Vanity Fear

A Pretentious A**hole's Guide to B-Movie Bullsh*t

Starcrash Part One


 
 
A PRETTY GIRL
 
CAN MAKE ANY MOVIE
 
WORTHWHILE


I would have been about 8 or 9 the first time I saw the film I'm going to discuss today.  Even at that early age I was well aware of its many faults, from its horrible special effects, bad dubbing, its frequent and unapologetic stealing from Star Wars, as well as a general ineptitude on virtually every creative and technical level.  Still, I loved it and watched it every time it aired on television (which it frequently did on weekends on Channel 2).  Why?  Because it was the first film I saw where I was so enamored with the physical beauty of its leading lady that I was willing to ignore all of the flaws I mentioned before.  Though I was loathe to admit it at the time, I had started early in my admiration of the fairer sex, but this marked the first time I enjoyed and repeatedly watched a movie only because I had a crush on its star.  Sure, I really liked Kristy McNichol and saw The Pirate Movie dozens of times, but in that case I really did enjoy that film's songs and jokes (and I still do dammit!).  This was different.

At the time I caught all of the film's obvious "homages" to Mr. Lucas' work, since like every boy my age I had Yoda, Luke, Han and Darth on my sheets, but I was too young to miss its other debts to past films.  I did not realize, for example, that the outfits I found so beguiling when they were worn by the object of my affection were blatently inspired by similar costumes worn by Jane Fonda in Barbarella. Queen of the Galaxy, nor did I have any idea that--despite its celestial setting and liberal theft of Lucasian archetypes--the film's plot actually more closely resembled a 1960s Italian sword and sandals non-epic, which was apt since it was in fact an Italian production and was directed by Luigi Cozzi, who as Lewis Coates would later (very-badly) attempt to resurrect that moribund genre with the help of Mr. Lou Ferrigno (who remains, as of this date, the only internationally famous celebrity I've ever seen out about in everyday public).

Since I had always known it was a bad movie, I knew that when I recently revisited it I wouldn't have to face the shock of discovering that a work I once revered was a craptacular suckfest, but I was curious to see if the beauty of its star had the same effect on a jaded 30 year-old as it did on a child who had not yet turned 10.

Yes. 

Yes it did.

Of course, I'm talking about:



A person who actually paid to see this film in a theatre in 1979 (do these people actually exist, I wonder, and should they be pitied or admired?) could be forgiven if--as it began--they experienced a distinct sense of deja-vu, as this is what they saw:
 
Doesn't quite have the same sense of wonder and majesty, does it?

This is followed by several more shots of the well-built poorly shot model, including one which reveals that the vessel in question has a very odd name:

And thus we have the first intergalatic spaceship named after your friend Herschel's grandfather.

Sensing an obvious in-joke, I did a quick search on the IMDb and discovered that Murray Leinster not only wrote the classic old Mamie Van Doren killer plants movie The Navy vs. The Night Monsters but he also developed the first front-projection system used to create early cinematic special effects.  And as much as I appreciate learning this piece of trivia, I still feel compelled to point out another one of my Bad Movie Commandments:
 
NEVER let your special effects crew
insert in-jokes into your movie--
if they were funny,
they wouldn't be making models for a living.

Correctly assuming that we do not care who the men inside this spaceship happen to be or what their mission is, Cozzi and his co-screenwriter, producer Nat Wachsberger, start the plot rolling by killing them all through the means of a deadly space weapon cheap red optical effect.

Attack of the Killer Lens Flares

At the end of the attack, the ship explodes and the adventure has offically begun!

For the sake of keeping you in suspense, I will not divulge what potential horrors are alluded to in the film's credits, but I will tell you that they are enough to chill your very soul.  Fortunately they soon end and we are introduced to our heroine and her sidekick:

Shouldn't there be--I dunno--some form of glass-type shielding in front of them, so they--y'know--don't get sucked into space?

This is Stella Starr, the best spaceship pilot in the universe and her navigator, Akton.  It is interesting to note that even though Stella (as played by...dreamy sigh...Caroline Munro) is clearly the film's main character, she gets second billing to her own sidekick (as played by Marjoe "I don't blame you if you haven't heard of him" Gortner).  It's this sort of obvious sexism that makes me want to get a membership to N.O.W., even though I would inevitably be kicked out once they read this blog and catalogued all of its references to female anatomy.

Now allow me if you will, a brief digressionary passage about our two stars.

Though he has largely been forgotten by the public these days, Marjoe Gortner's film career in the 70s and 80s serves as an interesting footnote in cinema history.  In many ways he was a trailblazer for the kind of celebrity we are much more familiar with today, in that his greatest performance onscreen was in a movie in which he played himself.  He was, I think it could be argued, the first "Reality" star to quit his day job and try to capitalize on his fame by going to Hollywood1.

In 1972, filmmakers Sarah Kernochan and Howard Smith won the Academy Award for Best Documentary for their film Marjoe, which told the story of a 28 year-old evangelical preacher who had been spreading the gospel around the United States since he was four years-old.  The film was an expose of the world of revival masses, where slick talkers like the film's titular protagonist used their warnings of brimstone and damnation to convince their credulous flocks into handing over barrelfuls of cash.  While he could have easily come across as a predatory conman in the film, Gortner instead was shown to be a conflicted soul, who was simply doing the job he had been given by his parents when he was just a small child, but who no longer took any inspiration in the words he spoke or pleasure in his ability to make the desperate to believe open up their wallets and give until it hurt.  His charisma was undeniable and the offers to become a real movie star began to flood in.  He quit the revival circuit and moved to Hollywood and proceeded to star in a series of bad movies, none of which succeeded in bringing out any of the qualities that had made him so attractive in the documenary that bore his name. 

Now, on the other hand, the film's true star (credits be damned!) Caroline Munro took a much more conventional journey on her way to film immortality--she got there because she was pretty.  Very pretty.  Born in England, she began modeling as a teenager.  Her appearance in a popular advert got her enough attention to earn a screentest which resulted in a series of appearances in films that highlighted her beauty, while downplaying her thespic skills.  Typical of this was her role in the classic The Abominable Dr. Phibes and its under-appreciated sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again, in which she played the titular villain's dead wife, who is seen only as a corpse and in photographs.  She did manage to get some lines in films like The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and (my personal favourite of her films) Captain Kronos -- Vampire Hunter, but today's film represented her largest speaking role to date.  This is made somewhat ironic by the fact that it is not her voice we are hearing in the movie.  As is typical of most films shot in Italy during that time, the movie was shot without sound and all of the dialogue was looped in later during post-production.  Only three of the film's prinicpal actors were allowed to dub in their own voices, while the rest, including such familiar faces as Munro, Robert Tessier and Joe Spinell were voiced by other actors.  Watching the film, one starts to wonder if Munro knew this was going to happen right from the start, since she over-articulates each line in a way that seems designed only to make her overdubber's job as easy as possible.  But then it could just as likely be that it was this lack of subtlety that resulted in the filmmakers' decision to cast another actress to read her lines.  In the end, though, its most likely that her natural English accent was dubbed for the same reason that Mel Gibson's voice was in the first Mad Max movie: the producer's felt North American audiences wouldn't connect with an obvious foreigner.  Following this film she appeared in a series of horror movies (two of which, Maniac and The Last Horror Film, starred Joe Spinell as a murderer obsessed with her character).  Of these the worst was easily Slaughter High, in which the then 36 year-old actress was cast as a high school senior.  She retired from film work not long after, but has recently been seen making cameos in low-budget dtv projects made by men like me, who look upon her modest career with great affection.

Okay, let's get back to the action!

Okay, now they have glass in front of them.  Good, I was getting worried there.

It turns out that Stella and Akton are intersteller space smugglers and are amused to discover that they are being pursued by the most fearsome only two members of the Imperial Police.  They are the bald, blue-skinned Thor:

If Thor looks familiar it's probably because he played Mr. Clean in a bunch of commercials in the 80s.  That's not a joke.

And the robot guy in the black plastic suit, Elle:

It's interesting possible to note that Hamilton Camp, the actor reading the robot's lines,
is the only voice over actor to receive a credit for his work on the film.

The two smugglers are not intimidated by their pursuers, and Stella is more than a little happy to have a chance to, "Go for hyper-space!":

This is seriously as subtle as her performance will get in the film.  This is not a bad thing.

Note: Given the...uh...enthusiastic nature of Ms. Munro's performance, I have decided to include among the regular narrative illustrations, smaller captionless images that capture her more spirited moments from the film.

Following Stella's command, Akton sets their ship into "hyperspace" mode (which I seem to recall a certain 1000 year-old bird of prey vessel also doing on occasion), which apparently means flying toward another big red optical effect (Mr. Cozzi likes red optical effects and who can blame him?  They're so pretty!).

I wonder if Stella and Akton ever made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs?2

As they come out of hyperspace it appears that they have succesfully eluded their pursuers, but before they can celebrate, Akton points out to Stella that they are about to run directly into a Neutron Star:

There are many moments in this film where it appears that its lead actress is in a shampoo commercial.
Once again, this is not a bad thing.

In order to avoid burning up in the star, Stella jetisons their cargo and works her magic at the controls--narrowly saving their lives.


Now it's time to celebrate!  But not for long, as the two smugglers see something floating in front of them in the middle of empty space.

"What in the universe is that?" asks Stella, proving that for the universe's greatest spaceship pilot, she's not very bright, since the floating object in question is obviously another spaceship, but she quickly catches on and says as much.  Akton, however, knows better.  "No," he informs her, "it's a launch!"

 
Akton's a smartass.
 
We don't like him.
 

Stella notes that all of the "launch's" power is shut down and that the crew inside might be wounded.  "I'm going to have a look," she decides.

Now most space smugglers in this situation would use this opportunity to strip the ship of all its valuables and scurry on over to the latest scumbag desert planet (I hear Tatooine is close), but Stella and Akton are apparently philanthropic criminals and are above this sort of thing.

Interestingly, Stella chooses not to dock with the ship and instead decides to jump out of her own vessel and float toward the launch in the dark abyss of empty space.

One could forgive this tremendous leap in logic if they could find a way to make her trip look cool, but they don't, so they remain unforgiven.

Inside the ship, Stella finds only one crewmember who's still alive.  One must assume that she then found an extra spacesuit for him, dressed him, and held onto him as they both floated back towards her ship.  When you think about it, it really would have saved a lot of time and effort to have just docked with the launch like a normal person, but then Stella's too hot to be a normal person, so I suppose she shouldn't be subjected to our mundane logic and rules.

Anyway, regardless of how she got the surviving crewmember back to her ship, she and her fellow smuggler attempt to solve the mystery of his strange condition.  Though we do not hear him say a word, Akton insists that he keeps complaining about being attacked by monsters.  It appears Akton is something of a mindreader.  It's as if he is connected to some special otherworldly power that one might think of as a "force" for good.  Thanks to his abilities we also learn that their guest urgently wants to inform the Emperor of the First Circle of the Universe about a serious impending danger.  This is a problem for the two, since it is that emperor's police force who was chasing them earlier.

"I'd say red hot potatoes for small time smugglers on the run like us!" complains Akton.

"Well, what do we do?" asks Stella.

"You go to prison, Stella Star!" a familiar voice informs them over their intercom.

They are so busted!

It turns out that Stella and Akton weren't quite as successful in eluding Elle and Thor as they had previously thought.  This time there's no escape and they're on their way to space prison!  Akton remained nonplussed.  "Don't worry," he tells his friend, "we'll get out of this."  Stella remains cool and defiant to the last.


And while our heroes get their asses hauled off to space-prison, the action shifts over to the villain of our story, the power mad Count Zarth Arn (for some reason I think his first name rhymes with something, but I can't quite figure out what it is).

It's totally unfair that only evil guys can do that forked goatee thing.  I tried, but I just couldn't get it to work.

As the count looks out at the stars from his evil hand-shaped space station, he is interrupted by a space flunkie named Elric, who informs him that one crewmember from the ship they attacked survived and is on his way to an imperial hospital.  The count then proves himself to be a total pussy as a villain, since--instead of killing Elric for delivering this bad news--he just glowers silently.  After the completely unharmed Elric leaves, the count intones in his hilariously evil villain voice for his "gollum" to come to him.

Turns out his "gollum" (Star Wars and Tolkein!  Hey, if you're going to steal, steal big, I always say) are the cutest darn killer robots you've ever seen:

Maybe the logic is that if they're cute, people won't immediately run away from them?  Or something like that.

"I have a simple task for you," he tells them.  "You must not fail."

But before we can hear what this task is, the actions shifts back to our heroes, who are being tried in front of a octopus-like space-judge:

From a certain angle, one might confuse this space-judge with an Invader From Mars.

Both Stella and Akton have already been found guilty of their crimes and are being sentenced at that very moment.  Akton (who we learn is from 9th-Vega) gets off lightly with 220 years hard labour on the prison planet of Seacon the 3rd (sp?), but when it comes time to sentence Stella, the space-judge lays it all out on the line:

I wonder if she could get away with that outfit in one of our terrestrial courts?

"As for you Stella Starr," he says judgily, "having considered all the arguments, studied all of the videotapes, the accusations, we condemn you to forced labour for life in the penal colony of Nocturne the 2nd." 

(Is it just me or is it odd that a society that has developed intersteller space travel has yet to make the move to digital?)

When we next see Stella, she's hard at work at the penal colony, in what has to be the most bizarrely inappropriate labour camp outfit of all time--one that apparently only she is required to wear:

This, not surprisingly, is the scene that turned me into a Caroline Munro fan at a very early age.


Okay,
did you notice how she was already bitching about how bad she had it after just 12 hours in the place?  First off, she wouldn't have to worry about the radiation burning her skin off if she had come to the prison dressed in a more suitable outfit (I have to assume that what she had on was not assigned to her by anyone, unless the warden was a Vampirella fan or something) and secondly, if you start whining halfway through your first day about how much the place you're going to spend the rest of your life sucks, chances are you're going to have a pretty miserable time.  But I guess
these points are moot since our plucky heroine manages to escape with a laser rifle during the ensuing melee, in which virtually everyone else at the colony is killed (y'know for a philanthropic smuggler, she's pretty cold-blooded). 

One has to wonder if she has any idea where she's going as she runs through the brush surrounding the 'sploded colony, but it turns out the question is answered for her when she reaches a desert area and sees a spaceship coming down from the sky above:

Convenient coindences are a screenwriter's best friend!

Now is as good a time as any to point out the perplexing mystery of Stella's space-boots.  Presumably they are made out of leather or some other faux animal-hide substitute and they are very fetching to the eye, but they are designed with a unique feature which is never mentioned in the course of the movie, despite the frequent use she makes of it.  Y'see, her space-boots have the ability to make their heels disappear and reappear at will.  In some shots, they are evident, but in others they are not.  Further evidence of this will be shown as we continue.

Now back to the scene at hand.  The ship touches down on the planet and though she has no idea if its inhabitants are friendly or otherwise, Stella promptly walks aboard only to discover the last two people she wants to see:

Seriously, are there no other Imperial policemen in this universe?

Stella assumes she's been fucked over by fate once again, but it turns out that Elle has some surprising news for her.  It seems that the two of them were actually sent to free her so she could help them on a very important space-mission, thus completely negating the need for the escape attempt that resulted in the death of hundreds, possibly thousands of people!
 
 
Isn't life a hoot?
 

Knowing that the universe's greatest spaceship driver needs her navigator, Thor and Elle leave the planet to go to C-Kon the Third (sp?) where they pick up a very smug Akton.  "Would I lie to you?" he asks Stella, referring to his previous insistence that things would turn out okay for them.


 
He is such a jerk!
 
I totally don't see why Stella likes him!
 

Their reunion completed, Stella finally gets a chance to get behind the controls of a spaceship and rendezvouses with the Imperial Flagship.


Instead of docking with the emperor's ship (which would require more sets to be built) the ruler of the first circle of the universe appears before them in a hologram another cheap optical effect:

Did they actually have to fly all the way to the emperor's ship just to see his hologram?
I'm beginning to suspect that this first circle of the universe is run pretty inefficiently.

And it is here that we learn that in 1979 Christopher Plummer was seriously hard up for some cash and--in the fine tradition of David Carradine--took a two-day role in a movie that would from that point on forever haunt his filmography with its "what-the-hell-was-he-doing-in-that?"-ness.  Since he is--BY FAR--the best actor in the movie (and one of only three actors to dub his own voice) he gets the unpleasent chore of telling us what the fuck is going on.

"Stella," he intones Shakespearifically, "our galaxy is split into two waring factions.  Our own and the one ruled by the evil Count Zarth Arn from the League of the Dark Worlds....The count has created a weapon--a new limitless weapon.  A weapon so vast, SO HUGE, that it would take a whole planet to conceal it....And now, with the utmost secrecy, you must sail to the haunted stars.  You must find [the ship he alluded to in a passage that occurred in one of the ellipses], find the count's secret planet and destroy it."  His hologram then turns around and is about to leave (which is an oddly theatrical thing for a hologram to do) before it stops and adds one more detail to the plot.  "There's something else.  When you complete the mission, search for the commander of that missing ship.  He was my only son."

to the point that one expects him to break into an inpromptu chorus of "Eidelweis".
than any other actor has any right to.  At times he actually approaches sincere pathos,
Don't expect something snarky here.  Mr. Plummer does a far better job with this ridiculous material
 

The emperor's hologram fades away and our ragtag quartet of misfits are left to figure out where they have to go next.  This give Asshole--I mean, Akton--a chance to show off another one of his powers.  This one being the ability to form cheap blue optical effects with his hands.

I don't think the blue ones are as pretty as the red ones, but that's just me.

According to this fool, the first stop is the Ariga system, which--Stella informs us--can be reached in two hours thanks to the wonders of hyperspace.  You can see the joy on her face as she sits at the controls and get another opportunity to fly through that cool red opitical from the beginning of the movie.

I tell you that girl is excited!

It's here that we learn something about Elle the police-robot guy in a cheap plastic suit--he's a bit neurotic, complaining that he gets nervous everytime he's in a ship that switches to hyperspace.  Why does the idea of a nervous robot ring such a bell?  I wonder if Elle is gay, just like another "droid" whose initials happen to by C, 3, P and 0.  That would explain why he's named after a faux-French fashion magazine.

Thanks to the wonders of hyperspace, our heroic crew soon arrive at the first of their three destinations.  Akton and Thor remain on the ship, while Stella and Elle explore the planet.  There they find a crashed spaceship, a laser spear and a bunch of hot chicks in pleather bikini tops and miniskirts.
 
 
Amazons!
 
 
It's at this point that it becomes clear that Cozzi and Wachsberger's screenplay owes as much to films like the original Steve Reeves' Hercules and its numerous sequels and rip-offs starring such heroes as Maciste and Ulysses, as it does to Star Wars.  The only difference is that instead of sailing to different islands with their own unique cliched dangers, our heroes are flying through space to different planets with those same unique cliched dangers.  This is made even more evident later on in this sequence when the movie jumps into full faux-Harryhausen territory, but let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.

Apparently either Stella or Elle did something in the past to piss off the Queen of the Amazons, because when she sees them captured via her video screen she talks of revenge and takes particular delight in the thought of their deaths.

It's weird how even the wonders of dubbing can't hide the fact that our queen obviously spoke her lines without understanding a word of them.

Stella and Elle are taken into the Amazon's lair, where--at the queen's orders--Elle is killed before he even has a chance to cross all the way past the bridge to her throne room.  Stella, enraged by her electronic friend's demise, fights against her captors.  In so doing she employs the heel hiding function of her boots that was mentioned before.
They may be still using videotape, but at least this society has mastered a level of boot technology we can not yet even dream of.

Unfortunately for Stella even her magic space-boots cannot save her and she is quickly subdued by her captors and brought before the queen, who tells her of their allegiance to the evil Count Zarth, as well as dropping the helpful tidbit of info that his deadly weapon is hidden by two different murderous guardians.

"And now," her exposition having been fully expositched, she tells her lovely minions to, "put her into the mindprobe!"

Stella apparently knows what this means, even if we don't, because just the thought of it has her screaming in horror like a gay robot.

Y'know our hero in this movie sometimes acts like a real girl.

But before we even have a chance to find what has Stella so spooked, she is rescued by Elle, who was only pretending to have been destroyed by the laser rifle blast.  Thanks to the element of surprise and the utter stupidity of his enemies, Elle is able to gain the upperhand and hold a raygun to the queen's head.

You have no idea how much I would pay for a poster of this image.  (Hint: about $30)

Having bought their escape from the throne room, Elle proceeds to murder some amazons as they race to find a way out of the lair.  They eventually make it back out to the beach where they had been captured earlier, but the queen has a suprise in store for them.

And it's here where the film really goes nuts with the Ray Harryhausen-esque effects, as the queen's secret weapon is the cheapest, most ridiculous looking stop-motion female-robot colossus you've ever seen.  To make things even more hilarious, the queen activates the machine-monster through the power of her mind, which is indicated through the use of--you guessed it!--more cheap optical effects!

What's truly amazing is that--at this point--we're only a half-hour into the movie.

Stella is the first to spot the metal-breasted behemoth lurching their way:

"Look at the freaking tits on that thing!"

One has to wonder how it feels to be an actor in a movie like this, who is giving their all to effectively emote the experience of being confronted by a giant killer robot, only to watch the movie and find out that the danger they are reacting to looks like this:

In all seriousness, will you look at the freaking tits on this thing. 

While Elle manages to make it to the safety of a nearby cave, it's entrance is blocked off before Stella can join him:

Is it just me or is there something wrong with the idea of a building a huge robot
that depends on using enormous bronze age weapons to get their necessary killing done?

Without any other option, Stella confronts the giant she-robot looks up into the camera and falls down on the beach a lot:

Y'see, now would be a good time to get rid of those heels.

Luckily for Stella, the calvary--in the form of Akton and Thor--comes just in time to kill the stacked she-droid via their spaceship's handy-dandy laser cannons.

It's because she's a woman, isn't it?

Their giant foe defeated, Stella and Elle get back on the ship, only to discover that the queen has alerted her fellow members of the League of the Dark Worlds (or the LotDW for short) of their presence, which neccesitates a lengthy and very boring space battle.  Instead of showing you any images of awful models exploding due to being hit by more cheap optical effects, I've decided just to show you Ms. Munro's best reaction shots from this sequence:


Following their crushing victory over the forces of space-evil, Akton informs them that he has located their next two destinations.  The first is, "the third planet in the next solar system," which apparently doesn't have a name.  Akton then goes on to tell them that though the planet's atmosphere is breathable, it is covered with ice and snow.  "And you must be extremely careful when the sun sets.  The temperature drops thousands of degrees and in an instant everything  freezes over."

Okay, who was the fucking asshole who thought this was a good idea?  "Hey, we've spent the last 35 minutes exploiting the fact that our leading lady is an uber-hottie by showcasing her body in a series of ludicrously tiny outfits, so let's send her to an ice planet where she'll have to get all covered up!"

Why didn't someone stop him?

So, yeah, in one fell swoop the magic boots and bikiniesque costume disappears and is replaced by a much less satisfactory black/silver bodysuit ensemble.  Still, it's not as bad as what is to come.

Even the robot looks pissed about this sudden need for a wardrobe change.

Stella and Elle once again leave Akton and Thor to tend to ship while they explore the winter wonderland that awaits outside.  There they find nothing but a pile of dead bodies and decide to head back to the ship.

While they're dealing with the frosty coldness outside, Akton is amusing himself with his "special" powers:

A simple pleasure for a simple mind.

End of Part One