SATURDAY AFTERNOON B-MOVIE CRAPFEST: “Battle Beyond the Stars” (1980)

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There are all kinds of bad movies. There’s the bad ones that are so bad as to be simply unwatchable - pretty much anything by Andy Warhol, for instance - and then there’s the bad ones of no particular distinction that are simply forgotten - “Starship Invasions” staring Robert Vaughn comes to mind. There are movies that get the rep of being terrible, but actually aren’t that bad - “The Giant Gila Monster” is all kinds of dumb, for instance, but there’s an earnest sweetness to it people overlook. There are bad films that come close to brilliant conceptually, but their own ponderosity strangles them (“The Black Hole,” “Creation of the Humanoids“). There are movies which somehow become ironically bad - “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” As I say, there’s all manner of bad movies. And then there’s the unabashedly bad films that really are entertainingly awful, and yet somehow fail to ever really get their due.

This, my friends, is one of them.

Let’s get the gonzo stuff out of the way: I first saw “Battle Beyond the Stars” during its theatrical release. My folks were out of town, and left me with my Aunt and Uncle. If I was good at school, they’d let me choose the movie Friday night. I chose this one. We went down to the AMC theater - same one my Uncle had taken me to see “Apocalypse Now” in a year before, the previous time my folks had been out of town. (There were only two screens. The only other choice was a re-release of “Fiddler on the Roof,” and I sure as heck wasn’t going to sit through some fruity musical). I enjoyed the movie (Battle Beyond the Stars, I mean, not Apocalypse Now, which traumatized me. It was my first R-rated film. I was 12 at the time), but I was fully aware it was pretty stupid.

Afterwards, we went out for pizza, and my aunt wouldn’t shut up about “The woman with the grapefruit boobs.”

In the beginning, you see, there was “The Seven Samurai” by Akira Kurisawa. This begat “The Magnificent Seven,” an American Western remake. This begat “To Kill a Dragon,” a Chinese remake, or possibly a knockoff. This begat “Liu He Quian Sho,” a Japanese Karate knockoff. This begat “Battle Beyond the Stars,” which in turn begat “Seven Magnificent Gladiators,” an Italian knockoff, which begat “The Three Amigos,” an American parody of all the knockoffs, which, in turn, begat “Dikiy Vostok,” a truly weird Russian film about some midgets who hire guys to protect them from a biker gang. This begat “A Bug’s Life,” which itself begat a somewhat half-assed knockoff called “The Final Assault,” which begat “Samurai 7,” a cartoon remake of the original.

Nor has the rampant begatery stopped there. I’m not even mentioning the movies that rip off the “Assemble the heroes” sequence in the first half. Nor the endless knockoffs in print. The first Star Wars comic after the original movie adaptation was “Magificent Seven” in space, and there have been dozens more. It’s one of those easy, basic stories that grab people, and will continue No, I think the Begating has only Begun.

Anyway: this movie is basically that. It’s “The Magnificent Seven” in space. As told by Roger Corman. Badly. And yet not entirely so badly as I’d assumed over the thirty-one years since I last watched the film.

PLAY BY PLAY

What, you really want me to tell you the story of The Magnificent Seven? You don’t know it? Ok, fine:

First of all we’re introduced to John Saxon, who’s the bad guy. He’s calling himself “Sador of the Malnouri” or, occasionally, “Sador of the Mal-Mori.” They didn’t do a lot of retakes on this flick. Whatever he calls himself, however, he’ll always be “Lord Comb-over” to me. Sador’s ship blows up a space station for no good reason other than, “Hey, we’ve got a model of a space station!” He then hovers over the *only* town on the planet Akira, and informs them they’re now his colony and he’ll be back in a week to take their harvest. That’s right kids, this is probably the only schlock SF film in history to revolve around stealing grain as a plot device. He points out that he’s got a “Stellar Converter,” which is similar to the planet killing beam from Star Wars, but requires less postproduction special effects, and that he’ll kill ‘em all but good if they try any funny stuff. Then he kills a bunch of ‘em anyway, just to kill some time. He leaves a fighter in orbit to guard the planet, and goes off to harass some Shriners or something.

Now, the planet Akira, as everyone knows, is composed entirely of earth-tone wearing 1970s hippies who have rejected violence in service of something called “The Vardas.” This might be a scripture, or it might be a social custom, or, hell, it might be a Doors cover band. (“Hi! We’re the Vardas, and tonight we’re gonna’ be playing the 25-minute-long version of ‘The End,’ so drop ‘em if you’ve got ‘em now, and it should just kick in by the time we start…”) It’s never entirely clear. Anyway, because of their utterly unrealistic (In both senses of the word) pacifist leanings, they’re useless in a fight. After some debate, Marta Kristen (!) from Lost in Space decides to send her brother, John Boy Walton, off to find some mercenaries who’ll fight for them. There’s an old pirate or something - a little unclear - named “Zed” (Jeff Corey)living on the planet. He loans his space ship, “Nel,” and off they go. Nel is, of course, a sass-talkin’ sentient starship. They quickly manage to outrun the fighter.

They come across - I’m not making this up - a space truck being driven by a space trucker who goes by the name of “Space Cowboy” (George Pepard). He’s being attacked by space carjackers called - again, I’m not making this up - “Jackers.” Cowboy is out of ammo, singing to himself, pretty drunk, and sending out a pretty apathetic distress signal (“This is space cowboy from the planet earth. S.O.S., Mayday, haaaaalp” all said completely disinterestedly). John Boy Walton has some moral qualms about killing the jackers, so Nel takes command and kills them for him. John Boy and Cow Boy hit it off. Meanwhile, Lord Comb Over destroys the Planet of Shriners for no adequately defined reason. This irritates Cowboy, as his load was weapons for the Shriners, and now he’s got no customer. John Boy Walton suggests that his people will buy the weapons, and Cowboy agrees, but explains that he ain’t a-gonna’ fight Lord Comb-Over ’cuz that’s just a death sentence. John Boy heads off alone.

He arrives at Hephestus Station to meet Doctor Hephestus, an old friend of Zed. Hephaestus is literally just a talking head, who’s wired himself into the space station as a body. He decides to forcibly mate John Boy to his skinny stoner daughter so there’ll be kids on the station. Nanelia - the daughter (Let’s just call her “Nan”) - seems up for the idea, but ultimately relents. John Boy escapes, and then she decides to head off in her own ship like 30 seconds later, rather than leaving with him. Reason? “Hey, we’ve got another space ship model!”

John Boy then gets attacked by “The Woman With The Grapefruit Boobs” (As my aunt Marge dubbed her), known to the world of men as “Sybil Danning.” She insists on being part of his quest, but John Boy inexplicably is a jerk to her. He goes and lands on an abandoned planet and discovers a retired gunslinger who’s basically hiding out from the zillion people who want him dead. Great dialog:

John Boy: “We’re hiring mercenaries to protect us, but we can’t offer much in payment. Just a place to live, food…”
Gunslinger: “I am very good at what I do. I settle disputes. Quickly. I am very well paid for my services. I could buy your planet a dozen times over just with what’s in this room.”
John Boy: “Well, I’m sorry to have taken up your time. I’ll be going…”
Gunslinger: “Listen to the rest of it: There’s not a planet in this galaxy where there isn’t a price on my head. I eat snakes seven times a week because there’s no restaurant I can go to without someone trying to kill me. The prospect of a home and a good meal has a lot of appeal to me.”

The dead-eyed gunslinger is played by Robert Vaughn, who *ALSO* played the dead-eyed gunslinger in “The Magnificent Seven.” Even some of the dialog is very similar. I can’t decide if that’s really inspired stunt casting, or if it’s just really lazy.

("Oooh! I like Robert Vaughn!" my Aunt Marge declared when he turned up)

Meanwhile, Nan has been captured by a guy in a really bad lizard mask who hunts space protein monsters or something. His crew consists of two earless midgets called “Kelvin” who communicate by heat, and a beefy guy named “Queequeeg” (Get it?) who is a “Pooner.” Lizard boy is gonna’ sell Nan into white slavery (or possibly as a snack) until he discovers she’s trying to round up people to fight Lord Comb-Over, who wiped out the Lizard Mask species some years before. He signs on.

I should mention the Malnouri (Or MalMouri) fighters are pretty big. Two pilots, and at least two rooms. Bored and in orbit, the pilots decide to kidnap and rape some women. They settle on Julia Duffy from Newhart.

John Boy Walton meets “Nestor,” a hive-minded humanoid species - one eternal mind connecting hundreds of thousands of bodies - who are lonely and curious, and agree to get involved in the fight so they/he doesn’t get “Bored to death.”

Nestor: “There are five of us. We need four to operate the ship.”
John Boy: “What’s the fifth one for?”
Nestor: “We always carry a spare.”

The Magnificent…no…more like adequate….”The Adequate Seven” rendezvous and head to Akira. There Robert Vaughn immediately goes after the Malnouri fighter, which almost gets away, but Julia Duffy runs up to the cockpit and starts screwing with the controls. Vaughn kills ‘em all.

Once they’re on the planet, Cowboy starts making googoo eyes at Marta Kristen (And who can blame him, really? She’s plenty hot back in the day : http://www.gregzweb.com/gallery/d/6838-1/Marta+Kristen+225+10-22-7.jpg and she’s still plenty hot 12 years later http://martakristen.com/marta/film/bbs/bbs02.jpg ) and now, once the “Recruiting the heroes” is done, the second, vastly less interesting part of the film begins.

Lord Comb-Over appears, a battle ensues, a lot of the Malnouri forces are destroyed, but in the process Vaughn dies and Lizard Boy’s Kelvin die taking out a sonic tank by over-heating.

(Cowboy: “What the hell can they do?”
Lizard Boy: “Well, for starters, they don’t have ears…”)

Nestor arranges for his spare to be captured so they can spy on the bad guys. What one sees, they all see, what one feels, they all feel, what one tastes they all taste. More good dialog:

Lord Comb-Over: “This is the doctor. He’s an artist at creating pain, and making it last a long time.”
Spare Nestor: “It’s good to have skills.”
Lord Comb-Over: “Does your species have a high tolerance for pain?”
Spare Nestor: “No. Almost none at all.”
Lord Comb-Over: “How unfortunate for you. Now. You’re going to tell me everything you know about the forces defending Akira.”
Spare Nestor: “That would give you an unfair advantage.”
Lord Comb-Over: “Very well. Doctor?”
Doctor: [Starts chainsaw]

Nestor dies more or less instantly, but rather than grouse over it, Lord Comb-Over instructs the doctor to cut off one of the dude’s arms, and replace his own arm with it. Comb-Over has had a gimpy right arm through the whole film. This the doctor then does. Afterwards, Comb-over is pretty happy with the new limb, though it’s only got three fingers.

“Later, after we’ve captured Akira and you’ve got some spare time, you’re going to have to do something about the hand.”

Down on the planet, the four remaining Nestors start moving in unison, grabbing something nonexistent from their belts, and drawing it across their necks. On the ship, Lord Comb-Over grabs a knife from his belt and attempts to slit his own throat with it. He’s got no control over the arm, and of course the doctor has to chop it off with the chainsaw.

This is the best sequence in the movie. Freakin’ inspired!

The battle rejoins the next day, with Sybil Danning taking out the main gun so Comb-Over can’t destroy the planet. They then die one-by-one, including an utterly anti-climactic finish for Cowboy. Finally, Nel is hit by an atomic bomb, and her brain is a bit scrambled. She can’t remember who John Boy is, she wonders where Zed is (He’s dead by this point). They get caught in a tractor beam, and John Boy tells her to eject them in the escape pod, and explode once she’s aboard the big ship.

“Ok, Zed.”
“Just give us enough time to get away before you blow.”
“Sure. Thirty. Twenty nine. Twenty eight. Fourteen. Twenty Two…”
“Nel?”
“Yeah, Zed?”
“Start from ten.”
“Ok. Ten. Eleven. Nine…uhm…ten”

And so on.

John Boy and Nan get away, the ship blows, and Lord Comb-Over’s last words are “I was going to live forever!”

The end.

OBSERVATIONS

Man, this is one lazy-assed movie. The plot is a ripoff of one (Two) of the most famous films of all time, adapted for space by holding the “Magnificent Seven” script up against a Star Wars poster and banging a few nails through it. Direction is flaccid, acting is all over the place, but generally pretty weak, and the James Horner soundtrack….wow.

If James Brown was the hardest working man in show business, I honestly believe James Horner must be the hardly-est working. Every note, every tittle, every jott in this movie sounds instantly familiar since he used the exact same soundtrack in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and in “Aliens” and in “Krull,” and in…well, you name it. It’s not like Danny Elfman, who has only one style: Horner quite literally has only *ONE* soundtrack, which he uses again and again and again and again. Lazy.

All that said, the first half of this movie is quite a bit better than I remembered, and better than it has to be. The dialog is clunky, but sometimes deliberately funny, and there’s a slightly perverse quality running through the whole thing, such as Hephestus wanting to let a whole bunch of people die so he can have grandkids, or Nan using a semi-dismembered android as an 8-track cassette player, or the very creepy yet understated MalNouri. John Boy’s performance is merely adequate, but still worlds better than you’d expect. His utter exasperation when he’s chained down and Nan first hits on him “Oh, I do *NOT* have time for this!” is pretty great. I also like the scene where he’s poking through the ruins of a night club, finds a dial-a-drug vending machine, goes to grab some, and thinks, “Oh what the heck am I doing?” and pulls his hand away.

The second half of the film suffers - badly - for being a standard shoot-'em-up, without really having the budget nor the skills to pull that off. But the *real* failing is that John Boy Walton really does nothing heroic, nor even essential in the film. He rounds up the seven, true, but he actively tries to drive one of them away, he fails in his specific mission ("Get Hephestus to help"), the others do 90% of the fighting, and in the end his motley crue - sorry - "Crew" - are pretty ineffective. Most of them die without accomplishing much of anything, excepting Sybil Danning, who, of course, was the one who John Boy actively attempted to drive away. When the conclusion comes, it's Nel who saves the day while John Boy just scampers off. It's hard not to see that as a bit cowardly, particularly when he's snapping at her condescendingly while she's counting down to kill herself. Thus the hero of the movie does nothing really heroic. I should stress that this is not Richard Thomas' fault. He does the best he can, it's just the script.

Though they don't take full advantage, the Malnouri are actually very nicely creepy and unique villains: they are apparently semi-immortal, surviving by grabbing body parts from their victims to replace their own as they wear out or get damaged. We're told Lord Comb-Over's left foot was taken from the last guy to defy his orders. I really like this, it's a shame to see such a neat idea wasted in this kinda' Corman crap. Of course it's that kind of thing that makes this kind of Corman crap worth watching, so it's kind of a love/hate thing.

George Pepard is not taking it seriously at all as Space Cowboy, but his phoning-it-in totally sells the character. Also, he’s got a belt buckle that mixes drinks.

Robert Vaughn is, well, Robert Vaughn. He’s kind of compelling and off-putting at the same time. The whole long scene where we first see him on a throne surrounded by jewels, he doesn’t blink at all. The scene is like two minutes long. The way he says “Listen to the rest of it” when he explains his plight is surprisingly effective. He goes down with a whimper, but his death scene is *almost* good, and John Boy’s reaction to his death is probably the best-acted, most touching scene in the film.

“Clean him up, dig a grave, and have someone cook a meal for him.”
“Cook a meal?”
“Yes. A full-course meal. Have it buried with him. Those were the terms of our arrangement: A meal and a place to stay. “

There are a few inspired bits. Anything involving Nestor is great. I particularly love the campfire scene on Akira where everyone is huddled around, awaiting the battle the next day. Cowboy is playing the harmonica, Vaughn is off sitting alone. But there’s no campfire: everyone is just sitting around the Kelvin. (Their names are “Urim” and “Thumim” by the way). The Captain Ahab riff comes out of nowhere and serves no purpose, and comes to nothing, but it’s still kinda’ fun.

Darlanne Fluegel is just woefully miscast and generally awful as “Nan.” She’s woefully plain up against Sybil and Kristen, too skinny, she’s got frizzed-out 70s hair, and she looks kinda’ stoned. Also, she has to deliver technical info, clearly without knowing what any of it means. It just don’t work, as a character, nor as a love interest. Her first role was in “The Eyes of Laura Mars,” but she’s had a good run on TV: She was on the cast of three separate cop shows in the 80s/90s, most notably on “Hunter.” She still works, rarely.

Sybil Danning…hm….how to say this? I’m not a chick, nor a cross-dresser, so I don’t know, but her costumes would appear to have been pretty uncomfortable. Case in point http://dailygrindhouse.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Sybil-Danning.jpg
And
http://brianorndorf.typepad.com/.a/6a00e54ee7b642883301538f4d5305970b-500wi
Theoretically there should have been nipples in those shots somewhere, but I would imagine tucking ‘em away probably, y’know, ouch. Ok: uncomfortable talking about this now. Moving on.

Sam Jaffe played “Hephestus,” and he’s a walking movie prop. You’d know him the instant you saw him. Very long character actor career. Most notably, in the genre, he was the Einstein character in “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” Zoltan Zorba in “Batman,” and did an episode of “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.”

Jeff Corey - also an instantly-recognizable character actor - plays Zed. I’ve been informed that Zed was allegedly blind, though I saw no evidence of it in the film. I just thought he was supposed to be a doddering old man. Or possibly drunk. His first genre credit was “Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man” back in the early 1940s. His last genre role was as “Justin” in the Z’ha’dum episode of Babylon 5. In between there’s “Superman and the Mole Men,” an Outer Limits episode, “Seconds” (My favorite weird Rock Hudson film), a couple epsiodes of “The Wild Wild West,” and perhaps most famously the leader of the civilized folk in the TOS episode, “The Cloud Minders.” I’m sure there’s a bunch more I’m missing.

“Lizard Boy” (Actually called “Kamen”) was played by Morgan Woodward, best known as “Renko” on Hill Street Blues, but he’s been around forever. Terrible makeup, by the way. I was impressed at the time, but it’s just embarrassing now.

The voice of Nel was played by Lynn Carlin, best known as “Sarah Griffith” from The Waltons. Two of her kids have very minor parts in the movie. Kathy Griffin makes her debut in this film, but I couldn’t spot her. She’d have been about 20.

James Cameron was the special effects supervisor for the film. Really!

The Special Effects are not very special, even at the time, but there’s a charming old-school quality to them. Most of the models are kit bashes. This made me was nostalgic about how we used to dream as kids about making miniatures for movies. The only really unique design is Nel herself/itself, which is kinda’ stunning and curvy and amorphous. The interior sets for Nel are good enough. We’ve got one good matte painting, and several large, if not particularly imaginative sets, some clearly made of papier-mâché.

This is, of course, a Roger Corman film. He once bragged about how he made 100 movies and never lost a dime. Untrue: He’s made way more than a hundred films, and he lost his shirt on this one, brother. Total bomb. Every FX shot in this movie was later re-used in “Space Raiders” in an effort to amortize his losses. They turn up elsewhere as well.

It’s pretty obvious that Saxon, Vaughn, and Peppard just showed up for one or two days, shot all their scenes in a block, and that was that. Saxon doesn’t interact with anyone from the principle cast. Vaughn has one crowd scene, one scene with some kids, and all the other scenes are just with Richard Thomas. Peppard has more to do, but he’s obviously the smallest name among the bigwigs on the cast. It’s also apparent most of the budget went to get these three for their 36 hours of filming, or however long it lasted.

Bottom line: this is not at all a good movie, but it’s an engagingly bad movie that somehow never found the aftermarket cult it deserved, whereas far lesser, worser films did. I find it charming, too, as it was on the tail end of the whole “You know what? We can make one o’ them thar’ science fiction movies all the kids seem to like so much!” phase, which started in the 50s. By the summer of ‘80, SF had become synonymous with huge budgets and general competency. There’s something to be said for amateur hour, though.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS FILM?

Probably. You’ve got the hippie-dippie folk, but they’re portrayed as rather useless. You’ve got their peaceful religion/philosophy/whatever which is quickly cast aside when the bullets start flying. You’ve got a bad guy taken down by somewhat less-bad bad guys seeking redemption. You’ve got 99% of Sybil Danning’s breasts, yet somehow without any actual nudity. You’ve got a farm boy saving the universe. What’s not to like?

You can watch the entire movie online here

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