Friday, September 17, 2010

A Space Adventure For All Time

STARCRASH is a very difficult film to criticize. Not because it doesn’t have more than its fair share of faults, strictly speaking, but because it’s so lighthearted and spirited and bright and fun, you’d have to be a real crab to toss brickbats at it. It has swashbuckling robots, exploding spaceships, monstrous golems, Marjoe Gortner’s towering perm, the great Christopher Plummer (THE SOUND OF MUSIC) as the “Emperor of the Universe,” and, last but certainly not least, the fetching Caroline Munro in all her pulchritudinous splendor. I daresay that, warts and all, STARCRASH is as close to perfect science fiction entertainment as you can find.

The barely comprehensible storyline begins with space smuggler Stella Star (Munro) and her superpowered sidekick Akton (Gortner) fleeing through “hyperspace” (really cheap, animated squiggly lines) from lawmen Thor (a bald, blue-faced Robert Tessier) and Galactic Police Robot Elle (played by Judd Hamilton, Munro’s real-life husband), who speaks with a Texan (!) accent, courtesy of voice actor Hamilton Camp.

Although Stella and Akton are hailed as worthy adversaries, they’re startlingly easy to capture, and are sentenced by a silly-looking stop-motion-animated head (based on INVADERS FROM MARS) to long prison terms. Stella is forced into hard labor “feeding radium to the furnace,” which is actually dropping beach balls from a medical stretcher into a large hole in the ground.

Easily escaping and destroying the facility, Stella dashes through a grassy field, and is again captured by Thor and Elle. This time, though, it’s OK, since Thor and Elle have engineered her escape (although they couldn’t have judging from what we saw) on behalf of the Emperor of the Universe (a what-is-he-doing-here Plummer, who worked a day and a half at $10,000 per day).

Reunited with Akton, Stella is assigned by the Emperor to rescue his son Simon (David Hasselhoff—no kidding—who was on THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS at the time), whose ship crashlanded on one of three planets. To extend the running time to feature length, the search party doesn’t find him until they reach the third planet, which also is the home of the diabolical Count Zarth Arn (MANIAC’s Joe Spinell), whose dialogue sounds like Stan Lee’s Dr. Doom and wardrobe suspiciously resembles Darth Vader’s.

Cozzi (ALIEN CONTAMINATION) and co-screenwriter Nat Wachsberger (also the film’s producer) write themselves out of corners by giving the characters previously unmentioned superpowers and into others through an alarming lack of logic, characterization, and elementary school-level science. See Stella survive a night on the surface of a planet with a temperature of “thousands of degrees” below zero! See the Emperor’s warriors invade the Count’s spaceship (which is shaped like a giant hand, complete with flexing fingers!) by firing themselves inside torpedoes (!) through glass windows (!) onto the bridge! See Marjoe battle animated creatures using a lightsaber (!) that the Count’s crack security staff conveniently neglected to confiscate! Best of all, watch in amazement as the Emperor rescues our heroes with the ultimate deus ex machina, a green ray that “halts the flow of time!”

The visual effects are technically pretty lousy all around, although there are lots of them—chintzy plastic spaceship models (complete with hanging wires), cheap animation, blurry rear-screen projection, jiggery stop-motion. The outer space backgrounds resemble Christmas trees with their bright red, yellow, and blue “stars,” the “dogfights” are brisky and clumsy, and as for the makeup, Gortner and Hasselhoff wear as much mascara as Munro does.

It’s difficult to judge the performances, due to the crude dubbing and cringe-inducing dialogue, but I can’t imagine any other actors who could make STARCRASH better. You can’t really take your eyes off Munro, one of the sexiest women ever to appear in genre movies, anyway, thanks to a steady array of cleavage-baring leather bikinis. Gortner (BOBBIE JO AND THE OUTLAW) delivers another performance with the same goofy grin he always uses, a crazed Spinell flares his nostrils and spins his cape, and Hasselhoff just plain looks lonely and lost.

Don’t think I’m ripping STARCRASH, however. Nuh-uh, not at all. What’s glorious about STARCRASH is that, when viewed with the proper state of mind, it’s quite fun. The story becomes such a mess so early in the picture that you may as well give up trying to follow it, and go along with the goofy flow instead. Every few minutes, a new threat—an army of sexy Amazon warriors, a 50-foot robot with boobs, kung-fu-kicking cavemen, sword-wielding golems—is introduced that’s even funnier than the one that came before it. And every time Cozzi pulls another headscratching “plothole eraser” (for instance, at just the right time, it’s revealed that one character can see into the future, which, of course, explains why he lets himself be hit on the head and captured over and over again) out of his rear end, it’s so in-your-face audacious and shameful that you just gotta laugh.

Somehow, Cozzi or the Wachsberger brothers who produced STARCRASH convinced Bond-film veteran John Barry to do the score, which is very good and probably better than a film at this budget level deserves. After a successful international release, Roger Corman bought the rights, cut a few minutes out, hired AMERICAN GRAFFITI actress Candy Clark (!) to dub Caroline Munro’s voice, and released it through his New World Pictures.

Soon after its U.S. theatrical run, STARCRASH got onto television and VHS, but for more than twenty years, it was very difficult for American fans to see. Amazingly, Shout Factory bestowed upon audiences a sparkling 2-disc DVD and Blu-ray release in 2010. All the better to ogle the gorgeous Caroline Munro, as well as Roberto Piazzoli’s colorful cinematography and Armando Valcauda’s unconvincing but creative special effects.

Author Stephen Romano (SHOCK FESTIVAL), a big STARCRASH fan, really spearheaded the project and provides not one, but two audio commentary tracks. I listened to just one, the so-called scene-specific track, and Romano’s knowledge and enthusiasm shine through. Both Cozzi and Munro sit before Shout Factory’s cameras for lengthy interviews that cover the breadth of their careers. I wish Gortner and particularly Hasselhoff had participated, but I have no quibble with the job Shout Factory did.

The set also includes exclusive behind-the-scenes footage narrated by Romano, several STARCRASH trailers (one with commentary by Joe Dante, who edited New World’s original spot), deleted scenes, photo galleries, promotional art, deleted scenes, and even features dedicated to the film’s score and special effects. No doubt STARCRASH, as well as the rest of Shout Factory’s Roger Corman Cult Classics line, will reign as one of 2010’s best DVD releases.

1 comment:

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the review. I've wanted to see this movie for years but always put it off, waiting for a properly restored version to come out. (There was an Italian remaster a few years back, but too expensive and disappeared quick.) I just received my Blu Ray disc for "Star Crash" and can't wait to finally watch it -- I pre-ordered the thing so long ago I forgot I'd even ordered it!