Part 18: If we could borrow wars…
“Kid’s nuts! He’s seen Star Wars five times!” a small-town policeman (Dennis Burkley) says of a nerdy, excitable witness named Froggy (Eddie Deezen) who claims to have witnessed a flying saucer destroying a car in the low-budget film Laserblast. Later, Star Wars gets another reference when the the film’s protagonist, an often-shirtless kid being driven mad by his contact with an alien weapon, blows up a billboard with the film’s title on it. By the time Laserblast appeared in 1978, a lot of movies had Star Wars on their minds. Following its success, and the success of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, the rush was on to become the next Star Wars—or, failing that, to feed the apparently bottomless demand for science fiction that had seemed to arrive out of nowhere. What followed was a deluge of science-fiction films, many of them rushed into production in an attempt to capitalize on what might just be a passing craze. “The kids are nuts for space movies now,” the logic went, “so let’s load ’em up with space movies until they decide they want something else.”
In the three-year gap between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, film after film appeared thanks to that logic, with a surprising number of them able to make it into theaters just a year or so after Star Wars’ release. Some movies are easy to rip off on a low budget, as evidenced by the pile-up of slasher movies that started appearing seemingly from the moment news of Halloween’s box-office returns was passed around. In that case, all anyone needed was a knife, some screaming victims, and a halfway novel premise. (Or sometimes just a knife and some screaming victims.) Star Wars isn’t one of those cheaply reproducable films, yet that didn’t stop some producers from trying.
Or half-trying. The sole directorial effort of Michael Rae, Laserblast was made, cheaply, for Charles Band, a producer/director who helped stock video-store shelves with colorful B-movies in the 1980s and 1990s via his companies Empire International Pictures and Full Moon Features. Laserblast runs 82 minutes, counting an endless opening-credits sequence, and it has enough plot to fill half that running time, tops. Its premise is simple. Billy (Kim Millford, a Mark Hamill lookalike who next appeared alongside Hamill himself in Corvette Summer) is a misfit teen in a California desert town. Neglected by his mother, awkward around kids his own age, except for his girlfriend Kathy (Cheryl Smith), he stumbles on a weapon left behind by an alien visitor killed by a pair of lizard-like rival aliens in the film’s opening scene. (Those lizard aliens, the creation of stop-motion artist Dave Allen, give the film its best moments.) Taking the weapon in hand and pairing it with a necklace he wears around his neck, Billy starts laserblasting the landscape. When the landscape isn’t enough, he starts using the weapon on other targets, zeroing in on Chuck (Mike Bobenko) and Froggy after they attempt to rape Kathy. But as his violence grows, the necklace starts to embed itself in his chest, and Billy grows more monstrous in appearance.
Laserblast has developed a reputation as an all-time worst movie over the years, thanks largely to its appearance in a memorable 1996 episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. With plenty of dead time between the action—what action there is—and more feathered hair and gratuitous bikini shots than an episode of CHiPs, it provided ideal fodder for the show. It fared little better in its own time. Janet Maslin wrote a dismissive review for The New York Times that spent as much time describing a fellow moviegoer who shouted the word “Meatball!” at the screen as it spent on any aspect of the film. Most other publications didn’t bother when the movie made it to theaters in the early summer of 1978.
But it’s wrong to dismiss Laserblast outright. There’s a cruddy creepiness to Roddy McDowall’s scene as a doctor perplexed by the strange object in Billy’s chest. And there’s a good idea at the film’s core, one that uses science-fiction equipment as a catalyst for a story about how revenge and power corrupt, and how righteous fury becomes unmistakable from the injustice it sets out to correct. Years later, Daniel Clowes used a similar plot for his powerful 2004 story “The Death Ray,” later reworked into a graphic novel of the same name. Did Clowes ever watch Laserblast? Few did when it played theaters, but it’s possible he ran into it on TV years later, its amateurishness and sluggish pacing taking on an ominous quality in the bleary stretches of the late-night hours. No doubt others did find this strange, ugly movie about a sickly teen on a laser-fueled killing spree and wonder what they were watching. It’s the sort of bad movie that gets reprocessed as tomorrow’s nightmares.
Laserblast wasn’t the only Star Wars-inspired film from the class of ’78 destined to end up in the land of hazy memories. But in Japan at least, Message From Space was ahead of the competition, with its April 1978 première beating Star Wars to theaters by several months. Then again, Japan was slightly ahead of the rest of the world in its thirst for science fiction. Message From Space arrived on the heels of Space Battleship Yamato, a big-screen compilation of the anime series that for a time became Japan’s highest-grossing domestic film of all time. Its success prompted a desire for more uchu roman, or “romantic space opera.” (It was later reworked for Western audiences as Star Blazers.) As August Ragone and Patrick Macias observe in their liner notes to the DVD edition of Message From Space, “from a Japanese perspective, Message From Space is a contributor to this genre—not merely an opportunistic imitator.”
Nonetheless, everyone at Toei Company had clearly studied Star Wars. From the elaborate sets to its cute robot sidekick to its laser-wielding, stormtrooper-like bad guys, Message From Space bears the influence of Lucas’ film. And though the plot has some nutty elements—literally—it resembles it in other ways as well, as a ragtag bunch of good guys unite to take on a bad guy. For the script, manga writer Shotaro Ishinomori drew from Nansō Satomi Hakkenden, a much-adapted 106-volume 19th-century novel. Those unfamiliar with that work could be forgiven for thinking the film borrowed from The Seven Samurai, as warriors joined together one by one to fight a seemingly overwhelming enemy. Kurosawa’s film clearly drew from the same well of heroic folklore as Message From Space’s source, and when talking about any of these movies, the distinction between who influenced what gets pretty muddy. Message From Space derives from Star Wars, which derives from many sources, Kurosawa among them. (A few years later, Battle Beyond The Stars completed the circle by essentially remaking The Seven Samurai, but that’s a subject for a future installment.)
And for all the similarities between the two films, Message From Space is very much its own, bizarre movie, playing like a cross between a live-action anime, a something-for-all-markets international co-production, and an attempt to do Star Wars on the cheap. (Though it was the biggest-budgeted Japanese film at the time.) Perhaps unavoidably, it’s not entirely successful, but it’s seldom boring, as director Kinji Fukasaku keeps it moving from one strange setpiece to another. Fukasaku, who worked steadily until his death in 2003 and ended his career with the cult favorite Battle Royale, was coming off the success of his gangster films—most notably the Battles Without Honor And Humanity series—when he made Message From Space. He uses a handheld, you-are-there approach to the action scenes that’s exciting and chaotic-looking, and has little resemblance to how Lucas would stage such a scene.
The film’s oddness keeps it compelling when the action doesn’t: The plot concerns the oppressed planet of Jillucia, which, when overrun by the “steel-skinned hordes” of the Gavanas Empire, sends out eight nut-like “seeds”—dead ringers for walnuts—that glow when they encounter the eight heroic warriors who might able to defeat the forces of Gavanas and the villainous Emperor Rockseia XII (Mikio Narita). These ultimately include the heroic Prince Hans (Sonny Chiba), the hard-drinking Earthling General Garuda (Vic Morrow), Garuda’s faithful robot companion Beba-2 (Isamu Shimizu), and others. The plot’s convolutions bring them together, watching as one would-be hero betrays the others, then rejoins them. The film breaks out into the occasional space battle. And in one bizarre sequence, it pauses for a frolic among “space fireflies.” There’s also a flying schooner, the sort of detail that wouldn’t give anime viewers pause, but it looks odd next to all the Star Wars-inspired special effects.
Though Message From Space was a big hit in Japan, it did less-than-phenomenal business in America, thanks in part to poor reviews. Writing for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Greg Moody’s response was typical: “[T]he message from space in Message From Space is, “STAY AWAY FROM THIS MOVIE.” On Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s Sneak Previews, it earned the less-than-coveted “Dog Of The Week” honor. But the film deserves a bit more credit than that. It’s fun, for instance, to watch Morrow act his heart out in a scene in which he honors a fallen robot companion. And the model and miniature designs and effects are quite accomplished. They look great when they’re standing still, and they almost move convincingly, even though Fukasaku had to work with usually obvious wires rather than ILM’s state-of-the-art motion-controlled cameras. As an attempt to copy Star Wars, it falls well short. But as a Japanese variation on Star Wars-inspired themes, it has its own appeal.
Japan wasn’t the only country with filmmakers rushing to imitate Star Wars. Since the spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s, the Italian film industry had become well-equipped to feed the demand for whatever genre of film came into vogue, from Westerns to gangster films to Exorcist-inspired horror movies. The best projects put their own spin on the material. Even the worst usually had a certain energy. Starcrash, the first Italian response to Star Wars, should be filed in the “a certain energy” category.
On one of two commentary tracks supplied for the film’s Blu-ray and DVD edition, writer and Starcrash aficionado Stephen Romano describes the film as “an Italian film produced by French people starring British people inspired by every American trend going on in film around that time.” To break that down a bit, it was produced by the father/son team of Nat and Patrick Waschberger, the latter now a successful producer most recently responsible for the Step Up series. A French immigrant, Nat was a Hollywood veteran, having worked in the industry since the 1940s. He’d also recently made the mistake of producing the never-released Jerry Lewis Holocaust film The Day The Clown Cried. Perhaps looking for a sure thing, he partnered with Italian director Luigi Cozzi, a rock journalist and agent to science-fiction writers who’d become a protégé to horror and suspense master Dario Argento.
With Star Wars still unreleased in Italy, Cozzi had to draw from the Italian translation of Alan Dean Foster’s novelization for inspiration, which set a pattern of secondhand inspiration. Armando Valcaudo, the film’s key special effects artist, first watched Star Wars on a bootleg videotape in the Waschberger’s office. With everyone working quickly, it’s little wonder the cast seems drawn from a hat. The key role of scantily clad space warrior Stella Star—the film was called The Adventures Of Stella Star for a while—went to Hammer Films and Bond series veteran Caroline Munro, who both looks right for the part and never cracks a smile, no matter how silly the film gets. Child-evangelist-turned-actor Marjoe Gortner is surprisingly uncharismatic as Akton, her partner in heroics. Rounding out the key players: Elle (Judd Hamilton) a cowardly robot who speaks in an accent on loan from Mr. Ed, and provided by another actor. Christopher Plummer delivers an extremely grave performance as The Emperor. And as Simon, the Emperor’s adventurous son, the filmmakers revcruited a young American actor from the soap-opera world: David Hasselhoff.
Talking to Starlog at the time, Hasselhoff described a chaotic shoot in which he had to use sign language to make himself understood while dealing with constant rewrites. “They came to us one day and said, ‘Here is the ending of the movie’,” Hasselhoff recalled. “We read it and couldn’t understand it, so Christopher Plummer, Judd Hamilton […] and I rewrote it.” Predictably, the seams show. What’s remarkable is that the film didn’t turn out worse than it did, thanks in part to a rousing John Barry score and a degree of technical competence. As with Message From Space, the model design borrows liberally from Star Wars, but the effects crew lacks the skill to pull off the illusion of space travel. Instead, the ships look like cool models floating against an almost-convincing backdrop. The laser swords could almost pass as lightsabers, even when being wielded by stop-motion robots that interact awkwardly with human actors. The prevailing sense is one of everyone doing the best they can, all things considered.
The story is fun, but it’s a mess. Though Stella owes her look to Barbarella, the film isn’t knowing enough to be camp. And it isn’t slick enough to emulate Star Wars convincingly, particularly by the time the gang fights cavemen from another planet and confronts tough-talking Amazonians. It’s a knock-off with its own bizarre, continental character, which didn’t help it find an audience at the time. Despite being rushed into production, Starcrash didn’t see a U.S. release until 1979, playing to little notice and unkind reviews. (The VHS era, in which lovers-of-weird made it a cult item, was much kinder to it.) If, a year earlier, audiences might have bought a ticket just to take another trip into space—any trip into space—they had other options by then, with more to come, including some startling original visions. But the deluge of cash-ins wasn’t over yet.
Next: The deluge of cash-ins continues.