After the Star Wars became an international sensation, Luigi Cozzi (the batshit insane Hercules movies with Lou Ferrigno, Contamination and more) was able to round up a decent budget to make a film called Empire of the Stars, which eventually became this film. Cozzi battled against food poisoning of the cast and crew and even a Communist worker revolt which led to the movie being held for ransom to deliver a film that doesn’t look anything like Star Wars. Nope, Starcrash is the very definition of what I love in a film, a movie that takes inspiration from one source and then piles on the crazy and weird to bring you something you’ve never quite seen before. Maybe that’s because Cozzi never saw Star Wars and only read the novelization of the film!
In a galaxy far, far…yeah. You know what I mean. Anyways, Count Zarth Ann (Joe Spinell — yes, Frank Zito from Maniac is playing Darth Vader and if that instantly doesn’t tell you why this is such a great movie, not much else will) is taking over the galaxy with his giant fist shaped spaceship. Already, I love this movie more than anything that will come out this year.
Stella Star (Caroline Munro, Faceless, Slaughter High, The Spy Who Loved Me, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, Dracula A.D. 1972, Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter…can you tell that someone likes Ms. Munro?) and Akton (Marjoe fucking Gortner, a former child preacher that exposed the faith healing racket in 1972’s Oscar-winning documentary Marjoe, as well as recording the album “Bad, but not Evil” and appearing in The Food of the Gods and Mausoleum…can you tell someone likes Mr. Gortner?) discover a body in hibernation as they go through some space wreckage, but are caught by the Imperial Space Police’s Sheriff Elle (a robot with a voice straight out of a spaghetti western) and the green-skinned Chief Thor (Robert Tessier, who formed Stunts Unlimited with director Hal Needham) and sentenced to life on separate prison planets.
Stella breaks out of her sentence almost immediately and is recaptured by Elle and Thor, who also have Akton. The Emperor of the Galaxy (Christopher Plummer, who shot all his scenes on a sound stage in a few days, saying “Give me Rome any day. I’ll do porno in Rome, as long as I can get to Rome.”) thanks them for recovering the survivor. He informs them of his battle with Zarth Arn and asks for their help in finding his weapon and two other escape pods — one of which may contain his son.
A quick note — only Marjoe Gortner, David Hasselhoff, Christopher Plummer and Joe Spinell dubbed their voices (Spinell also worked as a dialogue coach on the set) due to budgetary concerns. That’s why Elle is played by one actor (Judd Hamilton) and voiced over by another (Hamilton Camp). And it’s also why the English-speaking Caroline Munro has the voice of Candy Clark (Gortner’s wife at the time)!
The film turns into a series of adventures — much like a movie serial — where our heroine goes from planet to planet, battling all manner of creatures and races. Like a world full of Amazons that have a gigantic female robot — in glorious stop-motion — that fires a giant sword as it menaces Elle and Stella. Or Thor revealing himself to be Zarth Arn’s Prince of Darkness and stranding everyone on a snow planet where Elle sacrifices himself by giving his body temperature to save Stella (Elle’s line “Now, maybe it’s time to use your ancient system of prayer and hope that it works for robots as well” is one of the most poignant I’ve heard in a movie. Forget for a second that this is a low budget space opera and just indulge yourself in the pathos!)!
Actually, Thor never gets the chance, as Akton straight up murders him and then brings Elle and Stella back from the dead.
Finally, our heroes discover the location of the third pod, but are attacked by Zarth Arn’s red field. As they land and inspect the pod, cavemen attack and tear Elle to pieces. However, a man in a gold mask fires laser bolts from his eyes and saves them. That man is the Emperor’s son, Prince Simon (holy shit, it’s David Hasselhoff!) and Akton comes back and uses a laser sword (not a lightsabre) to take out the rest of the cavemen. But there’s bad news — this is the Count’s planet!
Guards capture everyone and the Count reveals his plan to lure the Emperor here and blow up the planet with him on it. He leaves and orders several robots to keep watch. Akton fights and destroys them, but is mortally wounded. Before he dies, he explains that he has accepted his fate, a really strange speech in a movie that is filled with such science fiction action. It’s like a Zen koan inside a box of sugary breakfast cereal.
The Emperor arrives and uses a green ray to stop time, saving everyone, as he says, “You know, my son, I wouldn’t be Emperor of the Galaxy if I didn’t have some powers at my disposal. Imperial Battleship, halt the flow of time!” Yes, Starcrash has some of the most ridiculous dialogue ever and I could not be happier about it.
A huge space battle breaks out, with rockets filled with suicide troopers and explosions and planets being threatened and the Emperor deciding to ram his ship, the Floating City, into the Count’s ship to kill them both. However, Elle has been repaired (“It’s so nice to be turned on again.”), which means he and Stella volunteer to do the suicide mission…which they survive.
Simon picks up our heroes and the Emperor gives this speech, another reminder of Starcrash’s power of language: “Well, it’s done. It’s happened. The stars are clear. The planets shine. We’ve won. Oh. Some dark force, no doubt, will show its face once more. The wheel will always turn; but for now, it’s calm. And for a little time, at least, we can rest.”
Sadly, Cozzi planned a sequel to the film titled Star Riders, which would have starred Klaus Kinski, Nancy Kwan and Jack Rabin. And it’s $12 million dollar budget was to come from Cannon Films! I weep for what has not been! And Escape from Galaxy 3 is also known as Starcrash 2, using tons of footage from the original and it has a heroine named Princess Belle Star.
Starcrash holds fond memories for me, because I saw it on a double bill with tomorrow’s film, Battle Beyond the Stars, at the Spotlite 88 Drive-In Theater. I vividly remember my dad laughing through most of the movie, but really liking the part where the rockets were fired into the Count’s ship and men jumped out of them. For the next several months, I thought more about these two films than Star Wars — we still had another year to go before The Empire Strikes Back as this was in the days before constant Star Wars-related media.
If you’re looking to watch this film — and you totally should be — the Shout! Factory collector’s edition of this film is the perfect package. It’s got liner notes and commentary by Stephen Romano, interviews with Munro and Cozzi, the original script and the trailer, with commentary by Eli Roth and Joe Dante (this was the last trailer Dante cut for Corman). It was also riffed on the last season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on NetFlix, but you should really watch this with no commentary other than your own shouts of happiness.
Update: You can watch this for free with an Amazon Prime membership.