Stellar Clashes Beyond the Third Dimension - Luke Quantrill reviews Starcrash!

starcrash munro
Starcrash is a famously bad 1979 Italian Star Wars clone directed by Luigi Cozzi. A sort of Spaghetti Star Wars. See what I did there? Oh please yourselves. The film has become a minor kitsch cult favourite in the years since its release, primarily for the presence of the curvaceous Caroline Munro in some scandalously flesh revealing costumes but also because it is just a very surreal and very amusing experience. Starcrash haphazardly blends together the aforementioned 1977 George Lucas space opera, Barbarella, Flash Gordon, and Jason and the Argonauts (amongst others) with a jaw-dropping ineptness rarely witnessed since the days of Ed Wood. The air of cluelessness that pervades the story and production of Starcrash is only equalled by the cast, none of whom appear to even be in the same film let alone on the same page.
There's a confused (or maybe that should be sedated) looking Christopher Plummer in a suit of sparkling armour thesping away with tunnel vision as if he's in Hamlet (alternately, he might just be maintaining his composure long enough to get paid, daydreaming perhaps of the many ways he might possibly murder his agent), a dubbed Caroline Munro in a costume that often appears to consist entirely of strategically placed strips of sticky tape, a young David Hasselhoff with a perm you could land a helicopter on, and Joe Spinell as the evil Count Zarth Arn. While Plummer is doing his best to be dignified (a task that borders on the impossible in Starcrash), Spinell resembles a man who has never acted before in his entire life and delivers a performance that would have him forcibly ejected from the set of Spaceballs for being too broad.
Throw in a vivid Technicolor gloss, spaceship special effects that look like they were constructed with Christmas Tree lights and Lego, dialogue that doesn't make any sense, the worst stop-motion animation you've ever seen, a golden head with tentacles floating in a jar, a camp robot dubbed in a comedy accent, and you end up with Starcrash. Just to make it even more strange and surreal, it all has a rather majestic score by the Oscar winning James Bond composer John Barry! Rumour has it that the producers went out of their way to make sure Barry didn't see much of the film before he handed his score in and I can't say I'm amazingly surprised by that.
The most endearing thing about Starcrash (or Scontri Stellari Oltre La Terza Dimensione to give it its Italian title) is that, unlike Spaceballs and Flash Gordon, I don't believe this is an intentionally tongue-in-cheek film made by smart people. You genuinely get the impression here that they were trying to make Star Wars, just with far less money and competence at their disposal. For all its naffness, Starcrash retains a gaudy and colourful charm with its rainbow hued stars and is undeniably a very funny film to watch.

No one should ever suffer the sheer indignity of having to write a Starcrash plot synopsis but I suppose I really have no choice. The film begins in deep space with a battlecruiser on the hunt for the dastardly Count Zarth's secret base. Very Star Wars but Star Wars with do-it-yourself and mildly hallucinogenic special effects. Before they can find the Count though, the ship is attacked by a strange (and rubbish) glowing light and all, save for one, perish. We cut to a smaller ship containing Stella Star (Munro) and Akton (Marjoe Gortner), her sidekick. Stella is an "astro-pilot" pirate smuggler and has a wardrobe that makes Barbarella look like Ann Widdecombe. Akton is, well, I don't think we are ever told who Akton is. He's a mystical character with great powers and very vague. He could work in a carpet warehouse at weekends for all we know.
So, to cut to the chase, Stella and Akton end up getting in the good books of the Star Emperor (Plummer) after they agree to go and find the Emperor's missing son Simon (Sir David Hasselhoff). Prince, ahem, Simon, was the only survivor of Count Zarth's lava lamp assault on the battlecruiser and not only must he be found but a can of intergalactic whup-ass must be opened as soon as possible on the mustache twirling Count before he takes over the universe. Or something like that. Apparently, Zarth has a secret weapon so powerful it takes an entire planet to conceal it. That doesn't make a tremendous amount of sense but this is Starcrash not Euclidean geometry so please shut your cakehole and get into the spirit of things.
Helping Stella and Akton in their mission is a kind and loyal robot policeman named Elle (Hamilton Camp) who sounds like Foghorn Leghorn from the Looney Tunes cartoons. Yes, they certainly don't make them like this anymore.
A while ago now, I was surfing clips from old children's television programmes (Follyfoot has an amazing theme tune by the way) and as ever I became entranced by Button Moon. In each episode our hero Mr Spoon (don't ask me why but all the characters are based on kitchen utensils) visits Button Moon in a homemade rocket ship and I for one loudly applaud his dedication because everybody needs a hobby and a goal in life. Anyway, the night sky in Button Moon is conveyed by a black blanket with sparkly buttons of light. Imagine Button Moon's blanket sky with the stars in rainbow colours and a more lavish and psychedelic version of John Carpenter's Dark Star or Blake's Seven and you aren't a million miles away from the look and feel of Starcrash.
The star of the show is of course Caroline Munro, best known for being one of the most beautiful of the Hammer actresses and chasing Roger Moore's Lotus around Sardinia as the helicopter pilot in The Spy Who Loved Me. Munro is dubbed but it doesn't really matter. I don't think she was going to win a BAFTA for this even if she had been allowed to use her own voice for lines like - "We've been searching for you all over these damned haunted stars!" Our heroine has some extraordinary outfits and her character is thrown into all manner of bizarre situations. She endures a spell in prison, is chased by a giant robot on a beach, kidnapped by female Amazons, and nearly freezes to death on an ice planet. Her means of escape from an icy death is at once strangely charming and incredibly stupid. Not unlike the film as a whole I might add.
Starcrash is partly inspired by Ray Harryhausen and features a number of stop-motion animation sequences. These sequences are amusingly awful and do not evoke fond memories of Jason and the Argonauts. Count Zarth has a couple of Golum bodyguard robots that he unleashes on his most formidable foes. These robots are supposed to be deadly but they are animated in an incredibly laborious, herky-jerky slow fashion. If Count Zarth set one of these robots on you I'd imagine you could comfortably run a nice hot bath and do a couple of crossword puzzles before they even got across the room. Spinell is not merely chewing the scenery as Zarth, he's eating it in a giant rubble sandwich with a clump of lettuce and a packet of crisps and has made some soup with the leftovers. Mel Brooks, you would imagine, must surely have witnessed this film and Spinell in particular before he wrote Spaceballs.
Count Zarth has a camp leather costume and cloak and constantly barks things like "Now, set the doom machine against the imperial space station itself!" Believe it or not, Spinell was actually a solid character actor who was never short of work and appeared in the first two Rocky and Godfather films. The goofily handsome Marjoe Gortner as Akton has a curly mop of blond hair and teeth that could blind a man at 100 paces. His (no pun intended) spacey performance adds to the general 'nope, I've got no idea what this film is about either' impression one gets from the cast. Akton even has a lightsaber in what is perhaps the most blatant piece of theft from George Lucas.

Luigi Cozzi claims that Starcrash was a script before Star Wars came out but I daresay that script got a major revamp after 1977. To digress for a second, Gortner has an interesting story to tell by all accounts, first becoming famous in late 1940s when he became the youngest ever ordained preacher at the age of four. Apparently, Gortner infuriated Cozzi here by refusing to wear alien make-up in the film. I can see Cozzi's point I think. Akton is supposed to be a strange mystical alien but he looks more like a hippy surfer who has just taken something to relax him. It's like getting a Harpo Marx lookalike to play Mr Spock.
Robert Tessier as the traitorous Thor manages to add at least one more mad performance to a film already full with them. The film needs another eccentric acting turn like Bruce Forsyth needs a bigger chin but the more the merrier I say. The most laughs in Starcrash though come from Elle the robot and the preposterous way he's dubbed into sounding like Foghorn Leghorn. Everything he says therefore sounds ridiculous and makes you laugh. Elle is a rubbish robot - just a man in a suit with a big oval bucket on his head - but you do actually come to care for this metallic character, mainly because his mission is to help Stella and make sure that no one places their dastardly paws on the lovely Caroline Munro.
One of the funniest things about Elle is the way he manages to maintain a remarkably positive outlook even in the most dire of circumstances. If a nuclear missile was about to hit them and they had only an umbrella for protection, he'd probably say something like "Now, don't you worry little missy. We'll ride out this explosion and be home in time for tea" as if it was a very minor inconvenience at worst.
David Hasselhoff (wearing more mascara than Munro) joins the fray towards the end as the wonderfully named Prince Simon. He has some action scenes alongside Marjoe Gortner and it's quite a sight to see these two incredible perms battling aliens in stereo. Lesser figures than Hasselhoff would have never survived the indignity of Starcrash so early in their career but it's heartening in this case to know that he went on to be a highly distinguished television actor in acclaimed dramas like Baywatch and a much loved singing sensation in, um, Germany. There can be few people today who don't have a couple of David Hasselhoff albums taking pride of place in their collection.
Starcrash is probably summed up best by the opening text scroll (Star Wars again). "In a time before time, life existed in the Outer Galaxies." Eh? Actually, it might be even better summed up by the fact that the giant robot chasing Munro on the beach is a female robot with a large chest.
If you've always had a strange fondness for films like Battle Beyond the Stars (or Roger Corman in general), Barbarella, The Last Starfighter, and more general or obscure late night low-budget bizarre sci-fi nonsense from years ago then you'll probably have some degree of fun with Starcrash. It's a unique experience if nothing else, full of colour and weirdness, unintentional comedy, garish costumes, ham acting, and that great John Barry music.

- Luke Quantrill


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