It could be argued that Star Wars stole the mojo away from exploitation cinema, with its success proving to Hollywood that they could use their professional-quality resources to mine the same schlocky vein of gold in a more profitable way than their drive-in competitors — and cut them out of the competition in the process. Over the next decade, the great indie schlock merchants like American International and New World Pictures gradually died out or unsuccessfully tried to become more Hollywood-ized as audiences became accustomed to bigger, better Hollywood versions of their fare.
But damn if the schlockmeisters didn’t try to take that mojo right back in the first few years of the post–Star Wars epoch: films like Starship Invasions, Battle Beyond The Stars and countless others from around the world did their damndest to steal George Lucas’ thunder as they buried cosmically-dazzled moviegoers in a tidal wave of bargain-basement space operas. Every fan has their favorite Star Wars ripoffs from this era but few inspire as much awe and twisted respect as Starcrash. For many an exploitation flick veteran, this Italian opus remains the last word in Lucas-sploitation.
This kitsch-in-sync opus tells the tale of one Stella Star (1970’s fantasy-flick bombshell Caroline Munro), an interstellar pirate who dodges the imperial guard with the help of her super-powered companion, Akton (Marjoe Gortner). Her devil-may-care life takes a turn for the heroic when the Emperor (a drugged-looking Christopher Plummer) enlists her in his battle against the evil Count Zarth Arn (Joe Spinell), a megalomaniac who plans to conquer the galaxy utilizing a secret planet that hides high-powered weaponry. The Emperor also hope that Stella can find his son, who disappeared in a crash while trying to find the Count’s weapons.
From there on, Stella races from cliffhanger to cliffanger with Akton and Texan-accented robot Elle (voiced by Hamilton Camp) — who looks the walking version of a futuristic vibrator — providing assistance. Stella’s adventures find her coming into conflict with a race of Amazons, a giant, sword-wielding statue, a planet of cave-dwelling Neanderthals and the aforementioned Count Zarth Arn and his horde of black-suited bad guy soldiers. There’s also a trip to a deadly ice planet, a battle in a slave colony and the sudden appearance of David Hasselhoff (!) as an unexpected ally. It all culminates in a cut-rate interstellar space battle that reveals the brain-twisting definition of the film’s title.
No objective critic could call Starcrash a “good movie” — the seams are constantly showing on its visual effects, the plotting is daft and the performances veer into camp surrealism thanks to a combination of wild-eyed theatrics and goofball post-synch dubbing. However, to call it a “bad movie” would be to miss the point entirely.
It manages to transcend its amateurishness and its habit of wildly overreaching beyond its talent/resource limitations through the pure-hearted love it expresses for its subject matter. Director Luigi Cozzi was a sci-fi buff from childhood and he invests every frame of the film with that diehard passion for cosmic adventures. This combination of intense genre-love and the total inability to discern what is believable/acceptable in a film ensures that every reel of Starcrash is packed with schlocky magic.
There’s no end to the mind-bending delights this film offers. The starscapes of outer space feature colored lights, stop-motion animated creatures lurch about like drunken hoboes and overlit spaceship models zoom about without any tricky opticals in sight — but it’s all presented in such a deadpan, “we really mean it” style that the audience is left feeling like they’ve slipped into an altered state. The presence of random collection of recognizable faces — all joyously hamming it up in a way unique to European genre fare — and regal fanfares on the soundtrack from James Bond film composer John Barry push the film’s surrealistic ante in the stratosphere. That the film offers a rare leading role for Munro — who informs her role with contagious excitement — is the cherry atop the schlock sundae.
Better yet, Cozzi doesn’t limit himself to borrowing from Star Wars. Despite being built around a “brave space pilots take on a Death Star-type fortress” hook, there’s much more going on in Starcrash. The story’s structure is built around the kind of cliffhanger structure created by the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials, the concept/visual design of Stella Star incorporates cheeky lifts from Barbarella as well as Vampirella and the periodic uses of stop-motion animation — particularly a scene with Gortner using a lightsab- uh, laser sword to fight a pair of cutlass-wielding robots — was directly inspired by Ray Harryhausen’s films. You’ve got to love a guy who gets hired to rip off Star Wars and instead makes a feature-length homage to every sci-fi and fantasy film he’s ever loved.
The finished assemblage is overwhelming in the best sense of that word. Like the finest schlock merchants, Cozzi lifts everything that isn’t nailed down from his inspirations, blends the multitude of influences into a crazed hybrid that doesn’t fret about logic or aesthetic purity and then hurls it at you at blitzkrieg speed. The result dazzles you into submission, schlock-style, especially that final space-battle sequence (a veritable psychedelic riot of multicolored stars and exploding modelships). As a result, the finished film feels like the collective id of Cozzi and his collaborators has been dumped out onto the big screen.
To sum up, Starcrash is the end-all, be-all of interstellar schlock, the Bizarro World mirror image of Star Wars — and its every bit as wonderfully synapse-frying as that description suggests. No collection of space-schlock is complete without it.