For Turkey Week, on your special Turkey Day post, the present author will attempt to share what coherent thoughts I can while watching Starcrash, the most notorious Star Wars rip-off ever made. I was originally going to explore Star Wars rip-offs in general. But Starcrash is just too much of a treasured gem to stuff into a list of peers.
Starcrash is first of all special because it is so campy, so goofy, so slapdash, that it’s in a class by itself. Second, when you’re talking about ballsy cinematic rip-offs, Italian cinema takes the tiramisu every time. They don’t hesitate to raid American cinema; our westerns became their spaghetti westerns. Our demon-horror wave with Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen begat a decade of their horror knock-offs. When we had Hitchcock, they answered with giallo. Monkey see, monkey do, usually while the original is still in theaters.
Caroline Munro: OK, I get it, Caroline Munro is the most babalicious space babe who ever babed in a B-movie, and lots of reviewers are content to goggle at her Tangrams-bikini for the whole 90 minutes. Y’all too thirsty! Munro has a career encompassing classic cinema franchises like Hammer horror and James Bond; what this means is that she can act. So while her constant smirking sneer in Starcrash is hilarious, she carries it far past the point where we needed to be reminded that she’s not taking this movie seriously for a minute. I’m sorry, I find her annoyingly snotty after awhile. Try listening to the taunting Frenchman from the Monty PythonHoly Grail movie for an hour and a half. That’s what every line from Munro sounds like to me.
Marjoe Gortner: For the love of God, people, you had David Hasselhoff at your disposal, why didn’t you give him the lead? Gortner is so bland, so boring, so inept, that his hair is literally turning him into an oatmeal cookie. I find out his backstory is that radical religious cult weirdos forced him to be a street preacher from early childhood and then he got into acting to rebel, and now I just feel sorry for him.
Robert Tessier: Thank you for being just the right amount of ham. You win the “Damodar from Dungeons & Dragons” prize for “most watchable bald sidekick villain in a cheesy sci-fi flick (sans-blue-lipstick).” Don’t let it go to your adorable bald head.
Joe Spinell:Way too much ham! Stop, please, my arteries are clogging! If you’re going to stand there in a topknot flapping your wings and clucking, the least you can do is lay some eggs for breakfast. Here I’ve already brought up Dungeons & Dragons once and your performance makes Jeremy Irons look tame!
Christopher Plummer: Aw, God bless you, Chris. We already know that you took this role solely for the paid vacation in Rome. No literally, he says in an interview “I’ll do porno in Rome as long as I can get to Rome.” He also mentions the opportunity to ogle Munro up close. And then he turns in his best sparkling ham while practically charging them by the minute. Can’t blame a guy for being a stud.
Hamilton Camp (voice of Elle): Great troll! You make the most powerful case for this movie being an intentional parody, which we will argue in a minute. That southern-fried accent delivery greases every line with a brilliant counter to the prissy accent of C-3PO.
Now for the big fowl we have to fry:
Was Starcrash an intentional parody?
Most of the signs on our Magic 8-Ball point to “yes.” But first…
Cons: The biggest argument against the intentional comedy theory is that it was written and directed by Luigi Cozzi. Cozzi, sometimes working under the pseudonym “Lewis Coates,” seems to have aimed his career at serious horror, and yet every foot of film he touched degenerated into a campy cheese party anyway.
By the way, Cozzi was also a student of Dario Argento, another director known for psychedelic use of color just like he talks about using here in this interview. Cozzi talks like any geek fan, going on about how he loved space adventure as a kid and still loves it now.
The production intention is a complete mystery. Despite many people associating Starcrash as a Roger Corman film, he was never involved in the project and only his distributions companies played a role at the last minute. The actual producers during shooting were the brothers Wachsberger, with just two, count ’em, credits to their name before they disappear back into the Hollywood chum.
Distribution: The original intended distributor was American International Pictures, who passed on Starcrash, and then came New World Pictures to distribute it. Both of these were Corman-attached projects, and both had a track record running from grindhouse trash to serious attempts at horror. Corman was totally down with producing deliberate camp and comedy (Little Shop of Horrors, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School), but if you ask him, he will always be a Serious Producer™.
The bottom line here is that even if this was an intentional comedy, it was likely made that way against the wishes of the production and direction, but done right under their noses anyway. The cast and crew of cheesy B-movies get away with this kind of shtick all the time, mouthing their lines with solemn tones and a wink for the camera that only the editors will see.
Oh come on, look at this…
This is Zarth Arn’s ship. It actually curls into a fist in some scenes. Why? What purpose could that serve?
During the infamous “prison labor” scenes where Stella Star (Munro) is the only prisoner who gets to dress half-naked, listen to the sound effects when they tip one of those white balls into the chute. That is a bowling alley! You can hear each big white marble knocking down pins for a strike when it goes into the chute.
“Planning an escape? THIS is what you’re gonna get, lady!” – Proceeds to get his ass thoroughly handed to him by said lady who leads a single-handed revolt seconds later and promptly escapes. Oh, but the whole space prison colony explodes while she ducks out a doorway that’s been open the entire time, but no worries, she just jumps down to the surface of a nearby planet and trots away. With the twisty zappy gun weapon, no less. And by the way, about that weapon…
Look at the gun from Barbarella (1968), look at the handle, that is the exact same handle! Speaking of Barbarella…
The robots in Barbarella bear more than a passing resemblance to the robot cop Elle in Starcrash. And speaking of other movies…
Stanley Kubrick called, he wants his Eyes Wide Shut orgy circle back. Yes, I know, that was a good two decades earlier, but remember, this movie can “halt the flow of time!” Here’s another movie homage:
The Ray Harryhausen homage, except that the giant robot has boobs. Why do you give a giant robot boobs? What is it going to do, nurse baby robots by lactating oil? Oh, and that “halt the flow of time” bit, that actually happens, verbatim:
Plot ass-pulls like these are gratuitously sprinkled throughout the movie. There’s no way any of this was unintentional. Starcrash was a playground for the cast and crew and everybody had a ball. The producers and writer-director were simply out of the loop.
Conclusion: Starcrash was Spaceballs ahead of its time!
Don’t think for a minute that because Mel Brooks did Spaceballs (1987), that he didn’t respect Star Wars. He’ll tell you himself, every minute of film he shot from Blazing Saddles to Young Frankenstein to High Anxiety, was done with love and passion as an affectionate parody. Nobody could nail parody so well while doing a cheap spoof.
The fact that the parody, not to mention the affection, was sneaked in under the radar in Starcrash doesn’t change a thing. Watch it on a double-bill with Spaceballs, see if you can tell where one ends and the other begins. You can stand to give the Star Wars Holiday Special a rest this year anyway.