Shout! Factory began an impressive endeavor earlier this year with the announcement that they would be releasing monthly titles under the Roger Corman’s Cult Classics banner. The titles have so far ranged from Rock n Roll High School and Death Race 2000 to Piranha and Humanoids From the Deep. Not only are they rescuing several of these flicks from VHS obscurity, but they’re also adding tons of brand new special features. And the wonderfully odd and eclectic hits keep on coming with their latest addition, the 1978 Star Wars ripoff homage ripoff… Starcrash.
The film opens with a shot of space, but this is no simple black and white-dotted expanse, this is a galaxy filled with multi-colored stars. Because in space, no one takes down their Christmas decorations. A ship flies into view from the top of the frame (vaguely familiar), and we’re briefly introduced to some monotone-speaking occupants before it’s attacked by murderous jellyfish in a lava lamp. Cue the title card, because it’s time to be blasted through the blackness of a hundred million nights!
The plot follows two space pirates, the curvy and often scantily-clad Stella Star (Caroline Munro) and her alien navigator Akton (Marjoe Gortner) who looks like the love-child of Ray Bolger and Slim Goodbody. The duo stumble across a spaceship, empty except for one survivor, and soon find themselves bikini-line deep in an intergalactic battle between good (The Emperor, played by Christopher Plummer) and evil (Count Zarth Arn, played by Joe Spinell).The fate of the universe rests in their manicured hands as they race to stop the Count, secure the galaxy’s most powerful weapon, take a nap on the frozen surface of Hoth, and rescue the most famous honorary German citizen since Adolph Hitler, the Emperor’s son Simon (David Hasselhoff). Along the way they’ll face unfriendly aliens, a robot cowboy, five-and-a-half foot tall Amazons, mumbling cavemen, and stop motion baddies that fight with… pirate swords?
Starcrash, aka The Adventures Of Stella Star, is a ridiculous, Italian-made romp that along with several other films tried to hop on the interstellar Star Wars bandwagon in the late seventies. The two are incomparable in almost every way from the script to the detailed effects, but they do share one common trait… enthusiasm. Director/co-writer Luigi Cozzi (aka Lewis Coates) is not trying to make camp here, he’s making a rollicking space adventure with the best of intentions. Sure those intentions are to capitalize on George Lucas’ success but isn’t that the American Italian way? He fills the screen with laser blasts, 4th of July sparklers, and white men with Afros, and his joy is as contagious as a wet fart from that monkey in 28 Days Later.
The film’s effects are often derided as amateurish and cheap, and while those criticisms are hard to argue with there’s still a lot to love here. Miniatures in particular are used excessively, and as an old-school practical effect they continue to hold appeal. From Star Wars to the old HBO opening that used to play before movies, I’ve long been a fan of the physical craft behind them. As a kid I used to love watching Godzilla movies where the man in the lizard suit stomped his way through a scale-sized downtown Tokyo, so much so that at the top of my Christmas list for a few years running was a model city that I could destroy in slow motion, rebuild, and destroy again. (Sadly, just like the crossbow, I never got one.) And so what if you happen to notice upside down light bulbs and bottle caps as part of a ship’s exterior. There’s also some stop-motion work that at times looks as if it was made by Ray Harryhausen’s apprentice’s understudy. It’s seriously that good people.
It may sound like I’m being cruel and critical, but it’s done with love. You can’t help but enjoy what the movie throws at you scene after scene from the dialog to the performances to the obvious odds and ends visible in the miniatures. Allow me to share a few examples… Stella is arrested and sentenced to serving time doing hard labor that involves an elaborate game of “put the ball in the hole” and, not surprisingly, she wears an equally elaborate outfit made of less fabric than you’ll find in a Band-Aid. “The radiation will burn my skin off,” she says, oblivious to the concept of putting on some pants. Another scene sees cavemen beating Stella and Simon with clubs before Akton comes to their rescue wielding a light saber illuminated stick. Another finds Stella and the Southern robot, Elle, stuck on a cold planet that’s about to get a lot colder as “the temperature drops thousands of degrees at night.” So of course they lay down, a foot or so apart, her still scandalously dressed, and they hold hands to keep warm. And then there’s the climactic battle between good and evil that sees the Emperor shooting space torpedoes filled with men through the windows of the Count’s spaceship. The windows. Of the spaceship. You’d think that might cause a slight change in cabin pressure…