Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Seven Dope Analog Sci-fi Nugs (Post-STAR WARS, i.e. 1978-87)

Biiitch, and I mean you youngsters: you're all spoiled with your blah blah, but (cranky presuppository insert). But back in the day all we had was STAR WARS, and its special effects were analog. The ships were made with model airplane parts; the stars were made by poking pins through black felt and shining a light behind it. Child, we made everything ourselves, high as shit on Testor's fumes circulating in our D&D dungeons. Computer Graphics were still at the Pong-stage; Atari was just giant pixels floating around a cathode tube. Life in space was tactile, vast and loud. But the biggest problem with STAR WARS, easily the most influential film of the late-70s? Just one woman in the whole damn thing. It was crush on Carrie or get lost. Ditto Raiders of the Lost Ark and, basically, Jaws. If you wanted women characters on par with men you had to go to Italy, or Roger Corman.

Corman and New World and the Italians, watching the box office from the wings, they knew - add more babes in positions of power and intellect, dressed to bug the eyes of teenage boys in ways Leia's Heidi-style braids couldn't hope to match. Scrap the John Williams pomp in the score, turn up the synths, crank up the jams, let fly. Don't just crib from Lucas, crib from his sources: Flash Gordon, Golden Voyage of Sinbad, and Akira Kurosawa movies. 

Often maligned as imitations by us pre-teen virgin nerd film snobs at the time, often undone by terrible cropping for VHS and bad dubbing (which we read as a sign of weakness), today these scrappy influence-gathering sci-fi pack rats glow anew, and for a very simple reason: DVD, widescreen HD, and an overload of bad CGI. Now free of their cropping and color-graded to glow anew, our appreciation for their tactile analog special effects and grainy 35mm film reborn thanks to solid HD restoration, Italian imports and New World pictures can once again make full use of widescreen for their imagined drive-in audience's windshield. Now with restored HD colors and anamorphic widescreen on a solid HD TV with deep blacks (like my beloved Sony Bravia), oh my my my! And Prime's got 'em.

(1983) Dir Lamont Johnson 
*** / Amazon Image - A+

Time and widening sharpening HD video has been especially kind to this weird fusion of elaborate junkyard art design and middling everything else. What was once just another blatant PG blender-pureed Star Wars Road Warrior virgin cocktail (Molly Ringwald as the semi-feral ragamuffin- her red hair niftily color-coordinated with her dirty clothes) now beguiles and corrupts with its beauty. Filmed for 3D (as the plethora of things flying right at the camera will confirm), it holds up better in 2D now that the whole (wide, anamorphic) screen is visible (the reviews at the time pointed out that with the 3D glasses it was too dark - and indeed there is a lot of shadow and night/twilight scenes that probably got lost in 3D or on pan and scan home video). I guess that means no more being a 16 year-old smartass bemoaning seeing his beloved Road Warrior wasteland besmirched with a PG rating, terrible cropping, and a bratty redheaded tomboy companion (at least she didn't have an 80s perm).

Peter Strauss stars as a bounty hunter free spirit on a rescue mission to a wild wild desert planet wherein virtuous maids that crashed there are held captive by a slavering bandit chief. The reward should be massive, but is 'Spacehunter' out of his faux-Solo depth? His Chewie is a cute girl alas killed in the first big firefight after the hostages are whisked away by crazy glider hooks (a very cool stunt!). So this time it's personal! He's going into the Forbidden Zone to get those girls, no matter the danger. His particular set of skills may seem limited to acting scruffy and rougue-ish, and he may not be Harrison Ford, or even Christopher George, but Strauss sure gives Andrew Prine a run for his money, were he in a running mood.

Though the pacing is off and the whole thing kind of a hodge podge of re-furbished early-80s sci-fi iconic moments, it's the spectacularly termite-detailed art direction that makes it work. Now that we can actually see all the details, the film bumps up two stars in rating. Cars are immaculately dirty and surreal. The sail -(wind powered)-trains are life size and move on actual railroad tracks. Hang gliders swoop down and capture people in low hanging talon attachments, none of these things are miniatures of models but life-size); characters show up out of nowhere on roofed circular motorcycles; a barrage of deflated Michelin man-style blubber people come sliding obscenely forth from hanging cocoons; big trippy neon tunnels suck soul energy; and--the big highlight climax--Molly Ringwald is thrown into the pit to try and survive an obstacle course spring-activated buzz saws, spikes, whirring lawnmower blades, fire jets, and an ever advancing spike-fronted bulldozer. Hot damn!

Funny enough, the main reason my buddies and I sneered at this film at the time was due to our reverence for the The Road Warrior. How could we know George Miller destroyed that reverence himself by filling Thunderdome with Tina Turner's imperious overacting, a cadre of scruffy orphans, and a 'Thunderdome' that includes bungee bounciness. What's next, George? An ewok? And don't make some lame joke about Angelo Rossitto. The man is a treasure. I didn't care for having to imagine a whole layer of pigshit under the city. That's disgusting, George!

It was a rough time to be a teenager, the mid-80s, during sequel fever. Greedy filmmakers forgot all the best films we saw repeatedly in theaters--Raiders, Ghostbusters, Conan, Star Wars -- had no kids in them. It was like they'd turned to writing of the sequels over to TV sitcom hacks for whom learning kids liked a movie meant putting actual kids in the sequel, which is a kind of dumb "you got an F in viewer psychology class and all you got was this lousy 7-figure writing gig" habit of Hollywood's. So Star Wars developed an ewok problem the same year (1983) as Spacehunter came out; Raiders of the Lost Ark's 1984 sequel had that insufferable Short Round, even Ghostbusters 2 (also 1984) had to have a baby in it. As I've said, kids hate to see themselves in movies unless they're legit savages -see CinemArchtype 21: The Wild Child - rather than merely slightly scruffy brats with big black velvet painting eyes.

Well, Ringwald gets a pass because, though her acting is all over the place, at least she's a girl, and cute, and not insufferable. Well, she's kind of insufferable, but the color coordinating of the maroon-brown clothes and her cherry red hair go a long way.

So, let's bury the hatchet and savor the anamorphic HD screen and Amazon's lovely streaming print, which allows us to savor so many elaborately and creatively detailed settings. The bad guy's big lair, for example, is about three stories tall and full of so much welded-together artfully-rusted bric-a-brac it should have been made into a permanent interactive art installation the moment filming wrapped. Instead it's just raced through by the actors on their way to the next Big Moment. I can only imagine the sorrow of the craftsmen who labored on such spectacular mise en scene only to have it all torn down after the wrap, see the film barely recoup costs, and then have 90% of all their work lost on pan and scan home video, never---as far as they knew--to be seen again. Redemption ahoy!

For example, the space above, a beautifully natural-industrial flooded cavern/basement kind of environment, neither indoors nor out, with mangrove tree roots that are actually pipes, and so forth, is the kind of 'in-between' zone Antonioni would approve of were he making a sci-fi film in his post-structuralist Red Desert period. And then these sex hungry sirens cohere out of the mist, debating whether to use our wandering mercenary Peter Strauss for breeding purposes, a great idea (he's into it), but that's scuttled almost immediately with the arrival of a small dragon/snake thing (like an X-mas garland with teeth) which the sirens are all afraid of but seems easily dispatched by their spears or elaborate nets. That's a wrap on the sirens - were they edited out to make this a "G" rating? No one even mentions them again. and YET, Strauss and Molly Ringwald are too scared to go back into their parked car; they escape up a hatch to the surface and leave their car behind so they can wander the desert and almost die of thirst. Jesus - why didn't they just back the car out? It makes little sense, and this great set and sexy siren thing is just forgotten for the rest of the picture- we're onto another gorgeous, creatively ingenious set, should have been an art installation, but Strauss and Ringwald just run through it and it's never seen again.

Lastly, in my continuing push to restore some kind of platonic good faith between women and straight men, I recommend the film not just for the beautiful visions and creativity of the sets and vehicles, but also the unique relationship between Molly and Peter Strauss's characters. There's never any sexual intention between either one of them - never even a thought of it. She's obnoxious, but that's okay - I like she cuddles up to him in the dead of night because she's cold, but that it's no more than that for either of them or for the director, script or any unspoken subtext. She's more an adopted orphan, a scrappy Oliver, a Dr. Who companion, and his disinterest in even having her around speaks to, ironically enough, his worth as a mentor. It's a testament to a more innocent time, when real men were trusted to be caregivers of teenage redheads because, unlike celibate priests or pent-up nerd weirdos, they were laid, loose and not Archie Lee desperate or Humbert creepy.

Best of all, PG or no, it all ends with cocktails!

(1980) Dir. Jimmy T. Murakami, Roger Corman
Script by John Sayles; Art director: James Cameron
(New World) - ***1/2 / Amazon Image - A+

The idea that this film was actually put out by Corman's New World seems absurd- it looks like a movie that would cost at least 100 million today but actually just cost 1. Imaginatively written by John Sayles (adapting the plot of Magnificent Seven/ Seven Samurai) it's got a zingy cast including John Saxon as the evil warlord; Robert Vaughn as a professional killer hiding in a dusty old space arcade; starry-eyed Richard Thomas as the farmboy hero pressed into action; George Peppard as a kind of Han Solo meets cowboy truck driver; buxom Sylvia Kristel as a diminutive Valkyrie; and--a personal favorite--a robotics engineer played Darlanne Fluegel, whose haunting gray eyes perfectly compliment her blonde hair and gray-piped pink jumpsuit.

James Cameron worked in the art direction unit, which--as with his work on Galaxy of Terror--may partly explain why every frame pops to the point Star Wars now seems hopelessly square by contrast. Just look at the ship John Boy flies in (above) - it's both phallic and fallopian, like some Frank Frazetta barbarian lost a fight with a sexy slug --why wasn't there a toy version of that instead of the tiresome Falcon? I'm also a big fan of the cozy spaceship and planet interiors, full of warm hued-lighting and interesting touches that give them a 70s shag carpeted / older brother's van kind of aura. Every ship has its own homey touch, you want to live in them and get to know these people (most of them anyway), but since it's a Corman joint it has to be over in under 90 minutes so Roger can save money on film cans. (Would there was a longer director's cut).

There are still negative voices out there for this movie, but if they're going by some old video pan and scan or other, they need to shut dey mouths and watch it again... in Prime's widescreen HD, where it glows and beguiles. And if they don't appreciate Sayle's weirdly Buddhist script (lotsa talk about the 'Vardas' preaching nonviolence) or the gorgeous matte shots and creative ideas bouncing all over the place, then to hell with them. For me, the only sour note concerns the scarfaced moron underlings of Sador, who have balding ginger 'fros and piggy noses, who pick up a peasant girl and presumably rape her in the back of their spaceship (it's an oddly sleazy addition, unnecessary moment). There's also some weird misplaced hostility from John Boy with the arrival of Kristel's valkyrie, and her sudden appearance as a right-sized (and how!) maiden is never explained. If I have to get this minor to quibble, you know I loved the rest of it. Hubris kept me from watching it at the time it came out-- it seemed such a blatant ripoff to my 13 year-old Star Wars-ophile senses (Empire Strikes Back was out the same year)--but today I could care less about Star Wars whereas I'm a big-ass fan of Battle Beyond the Stars. Hey, it even has more than one female character --they even talk to each other in one scene! Maybe George Lucas should have been ripping it off instead of vice versa?

(1978) Dir. Luigi Cozzi
***1/2 / Amazon Image - A
If you're watching all these as part of an Acidemic-azon Prime festival, let me warn you that it's better to watch this one first, because the FX are so crude it can feel like you just got demoted to the kid's table. That's not to say that--in their badness-the special effects are not peculiarly charming, they sure as shit are. If you remember Lite-brite ("making things with light"), HO scale airplane models and erector sets, you'll feel like you made this movie and just forgot. And hey, the film you made is a blast... a big terrible blast. Directed by the "Italian Ed Wood," maestro Luigi Cozzi (working here, as he often did, under the Americanized 'Lewis Coates'), Starcrash moves so fast from cliffhanger to cliffhanger it seems to have more in common with one of those compressed feature film versions of the 1936 serial Flash Gordon (right down the helmets, and the hero's escaping his/her stint shoveling fuel into the enemy blast furnace) more than its clear source in$piration, the previous year's Star Wars. The sets, guns, and costumes are all super kinky and wild, and clearly Cozzi lavished attention on weird details, leaving the big picture a tad lumpen, but never flaccid.

The story has outer space adventuress Stella Starr (Caroline Munroe) squaring off against her future Maniac co-star Joe Spinell as the evil-laughing, mustache-twirling, cape-swirling Baron. Spinell is clearly having fun so it's too bad he (as well as Munroe) were dubbed by other people. In league with "dark forces," the Baron has created a weapon "so vast, so huge, it would take a whole planet... to conceal it," Clearly, when it comes to Star Wars rips, Coggi don't kibitz -- (there's even an actual light saber at one point). On the other hand, his real yen is clearly to do The Golden Voyage of Sinbad in space -and to that end there's a stop-motion giant 'metallic' warrior woman guarding a beach, a sword fight with a pair stop-motion skeletons, a benevolent stranger in a gold mask, treachery from an evil double agent, and Caroline Munroe (that's why Cozzi cast her and made sure she brought her heavenly midriff).

Now the bright side: even if you don't like Munroe's co-star Marjoe Gortner (perhaps due to some archaic prejudice against overly white teeth and curly hair) one has to admit that--maybe thanks to his being an ex-child evangelist--he handles the scenes of mystical magical force-casting with admirable dead-eyed focus and his red and black leather uniform is way cool.  Munroe's 'sexy' outfit looks like it was cut out of a naugahyde car seat by contrast, though it's still a striking image that cuts through the years like a knife (especially if you're old enough that you remember her Starlost magazine cover). But oh, if only there was more of the evil Amazon queen, Corelia (Nadia Cassini -above)! Tossing off classic bon mots ("put her in the mind probe!") in her repurposed gladiator movie brocade, tossing her dynamite bangs back from her eyes while tossing Stella to the mines, with a few extra lines she might have been a new Aura or a gender-reversed Vultan. Sadly, like every other challenge they wiz past, Stella and her inexplicably Texan robot, "L", escape from her clutches mere seconds after falling into them. On the other hand, what a blast. And refreshingly, not even the mildest feint toward actual science: the Baron's ship has windows which the good guys fly into via two-men torpedo ships, crashing in and opening fire. When Stella need to jump from one ship to another she just needs a bubble helmet and off she pops. It's very Mongo.

By the time we meet the king of the universe (Christopher Plummer) you can tell he's important because his ship is bright gold and he's dressed in all sorts of Versace-ish golden chains and frills with weird little gold codpiece diaper shorts) we may feel as winded as an grandparent dragged through an aquarium by a sugar-addled first grader. Barely conscious, the one pure male heart left in Hollywood does a great kind of reverse hamming, trailing off into elliptical pauses for effect (or to read his cue cards ): "you must sail... to the haunted stars....(barely talking in a whisper, while schmaltzy grand piano refrains in the background almost drowning him out), "and find the Count's... secret ship... and destroy it."

We feel the greatness enter the room in fisher king style.

As for John Barry's titanic score, Legend has it that Cozzi didn't let him see the actual film while he was composing, lest he back out of the deal, which was a smart move. Barry treats the material like it's big budget grandeur and rises to the task in a way that puts John Williams 'rousing sci-fi adventure' refrains to shame. Some of the melodies are truly grand.

Ah, the more you see this film the better it gets. It's over before you can even start to appreciate the great leather outfits and cool helmets of the bad guy minions. But, dude, find Cozzi's HERCULES and start the madness anew - it's even worse/better. The same erector set is used, this time for flying monsters, three-headed dragons, and... I already forgot what the other monsters are. Praise this kind idiocy... and the aging process... and weed.... for together they erase... each plot... point.. Cozzi is the true king of sci-fi cinematic folk art. (Ed note: see Happy Birthday Cozzi!)

(1979) Dir. George McCowan
**1/2 / Amazon Prime - B

Here's a weird Canadian oddity from the post-Star Wars TV era when Gene Roddenberry was coming up with TV movie pilots starring John Saxon, and Battlestar Galactica was making Sunday nights nominally less boring.  This Canadian feature doesn't have that kind of intellectual pedigree or major studio budget, but who cares when there's Jack Palance in a purple cape, laughing megalomaniacally while commanding an army of robots! He's supposed to be supplying the moon with minerals but now he's asking for interplanetary domination instead!  John Ireland is the pacifist senator who wants to get all Chamberlain appeasement to Palance's Hitler-ish demands. A salty old commander dying of radiation sickness (Barry Morse) won't cave, taking his experimental ship out on a fool's errand, replete with a fetching young girl with fabulous hair (Anne Marie Martin) who controls a sassy robot! There's also the salty commander's fresh-faced young idealist (Nicholas Campbell, who looks familiar because he played Kerouac in Cronenberg's Naked Lunch); and Carol Lynley as Nikki, leader of the human resistance on Delta-3. What more do you need? In budget-conserving TVM manner, a lot of scenes are shot outdoors in autumnal fields or what looks like a high school boiler room. On the bright side, Palance's inner chambers are 70s sound booth-style sexy, and there are enough cool miniatures, spacecraft, optical effects, devious weapons, and evil robots to make this the perfect feature to doze off to some cloudy Ontario afternoon. So keep it handy. 

I do, and I live in Brooklyn. Zzzzz!

(1987) Dir. Mel Brooks
*** / Amazon Image - A-

Time's been kind to this lumbering doofus of a film.  A favorite of good friends of mine, it never used to make it past my three strikes rule. Strike 1) the off-the-beat comedic hamming of Rick Moranis as 'Darth Helmet' (it's a big helmet - get it!?), 2) the gross eating habits of Barf (John Candy's dog-wookie character), and 3) the disgusting 'Pizza the Hut'. But those are just the breakwaters, the first five or ten minutes. Once someone made me stick around to the end I started to really vibe with the madness. Once Daphne Zuniga shows up as a runaway bride in a gorgeous wedding gown, a beautiful white number that exposes her toned, lithe, tan arms, I'm on board. Escaping a marriage to sleepy Prince Valium by jumping into the space Winnebago of Bill Pullman as the Han Solo / Clark Gable (in It Happened One Night), Zuniga's charm takes over the picture and lifts it over ugly hurtles. She and Pullman have a palpable chemistry and both play the whole thing deadpan straight, which helps immeasurably especially when we have to endure oversize sight gags like the industrial strength hair dryer and the troopers 'combing' the desert.

See, folks, Brooks makes films for a big audience to laugh at, loud and progressively raucous, in a theater. That means pratfalls carry pauses for presumed guffaws and if you're not feeling it, you can groan audibly. On the other hand: he takes the time to hit all the mythic narrative bases, delivering the feel of his sources (The cinematography and special effects are all as good as the films he lovingly sends up) and avoiding instantly dated ephemeral pop culture references. Lovely detours into poker-faced absurdist post-structuralism--as when the bad guys watch a VHS tape of Spaceballs to figure out their next move, or when the Yiddish-accented Yogurt (Mel Brooks) shows off his collection of Spaceballs merchandise ("ver da real money is made")--give the whole thing enough of a deconstructed edge you don't feel too stupid for liking it. Brooks plays the evil emperor as basically the same corrupt mayor he played in Blazing Saddles - only instead of a buxom redhead secretary to bark at there's an 80s punk-short haired imperial officer onscreen at the urinal (dig her wry smile to camera upper right); Joan Rivers provides the voice for the cockblocking C3PO chaperone; and there's some great inside bits like sound effects guy Michael Winslow as a radar technician and John Hurt in his Nostromo duds chowing down at the local space diner (uh oh).

Really though, what puts it all over, for me, and gets me watching again and again (after decades of resistance) is the discovery of Daphne Zuniga's Druish princess. She starts the film whining about  her industrial strength hair dryer and ends up blasting enemy platoons to atoms when they dare to mess up her perfect hair (and it is perfect: auburn, perfectly curled, down and free-flowing) and she sings a low octave blues ("Nobody knows / the trouble I seen") when locked up in space prison. She and Pullman generate great chemistry, too. Spaceballs has already led me safely out of two panic attacks -- such is the power of the schwartz and Brooks' innate love of classic genre cinema. Alas, we're supposed to laugh when Barf molests a waitress with his errant tail. Barf, you cretin -- the days when that was funny are gone forever! Hurrah! 

(1980) Dir. Stanley Donen
**1/2 / Amazon Image: A

Kirk Douglas plays "the Major" i.e. Adam, a hydroponic botanical scientist trying to solve a rapidly dying earth's food shortage in an experimental, octopus-armed hydroponic garden in a cave.... on Saturn's third moon. His Eve is played by the 32 years younger Farrah Fawcet. She's never even been to Earth! She doesn't know how lucky she is, so Earth has to come to her, in form of insecure (a dubbed, but with excellent eyelashes Harvey Keitel) who lets her know they're so hard up on Earth they eat dogs, and everyone has to share sex partners, or else it's considered stealing. And people take pills called 'blues' just to relax enough to fall asleep. Yes please! Benson lusts for Farrah and thinks it's unfair Adam gets her all to himself; he thinks Adam is obsolete, old, and "inadequate.... in every area!" 

Keitel builds a giant robot named Hector. It's powered by a stack of brains, but it goes crazy when he inadvertently uploads his own stalker obsession onto its organic hard drive. Thus begins a very long interesting stalk and chase sequence. There's no way to radio for help while S3 is on the far side of Saturn. Hector has all the time in the world to lumber around the tentacles of the garden after our fleeing lovers, all the while hoping to mate, somehow, with Farrah. Does the name 'Hector' stand for the razzing the December end of May-December relationship receives from his racketball buddies (ala BREEZY)? Or is he merely a symbol of time's attack on the male libido?

Clearly conceived of (by Martin Amiss!) back when priapic middle-aged white men were still allowed to be punk rock, (and sci-fi was for them rather than kids), it stands today as a yet under-appreciated mecca for detailed and highly imaginative art direction. Costumes, sets and effects are all of a unique, highly organized mixture of organic and mechanical: bizarre green/black insectoid space suits, a robot chassis styled after Da Vinci sketches, and winding hallways through the cavernous rock lit with an array of white, green and gleaming blue luminescent wires and pipes like a combination giant human arterial system, ocean floor tentacle mazes and Spencers / Space Port at a 70s mall. Good Elmer Bernstein music too, and Kirk is clearly feeling it - his fuck you to the social order at the end gets me cheering every time, even if it's from inside my own navel. (full)

(1981) Dir. Bruce D. Clark
*** / Amazon Image - A 

I read all the hostile reviews when this movie came out and vowed never to see it. Little did I know it would hold up so well, not for any special reason but, like Battle Beyond the Stars, from surfeit of termite detail, aided in no small measure by ambitious production designer James Cameron and the genius of cinematographer Jacques Haitkin (Nightmare on Elm Street).  The space ship interiors are gorgeous, cozy and amniotic (love those padded walls); the strange mist-enshrouded giant space pyramid the crew scale and enter is a haunted world of eerie gel lighting worthy of Bava.

The crew is there to investigate the crash and demise of a previous crew who crashed a strange planet. But what they find are demons of their own minds, reflected back on them. Each meets their doom in a brutal, gory ironic way, one after the other. The cook (Ray Walston) knows more than he's saying, but just smiles enigmatically when questioned; Sid Haig plays a weird cult member whose devotion to his 'crystals' as his only weapons borders on absurdism (they break so easy it's a wonder they lasted him a week); Robert Englund winds up fighting himself (don't we all?); Erin Moran (Joanie!) is an claustrophobic empath who winds up having to slide through ever-narrower embryonic tunnels; sexy Taaffe O'Connell (below) is ravished by a giant slug monster (she hates slugs). Zalman King provides the scowling as the second in command. He's even more peevish than usual!  Soulful-eyed Edward Albert is the Tom Skerrit-like natural leader. Grace Zabriskie plays the ship captain with her usual alien-eyed conviction. She's one tough old salt, saying things like "come get some chow, boy." And somehow seeing her wide-awake face lit only by those cool red dashboard lights makes me feel grounded. Sure, she ends up tough as a burnt steak, but I don't think there's ever been a female space commander quite like her since. Or before. (see Angels of Death vol. V)

Trouble is, the film moves so fast that you've barely met her, or anyone else, before their ranks dwindle down to almost nil. Better that, though, than drag too long, I guess. Speaking of fast, see if you can spot that little stop motion lizard man thing from Joe Dante's Piranha. And if the end of the ride comes too soon, too super strange and mystic, to satisfy, well don't get uptight: you can always go back and ride it again. That's the joy of streaming. You don't even need to rewind anymore. Not even Phillip K. Dick could have predicted that kind of instant gratification.


(1978) Dir. Kinji Fukusaku
** / Amazon Image - B-

Released the same year as Starcrash (but costing twice the budget) with a Seven Samurai-style plot (ala Battle Beyond the Stars) this Japanese Star Wars-cash-in is serving a pre-Avatar style tale of oppressed elf-like tree people, living on an asteroid/planet that can jet through space (they wear leaves in the hair so you know they're good; the oppressors dress like Shogun Warriors so you know they're bad). The good tree people have a Yoda-like old vizier who recruits eight special warriors from other worlds by throwing glowing chestnuts out into space. You heard me. Actual chestnuts.

The trick is, unlike the other post-Star Wars films, this is set in a future where Earthlings roam the galaxy dressed in a post-modern array of studio wardrobe department cast-offs (pork pie hats, loud sportsjackets, Stevie Nicks gossamer head sashes) in search of "resources and colonies." So one nut is found by a kookie Goldie Hawn/Stevie Nicks-style gaijin heiress (Peggy Lee-Brenan) in a private charter plane and two more are found dopey hot dog fighter pilots racing each other through asteroid belts, dodging "the Space Patrol" (who have helmets, aviator shades and Freddie Mercury mustaches, ugh); there's also a dopey hipster dressed like the Music Man-gone-disco and a gambler in a Hawaiian shirt (as the loanshark). In short, this is one of the post-modern futures where all the past styles are happening at once, probably to save money on new costumes. Crazy disco dancers dress like 20s mecha-Berlin art deco gods; bartenders in red bowties and silver lame jackets make cocktails; Vic Morrow manages to keep a cool demeanor even after finding a glowing space chestnut in his drink. He even manages to no roll his eyes while trading quips with a dumb cutesy robot ("yer beginning to tawk like my ex-wife").

On the other side is garish uniformity: the Darth Vader style villain and his evil army are all painted in silver (it looks like the paint is still wet) with uniforms in matte primary colors; they dress like the old Shogun Warriors action figures.
Terrible hamming and tacky costumes on the human end and some of worst wire-work outer space swimming I've ever seen (their home spaceships are literally photos pasted on a blue board behind them) make it hard to warm up to this mess. Add a long static scene like the one above (right) that seems like it was shot in spoiled artist kid's storage shed and there you go, Message from Space is so bad it's bound to make you revere and love Battle Beyond the Stars and Starcrash all the more by comparison.

On the plus side, if you do decide to settle in and stop being so snide, there are a few good things going on over on Message to Space: there's an evil old witch and her reptilian son, and another separate old woman as the conniving mother of the Darth Vader-ish warlord. Two evil old crones in one science fiction movie? Lucas could barely handle one female character in his entire series! This has four! I hope he saw this and was ashamed of his nerdy fanboy cowardice. There's also Sonny Chiba as the displaced real ruler of Gavanas, and surprisingly good stretches of war-blasted landscapes and model work / dogfights, with ships folding out to detachable smaller ships, and ramming each other and emitting various cool laser effects.  If there were more of all that and less of the annoying young can-do Earth heroes cheering shrilly over their glowing nuts it might even be watchable. 

The director made the excellent Green Slime (1968), proving he was adept at shooting in English with international casts. Kinji, my man, what happened?

(1980) Dir. William Sachs
* / Amazon Image - B-

There's no accounting for taste; in the rush to imitate Star Wars, but with a little sex in it, they came in droves. But the world actually wondered about--and wanted to like--this one, thanks to the presence of former Playmate Dorothy Stratten, whose tragic death at the hands of her twitchy cokehead ex-boyfriend/manager (as played by Eric Roberts in Star 80) shook the world. Alas, though she looks beautiful and is very well-lit, she doesn't get much to do; there's too much time spent with the rest of the characters. There's some Joe Buck type strutting around the ship's engine room (which looks just like back boiler room of some depressing factory), boring his fellow men with his cliche'd disco studliness. There's a detour to a costume party bordello scene that stretches on forever and looks just like any other house party chaos of the time, only replete with all the cliches of bad westerns and disco movies folded into the melee. Shots of Galaxina doing cool shit (like watching TV) are cut short in order to spend more time watching the inescapable Avery Schreiber mug horrendously as the ship captain. One only has so much time to watch bad movies that aren't good-bad, even if Stratten's lipstick shimmers with just a tinge of orange in the eerie ship lighting. I lover her glowing chair too (above). Too bad the somewhat well-lit movie around her is so badly written, acted, edited and directed --otherwise it would be so good, bro, like Dark Star but with a literally (just touching her kills men instantly) and figuratively hot girl! 


  1. I always skip past these, but will take some time for them, now. I did watch LIFE FORCE a couple of weeks ago on the Prime. I always thought that I had already seen it, but really just saw clips and remembered the big spread about it in Starlog. I loved it so very much, for, as the kids say these days, All The Reasons. (sub cousin category - Also watched The Eyes of Laura Mars - what a peculiar movie)

  2. Titan Find (aka Creature) was always a guilty fave of mine back in the day :)

  3. Wait. "Ghostbusters 2" was in '89. Not 1984.

  4. Peggy Lee Brennan is amazingly appealing in MESSAGE FROM SPACE and she’s still singing dancing and acting and was recently crowned MS SENIOR AMERICA. She’s a timeless beauty!


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