Ahhh Italian science fiction, a breath of fresh and confusing air in an otherwise stagnant year. That's enough whimsy for me I think, so let's talk Starcrash, or as it's known in some circles “The Adventures of Stella Star”, following on the success of Star Wars every studio with more than half a nickel wanted in on the science fiction money bonanza that Lucas' film birthed. So it's no surprise that American International Pictures, owned by renown skinflint Roger Corman, would throw a little money into the distribution of something that could be hurled into theaters quickly them blasted into TV syndication through American International Television. This was good luck for a lifetime science fiction fan and writer Luigi Cozzi who parlayed his love of the genre into a working with some of the better young Italian directors like Dario Argento had been trying to sell the idea of a special effects driven science fiction film for some time before with no success, but once producers witnessed the KC-140 cargo planes carpet bombing Skywalker Ranch with thousand dollars bills they couldn't sign on to any science fiction project fast enough. Hence Nat Wachsburger, signing on after a ten-day stretch where Cozzi read the novelization of Star Wars (it hadn't screened in Italy yet) and sketching out a rough script for a film called Emperor of the Stars. Wachsburger re-titled it Starcrash, and that was that.
We'll talk more about Luigi Cozzi later, for not let's try and get our head around the baffling zaniness that is Starcrash. Imagine, if you will, a Ray Harryhausen style Sinbad movie set on Mars, except Sinbad is played by Barbarella, Mars is a fictional universe of haunted stars, and the budget is almost enough to buy the Little Caesars Pizza Pizza double cheese special. Featuring a stellar (sorry) cast of popular late 1970s B actors (Caroline Munro, Marjoe Gortner, and David Hasselhoff), and one big star (Christopher Plummer), Starcrash sort of fits in with much of the late 1970s science fiction that tumbled out after Star Wars. Stuff like War of the Planets (Toho), Message from Space (Toei), Flash Gordon (De Laurentis), Battle Beyond the Stars (New World), and even lesser films like Galaxina and Ice Pirates were retreads of other film-types set in space that focused on space ships and laser guns at the expense of coherent plots and non-idiotic dialogue. While these films made plenty of money in relative scale to their often minuscule budgets during their theatrical runs, these films would go on to be UHF and cable TV staples.
Anyway, enough with the history. Starcrash is a film about a female smuggler Stella (Caroline Munro) and her robot Elle (Judd Hamilton) and alien friend Akton (Marjoe Gortner) press-ganged into service of the Intergalactic Emperor (Christopher Plummer) to find his heir, Prince Simon (David Hasselhoff), following a botched attack on a planet-sized weapon owned by Count Zarth Ar of the Dark Galaxy (Joe Spinell). Before you can chomp down that double handful of buttery plot-popcorn we've got Stella in a leather bikini being sentenced to hard labor, a prison break, several surprisingly fun space battles, a traitor who - until he tries to kill Stella - has almost three lines in the whole film, visits to planets inhabited by lesbians … er, Amazons, snow, and cavemen (in that order),“giant” space stations made of Lego blocks and LED lights, and more baffling goofy incoherent dialogue than you find at an L Ron Hubbard “Mission Earth” read-around.
John Barry's score elevates the atmosphere some and helps make for a stupidly fun 90 or so minutes provided you don't think too hard. Plus, if you start thinking too hard, just stare in awe at former Bond/Sinbad girl Caroline Munro and the whole film sort of starts to make sense.
Bikinis, especially leather ones, go a long way to clarifying dialogue as stupid as:
Emperor of the Galaxy: For the space of three minutes, every molecule on this planet will be immobilized. But after the third minute, the green ray loses it's power. Time will flow once more and everything will explode.
Stella Star: So you see into the future. All these years you never told me. Think of all the trouble I might have avoided.
Akton: You would have tried to change the future, which is against the law. So therefore I can tell you nothing.
Emperor of the Galaxy: You know, my son, I wouldn't be Emperor of the Galaxy if I didn't have a few powers at my disposal. Imperial Battleship, halt the flow of time!
The script can only be described as “ambitious” in which Cozzi throws every single science fictiony thing he can image into the narrative. Akton develops amazing superpowers just when they are needed, scenes emulate space battle sequences in Star Wars pepper with complete gibberish dialogue, Zarth Arn wears a cape and monologues endlessly (he has about 2 minutes of screen time, total) about his planet sized weapons, red lights are constantly referred to as “monsters”, there are robot swordsmen (borrowed from 7th Voyage of Sinbad), a giant Thales statue monster (borrowed from Jason and the Argonauts), beaches, deserts, space suits, zero gravity, and anything else you can think of, almost like he made a checklist of things that had to happen to make a science fiction film and he just shot them then scratched them off as they happened.
Cozzi made sure to use a few elements taken right from Star Wars too: Akton is sort of like a Jedi, sort of like a robot, sort of like Marjoe Gortner. Cozzi said he wrote the part of Akton as if he had a giant bug eyed monster head but Gortner refused to wear any heavy makeup. Elle is sort of like a robot gunslinger (with Texas accent and all) and kind of resembles a penis-headed storm trooper. Stella is Han Solo, sort of. You get the idea, right?
The pace of Starcrash careens along like you're listening to a hyperactive 9 year old simultaneously describe “Attack of the Clones” and “The Spongebob Squarepants Movie” after you've just consumed an entire sheet-pan of hash brownies and washed them down with a 1.75 liter bottle of Absinthe mixed with purple Robitussin.
The cast manages to carry all of this goofiness off with absolute, almost stunning, seriousness and that makes the viewing experience all the more loopy.
Cozzi also directed all of the special effects sequences and while John Dykstra had computers (and robot armatures and a budget) at Lucasfilm for his stuff, Cozzi didn't. He didn't even have an optical printer to do good matting, and worse, his colleagues complained that he wasn't doing “practical” effects like in the old Antonio Margheretti “Gamma Quadralogy” (which looked like ass on a stick). Cozzi had to improvise and ingeniously used double and triple in-camera exposures to sort of jury-rig an on-the-fly way to composite his effects together. Aside from the few times you see strings or tracks, it mostly manages to work really well. His mattes for stuff like the Amazon Thales statue attack and the robot swordsmen are pretty much on par with everything of the era.
Cozzi would go on to use this same storytelling and special effects style in perhaps the worst Hercules movie ever made, Hercules (1983) starring Lou Ferrigno made for Cannon pictures.
The Shout! Factory DVD release is almost too good for the film, firstly, the print is absolutely (and I mean absolutely) flawless, crisp and bright and better than at any time probably since it was shown first to Cozzi as a work print. The excellence of the transfer alone makes the film worth purchasing. The DVD offers 5.1 surround and Dolby 2.0 stereo (the 2.0 was how the film was shot), it's in crystal clear anamorphic widescreen. The Special Edition DVD arrives with 2 discs, one has the film and a long interview with Luigi Cozzi about Starcrash, which is very engaging and interesting), stills and production sketches, and a 12-page liner magazine describing the history of the film and the cast (admittedly much of this is similar to the stuff in the Cozzi interview). the second disc contains a whole mess of other extras, commentaries on the film with Steven Romano, an interview with Stella Star herself, Caroline Munro, deleted scenes, alternate stuff, behind the scenes photos, trailers, pretty much everything except Stellas' unwashed bikini bottoms.
If you want to have a fun 90 minutes (and 300 more minutes digging through DVD special features) then you can do much worse than spend the day with Starcrash. It's goofy, the script is stupid, the acting is hammy and overwrought, and the special effects border on slightly better than TV quality for the time period, but Starcrash is fun as hell.
The interview with Luigi Cozzi is very interesting too, and I realized about half way through the first segment that I bet he'd be an amazing dinner companion. See, he, sort of like Roger Ebert, got his start in entertainment through writing to Forest J. Ackerman's “Famous Monsters of Filmland” magazine. After seeing his letters to the editor he began sending in news from the Italian film industry. That spread out into some short fiction writing, landing a couple of stories in magazines and in the “Best of the Rest: Europen Science Fiction” anthologies. He parlayed that writing success into a gig as a writing partner with Argento on Four Flies on Gray Velvet, and that into an assistant director gig on his films. That stretched out into writing and making his own films, including Starcrash. I realize now that this is a roundabout way of telling the aspiring writers who read us here at Horrorview not to give up.