STARCRASH: All the Stars in the Universe (Uncut)
When I co-produced the first-ever official Blu-ray/DVD release of the cult favorite sci-fi fantasy flick STARCRASH, I wrote a long essay for inclusion in the liner of the package which was cut by almost half its original length. For anyone interested (all ten of you), here is the complete, unedited text as I originally submitted it to SHOUT! FACTORY. I’m not sure if it’s any better or any worse, but it’s got a little more room to breathe at least. And I think it makes it’s rather self-serving point about high art and low art a lot better than it probably did in its final form. At the very least, no one can doubt my sincere appreciation for Luigi Cozzi’s silly film. If this doesn’t make your eyes roll quite enough, check out the commentary tracks on the disc itself. They’re really funny.
In 1979, at the ripe old age of nine, I saw a movie called STARCRASH at a drive-in theatre in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The film was double-billed with another popular sci-fier of the day, the Charles Band production of Laserblast. (If anybody’s interested, I met Mike Rae, the director of that film, five years later on the set of a McDonald’s commercial—he was working as a grip!) For nearly a year I’d been reading about Luigi Cozzi’s Italian space fantasy film in all my favorite magazines, and was verily jacked-up when the big screen exploded that evening and blasted me “through the blackness of a hundred million nights,” as had been promised in the TV ads. (I would discover later that the film’s trailer had been created by none other than Joe Dante, another filmmaker who had wowed me recently with his amazing horror farce Piranha.) This thing was silly, tacky and even vulgar on some levels—but I accepted it gleefully into my own private mythology, rating it right up there with Star Wars. In a way, I loved this film even MORE than Star Wars—because there was something darker and grittier, more outlaw about it. The main character was a sultry, raven-haired super-babe right off the cover of Playboy who ran around half-naked in a nuclear power furnace. People exploded in slow motion when they were hit with laser beams, like in a Sam Peckenpah movie. The music score was dark and brooding, some of John Barry’s best work from the period. The faithful robot comic relief sidekick was brutally smashed to bits on camera by hideous, laughing troglodytes. (Remember this was still two years before C3P0 was dismembered by blaster fire in The Empire Strikes Back!) It was all hell-bent-for-whatever in a zany, over-the-top style filled with wild colors, dark caves, audio blitzkriegs like fireworks buzzing and zinging and popping across the universe.
And there was Stella, of course.
Besides all that, the damn movie was practically off the radar in the “real world.” Though the film grossed over 30 million domestically that year, none of the kids at my school knew anything about STARCRASH. There were no comic books, no action figures. (I had to make my own trading cards for the film.) It was all mine. I didn’t realize at the time that the vibe I was plugging into was the renegade spirit of the exploitation film, done up with enough extra bells and whistles and golly-gee-whizness to make it a real class act. I had not yet seen films like Barbarella or Modesty Blaise. I was getting my very first taste of the European Ideal in exploitation fantasy film. It belonged to me and me alone . . . because it was forbidden.
Also, STARCRASH happens to be an important work of art.
That’s not just the child-within-the-man speaking, folks—the child that never grew up and went on to pursue an honest-to-god-career as a screenwriter, author and illustrator.
That’s the man speaking.
Let me explain.
I managed to see STARCRASH sixteen more times during its initial theatrical run in the States, and was more enthralled upon each new viewing. Akton of Ninth Vega became a bigger hero to me than Luke Skywalker. Carrie Fisher had nothing on Stella Star, the tough and often helpless princess of the universe. The sound and fury of these adventures filled my imagination with wonder. That’s what movies are supposed to do, yes? In my case, I was exactly the right age at exactly the right time for STARCRASH to have exactly the right effect on me. The film received many critical notices in the mainstream and alternative media before and after its release in 1979. (Most of them blasted the hell out of a “cheap and shoddy affair,” unfairly comparing it to films with more than twenty times the budget.) In 1984, New World Pictures syndicated the Stateside television and video rights and the film was unleashed on several new generations of movie-goers, along with the generation it had originally “wowed.” Your humble author caught up with STARCRASH in February of that year, at three in the afternoon on a local station in Houston, Texas. I had to cut class early to make it home in time. My own father actually assisted with this by picking me up at a side entrance to the school in an escape attempt that lacked only the theme music from Mission: Impossible to make it seem more sinister . . . and when I parked myself in front of the TV and cranked up the volume . . . I was SHOCKED at how much less stylish the film seemed to be when racked up against my grand memories as a youngling. Put much of this down to childhood lost, but there were other, far more tactile reasons for the drastic shift in perspective.
To begin with, the movie had not been prepared for video very well. This was common with independent films in that day and age. Transfer technologies were still archaic, mechanical—there were no digital Telecine systems to clean things up or enhance picture, no Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound. Also, STARCRASH had been a troubled production, enduring a surreal variety of mishaps and post-production pitfalls—including even the hijacking of the film’s master negative by its own producers! As a result of all this, the late afternoon Science Fiction Theatre presentation of STARCRASH I saw in 1984—which was from the same video master that was used later for the VHS cassette—betrayed the film’s intentions and achievements, to say the least. The picture looked and sounded muddy, and the poor panning and scanning of the widescreen image reduced the many breathtaking star vistas and colorful photographic conceits to grainy, imperceptible throwaway shots. The other worldwide distributors had done an even worse job of it, though a few were letterboxed from the longer Italian cut of the film. Again, this all has to do with the disparate nature of the film’s production, and the lack of technology to overcome such obstacles. For years, the various American and European VHS/PAL versions were the only versions of STARCRASH left to a world of geeky filmgoers and casual seekers of odd cinematic mayhem, floating in and out of video stores and private bootleg collections, often as a copy of a copy of a copy. Stripped of its many colorful assets and left to be ridiculed for its campy dialogue and juvenile plot—while big budget versions of the very same ideals, such as the Dino De Laurentiis production of Flash Gordon, went into the world with every major studio advantage—STARCRASH became a sort of holy grail amongst “dorks like us” as a sort of masterpiece in semi-stylish Eurotrash. Something fun, but not important. Something to be laughed at and put away, along with all childish things, now that we are sane and educated adults.
But, see . . . here’s the thing: I knew better.
I knew this movie was special.
It had spoken to me.
It had belonged to me.
I had seen the damn thing in honest-to-god movie theaters in 1979 no less than seventeen times and it had knocked me on my butt every single time.
You can’t fake that kind of magic, folks.
I enjoyed the film for the campy, party-movie experience it had become in the intervening years—along with all the other smartasses—but I knew the day would come when I could prove to the world that STARCRASH was a important work of art. That day came many years later when I decided to write a book about how the movie was made. I spent half a decade researching the production, doing interviews, speaking at length with the film’s director. I conducted a bizarre snail mail corrospdance with the film’s special effects director Armando Valcauda that ended badly. Through all this, I discovered many amazing and even unbelievable things about what went on behind the scenes on STARCRASH. Some of those things were SO outrageous that eventually I felt obligated to put the project away and concentrate on other things—namely my own career as a screenwriter. I actually felt that what I had on my hands was so hot that it would threaten my career if I published it. It was a heartbreaking decision to make. But during the research and writing of my book, which was called COMPROMISING HYPERSPACE, I managed to fulfill my own modest prophecy. I had discovered what made STARCRASH a great work of art . . . not just by digging up dirt on the actors and producers and studying the very important time and place in which the film existed . . . but by actually studying the film. I watched it hundreds and hundreds of times. I got to see the longer European cut of the film, which is substantially different than the New World Pictures version. I came at it from every angle. I looked past the things that worked against the film . . . and, finally, I saw only the sheer, glorious, outrageous beauty of the whole thing.
This finally crystalized on a fateful evening in June of 2005, when I co-hosted a screening of the film with Lars Nielson at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema here in Austin, Texas. Lars had not been able to locate an actual 35mm print, and was showing a cropped 16 millimeter version instead. It was still glorious. The colors and the sound were striking. The bigger-than-life quality shone through. The audience laughed with the film, not at it. I was a child again . . . but I was also a sane and educated adult. This film had the power to combine the man with the child. To find poetry and substance in one of the most garish and lowbrow forms of entertainment ever to grace the screen: the exploitation film. It challenges you to re-define your own personal definition of what art actually is, and that’s what makes it great.
I finally understood the magic that had been left to me those many years ago.
The magic you can’t fake.
The truth that lurks behind the lie of “high art” versus “low art.”
STARCRASH was one of the first big-game Star Wars imitators to come along after the release of George Lucas’s magnum opus. Battlestar Galactica was the first, technically, but that was an American studio offering from Universal Pictures. STARCRASH was the first film ever to attempt such boldness outside the studio system—produced in a renegade style by European filmmakers and released Stateside in the same bold manner by legendary Hollywood maverick Roger Corman. It was an exploitation film that plunged into the tough American market, with every intention to be The Next Big Thing. It went right up against all the other major historical blockbusters of that year—Alien, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Black Hole, Phantasm—and it held its own. Not just because it had laser swords and exploding spaceships, not just because Stella Star was portrayed by the most beautiful woman in the world, the amazing Caroline Munro of The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad and The Spy Who Loved Me . . . not just because it was exactly the right movie at exactly the right time . . . but because, when all the smoke clears and the thunder subsides . . . even after we get past the fact that, yes, that IS David Hasslehoff in there and, yes, he IS fighting weird robot skeletons with a green lightsaber . . . we are talking about sort of a class act, people.
In its best moments, STARCRASH is an elegant movie, brimming with color and music and remarkable intentions—and even, believe it or not, a sense of subtlety that offsets the more outrageous elements. In fact, my favorite sequence in the movie is not even an action sequence at all. It’s the bit where Stella Star boards the Space Hawk ship for the first time, just after her prison break on Nocturne 2. The camera tracks our heroine slowly as she advances through the hallway and control room of the ship, her laser rifle at the ready, until nemesis Thor gets the drop on her from behind. This sequence literally walks us through everything that is best about the film: the deliberate pacing, the sumptuous set design, the color changes in the room, the sincere and ingenious special effects through the port window of the ship, sexy Stella and her smoldering costume and space pirate attitude . . . all led forward by John Barry’s lush and hypnotic score. It’s just a wonderful, undiluted moment in which everything works perfectly, beautifully.
Important art, people.
Another interesting sequence is the whacky “Space-Fu” fight between Thor and Akton later in the film, which is also elegantly shot and scored. This was a scene improvised on set at the insistence of producer Nat Waschberger and the choreography by actor Robert Tessier and stunt coordinator/second unit director Freddy Unger achieves a funky adrenaline-pumped B-movie surrealism. Here’s where the European exploitation ideal comes in, folks. These guys aren’t using lightsabers—they’re just beating the crap out of each other in a really strange way that almost looks like Kung-Fu, and almost doesn’t. But one can’t deny the skill with which the scene is constructed and executed. There’s a tongue-in-cheek intelligence at work here. You can feel it. It’s kind of clever. Even with the campy dialogue.
Which is fun, too, of course.
You may be a little bit astonished to learn that the film was designed, shot and scored by Oscar-winning movie professionals and filmed at one of the most prestigious studio backlots in the world—Cinecittà in Rome, where Ben Hur was made. The direction is lively and energetic. The supporting cast is a literal Who’s-Who of genre legends, from Maniac Joe Spinell to ex-evangelist turned B-movie star Marjoe Gortner, to Academy Award-winning/Tony Award-winning character actor Christopher Plummer—who worked for three days on the film at 30 thousand dollars a day. The effects, while hampered by the film’s low budget and sometimes delightfully incongruous with the live action shots, are resourceful and dazzling on a shoestring, truly fascinating to watch as a sort of “low tech” art that transcends its machinations and ascends to a much higher, more noble level. Alternately, the scenario of the film is a lunatic mash-up of about a million plot devices, visual cues, character names and dialogue bits from other classic science fiction pictures and books—in fact, the whole movie is a loving valentine to everything that has gone before. But this was Luigi Cozzi’s intention. He’s not trying to put one over on us. He’s honoring us. He’s telling us that we don’t have to grow up. He’s telling us to have respect for history. He’s winking and nodding and laughing like a kid in a candy store—the same way Sam Raimi winks and nods at us with his masterful superhero send-up DARKMAN, which is just as bigger-than-life and over-the-top, only made with a lot more money. And while Luigi doesn’t always hit his mark—mostly due to the compromised nature of the film’s production—his intentions and aspirations are never in doubt. Not for one moment. And the results are always fascinating. Riding through the galaxy on a wing and a prayer, signing praises to your masters in a style of your own, can be the most noble of pursuits . . . so long as you are sincere. So long as you really mean it.
So long as you have the soul to recognize that there is no division at all between “high art” and “low art.”
Now, for the first time since the initial release of STARCRASH in movie theatres, you will be able to experience that soul with crystalline integrity, in an all-new widescreen transfer from Roger Corman’s vaulted negative, and with a Dolby Stereo mix, right from the original four track stereo masters. It was almost unheard-of for a film of this pedigree to be released in Dolby back in 1979—but that also points towards the ambition and vision of the men and women who made STARCRASH. This edition of the film is Roger Corman’s preferred American theatrical version, about three minutes shorter than Cozzi’s Italian Director’s Cut. This is the version I saw in U.S. theatres back in 1979, the version released to TV and video in the 1980s. Only it looks and sounds like a million bucks this time.
In this special edition DVD set, you will also learn how the film was made. We have compiled hours of bonus materials, including interviews, storyboards, still photos, production art, behind-the-scenes footage, deleted special effects sequences . . . and much more. We have assembled each and every extended/alternate sequence from Luigi’s Italian Director’s Cut for you to compare with the American version. You will read Cozzi’s original screenplay. You will see unused promo artwork from my private collection by none other than legendary movie poster artist Drew Struzan. You will hear the original radio spots. Joe Dante himself has even provided us an excusive audio commentary for the theatrical trailer, which was the last he edited for New World Pictures in 1979. Caroline has much to tell you. So does Luigi. And I am very proud to present an exclusive production diary of the film from special effects director Armando Valcauda, which he prepared for this release at my invitation. He’s been biding his time for thirty years, searching for an opportunity to speak on the record like this, much as I have been searching for the chance to give it to him. Join me also for two full length audio commentaries, in which I will share with you some of the amazing facts behind this amazing film and some further historical and critical analysis . . . and know as you watch that we’re really not kidding around, folks. We love this film. For what it is and what it aspires to be. For the magic it makes. STARCRASH may still be an outrageous exercise in campy fun for some filmgoers . . . but maybe that was the point all along. Part of what makes it great. Along with all the stars in the universe. And Stella.
STARCRASH is an important work of art.
Whether it’s a truly great work of art . . . well . . . that doesn’t matter, does it?
The proof is here.
Check it out, man.