BAD Versus "Bad": STARCRASH and The Films Of Larry Blamire

There are two types, to quote the theme song to Mystery Science Theater 3000, of “cheesy movies— the worst we can find”— the ones that don’t mean to be funny but end up thriving because of their sheer ineptitude and the ones that basically say “screw it— we know this is goofy but we’re having a good time.” 1979's Starcrash, released this week on DVD and Blu-Ray from Shout! Factory, is a prime example of the latter. 

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It’s clear that writer-director Luigi (Alien Contamination) Cozzi, credited here as “Lewis Coates," knows he’s not just ripping off Star Wars, the reason this movie, hustled into production in the summer of 1977, was made in the first place. The film is filled with so many rip-offs, er, “homages” to sci-fi staples from Buck Rogers to Barbarella to Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion fantasy films that you have to stop counting after awhile. A lengthy interview with the genial Cozzi, now an independent publisher and proprietor of director Dario Argento’s “Profundo Rosso” horror-memorabilia store in Rome, insists that he already had the idea for a female-driven, Flash Gordon-esque space opera but with the impeding release of George Lucas’ epic, was given a green-light on the project by father-and-son producers Nat and Patrick Wachsberger, and told “to make it more like Star Wars.”

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Well, full of lightsaber-wielding heroes and “hyperspace,” it’s very much like Star Wars— the film even opens with a the slow, ominous pass-over of a giant space cruiser. But Cozzi soon shifts gears and throws us into a wild mish-mash of tones and styles that never even remotely gel— subplots are thrown in and discarded without much reason, characters are suddenly imbued with superpowers when it’s convenient for them to do so,  and we’re never sure exactly what are the motivations of either the Emperor or his nemesis, the evil Count Zarth Arm. When you realize that the Emperor is played by a slumming Christopher Plummer (hired for 3 days at the cost of $10,000 a day) and Count Zarth Arm by, of all people, greasy, pock-marked ‘70’s character actor Joe Spinnell (Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Maniac), you know that sitting through Starcrash is going to be… well, an experience at least.

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Starcrash might be a dog, but at least it’s a fun ride— half of the time unintentionally. The never-more-stunning Caroline Munro plays intergalactic smuggler Stella Star, who accompanied by sidekick Akton (one-time child preacher Marjoe Gortner), is arrested, put on trial by a stop-motion animated head right out of Invaders From Mars, and sent to a labor camp by bad guy alien Robert Tessier from The Longest Yard. Tessier — whose green-face make-up doesn’t extend to his neckline —ends up rescuing both of them to help the Emperor find his son, played by none other than David Hasselhoff, whose eyeliner practically matches Munro’s. Make sense? No? And this is before Munro and cowboy-slang-speaking robot Elle (played by Munro’s real-life husband, Judd Hamilton) find themselves stuck on a two separate planets— one a desert seascape full of Amazonian beauties and “Red Warriors” (guys on red-painted horses) where they face a tall metal statue that’s a lift, er, “homage” to Ray Harryhausen’s Talos in Jason And The Argonauts; the other, a frigid planet where Stella is frozen “thousands of degrees below zero,” which here apparently means that she’s been covered in about three inches of snow.

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The story doesn’t make any sense and goes down easier if you don’t actively try to piece it together.  When, after a lengthy and silly space-battle sequence involving men being catapulted through the glass windows of a Zarth Arm’s giant-hand-shaped spaceship via hollow torpedo casings (you read that right), The Emperor decides to end things using a time-halting energy beam, you might actually have an aneurysm trying to figure out why he didn’t just do that in the first place. It doesn’t help that Christopher Plummer’s overly-placid expression makes you feel like he’s high the entire time, though that might explain why he took the job in the first place.

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The effects are bargain-basement cheap — “hyperspace” seems to be a primitive computer-graphics swirl and the ugly, ungainly spaceship models are so brightly photographed that they look like they came out of an Aurora Model Kit box — and the dogfight battle sequences clearly achieved by stringing some models on often-visible wires and letting them go. There’s not much that can be said about the acting— Plummer seems baked, Marjoe Gortner mugs the entire time and the rest of the cast has been overdubbed for some reason, even the English-speaking leads. One-time James Bond villainess Munro’s elegant British tones were replaced by Candy (American Graffiti) Clark at the behest of American distributor Roger Corman, who also trimmed five minutes out of the piece to “tighten” it up.

   

But all of these cheap elements are part-and-parcel of why the film is so much fun. If it were more professionally-assembled, it would be significantly more of a chore to lumber through. The production design and Roberto Piazzoli’s cinematography are both beautiful and colorful and the piece, oddly enough, is graced by a gorgeous score by John Barry that sounds a bit like a riff from his soundtrack to Moonraker, the James Bond entry that followed this film’s release in early 1979. But everything else about Starcrash, as Bart Simpson would say, is “craptastic.” This isn’t an insult, mind you; everything, from the garish lighting to Munro’s incredibly skimpy costumes, is so over-the-top that it’s hard to imagine anyone not having a good time with this material.

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For years, Starcrash hasn’t been available— there was a VHS release in the early ‘80s, but it’s been out-of-print for decades, which only served to heigten the film's cult status to the likes of people like me, who begged our hapless parents to take us to obvious Star Wars knock-offs such as this and the Japanese Message From Space (my folks held out). Shout! Factory has remedied this with a beautiful HD transfer of the film, complete with a thunderous DTS-HD soundtrack which emphasizes the John Barry score. As usual, Shout! Factory puts practically every other DVD-producer to shame with their abundant special features, including two (!) commentaries by author and Starcrash obsessive Stephen Romano, over a half hour of deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes stills, trailers (with commentaries by Corman editor Joe Dante, who cut the spot, and Starcrash aficionado Eli Roth) and lengthy interviews with both the genial Cozzi and the still-beautiful Munro, who now looks a bit like Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders.

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There’s another kind of “bad”— the self-conscious kind. Indie filmmaker Larry Blamire has developed a cottage industry around his old-fashioned movie parodies; his films, such as the recent Dark And Stormy Night and The Lost Skeleton Returns Again, aren’t straight pop-culture riffs like Scary Movie, Superhero Movie, etc., but rather gentle, appreciative jabs at creaky, well-worn genres— 2001’s cult favorite The Lost Skeleton Of Cadavra  is essentially an Ed Wood sci-fi thriller made even more ridiculous by Blamire’s funny, deliberately on-the-nose dialogue, authentically goofy special effects and his very game ensemble cast, all playing characters with the most ridiculous names ever.

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The Lost Skeleton Of Cadavra did well in limited theatrical release and on DVD, but his parody follow-up, 2007’s Trail Of The Screaming Forehead, with essentially the same cast and crew (including the late Kevin McCarthy), failed to garner a DVD release by distributor IFC. While it’s unfortunate that his next two films, The Lost Skeleton Returns Again and Dark And Stormy Night, have been relegated to festival screenings only, Shout! Factory has just released both of them on DVD in snazzy special editions. Neither reach the comic highs of the first Lost Skeleton, but both are amusing and worthwhile.

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The Lost Skeleton Returns Again picks up three years after the events of the first film — which detailed an alien visitation that dovetails with the resurrection of the murderous “Lost Skeleton” — and nice-guy scientist Paul Armstrong (Blamire) has found himself depressed and stuck in a bottle in South America. Doting wife Betty (Fay Masterson, Eyes Wide Shut) travels to see him, only to get caught up in the search for the strange element “Geranium” and the return of the Lost Skeleton’s skull, who’s also after the substance. Blamire satirizes jungle epics this time out and there are plenty of laughs, particularly the scenes involving the diabolical, sarcastic Lost Skeleton and “Animala,” a slinky siren played by Blamire’s wife Jennifer Blaire. Some of the gags run on too long — the subplot involving the “Cantaloupe People” stops the story cold — but the material is still affectionate and fun and the monster-FX work by the Chiodo Brothers (Killer Klowns From Outer Space) is appropriately wild and broad.

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Dark And Stormy Night showcases a few good laughs, but this parody of the “Old Dark House” stories popular in the 1930s isn’t as sharp or funny as either of the Lost Skeleton  projects. Part of this is due to the fact that the genre doesn’t open itself up to satire as easily— and that the movie feels self-consciously old-timey. Blamire uses his ensemble — Andrew Parks, Brian Howe, Dan Conroy, Susan McConnell— and spices it up with the likes of Daniel ("Lost") Roebuck, Jim ("Deadwood") Beaver and James (Poltergeist) Karen to good effect, but the material plods in spots where it should sing. The plotting is a bit cumbersome — Blamire’s own character sticks out like a sore thumb — and the constant whiplash dialogue sparring between reporters 8 O’Clock Farraday (Roebuck) and Billy Tuesday (Blaire) grows wearying. But the material is still fun. It’s hard not to like a project so affectionate to the material it’s parodying— not to mention one featuring veteran sci-fi spokesman, collector and gorilla-suit-wearer Bob Burns as “Kogar The Ape.”

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Both Blamire films were shot on HD video in color and converted to black-and-white in post. Unfortunately, something seems to have gone slightly awry in the mastering process, with combing and stair-step artifacting visible— even from six-ten feet back, you can notice lines and “jaggies” on the edges of clothes, objects, etc. Each disc contains a fun cast commentary track, a making-of featurette and a gag reel. Neither film is as over-the-top crazy as Starcrash, but it’s hard to imagine anything could be.

 

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