One of my favorite legends is the tale of the Iron Door (the other one is Spring-Heeled Jack, but that’s a discussion for some other time). Reputedly located in the Samaria Mountain range, the story begins at its end. A couple of homesteaders were sitting outside their cabin one day, when they noticed a horse and rider drawing near. The rider was wounded (shot, in fact), and the homesteaders hurried him into their cabin. As he lay dying, the rider stated that he was a member of a trio of stagecoach robbers who had menaced the area for a long time, and they had amassed quite a stash of precious metals and assorted booty. According to the moribund highwayman, the ill-gotten gains had been placed in a cave south of Samaria which was sealed with the eponymous door. During an argument, the man shot and killed his two partners and sealed them behind the door as well before dragging himself away. Since the description of the cache’s location is imprecise to say the least, no one has been able to find it (though you’d think the door would give it away) to this day. When I initially heard this story, I was told that the door’s location would mystically change from day to day, though I believe it was just imprecisely explained to me, as well. So, anyone who wants to take a trip to the wilds of Idaho with me, let me know. I’m always up for a treasure hunt (actually, that’s a lie; I hate the outdoors).
One lovely day, an albino-ish monster (actually a guy in an Alien Hitbeast mask from The Last Starfighter and a blonde/white fright wig) scurries out of Bronson Cavern and kills some random guy (Michael Sonye) and his dog before being clubbed with a Coleman cooler by his wife (Victoria Alexander). Enter hoi polloi/rich bitch Denae Chambers (Susan Stokey), who hires loser salvaging duo/drunkard tag team, Colt Eastman (Ross Hagen) and Eddy (Dawn Wildsmith) to help her trek back into the caves to find the wealth of precious gems with which the obviously non-high-class monster was adorned. Joined by the inexplicably “hunky” Andrew Paris (Jeffrey Combs) and the dandy-esque Professor Strock (the late, great Robert Quarry), the team wend their way into the well-lit subterrane and peregrinate for about an hour or so.
Fred Olen Ray’s The Phantom Empire is actually the second (quasi) remake of the 1935 serial of the same name. The first was on the 1979 NBC series “Cliffhangers!” (which is bafflingly unavailable on [legit] DVD; Hell, even “Tales of the Gold Monkey” received an official release). There, the story title was changed to “The Secret Empire,” but the heart of the story remained the same. Part of a portmanteau show, it shared its time spot with “Stop Susan Williams,” a conspiracy story which was an update on the old Perils Of Pauline serials and the Michael Nouri-starring “The Curse Of Dracula.” But the Weird Western story was my favorite, and the show did what it was designed to do; It kept me coming back every week. I haven’t seen the television show since it originally aired, but I did recently view a condensation of the original version of the “Empire” story, and aside from the plot device of making sure Gene Autry made it back to the Radio Ranch every episode to do his live show and the natural structure of the serial format (all peaks, no valleys), it’s not bad. Thankfully, Ray does acknowledge his influences with a passing line from the only cowgirl in the film, Eddy.
And since Mr. Ray clearly loves women (or certain parts of women at the absolute minimum), let’s talk for a moment about gender in this movie. The film exists in a man’s world. Eddy, Colt’s partner is masculinized almost to the point of actually being a man (I’m actually sort of surprised she never flatulates, eructates, expectorates, or micturates standing up). The same can be said of Sybil Danning’s Alien Queen, but she at least expresses a sexual interest in Andrew, despite her being physically superior to every man and woman in the cast. Yet as a sexual being, the Queen is dependent on machines, thus she is a direct threat to masculinity but is incapable of fulfilling her own sexual needs without artificial assistance and ergo, is incomplete. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Cave Bunny (Michelle Bauer), who is a sexual submissive in every aspect. She is busty, partially clothed, and cowers, constantly hoping to make the men (or at least Andrew) happy. Plus, she can’t speak, so there is no doubt left as to her fetishization as a perfect sexual receptacle for men.
Denae’s sexuality is closer to having an actual arc throughout the film, and I actually found it sort of interesting to follow it through. She begins the story as an ice queen, literally wearing furs. She is remote, controlling, and is only included in the male-dominated expedition because she has the money to fund it (in essence, a form of solicitation for sex because she cannot attract a man). Once she meets Andrew and enters the caverns, her sexuality is ignited. She still is unworthy of a man’s love, but she has been instilled with the desire to be so. The further into the Earth (read: womb) she travels, the hotter she literally becomes, until she reaches the center, where there is even an active volcano spewing lava into the air, the pinnacle of sexual release imagery in the film. The center of the Earth is also a prehistoric throwback, a complete delivery from the modern/society-enforced sexual norms and mores which have constrained her up to this point in her life. When she re-emerges from the vaginal cave opening and seals it with an orgasmic, climactic explosion, she is reborn in a more sexually normative (but not necessarily progressive) form. You know, if you’re looking for that type of thing in a film like this.
But let’s be honest with each other; I don’t believe anyone has ever watched a Fred Olen Ray film, nor do I believe that Mr. Ray has ever produced a film, with any intention other than to pass the time staring at the exploitable elements. This is cinema heaven-sent for the beer-and-pizza set, and there’s nothing wrong with that, in and of itself. However, a film needs to be entertaining, and the one thing this movie isn’t, at its heart, is entertaining. The characters seem to act however they have been written to in order to get any given scene from Point A to Point B (and the scenes themselves typically linger on for far too long in an obvious attempt at padding the runtime). Consequently, their behavior vacillates from being likable and heroic to being boorish and irritating at various points. You can argue that this sort of inconsistency provides the verisimilitude of greater depth, but really it’s just time passing by that you feel, and who wouldn’t prefer to be knocked out for a root canal?
MVT: the best thing about the film, aside from the pulchritude and tight jeans on display, is the stop-motion dinosaur effects which Ray lifted from the (equally drab) Planet Of The Dinosaurs. But at the very least, that film had the benefit of the skills of Doug Beswick and Jim Danforth. Fred Olen Ray apparently had a Starlog catalog and access to this stock footage.
Make Or Break: The Break is the monotony of the characters walking and running through the caverns ceaselessly. Not only does it make the whole affair drag on, but I literally started to recognize certain sections of the caves. It’s like a bad porn set, but made by nature rather than carpenters. Plus, the rocks have more personality than any of the characters standing next to them.
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