Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Starcrash (1979): or, Eat It, Lucas

Let's be honest here--in the genre of bad b-movie horror, its subject matter's close proximity to the realm of nightmare coupled with artistic ineptitude and sometimes manic overenthusiasm on the part of its filmmakers makes for a high level of opportunity for out-and-out jaw-dropping goofiness. Wild curses, outlandish monsters, over-the-top explosions of blasphemy and blood--if not reined in by a filmmaker of impeccable taste and exquisite restraint (and as I think we've shown definitively by now, it almost NEVER is) it runs the risk of getting a bit silly. Sometimes that risk pays off, most of the time it doesn't, but it's always there, just like the nattering homeless man on the bus who thinks he's Mighty Mouse.

That said, when it comes to opportunities for sheer mind-melting kee-razy, bad horror's got NOTHING on bad sci-fi. For proof one need look no further than the ne plus ultra of out-of-control space-opera fantasy, 1979's epic intergalactic adventure Starcrash.

We open looking up at the undercarriage of a spaceship that scrolls slowly over us toward the horizon, the first of many Star Wars homages--did I say homages? I meant "rip-offs"--to come. The model spacecraft is rather impressive, and the filmmakers know it: they give us minute after minute of sloooow, loving close-ups of its surface, just so that the interested viewer can get a good look at the craftsmanship. Luxuriate in this leisurely, uneventful crawl--from here on out, it's nothing but frenetic, madcap action.

A legion of soldiers in some of the snazziest helmets this side of the Crab Nebula walk purposefully across a rather baffling spaceship interior set--walls of blinking lights, inexplicable free-standing masonry, an elevator that rather than going up and down simply rotates (like a revolving door, but without that pesky door part). There's some talk of locating a "Phantom Planet" in the Great Star Fields among the Haunted Stars, all very portentious if nonsensical. The ship approaches a lifeless wintry world--"Nothing but ice and snow--a barren desert of whiteness!"--when suddenly they become the victims of an unprovoked attack of disco lights! Unable to withstand the funk, the ship explodes! WHAT VILLAINY IS THIS?

Funk the Pain Away

The ensuing Lucasian text crawl--in French on my copy--does a little to elucidate the mystery. We learn helpfully that a baddie named Zarth Arn "REPEND TERREUR ET DESTRUCTION!", which, you know, can't be good. Thus informed (and strangely desirous of red wine and soft cheese), we launch into our story proper.

It turns out to be story of a pair of charismatic outlaws on the run from the Intergalactic Law, as wanted criminal/adventurer Stella Star (the lovely Caroline Munro in the Han Solo role, but with half the clothes) and child-evangelist turned interplanetary navigator Marjoe Gortner as her sidekick. (Marjoe's a fascinating character even apart from this--check out his wiki page for more.) They're on the run from Bald Bad-cop (character actor Robert Tessier, veteran of such classics as The Longest Yard and Fertilize the Blaspheming Bombshell) and his cybernetic assistant L (or perhaps, in French, "Elle"), a C3P0 stand-in with, inexplicably, a stereotypically Texan accent and a phobia of just about EVERYTHING. Who programmed THIS guy? Jumping into hyperspace, Stella and Marjoe temporarily elude their pursuers just long enough to find one of the escape launches from the ship that got funked up in the opening scene.

"It's called '2 Girls/1 Cup.' Just watch the screen, you'll love it."

A little should be said about Munro's acting here, which is pretty much PERFECT. She wears a constant expression of giddy, slightly manic intensity whose effect cannot be overstated. She really seems to be into it, whether running around in sub-Vampirella bathing suits and knee-boots or diving out an open window into the vacuum of space for an immediate spacewalk (in Weird Space Tales-inspired bubble-helmets). Here is an actress totally committed to her role, to a degree that is rare to see in movies of any genre. (Either that or she was totally fried on uppers. Still, the effect's the same.)

L and the Bald Cop overtake Stella just as she's exploring the launch and dragged before the Intergalactic Tribunal, where she and Marjoe are tried and sentenced by Oz the Great and Powerful (Brain-in-a-Vat version, with kung-fu tentacle accessories!). Stella is sentenced to break rocks on the Prison Planet, though she is not forced to relinquish her sexy vinyl outfits for a jumpsuit. In short order--and I mean SHORT order--she has instigated a prisoner revolt and is on the verge of escaping, when who should show up but...the Bald Cop and L! Don't these guys have anything ELSE to do?

If I only had a copyright lawyer.

But wait--they're not there to smack down the uprising! They pull her aboard ship and inform her that the Emperor of the First Circle of the Universe (Christopher Plummer in a TOTAL Oscar-baiting performance) wants to hire her and Marjoe to find his son the Prince, who was on the ship that asploded, which it turns out was looking for Count Zarth Arn's secret base. Why the Emperor didn't just request a prisoner transfer rather than staging a swashbuckling-style rescue is anyone's guess. Though judging by Plummer's costume, his character obviously has a thing for the dramatic gesture.

So L, Bald Cop, Stella and Marjoe take off into hyperspace to track down Zarth Arn's secret base, rescue the Prince, and make sure all's right with the universe--while presumably the Emperor and all his legions sit on their thumbs and wait to see what happens. Sounds like a universe-saving plan to me!

"Am I that transparent?"

There's so much goodness here, and the movie clips along at SUCH a breakneck pace, it'll be impossible to recount it all, but some things bear at least a cursory mention--for instance, a useful feature of Stella's Barbarella-riffic outfits: when she's walking around, hauling rocks on the prison planet or glaring intensely at evil overlords, her shiny shiny boots always have 4-inch heels. However, when she's kung-fu fighting or running for her life, the boots are suddenly FLATS! Retractable stilettos, people! An idea whose time has come! Also, somehow they determine that Zarth Arn is likely somewhere around "an unknown planet in the Haunted Stars, called Uragus!" Wait, it's unknown, but you have its NAME? THAT'S technology you can use!

Also, too much cannot be said about the lovable mechanical mug L. In addition to his gold-rush prospector accent and bothersome phobias, he's also programmed to be the movies official EXPOSITRON! Whenever a new development comes barelling at the viewer from outta NOWHERE (which is OFTEN), you can always count on L to sum it up for everyone with an exclamation and a snap-thrust of his gloved, pointed finger. "Look! It's the Imperial Flagship!" "The Emperor's here! That's his holographic image!" "That seems to be a planetary artifact!" And of course, my all time favorite: "LOOK! TWO AMAZONS ON HORSEBACK!"

Somehow their search for Zarth Vader leads the crew to an Amazon planet, where the Queen damages L and captures Stella, giving the director a chance to show lots of babes in fur bikinis before--mere SECONDS later--L recovers and rescues Stella. As they run out on the beach to await the pickup by Marjoe and Baldy, the movie suddenly stops being a Star Wars rip-off and starts a second career as a Ray Harryhausen rip-off! In an almost shot-for-shot remake of the Colossus sequence from Jason and the Argonauts, a giant bosomy robot menaces our heroes before being disabled, somehow, by the rescuing crew. Barbarella outfits, fur bikinis, and stop-motion Harryhausen goodness? COULD IT GET BETTER?

Has she lost her mind? Can she see, or is she blind?

The answer is YES, and it happens on the next planet they investigate (after a hastily drummed-up and resolved attempted mutiny by Bald Cop, who snuffs it, and some amazing developments in Marjoe's character, about which more in a minute), when after a fight with some TRAMPOLINE JUMPING CAVEMEN, Stella stumbles into a cave to find the Imperial Prince himself: DAVID HASSELHOFF! With his hair Aquanetted to a state of helmety perfection seldom seen in this or any galaxy, the Hoff introduces himself, tells everyone where the big weapon is, and soon enough they're off to fight Zarth Arn on his home field.

A word about the writing style at this point--you remember when you were a kid, and you'd be playing Star Wars or Superheroes in the back yard, and anything that popped into your head got slammed into the plot-line willy-nilly? Batman could suddenly fly, the Green Lantern created a sweet dune buggy with machine-gun headlights, and Lex Luthor suddenly reveals he's an alien from the past with six arms and an all-seeing eye up his butt? Well, THAT'S how the script for this movie was written. It has to be. There's no other explanation.

"Kiss me, you fool!"

Take for instance Marjoe. He's the navigator/sidekick at the beginning. Then, when Bald Cop goes bad, he's suddenly creating light sculptures in his hands and using un-heretofore-mentioned psychic powers to escape death. Then he DIES, but resurrects himself without trouble, and reveals he can see the future, but only a couple of minutes ahead. Then he pops up in the HOFF cave to fight cavement, and pulls a LIGHTSABER out of his ASS to go all Jedi on the Neanderthals! IT JUST DOESN'T STOP!

"And this is what a rectal polyp looks like!"

"Believe it or not--it's just me!"

And have I mentioned that Zarth Arn is played by Joe Spinell, of Maniac fame and in full irrepressible Noo Yawk accent? Well he is. And he's awesome.

Conquerin' like he's completely out of control

So there's a lot more wild and wooly plot developments before they get to ZarthWorld and start kicking ass proper, including two Golem-Bots who are also stop-motion clones of a Harryhausen creation, in this case the famous Skeleton Warriors (HOFF gets to do the Sindbad bit, obviously and awesomely). Zarth is about to unleash his Doomsday Weapon ("By sunset, I'll be the new Emperor!" SUNSET? In SPACE?) when suddenly Emperor Plummer reveals that he has the power TO HALT THE FLOW OF TIME! And he DOES! The device is defused, they chase Zarn back to his hand-shaped space station (sadly, it does NOT give the Emperor the finger before exploding--a real missed opportunity), and it all culminates in an actually rather well-realized space battle with predictable and TOTALLY satisfying results--i.e., the starship models go up in flames (SMOOOOKE IIIIN SPAAAAACE!), but the glue remains for sniffing.

Oh, and the Imperial forces crash into Zarth's ship--through GLASS WINDOWS--riding in GOLDEN TROJAN SUPPOSITORIES. Because this flick just never stops with the giving. And Plummer's tear-jerking concluding speech--pure, cheesy gold.

"Hey, has anyone seen BOB?"

Starcrash is absolutely one of the wackiest, most entertaining sci-fi/fantasy movies it has ever been my pleasure to see. Though it's padded a little toward the end, for most of the run-time it's nonstop, nonsensical action, with many LOL moments, some intense "acting" from the SMOKIN' HAWT Caroline Munro, and more insane plot developments than you can shake yer schwartz at. It's a must-be-seen-to-be-believed, and probably-not-even-then experience that a mad movie afficianado simply cannot, MUST not miss.

After a couple of weeks away, I have to say along with the inestimable robot companion L: "It's so nice to be turned on again!" Amen, brotherbot. Amen.

3 thumbs. See it.

"Why Vicar! I had NO IDEA!"


Tenebrous Kate said...

Were it not for the screen caps, I'd have thought you just magicked this movie out of the ether, scrabbling together a bunch of catch phrases designed solely to attract my attention (Child Preachers! Furkinis! Caroline Munro! Barbarella! Harryhausen monsters!). This sounds amazing--UH-MAZING, to use a wildly Noo Yawk accent (which is sadly disappearing now that the city is all safe 'n' stuff *sobs*).

Also, I think I've *seen* "Fertilize the Blaspheming Bombshell." And what I remember of it makes me think I should've been watching "Starcrash." I want this movie. BAD. I am shaking my fist at your superior film-fu! I mean, this appears to be Eurotrash and everything. I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN ABOUT THIS. I'm angry at myself and in awe of yoooou, dear sir. *bats eyelashes*

The Duke of DVD said...

My god, man! This movie just rocketed to the top of my must-watch priority list (overtaking Mini-Me's sex tape)!

Christopher Plummer AND The Hoff in one film, at the same time? How can the screen contain so much awesome?!

I can only surmise that by the end of this movie you were prostrate upon your velvet chaise, tongue protruding, your member semi-turgid after having delivered its salty load into the confines of your Underoos, wondering how soon you were going to be able to walk again.

Anonymous said...

Wow I must have this - and I also want to congratulate you Vicar for making me laugh the most I ever have while reading a film review. Now the people at work thing I really have lost it.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Kate: I've seen FtBB, and it's no great shakes, certainly not in the same quadrant of awesomeness as Starcrash...though it does have one of the most hilariously out-of-nowhere waterfall baths in cinema history. Still, skippable, esp. when Starcrash is yet to be seen!

Duke: Plummer was totally robbed of award consideration in this movie. I mean, his outfit ALONE should have got him international acclaim, and his regal earnestness and Time Lord abilities...well, how can you top that? I'll save you some time: you can't.

Absinthe: Glad I could contribute to your reputation for unhingedness! As for finding this gem...there are wormholes among the stars where it can be glimpsed, and even tractor-beamed down to earth. IYKWIM. Plus, I think Netflix has it. ;)

Anonymous said...

Every time I watch a bad Italian Sci-Fi movie, I like to watch Fellini's 8 1/2 again, and imagine that the movie I just watched is the movie that Marcello Mastroianni's character is trying to avoid making.

Inspector Winship said...

If only Plummer had a musical number in this his role might not have been so looked over. Did anyone else think that Hodges stole the ending of "Flash Gordon" from this film? You know the large-golden-slightly phallic- space-ship-crashes-through-huge glass-palace-windows-for-dramatic climax scene? Anyone? Or is it just me?

Kitty LeClaw said...

I think Iron Maiden should get that crazy-azz robot to come out and walk around all stiff-legged on stage for the next leg of their tour. Eddie could use a rest. Or, maybe a girlfriend? Emailing Bruce Dickinson now!!!

Seriously, though... I recognize the plot structure that you have noted, as I think it is the same one used in the Almighty Rock N' Roll Nightmare. The results can't help but be pleasing. Furthermore, David Hasselhoff in that much eye makeup is something that should be witnessed by everyone. The words "gratitude" and "Vicar" immediately come to mind.

Karswell said...

Caroline Munro in her outer space Vampirella outfit is one of the most ESSENTIAL "scream queen in crummy sci-fi movies" of all time.

Fred said...

Vicar, you didn't even mention that Elle was played by Caroline's then-husband Judd Hamilton, one of the founding members of Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds ("Don't Pull Your Love"). I got to know Caroline Munro a few years back through a mutual friend, the writer Steve Swires (who passed away two years ago). She is one of the nicest celebrities I've ever met, and even more beautiful in person. I think she still does the Chiller Theatre conventions from time to time.

As for Christopher Plummer, if he'd broken out a guitar and started singing Eidel Weiss, he would have clinched at least a David nomination (the Italian Oscar), although I don't think Luigi Cozzi had it in the budget to buy him a Golden Globe nomiation.

kindertrauma said...

The simpatico relationship between Munro and Spinell is a thing of great beauty. I want a box set of all their cinematic adventures together!

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