Saturday, October 29, 2005

Review: Star Crash (1979)


Far ago, in a galaxy long, long away...

The starship "Murray Leinster," crown jewel of the Imperial Space Fleet, is on a secret mission to locate the home base of the evil Count Baron Zarth Arn. Zarth Arn has been at work on a terrible weapon that could threaten all the peace-loving inhabitants of this candy-colored universe, and the Emperor of the Stars (Christopher Plummer) is determined to find him and stop him. The Emperor has sent his own son Simon (David Hasselhoff) to head the mission. Unfortunately, when the "Murray Leinster" gets a little too close to Count Zarth's planet, the ship is attacked by glowy red bubble-things that cause really nasty headaches. Simon and some of his shipmates manage to get away in escape pods before the ship crashes and explodes.

Meanwhile, intergalactic smuggler and foxy space-babe Stella Star (Caroline Munro) and her fluffy-haired navigator Akton are picked up by the Imperial police and sent to a prison colony for several hundred years of hard labor. After five minutes of work Stella can't take it any more and starts a riot at the prison. She gets away but is almost immediately captured by green-skinned police chief Thor. The Emperor needs someone to lead a mission to find Simon and locate Zarth Arn's HQ, and since Stella and Akton are the best pilots in the galaxy, he gives them a pardon and recruits them.

The three escape pods from the "Murray Leinster" went down on three different planets, so Stella and Akton (with help from Thor and police robot Elle) must visit each of the mysterious planets and search the landing sites for survivors. The first pod they find is on a pretty nice planet that looks a little like coastal California. The pod is empty but Stella and Elle (the away team) are captured by a band of bikini-clad Amazons. They are brought before the Amazon queen, but thanks to Elle's superhuman abilities they manage to escape, narrowly avoiding being stepped on by the Amazons' incredibly broke-ass giant robotic woman-warrior-thing.

Next our heroes are off to a frozen wasteland of a planet, where Stella must don her warmest leotard to survive the brutal temperatures. They find no survivors at the crash site, but we discover that Thor is secretly working for Zarth Arn when he conks Akton on the head and locks Stella and Elle out in the cold. Fortunately, Akton uses his strange and unexplained mental powers to get the upper hand on Thor. Elle and Akton have to defrost Stella when they bring her into the ship, but she was evidently flavor-sealed in her space-age spandex and shows no signs of freezer-burn.

The final planet they search looks like an abandoned slag-heap and is populated by some really homely cavemen. When Stella and Elle are checking the escape pod on the planet surface the cavemen attack, smashing Elle into a mound of Radio Shack parts. It looks like Stella is about to become the main course at the caveman jamboree when a mysterious stranger in a goofy golden helmet appears and saves her. It turns out to be - gasp! - Simon, the Emperor's lost son! Akton wanders down to meet them and they realize that Zarth Arn's secret base is, rather conveniently, just around the corner.

Ol' Zarth is waiting for them, though, and uses Simon as bait to lure the Emperor himself to the planet (which Zarth has rigged to explode). The Emperor arrives just before the whole place blows up, but Zarth's little plan didn't take into account the fact that the Emperor has the power to stop the flow of time (!?!). He does so, just long enough for everyone to get away. A long and confusing space battle ensues between the Imperial forces and Zarth's own space fleet. This culminates in Stella piloting a small manmade planet into Zarth's space station, causing the titular "star crash." Zarth is defeated and the Emperor gives a weird speech celebrating peace.


After reading that synopsis you may feel like your brain has been attacked by glowy red bubble-things, and for that I apologize. A plot like this one does not lend itself well to summarization; in fact, I had to consult a synopsis written by director Luigi Cozzi just to understand some of the film's more mind-scrambling moments. Having said that, I must admit that I loved this movie. Probably way too much.

Star Crash, or as it was originally titled, Scontri Stellari Oltre la Terza Dimensione, is an Italian production which followed hot on the heels of 1977's genre-defining Star Wars. The similarity is evident from the opening scene in which a huge star-ship cruises slowly over the camera, and in basically every scene that follows. Star Crash rips off its predecessor at every turn, but does so with such a lack of skill that the results are quite unique. The final product is so cheap and corny as to be quite charming in its own way.

For example, when you look into space in Star Crash, you don't see thousands of tiny white stars - you see about a dozen huge ones, mostly in primary colors. It's like somebody hung a string of those big 50's Christmas lights on a brick wall. It's so unconvincing that you want to buy into it out of sheer sympathy. According to a Star Crash fansite ( the not-so-special effects were brought to us by Armando Valcauda, a man who had never done effects for a motion picture before. This is not hard to believe.

I do give Armando credit for trying - he used just about every effect available at the time. My favorite has to be the stop-motion animation used for the Amazons' giant robot. It's a wonder that Stella didn't fall down laughing at the thing instead of running from it. Ray Harryhausen could probably have trained an orangutan to create a better stop-motion sequence. Another weakness is the poor spaceship design. In Star Wars, you could really believe that those ships were the size of cities. Here, they just look like sad little plastic models filmed at close range.

But Star Crash is about more than just the effects - it's about characters! There are some real prize-winners here, too. Akton is about as weird an individual as you'll ever encounter, what with his massive sphere of blonde curls; vast, luminous eyes, and assortment of vague psychic powers. Zarth Arn isn't very intimidating - he looks more like a fry-cook at Denny's than an evil overlord. And I don't know what Christopher Plummer was high on during the making of this film, but I want some of it. When he's making his final speech he looks so blissed-out that you start looking around for his space-bong.

I guess Elle the robot (who, despite his name, is a "he") was supposed to stand in for C3P0, but since the British accent was already taken Elle was given a Southern drawl. In my opinion: bad idea. Unless you are building the personal android servant of Jesse Helms, there is no reason for anyone to give a robot a Southern accent. Being from below the Mason-Dixon myself, I should know. The two things simply do not go together - it is a scientific fact.

Caroline Munro's Stella Star really takes this movie to the next level. A cheap Star Wars rip-off is one thing, but a cheap Star Wars rip-off starring a legitimately hot woman in a black vinyl bikini is something very different. I like the fact that she's not just window-dressing, though - she kicks butt; she karate-chops Amazons; she pilots her ship in death-defying space-battles. Of course, she also changes outfits more often than Cher on her Farewell Tour, but a complicated woman needs a complicated wardrobe, okay? In addition to her gravity-defying space-cleavage, Stella actually has some charisma too, which goes a long way toward making Star Crash enjoyable to watch.

I can't forget to mention the climactic battle between the Emperor's forces and Zarth Arn's. It goes on for so long I began to wonder if the Emperor was using his powers to stop time again, but no - it's just that boring. The laws of physics seem to be a little different in this part of space; personally, I was a little confused when the Imperial troopers crashed their space-canoes through the windows of Zarth's ship, then climbed out to tangle with Zarth's henchmen. You might think it would be a little breezy in front of that open window, but space must have been calm that day.

Final Analysis

I really could go on and on about Star Crash - it's one of the most enjoyable bad films I've seen in ages. It's beautifully stupid without having the disturbing edge that taints so many crappy movies (i.e. Invasion U.S.A.). Read more at the aforementioned fansite, then get out there and grab a copy if you can find one. It's a mom-approved escape pod of pastel-colored joy for the whole family!

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Review: The Tomb (1986)


John Banning is a sleazy, beer-swilling thief who specializes in plundering ancient relics and selling them to doddering college professors. With the help of a patsy named Youssef, Banning and his dim-witted cohort Tyler discover an undisturbed tomb near Cairo. It turns out to be the resting place of an obscure (meaning "made-up") Egyptian demon called Nefratis.

Our bumbling grave-robbers think they've hit the jackpot when they see the golden sarcophagus in the tomb, but within five minutes, Nefratis pops out of it and lays waste to Tyler and Youssef. Banning manages to escape, taking with him a sack full of relics from the tomb. As it happens, Nefratis is essentially a vampire - she gets mystical powers by drinking the blood of the living. She also has to recharge her soul every so often by performing a ritual sacrifice. Unfortunately, Banning made off with some of the relics she needs for the ritual. As Banning runs away, she makes the chilling vow, "you can run - I won't follow you. But I'll be there to meet you when you can't run anymore!" How she learned to speak English with a perfect American accent remains a haunting mystery.

Banning returns to the States and hits the streets of Beverly Hills, looking for some eggheads who will buy his ill-gotten goods. He sells most of the relics to a weirdly intense guy called Dr. Phillips, but for unknown reasons he holds onto one piece - a golden scarab - which he then sells to another aging professorial type, Dr. Manners. Meanwhile, Nefratis makes good on her threat and visits Banning in his skanky rented room. She forces him to help her find her lost knickknacks, inserting a large beetle into his chest to use for behavior correction.

Thanks to Banning, Nefratis finds Dr. Manners and relieves him of the golden scarab, as well as his heart, which she rips right out like a magazine insert. Manners' son David is understandably upset to find his aged father on the floor with an important organ missing. He enlists the help of yet another long-in-the-tooth intellectual type, Dr. Stewart (his deceased father's best friend), and together they try to figure out who could have killed Manners.

The clues lead them to Dr. Phillips, but he isn't much help. He knows about Nefratis but is keeping mum about her because he wants to meet her himself and write it all up in a research paper (hello, MacArthur Genius Grant!) David has better luck with Phillips' niece Helen, who helps David find Banning. Dr. Phillips gets his meeting with Nefratis, but it doesn't go very well and he ends up dead. David and Dr. Stewart track Banning down and cut out the beetle that was controlling him, then they force him to take them to Nefratis, who has kidnapped Helen for use in her ritual sacrifice.

David, Dr. Stewart, and Banning show up in time to stop the sacrifice. Dr. Stewart tries to be all cool and holds up an ankh like it's going to actually do something, but he gets unceremoniously vaporized by Nefratis. Banning distracts Nefratis while David unties Helen. Nefratis had tied a relic around Helen's neck for the sacrifice, but once Helen is free she pulls it off and tosses it casually aside. In a stroke of unbelievable luck, the relic bounces off Nefratis, causing her to burst into flames. Our heroes (and I use the term loosely) wander off into the night, but in the final shot we see the burnt husk of Nefratis grab an unsuspecting rat for some fresh blood.


The Tomb is one of the many lackluster productions of prolific B-movie kingpin Fred Olen Ray (who went on to leave his slimy mark as Executive Producer of Dark Universe). It's a fairly by-the-numbers sort of vampire/horror/action film, albeit the vampire isn't really a vampire, the horror isn't scary, and there's very little action. It feels like a movie that was assembled from all the less interesting bits that were cut from a bunch of other movies.

One difficulty I had with The Tomb was determining who the hero was supposed to be. The obvious choice would be David, but he doesn't show up until the movie is about a third over, and his heroism is generally limited to whining and sitting around with a confused look on his face. In the final scene it's actually Banning who steps in and saves the day by distracting Nefratis, but he's such a scumbag that he really doesn't qualify as hero material either. I think I'm going to award the hero title to the kewpie-doll-like Dr. Stewart. He cuts a mighty dashing figure in his turtleneck sweater and sport coat, and when he takes on Nefratis (right before he's reduced to a cloud of nerdy dust), he demonstrates some actual bravery.

As with many other low-grade films of this sort, The Tomb enlists a number of semi-famous actors in cameo roles. This tactic gives the producers some famous names to put in the credits, allowing them to at least pretend that they're making a marketable movie. Veteran actor John Carradine, nearly old enough to qualify for relic status himself, was dusted off to play the part of an Egyptologist. Sybil Danning, an aging B-movie bombshell with a minor cult following, earns a paycheck in a completely superfluous introductory scene.

Another typical tactic employed by the movie industry to distract the audience from the overall crappiness of a film is the inclusion of gratuitous nudity. There are only two nude scenes here, though, and The Tomb is probably bad enough to have justified a few more. An annoyingly familiar excuse for nudity used in this movie is to have a character go to a bar where a stripper is performing. If I had a dollar for every movie that's used that little trope I could pay for a dozen breast-reduction surgeries. I guess it's worth mentioning that the stripper in this particular case is somewhat noteworthy - she's played by Kitten Natividad, who won back-to-back titles as Miss Nude Universe in 1970 and 1971 before starting a career exposing herself in the movies. Just thought you might like to know!

A somewhat less common feature of B-movies is original music, usually performed by one of the producers' relatives. The Tomb actually includes quite a bit of music, mostly in the form of grating 80's synth-rock songs. Imitations of Devo, Dire Straits, and Gary Numann abound, but sadly the breakout single "Danger Boy" failed to crack the 1986 Billboard Charts.

The Tomb has the unfortunate tendency to go for dialogue featuring "witty" humor. Witty humor is not something that movies of this caliber are especially good at, and few things are less funny than badly written attempts at wit (take this blog, for example). The would-be funny stuff only further detracts from the atmosphere of tedious unscariness that pervades the movie, so I really can't quite see the point of including it.

Final Analysis

With a disheartening lack of interesting characters or plot developments, The Tomb starts out blandly and then proceeds to circle the drain until the ridiculously improbable ending. It never really reaches transcendent badness, though; it only hovers somewhere below mediocre. Recommended only for Sybil Danning completists and/or fans of Kitten Natividad.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Review: Invasion U.S.A. (1985)


Matt Hunter (Chuck Norris) is a battle-hardened ex-CIA operative living in the Florida swamps. All he wants out of life is to wrestle alligators, play with his pet armadillo, and find something other than frogs to eat ("God, I'm sick of frogs," he says.) But when Hunter's old nemesis - an evil terrorist named Rostov - enters the U.S., his agency bosses come crawling back to him, begging him to go into action one last time.

Hunter refuses the job at first, annoyed because he wasn't allowed to kill Rostov during their last encounter years ago. Rostov still has nightmares about that meeting, a meeting which ended suddenly when Hunter's foot and Rostov's face collided at high speed. Getting revenge on Hunter is now an obsession with Rostov. He goes to the swamp and vaporizes Hunter's shotgun shack with a rocket launcher. Rostov then leaves, assuming that Hunter is dead and not bothering to check for a body or anything. (Not surprisingly, Hunter survived the blast by flinging himself through a window just before the rocket hit.) With his beloved, half-rotted, mildewed, decrepit home ruined, Hunter feels he must once again return to the service of the U. S. of A.

Thinking that his archenemy is out of the way, Rostov turns his attention to bigger plans. Together with a terrorist named Nico he has amassed an army of mercenaries. Their diabolical plot is to invade America and cause so much mayhem that the government collapses. They send their mercenaries across the country hidden in bread trucks, U-Hauls, and minivans, and when Rostov gives the signal they unleash their campaign of random violence.

These terrorists are well-armed and very good at blowing things up and shooting people. They attack everything from middle-class subdivisions to shopping malls to Latino dance clubs, and pretty soon the American people get so confused and freaked out that the country is on the verge of total chaos. A curfew is put in place and martial law looks more and more imminent. Things look bleak, but that's when our ol' buddy Hunter appears.

Armed with a pair of Uzis and some really tight jeans, Hunter drives his swamp truck around looking for some terrorists to mow down. He knows that Rostov is behind the attacks and seems confident that if he is taken out of the picture, the rest of the terrorists will be too stupid to know what to do. He employs some Guantanamo Bay-style interrogation techniques on the bad guys (at least on the ones he doesn't immediately euthanize), but nobody seems to know where Rostov is.

Knowing that Rostov would stop at nothing to kill him, Hunter uses himself as bait and stages an ingenious trap in an office building. Rostov can't resist falling for it, and he brings a huge squad of his men with him. The army surrounds the building and a D-Day-like fire-fight ensues. Inside the building, Rostov and Hunter chase each other around the cubicles like a naughty boss and secretary. In the end they face off with rocket launchers, and of course Hunter's is bigger, so he wins. Hunter's rocket reduces Rostov to a greasy stain on the walls, the few remaining terrorists throw down their guns, and America is safe once more!


Watching bad movies can be a dark, painful, unrewarding experience akin to being trapped in a gym locker with an unfamiliar jock strap. However, every once in a while a movie comes along that really reaffirms my love of this art form. Invasion U.S.A. is one such movie. Rarely have I seen a film so tenaciously dedicated to its own completely whacko vision. It's a surrealist masterpiece on par with Un Chien Andalou.

First and foremost, there is the Chuck factor. He really shoves it into high gear here - he wrestles alligators; he wields a chainsaw; he punches; he kicks; he blows up terrorists like it was going out of style. For the ladies, there are plenty of shots of Chuck poured into his skinny 80's jeans, his trademark denim shirt unbuttoned down to his navel. This may indeed be his finest hour. He also lets loose some of the stupidest one-liners ever. His oft-repeated catchphrase in this one is "it's time to die," but my favorite line is, "if you come back in here, I'm gonna hit you with so many rights you're gonna beg for a left."

Rostov (Richard Lynch) is a hoot as well. His evilness is so over-the-top that you can't really take him seriously. He speaks with a Russian accent but sometimes lapses into German, which gives him the effect of being both a pinko Commie and a Nazi. He has an odd penchant for sticking his gun down men's pants and shooting them in the groin - I'll let you draw your own conclusions from that. Not to be cruel, but what actually scares me about Rostov is his freaky face. It might be described as a mummified Gary Busey; a skull with a tightly-stretched skin of Turkey Jerky; or as my wife described it, a ferret with smallpox. Not a pretty sight.

Rostov may not be much in the looks department, but his evil army must be given points for its diversity. I don't know what his recruiting tactics were, but his organization cuts across racial and ethnic barriers to the extent that it looks like a terrorist version of the U.N. Black, White, Asian, Arab, Hispanic - Rostov is an equal opportunity employer. The only group who seems to be left out in the cold is women.

In fact, the whole movie is almost completely bereft of female characters. The one token woman is a reporter who follows Hunter around, photographing him in various action poses as he shoots bad guys. If Hunter had a love interest here I guess it would be her, but they barely exchange two sentences. She was so paper-thin that she wasn't even given a first name (the credits simply list her as "McGuire").

But this is clearly a movie for twelve-year-old boys, and any "girl stuff" would only have diluted its purity. That's not to say that Invasion U.S.A. doesn't have a universal appeal. It taps into something deeply ingrained in us Americans - the intermingling of our patriotism and our subconscious national self-loathing. As much as we might plaster flag magnets all over our SUVs, we secretly long to see our local mall become ground zero for a terrorist invasion. Or maybe that's just me. Anyway, I can almost guarantee some sort of primal response when you watch the bombing of Santaland, or Rostov laying waste to a pristine middle-class neighborhood. It's both profoundly disturbing and tremendously entertaining.

The film's final showdown is classic. As anyone who has worked in an office building will tell you, it's the perfect place for a violent confrontation. I mean, who hasn't wanted to take an M-16 to their cubicle at one time or another? The destruction of desks, water-coolers, and potted plants is quite thrilling - think Rambo meets Office Space. When Rostov realizes that Hunter is about to finish him off with a rocket, he makes a sound which had me rewinding repeatedly to hear it again and again. It begins as a sort of low moan, then as Rostov turns to face his nemesis it builds into an amazing crescendo of rage the likes of which I've never heard. To render it in typed form would look something like this: mmmmMMMMMmmmrrrrrrRRRRRRRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!
Trust me, that noise alone makes Invasion U.S.A. worth a viewing.

Final Analysis

Ladies and Gentlemen, this is what it's all about. Bad movies are a dime a dozen, but ones this bad AND this much fun are uncommon. Invasion U.S.A. is an effervescent tablet of mindless violence, bad acting, and of course, Chuck Norris. Track this one down if you can - you owe it to yourself.