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Starcrash Review

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by Chris McEneany Sep 11, 2010

    Starcrash Review

    “It's so nice to be turned on again!”

    I’ve got to say that my eyes lit up when I first saw this title appearing on the release schedule. Caroline Munro getting flung into a warped space adventure that is merely an excuse for her to parade about in some jaw-droppingly skimpy gear, flaunting her wares for the entire galaxy to drool over was exactly the sort of thing that a growing boy needed. And back in the early 80’s when this became available on home video, it fast attained some cult kudos with legions of equally smitten teens whose hormones were going collectively supernova. Caroline Munro, sultry brunette beauty from a couple of Hammer vamp-chillers, the utterly exotic maiden from The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad and the glamorous femme fatale from The Spy Who Loved Me, was the very embodiment of pure, unbridled sex appeal, her dark eyes and incredibly curvy body easily placing her right there alongside (well, some way ahead of, if I'm honest) her genre pin-up friend Ingrid Pitt. Supremely gorgeous and a sure-fire fantasy-film icon, it was only a matter of time before some enterprising, trouser-twitching filmmaker found the perfect vehicle to make her a megastar. Well, that was the plan, anyway.

    So now, continuing the excellent series of Roger Corman Cult Classics finding their way to Blu-ray, we have Luigi Cozzi’s logic-defying, plot-ignoring, thigh-flashing, retina-scorching Starcrash from 1978. We’ve already looked comprehensively at Death Race 2000, Forbidden World, Galaxy Of Terror, Piranha and Humanoids From The Deep (see separate BD reviews for each), and whilst we still await the greater glory of Battle Beyond The Stars, it is high-time that we returned to explore the flesh-revealing space-opera that sees galactic secret agent, Stella Star (the super-hot Caroline Munro) as she takes on the villainous might of Count Zarth Arn (regular co-star Joe Spinell) and wrestles with Amazon women, giant stop-motion robots, sizzling laser-bolts and all manner of shonky visual effects in a valiant and and enjoyably hokey attempt to save the universe. This truly lavish package from Shout Factory is a typically boisterous affair that bestows another B-grade (well, to be fair, I don't think that the alphabet goes quite far enough to award this film an appropriate grade!) with possibly more love and attention than many fans would ever have dreamed possible.

    The clear inspiration for Luigi Cozzi was Roger Vadim’s Barbarella and, more obviously, the massive success of Star Wars. The potential for a coupling of these two cult SF outings must have been (and still is, for that matter) an irresistible beacon in an overstuffed genre. With typical multi-national aplomb, the Italians were the first to capitalise on this potential, gathering their cast from around the globe, pilfering copious elements from Lucas' film and the sheer testosterone-rousing, loins-stirring feminine splendour that Jane Fonda had so perfectly brought to the screen with her adorable space-vixen. With Caroline Munro's honed and toned body splashed all over the poster and the promise of lots of intense galactic action, Cozzi (under his US-sounding pseudonym of Lewis Coates) worked from his own story, devised alongside producers Nat and Patrick Wachsberger, and knew that he should follow only a couple of rules. Be outlandish. And stop for nothing. Whether his cast or his audience understood exactly what the point of this planet-hopping adventure was, was completely irrelevant. Cozzi, as a showman, was just taking everyone along for a ride. He didn't care one iota about the mythology that Lucas had crafted, he had just been smitten by laser-beams, explosions, spacecraft and colour. He didn't much care for the satire of Barbarella either, but he sure as hell understood that if his special effects didn't excite the punters then his leading lady simply had to. So, I would like you all to join me in cheering the little Italian filmmaker for adhering so rigidly to those rules and giving us the ultimate Caroline Munro show! The world is definitely a better place because of it.

    Okay, calm down now, gents. We need to focus.

    Now, you simply won’t get a bigger fan of Caroline Munro than me. Through the Hammer days (Dracula AD 1972, Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter), a couple of Dr. Phibes tales, The Spy Who Loved Me, the Goody-Two-Shoes pop video from Adam and the Ants (“You don't drink, don't smoke … what do you do?”), The Last Horror Film and Maniac, and even every damn episode of the quiz show 3-2-1 that featured her as the hostess alongside Ted Rogers and Dusty Bin (which I still have on tape!), I have worshipped the ground she walks on. I’ve even made a complete fool of myself on at least two occasions when I have met her at film conventions. With absolute decorum and sheer professionalism, and a kind word of sympathy, she even managed to step over the sea of a 1000 plastic action-figure stands I had been selling that I accidentally cascaded at her feet in a moment of fate-induced clumsiness! But, and we need to be brutally honest about this, she is not a good actress. At all. Her best turn, for me, was probably in Hammer’s awesome Captain Kronos when she made for a very convincing medieval wench-cum-bubble-head. Here, as the space-babe equivalent of Han Solo, she has her largest ever role and the opportunity to really chew up the colourful scenery and spit it back out with relish, but apart from her phenomenal and inarguably strong physical presence, her performance is quite underwhelming. Although for an exploitation flick like this, real acting-chops aren’t important, but even her most devout fans and ardent admirers must have expected something more from the bombshell. You can't avoid the impression that everyone around her was simply in awe of her and would have applauded her every scene even if she had simply fallen over or thrown up with nerves all over the set. But this is hardly a vital aspect in a film that posits her as an ace pilot, a canny smuggler, a spy and a revolutionary. Naffly dubbed, as are a few other souls except for the budget-gobbling Christopher Plummer and the profoundly theatrical Joe Spinell, she looks incredibly arousing and becomes the wet-dream idol for an entire generation. Wielding a laser-rifle that would shame the insides of a cereal packet, but moving with such lithe agility through sets that look like they have come from one of those astoundingly poor Japanese cartoons from 70's, her shudderingly lousy reaction shots fail to elicit anything other than starry-eyed, gape-mouthed awe and adoration from us. And, man, would you look at those defined abs! Munro had previously been quite a bit more … rounded … but for Stella she had put some hours in, that's for sure. Thanks, luv!

    There's no other woman, not even Angelina Jolie, who can simmer and smoulder so effortlessly on-screen that she can reduce you to a quivering wreck with just one raised eyebrow. And, make no mistake, she'll need this primal skill in abundance in Starcrash.

    But lest you think that Caroline Munro bears the brunt (although she literally bearing a lot elsewhere) of this exercise in fingers-crossed excess, we need to take a look at the other celebrities sucked into Cozzi's crazy vortex. Her co-star, Marjoe Gortner is a complete enigma. A bizarre looking chap – hook-beaked face beneath an absolute riot of thick, immobile curls – this was a child-evangelist who took his acting roles, no matter how daft they were, very seriously indeed. Apparently. Quite how he could take the role of Stella's gifted alien sidekick, Acton, seriously is beyond me. He spends an inordinate amount of screentime simply staring beatifically at some colourful event occurring through a window or as someone of great importance delivers a monologue of bewilderingly fractured lunacy. You only have to look at the unintentionally hilarious scene when he explains the choice of three locations that they must travel to, to see how jaw-droppingly awful an actor he really is. But he's got some competition for first place title of Worst Performer In a Camp SF Flick, because before Knight Rider came a-calling, the equally bubble-bouffanted David Hasselhoff found himself prancing about in the department store cosmos of Starcrash, too. Playing Simon, the Emperor's lost son, the Hoff barely makes an impression as than anything other than piece of set-design slightly more animated than the flimsy computer consoles that blink and flash rather uselessly. Hordes of extras mill about too, but Cozzi actually allows far too many of them to speak as well … an early actress, a doomed captive alongside Stella in the playschool prison of Nocturne 2, has such a thick Italian accent that she is utterly incomprehensible. One henchman going by the Michael Moorcock inspired moniker of Elric loves to deliver starched warnings and cosmic concerns to the dreaded Zarth Arn but his abrupt approach and woeful attire can't help but remind of all those disposable minions clapping a fist to the their chests before Ming The Merciless. The Queen of the Amazon warrior-babes, however, is beyond any reproach. Italian beauty Nadia Cassini more than holds her own against this flood of embarrassment and neon-wardrobed shame.

    And we’ve even got Christopher Plummer along for the ride! Only around for a couple of day's worth of shooting and literally holographing-in his lines, Plummer struggles to hide the preposterousness of his dialogue and does his best to keep from smirking and maintain a straight face. Like poor Larry Hagman winding-up on Shooting Stars, Pummer soon discovered that he should be rethinking the contract he signed for his agent, but his remarkably restrained performance is actually a hoot to watch. When he has to utter such priceless inanity as “Halt the flow of time!” and “For the space of three minutes, every molecule on this planet will be immobilized!” you genuinely feel sorry for the man who once played Wellington, Sherlock Holmes and Baron Von Trapp, really coming to admire his thespic resilience and long-submerged sense of humour. And then when you get over all that you can have the little giggle that he's been fighting against! Even the great movie and television “heavy”, the bald and imposing Robert Tessier (so intimidating in The Mean Machine, The Streetfigher, The Deep, The Sword And The Sorcerer and a whole slew of episodic shows like Starsky And Hutch, Magnum PI, The Incredible Hulk and The A-Team) gets taken down a peg or two when Cozzi had his legendary, ogre-like countenance painted green for the muscular role of the “can-we-trust-him-or-not?” Thor. Oh, you can bet that a lot of patience was tested to the limit with this film.

    “By sunset I'll be the new emperor. And I'll be the master of the whole universe!”

    A sunset in space, eh?

    But the real stamp of cult authority for Starcrash comes courtesy of Joe Spinell. Now this guy – from bit-parter as Rocky’s Mafioso fan, through similar turns in two instalments of The Godfather to sordid, uber-sick psycho in the horrific Maniac – has some crazy bond with Caroline Munro. The two have appeared together in both Maniac and The Last Horror Film as well as in this, Starcrash finding the unlikely duo hitting it off straight away. Spinell was a fine character-actor, and extremely underrated. However, even if he throws himself into the cape-swirling megalomaniacal venom of Zarth Arn with commendable gusto, he is still nothing more than a ridiculously camp panto-villain of the purest boo-hissable variety. All Zarth (you just couldn't get much closer to Darth could you?) wants is to rule the galaxy and make every planet in it his plaything. Ahhh, bless. With mad professor tufts of hair on either side of his head, he could even be this film's Princess Leia! But he looks like he is having fun anyway. Spinell gets the joke and just runs away with it. Then again, what other option has he got? Spinell was a weird character, all right, but he burned-out far too soon and never got the recognition he deserved. For me, those two horror roles in Maniac and The Last Horror Film (aka The Fanatic) are utterly superb. He clearly viewed Starcrash as money-in-the-bank, but you've got to love the amateur-dramatics panache that he deliberately imbues his pontificating Count with.

    Okay, so the film is unbelievably badly written, the acting is uniformly terrible and the effects stink, but, asides from the instant and immortal allure of seeing Caroline Munro running about in thigh-length boots and a shiny black bikini, there is a loveable sense of imagination at work here. Cozzi clearly has a love for the vintage cliffhangers like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. The film is a non-stop series of captures, escapes, battles, evil speeches and colourful encounters across a wide variety of spaceships and planets. It literally thunders along from one frantic set-piece to another without ever once pausing for logic, character development or plot coherence. Cozzi incorporates a gleeful mishmash of elements culled from every other fantasy film that he had seen, but it is abundantly transparent what his favourites were. There are the imposing-yet-fawning shots of vast galactic undercarriages, a la Star War's Imperial Star Destroyer rumbling over our heads. You've got trusty robotic sidekicks, here represented by the metal-man, Elle (should be a girl with that name, though), played by Munro's then-husband and film producer Judd Hamilton. Incidentally, this poor sod gets blasted, booted and chopped into little fizzing bits at various stages throughout the film, proving that a robot's lot in the genre was rarely a happy one. There are space-battles aplenty set against gaudy Christmas bauble star-fields. Lightsabres make an appearance, or a very cheapskate, corner-shop variety of them do, at any rate. Emperors battle rebellious upstarts. So far, so Lucas-lite. But Cozzi has a few more tricks up his sleeve. He loves stop-motion, too. And one of his heroes is Ray Harryhausen, so he finds the time to thrust some colossal monsters into the fray, namely a giant female robot that owes a huge debt to the Bronze Titan, himself, Talos from Jason And The Argonauts. Sadly, a outsized crab-monster that was to come pincering after Stella was nixed pre-release, although we can see this sequence amongst the disc's very generous helping of deleted and alternate scenes. The uniforms and weaponry being sported by the legions of PVC-suited soldiers on both sides of the conflict seem to hail directly from the same fashion-house that outfitted the crew of Mario Bava's classic SF chiller Planet Of The Vampires.

    Being charitable, you could say that there is something for everyone. We've even got the galactic equivalent of women's wrestling when Stella begins flinging partially-clad Amazons around. And how many films do you know have boasted a scene in which a veritable goddess, clad in a see-through mac, gets carted-off along the smoking rim of Mount Etna by a tribe of cavemen wearing improvised Klingon foreheads? Discovery Channel, eat your heart out!

    Where the “peplum” movies of the fifties were the Italian cut-price retort to all those large-scale Hollywood sword-and-sandal epics, and the two Sergios, Leone and Corbucci, gave rise to the Spaghetti Western, Cozzi is, without doubt, the pioneer of Interstellar Macaroni, his instant Star Wars riff opening the door to other SF and fantasy offerings, though most of these were remarkably even less well-received or remembered than Starcrash. I do have a big soft spot for Aldo Lado's The Humanoid though, which came out the following year and received a much better distribution! Italian Cinema was renowned for taking popular American films and launching their own cannibalised versions – you only have to look at the infamous zombie-boom - but their distinctive Euro-flavour was often enough to aid them in overcoming the inadequacies of writing and budget. Whereas this wouldn't necessarily help things like Mad Max rip-off The New Barbarians or Escape From New York hand-me-down Escape 2000, both from exploitation-master Enzo G. Castellari, it serves more garish and over-the-top fantasy concepts very well indeed. To this extent, Starcrash has that quintessential cosmopolitan mood in spades … and considering that you've got Caroline Munro, David Hasselhoff, Christopher Pummer, Joe Spinell and Marjoe Gortner, and a robot with a Texan accent, in there, that's quite a unique quality indeed.

    “So you see into the future. All these years you never told me. Think of all the trouble I might have avoided.”

    “You would have tried to change the future, which is against the law. So therefore I can tell you nothing.”

    That's helpful, isn't it?

    Quite amazingly, there is a lot of similarity between this and the lavish big budget Mike Hodges’ adaptation of Flash Gordon. Both are flamboyant and archly theatrical with a huge quotient of camp. Both have a Euro sensibility that gives them a displaced and retro-chic quality. The costumes are daft and hugely impractical, but the emphasis is on comic-book vogue and out-and-out catwalk sex appeal. The sets are big and elaborate, but the tendency to re-dress and re-use them is quite apparent. The various spacecraft have surely not been designed with any semblance of realism. Cozzi, like the set-builders and prop-designers for Flash Gordon had no intention of making things look convincing. Both films strive for a disco-lit, art-deco flamboyance and an intoxicating bubblegum colour scheme that, miraculously enough, works extremely well given the style in which these separate, yet somehow similar, adventures occur. They are light, self-aware and do not take themselves in the least bit seriously, which, in turn, makes them an escapist joy to watch. And neither lingers in one setting or environment for too long, both films becoming intense travelogues of interplanetary sightseeing.

    But just how the hell did Cozzi get the great John Barry to score his Roger Corman-backed movie?

    Well, having just composed the excellent music for Dino De Laurentiis' highly emotional King Kong remake, as well as the awesomely elegiac score for Raise The Titanic, Barry was making a concerted effort to move into the realm of fantasy and SF, almost a deliberate decision to move out of the Bondian-bubble. Just around the corner would be Disney's The Black Hole (come on, now, where’s that BD release?), for the which the 007-maestro created a fan-cherished score. But Starcrash was certainly a project that many would have considered beneath him – and many still do, in fact. It is debatable how much Barry actually saw of the film before committing himself to it. Rumours abound that he was shown what was described as being “rough cuts” that had the visual effects yet to be added, although these sequences were, in all honesty, already complete and poor John Barry was having the wool pulled over his eyes. But the fact that Christopher Plummer's name was attached to the production probably spoke volumes to the composer. In any case, the score that he delivered for Cozzi's little space-opera was typically lush and splendidly orchestral, full of those deep, surging melodies that could spin on a dime from ominous to tragic to haunting to rousing. Ironically, given that he was endeavouring to branch out from MI6, Barry's score would have a very strong Bond vibe about it. Powerful, brooding and resplendent with an epic sweep, the score fit the form of the previous You Only Live Twice, The Man With The Golden Gun and, especially, the forthcoming Moonraker. And it should come as no surprise that Stella Star was, initially, created with the idea of an ongoing series of adventures, making the recruitment of the episode-established Barry an inspired choice. One particularly beautiful moment comes when Acton uses his alien powers to defrost Stella's frozen body, the curious marriage of Barry's heartfelt swooning strings and woodwinds with the primitive lap-dissolve effects of the ice falling away actually transforming a cringe-worthy scene into something actually very moving and tender. It clearly helps to have Caroline Munro's face appearing through the frost, though! Fans of the score should note that a fabulous CD from BSX Records was released early in 2010.

    “A floating spaceship is about to crash into us!”

    It's just floating … don't worry about it, son. We can just go around it.

    This one sort of goes beyond even the “guilty pleasure” tag that I’m bestowing it. The film is remarkably cheesy and chaotically lurid. It's big mistake though, ironically enough, is not being sexy enough. Sure we’ve got Munro jiggling about in cosmic swimwear, and a bevy of interplanetary playmates filling up the screen during the great sequence with the Amazon women. Of course there are numerous predicaments that Stella finds herself in requiring her to roll about, duck 'n' dive and became captured and tethered. But this story could very happily have gone down the Flesh Gordon route and been a complete bawdy romp, with a comedy SF tale wrapped loosely around it. In fact that is what it should have been. And who amongst you reading this now wouldn’t have enjoyed that alternative a whole lot more? As it stands, Starcrash seems to promise so much but ends up being immensely neutered by a queer sort of innocence. I mean you look at stills of this movie – Google it and all you'll find will be sexy shots of the buxom, pouty Munro – and you would expect it to be a real full-on sleaze-fest. The fact that the film could easily play for the kids as well as the adults was Cozzi's ace-up-the-sleeve, the big ker-ching! he longed for. I admire his cheeky sense of “purity” - the romance in the film is actually of the most fairytale sort – and freely admit that he has snuck one of the sexiest movies in the genre out right underneath our noses in such a way that we feel naughty for the thoughts it makes us think. Crafty little Luigi!

    No masterpiece, obviously, but there is something lurking within this acid-dropped tomfoolery that worms its way irresistibly into you and stays there.

    Clunky, ineptly directed, risibly-scribed and utterly lame, Starcrash just shouldn't work, should it? And yet it does. Almost as though it knows deep down that it is headed for genre-parody and will be held up by fans as a celebration of goof-ball creativity and sweet, doe-eyed sensuality. You have the films that are so bad, they are great – the legendary Plan 9 From Outer Space, for example – and then you have the films that are so innocently stupid that you just can't help falling in love with them. Uber-devotee and frequent contributor to the extras for this release Stephen Romano, takes this love to ludicrous dimensions – no-one in their right mind can even drunkenly mistake Cozzi's film for “an important work of art” or “a class act” - but such is the peculiar spell that Starcrash seems to evoke that you understand what makes him think like this.

    Yeah, I love Starcrash. Say it, yourself. Go on. You will because you know it's true. It's a damning statement, all right, and it is one of such bizarre shame-reversal that it should come with a badge. Or a shiny black bikini! Starcrash rules and Stella Star is the definitive space-babe!

    How would Shakespeare have put it? Ahhh yes …phwoaarrr!