Monday, October 6, 2008

Laserblast (1978): or, In the Time of the Turtle Lords

As disheartening as it is to rewatch a movie you loved as a kid only to find that the passage of years has exposed its ineptitude and stupidity to such a degree that you can no longer consider yourself a fan, it's exactly that awesome when you find that such a movie has grown even more entertaining and enjoyable now that you have more sophisticated tastes, a driver's license, and hair on your unmentionables. I was afforded just such an ecstatic discovery this week when I set my adult eyes on a much-loved but barely remembered movie from my youth, 1978's science-fiction/horror/ASPLOSION-fest, Laserblast.

The first and last time I saw this movie prior to my happy rediscovery was probably around the time of its initial release, at the storied UA Four Cinema in Southwest Little Rock. While my harried, sainted mother shopped in the small mall next door, my older brother and the seven-or-eight-year-old Vicar plopped down our cash to see this PG-rated flick, probably based solely on that awesome poster. I remember little of that experience, except being frightened by the alien killing machine the protagonist became, wowed by the special effects and explosions, and generally happy with the way I'd disbursed my ducats for the day. Coming back to it as an adult, I enjoyed all the same things, in different but no-less awesome ways.

I like it when a movie doesn't waste any time, and say what you will about Laserblast, it's certainly no dawdler. We open on a scrub brush-littered wasteland, which we soon learn is the outskirts of a small town in rural California. From a distance we see a lone figure loping across the desolate plain--possibly an unfortunate homeless person trapped in the unforgiving grip of a spiteful Mother Nature. Wait, nope--it's a HUMANOID ALIEN MONSTER. We know he's a monster because of his clammy green skin, his impossibly jutting cheekbones and brow ridges, and by the fact that he has a FREAKIN' LASER CANNON FOR AN ARM! Less than three minutes in and already my childish glee was reawakened--I sat on the edge of my ottoman, fanning myself vigorously, impatiently waiting for What Came Next.

And was it worth the wait! Out of the sky comes an eerily quiet spaceship, courtesy the kind of matte work you just don't see anymore. It lands, the hatch opens, and out of the ship come two alien warriors--in the form of OMG TOTALLY AWESOME STOP-MOTION SHELL-LESS TURTLE PEOPLE! The pursued alien fires his awesome sidearm at the Tortoise Gods, but they get the drop on him and incinerate him to a pile of man-shaped ash. Laser duels, stop-motion goodness, and Kickin' a Death War of the Worlds-style? You're setting the bar high, Laserblast!

"Eat hot death ray, monkey-boy."

(Later I found myself wondering just where our alien laser man had come from--he obviously didn't ride in with the turtles, and no crashed spaceship or escape pod of his is ever found. Sadly, the secret of his method of interstellar travel died with him.)

The aliens are about to collect the laser cannon and its accompanying necklace, which were completely unaffected by their death rays--when a small-engine Cessna buzzes by and makes them all skittish. They scurry back the the ship, leaving this dangerous alien technology just lying there in the desert where any brainless schlub could come along and grab it.

That brainless schlub is Billy Duncan, our protagonist. Though Billy is a handsome, muscular blonde with "high school football-hero" practically tattooed across his tanned, hairless pecs, his macrame rug and Led Zeppelin poster announce him immediately as a disaffected youth of the most tragic sort. He hears an odd noise outside, and after yanking on some incredibly tight jeans with practiced ease (but not bothering to cover his masculine frame with a shirt), he ambles outside where a middle-aged woman in tight pants is packing up the car with suitcases.

Billy says not a word, but stares sullenly and accusatively at the woman's tight buns until she starts to feel uncomfortable and turns around. It's some time before Billy says a word and lets us in on the secret that the woman is not his lover, but his MOTHER, leaving for a getaway to Acapulco with her swinger friends. Billy's angry eyes and blank expression let us know he resents his mother's desperate-to-stay-young attitude, and feels short-shifted by her eagerness to go to Acapulco instead of staying home and fixing breakfast for HIS sullen ass. Mom leaves and Billy is on his own, again, unloved and misunderstood by the world he's growing to hate.

*sings* "Why should I cover my chest with a shirt,
When nothing I put on can cover the hurt,
That I feel Insiiiiiiiide...."

Grabbing a shirt (but pointedly NOT putting it on), Billy gets in his BITCHIN' van--Bigfoot tracks painted on the side, awesome prog rock on the 8-track--and heads into town. Finally be-shirted...but NOT buttoning it up, thank you...he goes to visit "The Colonel," a PTSD sufferer whose granddaughter Kathy is Billy's main squeeze. The Colonel spouts some conspiracy theories about the nearby military base and "Operation SAND-DUST" (seriously? That's the best you could do?) before letting slip that Kathy's not home. Billy leaves in an open-shirted huff, thwarted again in his quest for love.

Though everything has been fairly straight-forward and dramatic up until this point, in the next sequence Director Michael Rae takes a hard turn into broad comedy by introducing Deputies Pete Ungar and Jesse Jeep, or as I like to call them, Porkchop McNeckbeard and Ichabod Crane. We first meet them exchanging comical banter while smoking some confiscated marijuana, and of course when Billy goes speeding by in his van they're quickly on his trail, forcing him off the road and then doing some vehicular slapstick to the tune of some jarringly clownish score music. After Porkchop gives him a ticket for speeding and some Macon County-worthy country lawman threats for no reason, Billy drives away and the cops follow suit only to cause an AMAZING car accident by way of comical comeuppance.

The broad comedy continues at the gas station, where Billy runs into his rival pretty boy Chuck Boran and Chuck's sidekick Froggy, played by distinctive annoying-nerd character actor Eddie Deezen, who is like a white Steve Urkel with half the rakish charm. (This is the kind of pairing that ONLY takes place in movies, as IRL vain bully Chuck would only interact with an uber-dweeb like Froggy by hanging him from a hatrack by his underwear.) Froggy talks smack about Billy's van, and the Odd Couple challenge him to a race. Billy accepts the challenge, but is thwarted YET AGAIN when his mean machine fails to start and he can't answer the bell. His mom gone, his girlfriend MIA, his manhood impugned and even his VAN a traitor, Billy's free-floating angst and resentment are obviously coalescing into something much more dangerous, needing only the proper catalyst to turn deadly.

Porkchop and Ichabod--Protecting and Serving

Once he gets the van started, Billy drives out into the wilderness where he just HAPPENS to find the laser cannon and necklace. What are the chances, huh? After some joyful childlike posing with the weapon--hearkening perhaps to the lost innocence that Billy yearns for?--he discovers that the strange necklace acts as a safety device--the cannon will not fire unless its wielder also holds the necklace. Billy begins blowing up cacti, coke bottles, and anything else he can find on the horizon, treating us to some old-school laser animation and our first glimpse of the film's ASTOUNDING pyrotechnics budget. Seriously, if you like explosions--and who doesn't, eh?--this is the movie for you.

After a strange interlude where a snooty, sharp-suited guy with big evil hair and a briefcase is rude to a gas station attendant (the guy might as well have "HOTSHOT GOVERNMENT AGENT" spray-painted across his back), we finally meet Kathy, Billy's longsuffering girlfriend, riding her moped toward a campsite rendezvous with her newly empowered boyfriend. Billy has prepared a candlelight lunch (?), and soon they're reclining on a blanket behind the van, looking up at the sky and getting philosophical.

Kathy is nothing if not a supportive girlfriend. Noting Billy's angst, Kathy offers some helpful advice--"Oh Billy, can't you be more ordinary?" If I had a dime, I tell you. Later Kathy waxes poetic looking heavenward. "You and me and the's like a cup! A giant cup!" "Yeah," Billy spits back, "and we're the dregs!" Oh Billy, you're so unhappy. If only you could be ordinary... Kathy notices a burn mark on Billy's chest--one of the first and least of the gun's side effects--but he brushes her off and she's remarkably incurious afterwards, even though it looks like a giant herpes sore. Maybe Billy has an STD of the heart...

Billy would soon learn the dangers of messing with the Penis Pump of the Turtle Lords

Meanwhile, in space, the alien turtle warriors are monitoring the situation and reporting back the their Lord High Tortoise. The stop motion on these guys is great, and in fact their whole culture seems more than usually thought out for low-budget sci-fi, as everything from gesture-activated control panels to differences in raiment for class and rank are in effect. (The High Commander wears gold gloves, for instance.) Their language is great too--Rae wisely does NOT have them speaking English, nor are they subtitled--and they sound like nothing so much as Peanuts' Woodstock on growth hormone. Really, these guys light up the screen every time they're on. More aliens == more better.

Unfortunately we eventually have to return to earth, where the Snooty Dude continues his investigation and Billy and Kathy head out to friend Frannie's birthday pool party! It's a 1970s flesh-bonanza here, as everyone's in a bikini and most wear them well. While Billy lazes by the pool in bronzed blond lethargy, Chuck and Froggy take over the barbecue grill for more WACKY COMEDY. "Wouldn't Chuck like to give YOU his red hot franks!" Chuck says in the third person to a passing sexpot; when she rejects him, he pushes her into the swimming pool, like you do. We even get some side-boob topless slapstick, which I'm sure I appreciate now more than when I was 8.

Birthday girl Frannie suspects that her guests don't really like her, and no wonder, since instead of tunes she's blasting an NPR special on the effects of radioactive fallout! "They say cake is bad for me," Frannie ponders, "But what about radiation?" Well, since you put it that way, give me another slice. Meanwhile Billy--who has YET to close his shirt--goes looking for Kathy only to find her in Frannie's basement, where Froggy and Chuck are in mid-sexual assault! A fight ensues, with another odd mixture of seriousness and slapstick (note to Rae--rapes aren't usually considered comedic goldmines), and Chuck and Froggy beat Billy's ass and leave him an angry, helpless shell. He did save his girlfriend from those rampant hot franks, though, so at least there's that.

"See, the 'frank' is my penis! Yageddit?"

It has to be said that the acting in the movie is pretty terrible across the board. Kathy and Billy have the chemistry of a naked mole rat on a damp sponge, though in their defense the script doesn't do them any favors. The other actors seem to play their roles as if they're in a Marx Brothers movie, even when forcing themselves on struggling women or, later, engaging in casual and unprovoked police brutality. SOMEBODY might think all this is a hoot, but it's definitely NOT the audience. And since there's nothing more painful than unfunny comedy, the pacing suffers as Rae hammers again and again at easy innuendo (Sheriff, to speed-typing secretary: "Liz, what are you doing, typing a novel?" Liz, with a smirk in her voice, "Just BANGIN' AWAY as usual, Sir!") or poorly choreographed pratfalls.

Luckily, though, all that's about to change: later that night, an enraged Billy Gets His Gun. He returns to the scene of the crime, armed with the laser and wearing the necklace, which now shows its OTHER side effect: turning Billy into a hulked-out alien beast! Whether this is a feature of the technology or some comment on how violence turns men into monsters I can't say, but with a single shot the Billy-Thing destroys Chuck's pride-and-joy muscle car, though strangely he leaves Chuck and Froggy alive. This is the first of SEVERAL exploding car scenes in the movie, and they're all good ones--pillars of flame, slow-motion replays from several angles, the camera lingering on the charred husk of the car as it's nicely done, and Rae gives it to us again and again, as you'll soon see.

From here on out the pacing picks up quite a bit, as Billy becomes more and more enthralled by the awesome power fate has strapped to his arm. The Snooty Agent guy seals off the town and takes control of the Sheriff's office, though if you're waiting to find out how he knows about the cannon and why it's such a threat that they have to lock things down Return of the Living Dead-style, don't hold your breath. Concerned by the sore on his chest, Billy visits town physician Dr. Mellon, played by a game-but-slumming Roddy McDowall! Dr. Roddy discovers that the sore has an inorganic metallic covering, and decides to take it to the next town himself that night for analysis--however, before he can get there the Billy-Thing blows him off the road (That's 2! 2 Blowed-Up Cars!), making the veteran actor's role surprisingly brief. Chuck and Froggy live, but Roddy dies? Where's the justice? (Note: I presume somewhere on the salary balance sheet.)

"Now wait a minute, Billy--she did WHAT on your chest?"

Billy's scab survives the fiery cataclysm, however, and the Snooty Dude takes it to the lab himself and learns that not only is it NOT OF THIS EARTH, but it's also GROWING! A fascinating subplot, but if you're waiting for it to pan out, like, AT ALL--well, see my advice above.

The rest of the movie is pretty much ALL RAMPAGE, as Billy retaliates against Porkchop McNeckbeard and Ichabod for the aforementioned brutality (3 blowed-up cars!), commits a random act of violence against a pinball machine (1 blowed-up arcade game!), gets strafed by county snipers and won't go down (1 blowed-up airplane!), and FINALLY catches up with Froggy and Chuck in Chuck's new ride and puts them out of our misery (4! 4 blowed-up cars! Ah ah ah!).

The Tortoise Lords find the charred remains of Chucks car (which apparently NO ONE in town noticed, despite the HUGE EXPLOSION) and get on his trail, leading Billy to hitch a ride with a tripped-out hippie in a VW van to an abandoned studio backlot city set where the final confrontation takes place.


If I can say anything about Director Rae's visual style, apart from his fetishistic love of MASSIVE EXPLOSIONS, is that he is also ALL ABOUT THE MONTAGE. Along the way we get a well-done "Roddy Preps and Removes Billy's Scab" montage, a "SCIENCE" montage as the lab analyzes Billy's scab, and a touching "first sex with Kathy" montage done all with extreme close-ups of lip locks and back massage ("How different it all looks, Billy!" Kathy enthuses post-coitally--what, you mean now it's NOT like a giant cup?). The Billy-Thing's battles are all done distinctively as well, usually with close-ups on the Thing's toothy maw in mid-barbaric yawp and then a cut to one of Rae's trademark explosions. It's cheap and tacky, sure, but through sheer repetition it achieves a kind of clumsy poetry, a use of moving image as symbol that hearkens back to the visionary directors of...ah, screw it. It's crappy.

Still, I found myself grinning like a kid when Billy shows up in the COMPLETELY incongruous abandoned city and spends some time vandalizing a mailbox (BOOM!) ANOTHER parked car (KABAM!), a billboard advertising Star Wars (META-BLAST!), an old-style wooden newspaper stand (KERBLOOIE!), and yet another mailbox (RETURN TO SENDAH!). Not long after that Kathy shows up with the authorities just in time to witness a DEUS EX HARRYHAUSEN, as the aliens show up above the skyline (they were spooked by a Cessna but they have no problem hovering over a city block?) and unceremoniously zap Billy back to normal, but dead.


I know that Laserblast was given the full famous treatment by the guys at MST3K, but this is another of those situations where I feel such skewering is really unnecessary. Laserblast is a fun trip from one end to the other, chock full of entertainingly bad acting, surprisingly good effects, and enough loose ends to make a macrame rug out of. Perpetually bare-chested Kim Milford as Billy is the picture of sullen vapidity--except for the scenes where he's loping across the desert in alien killing-machine mode, at which point I defy you to mock his enthusiasm and energy. The makeup on the Billy-Thing is great and gets a lot of screen time, and the stop-motion Turtle Lords would be a highlight in any sci-fi joint. It's not a perfect movie--not even close--but it IS entertaining and left me with a smile on my face, so it passes the acid-test for inspiring Vicar Joy. 2.5 thumbs for this slice of 70s cheese. You won't need the Satellite of Love to have fun with this one.

In Memoriam a Billy
Bare-Chested and Unbeaten


Tenebrous Kate said...

That poster is magnificent.

I've never seen this movie sans-MST3K accompaniment, but I do remember thinking that this one didn't seem to need robot snarking to make it a palatable funfest. Funny you should mention "Mystery Science Theatre 3000" here, as I've always thought the approach you and the Duke take to be a more gleeful, enthusiastic answer to that show :)

The Duke of DVD said...

I have to echo Frau Tenebrous here and first say that this movie poster belongs on my wall. Not only does it have blasting lasers, but also depicts a hero who resembles Mark Hamill after a 5 day heroin binge.

Fantastic review, as usual, dearest Vicar. Between the Sesame St. Count-counting and Porkchop McNeckbeard, I was guffawing with startling regularity.

I'll add this to the mammoth pile of movies that I like to call "Movies I'll Watch Whenever I Have A Moment Between Hedonistic Activities".

Mr. Karswell said...

Another one I haven't seen since the early dawn days of VHS invention--- you're rekindlin' my yoot!

Also, an MST3K skewering of any film is always unnecessary. I'm continually surprised people think that shit is funny... I could sit around with my comatose grandma and come up with funnier cracks than they ever did.

Fred said...

I'd almost forgotten this one. We used to watch this and its ilk (The Incredible Melting Man, Battle Beyond the Stars, The Dark) on late night HBO when I was in High School. Brings back some good memories of times wasted. As for the Led Zeppelin/macrame ensemble, I just don't get it, since macrame was more for Jackson Browne fans. I think a faux leopard or tiger print rug would have been more fitting.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Empress--thanks for the complement! As everyone knows, for the Duke and me there's nothing but love for these wonderful, glorious failures. They're reaching for the stars, AND providing stop-motion Tortoise Gods! How can you NOT love them?

Karswell--I admit that I like some of the MST3K stuff--a great deal of it actually, especially their commentary on short subjects from the 50s and such. I even like the MST3K Movie, which takes on This Island Earth, once again a movie that can easily stand up on its own.

But sometimes I just feel that the snark overwhelms the love and joy that the movies provide, as in this one. Still, I'll eventually check out their commentary, if only to complete my education.

Fred--it may not be true macrame, but that was the closest adjective I could come up with. And besides, Billy is meant to be a confused, frustrated kid, so perhaps his joint Zep/Jackson Brown decor reflects that deep psychological disturbance. ;)

Matt Bradshaw said...

Really enjoyed this review and I will do all within my power to make sure the phrase "DEUS EX HARRYHAUSEN" enters into commmon usage.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Glad you liked it, Matt! And thanks for your resolve. I kind of live for the day I hear some kid on the street utter a phrase coined on Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies, or else see The Duke or the Vicar quoted on the back of a DVD case. :) With your help, THIS DAY WILL COME!

palmerpink said...

Hope y'all don't mind I linked to your post in my own review of this most glorious movie, haha. Naturally I have a somewhat different take on the movie (The coming of age story of a young closetted gay man struggling to find his identity in a sea of rejection; also, lasers.), but I loved yours immensely. "Turtlelords" totally made my day :)

You know something else, until I read this post I didn't even know there was an MST of this movie. FML, i grew up with that show, it taught me how to really love a tearing it a new one, haha. Someday I'll have to find it in my monster (pirated) collection of MST3k's and check it out. Someday, heh.

Anyway, I'm definitely subscribing to you guys--I honestly don't have anyone to talk about bad movies with; I sit around heckling them by myself...--so it'll almost be like having friends! Yay! XD

Hope y'all are well,

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