THE BOOTLEG FILES: “STARCRASH”

Long ago, in a low-rent Italian galaxy far, far away was the 1979 atrocity “Starcrash.” Unlike the celebrated looniness of The Turkish Star Wars or The Brazilian Star Wars, this Italian rip-off of the Lucas landmark was actually a bit more ambitious. It was also a lot less interesting than the Turkish or Brazilian efforts.

One can easily get a sense of deja vu watching “Starcrash” because it slices and dices “Star Wars” with strange gender and species switching. This time around, Han Solo is a woman: Stella Star, the notorious intergalactic smuggler. While Stella may not possess Han’s roguish charm or piloting skills (she gets arrested by outer space cops in the first 15 minutes of the film), she has something Han didn’t have: a killer body which looks smashing in a leather bikini and knee-high go-go boots. Caroline Munro, the B-Movie goddess, plays Stella and the woman is simply a knockout — even Barney Frank would get an erection watching her.

Chewbacca is not a wookie here, but he is pretty wooly. The shaggy hair belongs to Marjoe Gortner, a one-time evangelist who became a sometime movie actor. Gortner was actually top-billed in “Starcrash,” although his role is actually a supporting part.

C3PO is now Robot “L” of the Galactic Police. He is played by a man wearing a modified spittoon over his head, and he is given a voice which sounds strangely like Yosemite Sam. There’s no R2D2, however, and no Luke Skywalker. But there is Princess Leia, who is now Prince Simon. While Carrie Fisher certainly knew how to lay on the camp in “Star Wars,” she was no match for the one-and-only camp regent David Hasselhoff as Prince Simon. Even in this early outing, Hasselhoff is a wonderfully ridiculous presence. He doesn’t sing nor does he go shirtless (that came later in his career), but he gets to flirt shamelessly with Stella Star in an overboard manner which seems as if he learned the art of dealing with women by watching Benny Hill videos.

In “Starcrash,” Stella and Akton are captured and sentenced to long prison spells for their various smuggling activities. But they get an unexpected reprieve thanks to the Emperor of the First Circle of the Universe, who’s son Prince Simon has fallen into the clutches of Count Zarth Arn, who is trying to take over the universe. Get it — Zarth, rhymes with Darth? Count Zarth looks more like Ming the Merciless from the “Flash Gordon” series, but never mind. The pair, along with Robot L and a bald yellow-green man named Thor, zoom into hyperspace and wind up in several unlikely sidetrips, including a struggle with the Queen of the Amazon and her all-girl army and a bash with a brigade of hirsute cavemen. Don’t ask how Amazons or cavemen got into outer space.

Besides ripping off “Star Wars,” the film also pays dubious homage to “Jason and the Argonauts” with a sequence involving a large statue chasing the itty-bitty humans (but this statue has pointy breasts) and there’s also a riff on “Forbidden Planet” with mind-activated Monsters of the Id (the fact anyone in this film would even know what an “id” is ensures it is pure fantasy).

To its credit, “Starcrash” attempts to show some class with a couple of heavy-hitters. The Simon-less Emperor is none other than Christopher Plummer, who gives plummy line readings to his anemic dialogue. Plummer seems to be in another movie with his impassioned and emotional acting. Also slumming from the A-list was composer John Barry, who put this muck to music. Barry must have written the score while sitting on the toilet, because it is the most constipated composition ever to grace a space adventure soundtrack.

But to be frank, this “Italian Star Wars” is not memorable. It is not putrid (certainly not whenever Caroline Munro bumps and grinds across the screen — tits ahoy, Stella!). And there are plenty of diversions to keep one amused (the idea of Christopher Plummer fathering David Hasselhoff would make any geneticist apoplectic). The production values (or lack thereof) are also a hoot. It seems as if every plastic spaceship from the Roman toy stores was used here. The costumes are even crazier: old fashioned quasi-military uniforms, capes and leather helmets which look as if they came out the original “Flash Gordon” serials.

But ultimately, the film just never clicks. The beauty of “The Turkish Star Wars” and “The Brazilian Star Wars” is that they both used the Lucas movie as a buffet, picking and choosing pieces which were then plopped down haphazardly into completely ridiculous new adventures. “Starcrash,” however, apes “Star Wars” to the point that it has no life or soul of its own. It’s just another mediocre space chase, not a subversive classic.

Roger Corman picked up “Starcrash” for the U.S. market, and sought to disguise its Italian roots by anglicizing the name of its director (filmmaker Luigi Cozzi became “Lewis Coates” — did the DGA know about this?). The film was dropped in theaters like a cold meatball, and Corman later tried to sneak it back as “The Adventures of Stella Star.”

While Americans avoided the film, “Starcrash” did enough business overseas to warrant “Starcrash 2,” also known as “Escape from Galaxy 3″ (albeit with a different cast). That sequel never crossed the Atlantic.

“Starcrash” was on U.S. home video in the early 1980s, but it has been out of print for many years. A DVD was released in Italy and several e-commerce sites offer it for import. But honestly, outside of some foaming-at-the-mouth David Hasselhoff fans, the American audience for “Starcrash” is fairly limited. Some goofball distributor might bother clearing the rights to it in the near future, but in the interim some good bootlegs are out there to satisfy the (very) curious.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on May 13, 2005 in Features by
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