Monday, May 21, 2018

Starcrash (Nat and Patrick Wachsberger Productions, 1978)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Yesterday afternoon there was a special screening at the Golden Hill site of the monthly Mars movie nights ( and the Vintage Sci-Fi screenings ( the third Friday and Saturday of each month, respectively: the proprietor decided to do a third one in a row and scheduled a matinee of two films proclaimed in advance as “Bad Movies.” They certainly lived up to that designation! The first was a 1978 Star Wars ripoff called … well, it’s uncertain whether the title is Star Crash (two words) or Starcrash (one word): Starcrash is what appears on the opening credits and how the film is listed on, but the poster art says Star Crash and that’s how the proprietor of the Golden Hill screening promoted it. It’s another movie directed by Luigi Cozzi under the Anglo pseudonym “Lewis Coates,” and like Contamination, the 1980 “Coates” film shown last Friday, it’s a cheap ripoff of an American hit (Contamination was an obvious knock-off of Alien). Cozzi not only directed but also wrote the script with his co-producer, Nat Wachsberger (the other producer was Nat’s brother Patrick), whom I’d heard of only as the producer with whom Jerry Lewis famously butted heads on his 1982 production The Day the Clown Cried, whose plot premise — a famous clown incarcerated in Auschwitz during the Holocaust vainly tries to keep his fellow inmates amused until the Nazis knock them all off — anticipates the later hit Life Is Beautiful. 

The film features mostly a “C”-list cast of the era, including Marjoe Gortner (one of the odder celebrities thrown up by the 1970’s; his parents were traveling evangelists and they not only gave him an evangelical name — “Marjoe” is a mashup of “Mary” and “Joseph” — they trotted him out in front of revivals at age four and billed him as the world’s youngest evangelist, a career her pursued until the 1960’s, when he was sufficiently impressed by the youth culture in general and the hippies in particular that he shifted his message from fire-and-brimstone Christianity to peace-and-love Christianity, much to the disgust of his audiences — so he determined to do one last tour as a fire-and-brimstoner, have it filmed for a documentary, and then go for a secular career as an actor), Caroline Munro (though in the English dubbed version her voice was replaced by Candy Clark), David Hasselhoff and one genuinely important star, Christopher Plummer. The film opens in a spaceship being piloted by an android named Akton (Marjoe Gortner) and his human co-commander, Stella Star (Caroline Munro in some surprisingly skimpy outfits that show off her bod quite nicely), along with your usual tin-can robot whom I assumed was called “L” or “El” but is listed in the cast as “Elle” even though there’s nothing remotely feminine about him — neither in Judd Hamilton’s posture as he walks around in the black tin-can suit on screen or Hamilton Camp’s intonations as he supplies the voice on the soundtrack. 

The not-particularly-dynamic trio visit various planets and ultimately get embroiled in attempting to foil a plot by Count Zarth Arn (Joe Spinell) — as with the movie’s title, there’s confusion as to whether his last name is one word or two (it’s “Zarth Arn” in the opening credits and “Zartharn” in the closing ones) — who’s made up to look like a cross between Princess Leia and Shakespeare and who seems to have modeled his acting style on Vincent Price at his campiest. Zarth Arn is attempting to depose and kill the rightful Emperor (Christopher Plummer — one wonders how, just 13 years after The Sound of Music, his fortunes had fallen so low he had to take a job like this!) and also get rid of the Emperor’s son Simon (David Hasselhoff, who goes through most of the movie looking like he wished that talking car would come along and rescue him from it). In the end Elle gets disintegrated but is able to pull his parts back together, Akton also gets killed but isn’t so lucky as to be able to reassemble himself, the Count’s dastardly plot is defeated and the Emperor is restored to his rightful throne, while his son Simon and Stella Star are paired off. One other major name was associated with this film, composer John Barry, whose most famous piece is the “James Bond Theme” that’s been used in virtually all the Bond movies, and who wrote complete scores for most of the early Bonds. According to an “Trivia” poster, the filmmakers carefully kept Barry from being able to watch any of the movie, lest he decide he didn’t want to be associated with something that dreadful and walk out of the project. 

Starcrash is one of those movies that starts out looking like it’s going to be a derivative but at least entertaining riff on someone else’s major film, but as it progresses (like a disease) it just gets sillier and sillier, and I got into an argument with one of the other audience members as to whether the dialogue by Cozzi (“Coates”), Wachsberger and R. A. Dillon was really as bad as it sounds or whether what made the film really awful was the porn-star style delivery of it by Gortner, Clark and Hasselhoff. Another “Trivia” poster claims that in the later stages of the film they put more clothes on Caroline Munro to preserve the film’s PG rating — though there’s one later shot of her in an outfit that’s just a series of leather bands wrapped strategically around her, a scene that no doubt delighted the teenage straight boys that are the core audience for science-fiction films then and now!