Way, Way Outer Space
Dusting off 'Starcrash,' an interstellar swashbuckler
Starcrash began, as all good things do, with a dream. Several dreams, actually. Italian director Luigi Cozzi, aka Lewis Coates, dreamt of creating a heartfelt homage to the fantastic science-fiction films and stories of his youth: Buck Rogers and Ray Harryhausen, Barbarella and Invaders From Mars.
Father-son producing duo Nat and Patrick Wachsberger fantasized about cashing in on the Star Wars rip-off box-office cash factory.
Ditto that for Roger Corman and New World Pictures.
Former child evangelist-turned-D-list celebrity Marjoe Gortner was fantasizing, presumably, about making it to the C-list.
And Christopher Plummer was apparently lost in a reverie of former glories: Captain Von Trapp, the man who once was Rudyard Kipling's king, Oedipus, Hamlet, the classicist.
Dreams come true; although sometimes, when the stars misalign, they come true in the most improbable and roundabout ways.
Thirty-two years after its American release, Luigi Cozzi's epic space opera (and, yes, Star Wars riff-off) Starcrash has finally found a home outside of Cozzi's résumé and the hearts and minds of those who caught the film on the big screen way back when. As part of its ongoing and ambitious Roger Corman's Cult Classics collection, Shout! Factory has released Starcrash in a spectacular double-disc collector's edition featuring a gorgeously remastered, anamorphic wide-screen transfer, complete with a lengthy commentary by Austin screenwriter, novelist, and self-described "Crasher" Stephen Romano (see "Shock and Awesomeness," Oct. 24, 2008, for an interview with Romano). For those who have only seen Cozzi's valentine to interstellar swashbuckling as a washed-out, scratch 'n' splice midnighter (or at one of the Alamo Drafthouse's several screenings over the years), Shout! Factory's remaster – the film's first-ever official home-video release in America – is a revelation.
But is it art? Or is it, as its many detractors contend, one of the worst sci-fi films since Plan 9 From Outer Space?
The answer is both, not least because it's the only film ever made that can claim to share a direct lineage with both the near-mythic, unseeable Jerry Lewis vehicle The Day the Clown Cried (which Nat Wachsberger produced) and the tooth-angsty Twilight saga (Patrick Wachsberger founded Summit Entertainment). Add to that former Bond girl Caroline Munro playing the thigh-high-leather-booted lead (as Stella Star, interplanetary ultravixen) and David Hasselhoff (in what was only his second film role), plus an unquestionable sense of genre-love, and you get a crazy kind of pop art that both befuddles and bewitches. If you haven't seen Starcrash, well, you ain't seen nothing yet.
"I was 9 years old when I first saw it," recalls Romano. "It was at a small drive-in theatre in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and I was with my father, who was tripping on acid with his girlfriend at the time."
Co-produced by Romano and Cliff MacMillan for Shout! Factory, this new, dramatically improved version of Cozzi's career-defining movie (retired from filmmaking, Cozzi now spends his days working at Dario Argento's horror/sci-fi fanboy store, Profondo Rosso) systematically reveals why Starcrash remains one of the most loved and loathed genre imports of all time.
"It did incredibly well during its initial release," says Romano. "In the U.S. alone, it grossed $30 million when all was said and done. At the time, I'd been seeing the hype for it on television, in movie trailers, and in all my favorite magazines for months before I actually got to see the film itself. I remember the day: We went to Wet Willie's Adult Bookstore and Waterslide in the afternoon and then went to a double bill of Starcrash and Laserblast. I immediately thought that this was the coolest movie ever. You've got to remember, this was a time when there were no other films like Star Wars at all in theatres, and Starcrash, for its time and place, was a pretty classy act. People picked on the special effects because they weren't as good as Star Wars, but it had that same kind of bigger-than-life quality, that bombastic sense of fun. And it was the only other game in town outside of Battlestar Galactica, which was cheesy in its own right."
Obsession is a curious thing, but then so is Starcrash, which, with its eye-popping primary colors and creative use of everything from vocal dubbing to production design that strives mightily to get every single lira onscreen, is always passionate, occasionally puerile, but never anything less than entertaining. Did I mention David Hasselhoff has a huge lightsaber?
"I knew at the time that Starcrash was a low-budget knockoff of Star Wars," says Romano, "but I still fell in love with it because it had a toughness to it, a real visceral quality, that George Lucas' film lacked. A lot of that had to do with Luigi Cozzi's direction. He used slow-motion in his laser battles like Sam Peckinpah used it in his gun battles, and just the general air of craziness to the film – people getting blown out of spaceships and then returning fire – was endearing."
And it still is, all the more so for being virtually unseeable these past three decades. Time has lent what was once a cheapo spaghetti space fantasy a patina of retro cool. Cozzi's film looks and sounds like you wished the Seventies had looked and sounded while echoing, as did Star Wars, the cliff-hanging serials of old. The only thing missing is velour. All things considered, that's not a bad thing.
"The people who think that Starcrash is bad," explains Romano, "think so primarily because they've only ever seen a crappy, washed-out, scratchy theatrical print. But they can still get a real good time out of it just by poking fun. I laugh with the loudest of these people who are getting off in a whole different way, and I think that around 98 percent of the people who bash the movie are having a great time. Why not?
"It's an odd movie with a very strange pedigree that can be enjoyed on about a billion different levels. I think that everyone should have a slice of very misunderstood cheese like that on their Top 5 favorite movies list. Starcrash is mine."
As Christopher Plummer's galactic Emperor so eloquently puts it (bizarre, Christopher Walken-esque delivery notwithstanding): "Well. It's done. It's happened. The stars are clear. The planets shine. We've won. Oh, some dark force no doubt will show its face once more. The wheel will always turn. But for now it's calm. And for a little time, at least, we can rest."
The digital, restored version of Starcrash screens at the Alamo Drafthouse South (1120 S. Lamar) at 7pm on Tuesday, Sept. 14. Shout! Factory also releases the restored DVD and Blu-ray on Sept. 14.