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Monday, June 28, 2021

"The Aftermath" and "Empire of the Dark" Capsule Reviews


This year’s Chattanooga Film Festival features The Aftermath and Empire of the Dark, the two directorial offerings of actor/director Steve Barkett.  While both films were apparently created with shoestring budgets, their lack of big studio effects is offset by guts, determination, and plenty of chutzpah.

Barkett’s first film, 1982’s The Aftermath, sees two astronauts —  Newman (Barkett) and Williams (Jim Danforth) — return to a post-apocalyptic Earth in which mutant cannibals and sadistic survivors roam the landscape ravaged by nuclear and biological weapons.  One group of survivors terrorizing the ruins of Los Angeles is led by Cutter, played by the late, great Sid Haig. Cutter’s crew roams the land snatching up women and children while killing the men, which doesn’t sit too well with Newman who has befriended a young boy named Christopher (Christopher Barkett) and taken him under his wing at the behest of a museum curator (Forrest J. Ackerman!) that he stumbles across. Newman, Williams, Christopher, and Sarah (Lynne Margulies) —  the latter of which saves Newman at one point — decide to strike at and eliminate Cutter and his crew.

Barkett does it all here, acting, directing, and producing all of it from his screenplay that was based on a story he wrote along with Stanley Livingstone (who is probably best known for playing Chip Douglas on TV’s My Three Sons).  The effects, while not all that good, far surpass what one would expect from such a low-budget feature, including some very impressive matte paintings of a ruined landscape. Of particular note is the music which evokes memories of B-movies from the ‘50s. At times it seems a bit out of place and even jarring, but for the most part it succeeds in distracting you from some of the film’s flaws. The acting is all pretty bad, except for Haig who brings Cutter to life  with an air of homicidal bravado, but clearly everyone is giving 110% and you can tell that the entire cast and crew are dedicated to the proceedings.  

It took Barkett nearly a decade to put on all of the hats he wore for The Aftermath, but in 1990 he finally did and Empire of the Dark was the result.  Once again, Barkett stars, this time as Richard Flynn, a cop-turned-private-detective. The love of Flynn’s life, Angela (Tera Hendrickson), tells him that she has decided to marry another man.  Sometime later, Flynn gets a call from Angela who is in trouble — she and her baby are to be sacrificed by a Satanic cult and Flynn, with only one bullet after making his way to her, must choose between saving her or the baby as both have knives poised above their heads held by the cult leader, Arkham (Richard Harrison) and the guy Angela married, Brian (Dan Speaker). Twenty years pass following Flynn’s choice (we’re not spoiling who he picked!), and there’s someone the press has dubbed “The Demon Slasher”  who is killing young women. It’s up to Flynn, Detective Eddie Green (Jay Richardson), and a figure from Flynn’s past to save the day.  Barkett and company are working from a much more involved script (written by Barkett of course) that involves plenty of action including shootouts, sword fights, fist fights, and a sort-of impressive giant stop-motion demon puppet. The preceding eight years were not spent honing his craft, but once again Barkett surpasses pure shlock and delivers a surprisingly engaging film.  Is this a good film? No. But that doesn’t matter because, as he managed to do with The Aftermath, everything somehow clicks into place.

The Aftermath and Empire of the Dark screen as part of Chattanooga Film Festival's 2021 virtual edition, which started on June 24th and runs through the 29th. For more information, visit https://www.chattfilmfest.org

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