out, Vang is an Arena fighter, Arena being an intergalactic sports event where all shapes and sizes of alien creatures gather to go head-to-head where the aim is to simply beat your opponent in a test of strength, skill and stamina. Vang’s manager Quinn is amazed that a human could beat one of her best fighters, so she offers him a contract, but Steve just wants to get back to Earth. Quinn won’t take no for an answer though….
One of these days I might start a series of reviews entitled Films That Ought To Be More Popular Or Well Known Than They Are, which will definitely include Arena. I was sure that I’d seen it before, which is why I chose it to be my other film to review from this set by Arrow Video. However, I must have confused it with something else, and I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t any of the other films that are called Arena. Well, there’s plenty of time for me to try to find out what I actually did watch back in the video shop days, though I would have loved this Arena. In fact I thoroughly enjoyed it now. It’s one of those films that I’m puzzled as to why it isn’t more popular and well known. For a start it has such a cool premise. A great deal of it may consist of latex faces being repeatedly punched and kicked, but it has a story, borrowing elements from several boxing movies, that’s been turned into something really fresh and beguilingly eccentric by setting it in a sci-fi world populated by more alien creatures than George Lucas was able to cram into the Cantina Bar; in fact the film sometimes comes across as an extension of that wonderful sequence in Star Wars [yeah I call it Star Wars, as that’s the movie I saw at the cinema in 1977, not A New Hope], stretching every penny of its budget to present an astonishing assortment of weird and wonderful beings. Setting the whole thing on one space station no doubt helped with the money side of things, but it’s amazingly colourful even if the design sometimes resembles Terry Gilliam’s two futures in Brazil and Twelve Monkeys with its grungy clutter; there’s even an area of the space station called The Tubes. Of course it’s all fairly straightforward stuff, but some effort has been made to make the characters memorable, and it’s easy to get behind our hero and feel like cheering. Some might find there not to be enough arena brawls; it’s certainly a premise that could withstand a longer reboot with a lot more fighting, but then it would probably be crammed with CGI, which might be the chief way that things are done these days, but some of us oldies are nostalgic for the days of suits, puppets and models. After all, CGI often doesn’t look any more convincing, especially in low budget efforts.
Just before one clicks on to the film on the menu on the Blu-ray disc, some text comes up explaining that the 35mm source print used contains opening titles that are offset; I assume that this is referring to the way that the titles aren’t in the middle of the screen as they come up against a space background but are a bit to the right of the picture. I’m surprised that this flaw wasn’t sorted out when the film first came out, but it’s not a major issue. In fact the title sequence is nifty if lengthy, immediately showing that a lot of effort has been made to make Arena seem different and quirky. Various space craft fly past the screen, one of them doing the Star Wars “flying into view from the top of the screen” thing, and we hear little bits from radios that are tuned into the latest Arena duel. A slow zoom in to the space station segues to the arena itself, as it’s almost time for the big fight. Everyone in the place is listening or watching, even our hero Steve who’s being distracted from his restaurant job. He used to love the Arena events, but it’s been a long time since there’s been a human champion, and corruption and cheating are rife, though at least the Seiko 3000o Handicap System is still being used, which reduces the strength of powerful opponents so that the fights are fairer. Here, we have a werewolf-like thing named Horn battle a monster named Spinner who’s a lizardman in a 1950’s robot suit. Says the commentator of Horn, “A champion yes, a crowd pleaser yes, but is he a sportsman? To that I say no”. Indeed Horn wins because Weezle, the rat-like enforcer of Rogor who’s been winning at the Arena with his fighters for ages, injects him with something that increases his strength. “We did not lose, we were victimised” complains Quinn, Spinner’s four-armed managter. Meanwhile Steve gets into a brawl of his own when some rude alien kids alien kids turn up. Their father Vang goes for Steve’s boss but Steve protects him and they’re both fired by the restaurant’s automated A.I. for brawling.
Shorty shows gratitude and they become friends, with Shorty letting Steve live at his place among a semi-secret underground community where Marcus Diablo, the last human fighter, lives. However, things are hardly peaceful, with a child alien offering to fix fights and two men, one of whom was Spinner’s main assistant, attacking him. In terms of plot this is a rather pointless fight really, but it is, of course, a test. Wwithout jobs, Steve and Shorty will soon both be kicked off the space station, but thankfully, Quinn,, who’s in quick need of new fighters, has heard about Steve’s fight with the alien guest and offers him sponsorship. However, Steve isn’t too interested in the Arena any more. Lacking sufficient money for a ticket, he and Shorty attempts to raise the cash by gambling in an underground casino, but the game is raided by the authorities. In the confusion, Shorty pockets the money. Caught in the act by Rogor and Weezil, Shorty is held for ransom. “After twelve hours, start cutting off his fingers, one every hour” orders Rogor. Steve promises to pay off the debt, so he reluctantly returns to Quinn and agrees to a contract with her, using the money to free Shorty. Some of the plotting is rather too neat here, and one wonders if we could have done without some of it and therefore got quicker to Steve’s Arena challenges, though things are hardly boring, things moving at a quick pace and our eyes constantly being treated to new alien beings. Remarkably, or not so remarkably, Steve wins his first match in an upset. After seeing Steve’s potential, Rogor attempts to contract him as his Arena fighter but learns Steve has already signed with Quinn. Steve soon develops a huge fan base, but Rogor becomes determined that he should lose, and is willing to employ any dirty trick to ensure that this happens.
The opening spacecraft shots probably didn’t look that great even at the time, but elsewhere the technical work is highly impressive. Well, this film pairs John Karl Buechler with Screaming Mad George, and they were clearly allowed to go to town within the budgetary limitations. Aliens are everywhere you look. There are three Arena fights, a montage of several others and a few brawls elsewhere. There’s a lot of repeated pummeling, and every now and again Steve does a dropkick. Sloth, who looks a bit like what you’d expect a creature with that name to look except for having two large insect-like legs, might be the most memorable of the monsters in the ring, but the climactic fight between Steve and Horn is certainly pretty exciting, with the fight being rigged [you’ll probably have guessed how] so that Steve really is having the shit kicked out of him for an almost agonising long time. Almost as dangerous as Horn is Jade, a singer who performs two songs, one as a Star Wars-type hologram, and one on stage which begins with the words “I love the barbarian” though afterwards switches to lyrics that we can’t hear. She’s Rogor’s girlfriend but is used to him to play up to Steve for Rogor’s purposes. We feel like shouting at Steve for being such a fool, while the other lady in the film, Quinn, clearly fancies the hell out of Steve but because she’s his boss she understandably thinks that it’s unprofessional for her to show such feelings, so we don’t get the full dimensions of a love triangle. Steven and Jade have sex – discreetly as this is a ‘PG-13’-rated film in North America – but the way he briefly unveils one of her breasts is quite an erotic moment. It takes place in a huge silk bed in a blue and peach-coloured room, beautifully lensed by cinematographer Mac Ahlberg, who really does his best to light most settings as nicely as he can, perhaps providing too much colour in places, but at least we get a film that’s visually attractive for much of the time, especially considering how the setting could have provided monotony. There are a variety of odd rooms. For example Rogor’s office is white and blue with strange photographs or paintings of what looks like space on the walls.
Paul Satterfield is your typical bland hunk of wood, but Marc Alaimo is another strong villain, and the two ladies Claudia Christian and Shari Shattuck do rather well by their not badly written roles, Shattuck suggesting a sadness to her devious character which makes her quite memorable. In terms of what was filmed [one of the special features contains some interesting and somewhat sad information about the script], screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo generally approach the material seriously, not seeming interested in providing the expected humorous touches, even to the point of having a scene where a comedian is telling jokes at a club which we obviously don’t understand but the audience in the place does. This is in contrast to the usual Empire approach. But perhaps the most astonishing thing about Arena is its budget. Posters claimed that it was Empire’s first six million dollar film, but the audio commentary on this disc tells us that it was around three and a half million dollars before being cut down to something like two million. You’d never know it, judging by what’s up on the screen, which truly shows what talent and passion can come up with. It most definitely deserved a cinema release, but was held up with a few other Empire films for three years in litigation and by then, in the space of just three years, the movie climate had changed. What a shame. Despite that, I remain surprised that it isn’t a huge cult favourite.
ARENA is available on Blu-Ray as part of the Enter The Video Store: Empire of Screams boxset from genre label Arrow Video.
ARENA – Arrow Video Blu-Ray Special Features
New 2K restoration by Arrow Films from the last known surviving 35mm elements
“Last surviving elements” might suggest “not in particularly good shape”, but there’s nothing at all to worry about. Arena‘s colourful look comes out extremely well on the Blu-ray format. Of course HD makes the shots involving matting more obvious, but [with a couple of exceptions] far less so than many other movies, indicating what a good job the effects people did on this movie. Flesh tones also particularly impress.
Original lossless stereo audio
New audio commentary with director Peter Manoogian, moderated by film critics Matty Budrewicz and Dave Wain
Recorded while viewing a DVD because at the time Arrow were still searching for an original print, this is another fine track from Budrewicz and Wain, who are able to prompt Manoogian to talk at length, beginning obviously with how he got involved with Empire. He tells us that the budget cutting caused production designer Giovanni Natalucci a huge amount of stress, seems really annoyed that he didn’t add a shot of poison being put into a glass [I don’t think that he needed to], and compares Empire to Full Moon. There’s even several Oliver Reed [Manoogiam worked on a film he did] stories. Budrewicz apologises for “being too fanboyish” but Manoogian is clearly and understandably proud of Arena.
Alternative fullframe presentation
Not His Arena, a new interview with co-screenwriter Danny Bilson [14 mins]
Well this is very interesting. A very passionate Bilson is bitter about how the screenplay he and Paul Da Meo wrote which, in contrast to Manoogian who says that the changes he and others made were minimal, he says was so substantially changed from a parody of ’30s boxing movies to something rather too serious. He also says that for a lot of the time people at Empire didn’t know if they were getting paid or not, and that Band treated him poorly and didn’t understand their stuff. Is he full of himself? Some might think that, but I really liked his openness and honesty, and kudos to Arrow for keeping it on the disc. He finishes with saying that he doesn’t really want to see the film again, but if somebody sends this set to him he may put it on one day.
Empire of Creatures, a new interview with special make-up effects artist Michael Deak [16 mins]
Deak played Horn as well as providing Shorty’s two extra arms. He thinks that Arena never fulfilled its potential, though at least does recall working on it with fondness. He tells us that a lot of improvisation took place while doing the fights, how a subplot with a janitor, an ex-fighter who never made it, was partly shot before being discarded and that Empire’s payroll was robbed.