Despite my near-fanboyish pronouncements, Starcrash is a deeply flawed film. Stella’s co-pilot Akton (Marjoe Gortner) isn’t a character; he’s a convenient plot device and exposition delivery system. He makes Qui-Gon Jinn look like Luke Skywalker.
And the “special” effects look like something a child would put together at the last minute the night before the science fair. And that’s not too far from the truth. The producers expected Star Wars-quality work on a total effects budget of only $30,000. Effects whiz Armando Valcaudo toiled tirelessly for months on end, without pay – and paying his assistants out of his own pocket – just to keep up with the workload. A workload that increased on a daily basis as the overly ambitious producers conceived more and more elaborate action sequences. By the end, the producers couldn’t afford to rent studio space for Valcaudo, so he finished his effects work alone in a small barn filled with chickens and geese.
Taking these horrific working conditions into consideration, Valcaudo’s garishly colourful effects achieve a quirky handmade quality that stands out as wholly original and unique, especially compared to the glossy, assembly line CGI of today. Some might call it tacky vulgarity. I call it a “European sensibility”.
Ignore the negative comparisons to Star Wars. Starcrash isn’t trying to be Star Wars. Starcrash is a faithful recreation of – not an homage to – cheesy ‘30s sci-fi serials, complete with stilted acting, improbable plots twists, and incompetently shoddy special effects.
Comparing Star Wars to Starcrash is like comparing Hugo (2011) to The Artist (2011). Both pay tribute to early cinema. One is a lavish Hollywood production employing the latest advances in cinematography and special effects. The other is a low budget foreign film that recreates the conventions of the genre it celebrates. Both are great films.
Starcrash is more fun than Star Wars and sexier than Barbarella (1968). And it thankfully lacks the latter film’s leering gaze and creepy sexual idiosyncrasies. Stella didn’t need to strip naked and have sex to be sexy. Stella could do it all with just a raised eyebrow. And did I mention the sexist Southern robot?
4 ½ Sexist Southern Robots out of 5
Guilty pleasure or misunderstood masterpiece, Starcrash is a quirky spaghetti sci-fi thrill ride.
NOTE: In all my years writing this schlock column, this is the first near-perfect score I’ve ever given out. I thought that Starcrash, with its combination of dime store effects, awkward dialogue, and David Hasselhoff would be the perfect storm of cinematic suckitude. But I was shocked by how much I loved it. Just as David Hasselhoff singing on the Berlin Wall signaled a new era of peace, so too does the Hoff swinging a lightsaber signal a new and equally glorious moment in Lackluster Video history.
A truly glorious moment indeed.
Joe Spinell (Zarth Arn) is a revered character actor most noted for playing tough street hoods. He’s appeared in some of the most important films of the ‘70s, including The Godfather (1972), The Godfather: Part II (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), and Rocky (1976).
Like most Italian productions at the time, Starcrash was filmed without recorded sound. The producers couldn’t afford to fly Caroline Munro to Los Angeles to do any ADR. All her dialogue was dubbed over by Candy Clark, best known for her roles in George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973) and Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). She also played Buffy’s mom in the original movie version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) and Kathy’s mom in the Vanilla Ice passion project Cool as Ice (1991).
The production was so short of cash that the unpaid crew regularly went on strike. Joe Spinell reportedly attacked producers Nat and Pat Wachsberger with a knife, just so he could get his meal per diem. Later that same day the production ran out of film and money. Plans were made to scrap a major scene in which Zarth Arn delivers big speech to the heroes. Spinell gave up his per diem to pay for more film.
Cinematographer Paul Beeson later served as Second Unit Photographer on all the major action sequences in the ‘80s Indiana Jones films, including the classic truck chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
“Elle”, the Southern robot gunslinger, was played by Caroline Munro’s then-husband Judd Hamilton. Hamilton was reportedly very difficult to work with and made several demands during the production; among them were that his wife stop wearing such revealing outfits and that the ending be changed so that Stella doesn’t marry Crown Prince Simon or even kiss him. He also added a creepy romantic subplot between Stella and the robot. All of these demands were met.
This is Hasselhoff’s second film role. His first was in Revenge of the Cheerleaders (1976) as “Boner”.
Marjoe Gortner (Akton) was a traveling child evangelist in the 1940s. As a young man he briefly worked as a shoe salesman. He was widely believed to be the best shoe salesman in the U.S. due to his patented “Gortner Method”. Gortner later took part in a documentary exposing corruption in the Pentecostal ministry. Marjoe (1972) went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. In 1978 he married Candy Clark, the voice of Stella Star. They divorced a year later.
When the producers approached John Barry, the Oscar-winning James Bond composer, to score Starcrash, they didn’t want to show him the film, fearing he’d turn down the job. When they did show him the film, they claimed that all the finished effects shots were “just placeholders for the real effects”.
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