Battle Beyond the Stars: A Forgotten Gem

 

Battle Beyond the Stars came out in 1980, riding the coattails of Star Wars.  Every studio was scrambling to find an equivalent franchise after SW hit the movie scene like a nuclear bomb.  Roger Corman, the king of low-budget schlock, slapped together this movie in short order.

The results were . . . surprisingly, not too bad.  Subtle?  Not so much.

Battle is essentially a remake of The Magnificent Seven in space.  Seven was also a remake of Akira Kurosawa‘s Seven Samurai.  So it’s a remake of a remake.  Which sounds terrible, but the initial premise is still strong and Battle has decent actors and production values.

A wholesome couple and their android.

The setting is the far future planet Akir.  Akir is inhabited by peace-loving space Amish . . . or something.  Anyway, the Akira (a nod to Akira Kurosawa) get a visit from an unpleasant character called Sador.  (Yes, Sador.  A subtle name.)  Sador (John Saxon) packs a giant battleship, an army of mutants and a “stellar converter” that can blow up planets.  Not having an army or experience in fighting, they send out Shad (Richard Thomas) to look for help.  Richard at this point had just come off playing “John-Boy” on The Waltons for five years.  I suspect he was attempting to find any role that would break out of that typecasting.

See? Boobs.

Shad flies off in an intelligent ship with a sarcastic personality named Nell.  And the ship has boobs.  Seriously, the ship is stacked.  Through various encounters, Shad manages to dig up a group of fighters who are willing to defend Akir.

He loves it when a plan comes together.

First is Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel) who doesn’t bring any weapons except a battle computer, however she is Shad’s love interest.  Second is Space Cowboy.  Yes, his name is Space Cowboy.  Did I mention this film isn’t subtle?  Space Cowboy (George Peppard) doesn’t have much of a ship, but has plenty of ground weapons to fend off troops. 

Typical college life these days.

Nestor, a group-mind of clones, volunteer for the fight because they’re bored with their sameness.  Next comes Gelt (Robert Vaughn), an assassin whose success has made him too many enemies.  All he wants is a place to live peacefully, without watching his back.  Vaughn essentially plays the same character he did in The Magnificent Seven, only with a spaceship. 

Next is Saint Exmin (Sybil Danning) from the race of Valkyries.  She shows up in a tiny, super-fast ship and wants to fight because she comes from a warrior race and loves it.  For you younger folks, Sybil was the go-to sexpot in every B film in the 80s.  She’s wonderful eye candy in this.

She can carry my spear. Rowwr!

Finally we get a lizard alien named Cayman (Morgan Woodward).  Yes, he’s named Cayman.  Just let it go.  Cayman has a massive warship and wants to fight because Sador destroyed his race.  Although unrecognizable in his makeup, you might know Woodward from Cool Hand Luke, and two appearances on the original Star Trek series.

The group of fighters meet Sador in battle and . . . well, you can guess how this goes if you’ve seen The Magnificent Seven. 

I enjoyed the hell out of it as a kid and when I rewatched it recently, it held up pretty well.  It doesn’t hurt that you have real actors and decent special effects (by none other than James Cameron).  The spaceship designs are nifty and John Sayles‘s script is damn solid.

I am eeeevil!

It has since become a bit of a cult favorite among aficionados.  It still pops up from time to time in pop culture references.  If you’ve ever played the classic PC game Master of Orion II, you’ll recognize the “stellar converter” technology reference.

If you like science fiction and have never seen this, I recommend it without reservation.

The whole movie’s available on YouTube.  You’re welcome.

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The Hidden: An Oddball 80s Movie

The Hidden (1987) is an obscure science fiction film starring Kyle MacLachlan after his role in Blue Velvet, but preceding his Twin Peaks fame.  Despite several tropes, the skewed plot line makes it an enjoyable distraction. 

Essentially a warped version of the “buddy cop” genre, Michael Nouri plays L.A. detective Thomas Beck.  Beck pursues and (apparently) fatally injures spree killer Jack DeVries (Chris Mulkey) during the chase.  FBI Special Agent Lloyd Gallagher (MacLachlan) later confronts Beck, saying DeVries is still a threat.

“Mr DeVries, we think you might have a throat infection.”

Meanwhile, in the hospital, DeVries jumps up and attacks a heart patient Jonathan P. Miller (William Boyett).  DeVries pops opens his mouth and out crawls a hideous, slug-like alien.  It crawls down Miller’s throat and takes him over, letting its old host collapse.  Miller runs off to commit more of the random violence in the same manner as DeVries.

After this starts, Gallagher tries to convince Beck that Miller is a partner of DeVries who is every bit as dangerous, despite no criminal record.

You can probably guess how the rest of this goes.  The evil alien continues to jump through host bodies while the authorities struggle to catch up. 

Aliens are teatotallers.

It’s fairly obvious from the beginning that Gallagher is another alien.  MacLachlan does a brilliant job of being “not quite right”.  He conveys a vibe of alien without much scenery-chewing.  Not only his weird questions, but MacLachlan’s deliciously “off” mannerisms.  There’s an especially amusing dinner scene with Beck’s family, where Gallagher gets tipsy.  Bloody hilarious.  My favorite part is when Beck asks him where he’s from.  Gallagher points straight up.  “From up north?” Beck asks.  Gallagher nods.

It turns out Lloyd is an alien “cop” (named Alhague) and the evil alien is a criminal who killed Alhague’s family.  Yes, it’s a cop revenge story.

That’s a damn fine ray gun.

If all this sounds cheesy, it’s actually not.  Or not much.  The performances in this are wonderful, despite the bizarre premise.  William Boyett has a wickedly good time being the heart patient turned evil alien.  His murder spree is both amusing and horrifying.  Of special interest is when the alien possesses a stripper named Brenda (gorgeous Claudia Christian of Babylon 5 fame).  She fondles herself in front of a couple of cops before shooting them with an assault rifle.  This is after she humps a drunken lecher to death.

Claudia’s role is . . . I’m sorry, was I saying something?

There aren’t many special effects in this.  I suspect it’s deliberate–a combination of shrewd writing and budget considerations.  The few that do appear are pretty effective.  The alien slug switching bodies is skin-crawlingly impressive.  I think it’s a case of “less is more”.

MacLachlan’s freaky acting in this is worth it, even if you don’t care about the rest of the film.  Go dig up a copy and enjoy.

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Hawk the Slayer: D&D Cheese

Hawk the Friggin’ Slayer.  Yes, I’m going there.  You bet your ass.

Cast your mind back (if you’re young enough) to the year of 1980.  There, gifted unto the world was the glorious cheese of Hawk the Slayer.  I first witnessed this wondrous spectacle on HBO (before there were more than one.)  This happened briefly after the insidious, Satan-worshipping evil of Dungeons and Dragons possessed me.  Other than the animated Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, D&D fandom had few cinematic representatives.

Then along comes a cheesefest filled to the brim with elves, dwarves, giants, magic swords and witches.  Oh sweet Demogorgon, yes!

What did I care that the majority of the special effects consisted of glowing superballs, smoke pots, shiny hula hoops and bad stop-motion arrows?  It mattered naught!  To battle!

I AM NOT OVERACTING!

Anyway, the plot is pretty simple.  Bad guy brother Voltan (played by the scenery-chewing Jack Palance) kills his father the king.  Good guy brother Hawk (played with wooden fortitude by John Terry) gets the gift of “The Mindsword” from dad and swears to avenge his death.  The power of The Mindsword (so far as I can determine) consists of reacting to the wielder’s mental commands and lighting the way through a haunted forest at one point.  Other powers are a bit murky–try again later.

Voltan sports a Darth Vader style helmet that helps conceal his burned features.  Burned, incidentally, by Hawk’s lady love right before Voltan kills her.  Yeah, Voltan’s a shitty brother.  You can kinda see why he’s never invited to family reunions.

Years later Voltan’s ravaging the countryside, like a good villain.  He kidnaps the Abbess of a convent and tries to ransom her back to the church.  Unsure which god the church

Still better than most of the D&D groups I’ve known.

worships.  Scientology?  Instead a crossbowman named Ranulf (W. Morgan Sheppard) wounded by Voltan seeks a group to help rescue the Abbess and defend the convent.  This is where we get a “Magnificent Seven” vibe as a group of misfits (Player Characters or Murder Hobos–you decide) is assembled by Ranulf and Hawk.  The group consists of: Gort the Giant (Bernard Bresslaw from Krull “fame”), Crow the Elf (Ray Charleson), Baldin the Dwarf (Peter O’Farrell) and The Sorceress (Patricia Quinn).

At least half of these folks are recruited by rescuing them from brigands.  Seriously, there are brigands all over the place.  Brigands stealing.  Brigands trying to burn witches.  Brigands cheating at archery contests.  It’s like a brigand convention.  I figure half of this world’s population is brigands.

Special Effects!

The lion’s share of the rest of the movie consists of the group playing cat and mouse with Voltan and killing a lot of his redshirts.  Lots.  How Voltan kept recruits with his attrition rate just tells you more about brigand overpopulation than the quality of his leadership.  Keep your brigands spayed and neutered.

There follows the inevitable confrontation between the brothers.  You can guess what happens.

This film was slapped together in six weeks for a mere six hundred thousand pounds in Buckinghamshire, England.  (This explains the preponderance of British actors in it.)  The

I’ve got this trick I do with a fish . . .

movie had a theatrical release in the UK, but the production company ITC went tits-up before it could be released in the United States.  Instead it became cable television fodder and a warm, cheesy memory to hordes of nerds everywhere.  Afterward, it became a cult movie classic to the point that a campaign happened to create a sequel called Hawk the Hunter.  Unfortunately, the Kickstarter campaign failed miserably.

Dig up a copy and enjoy.

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Krull: A Flawed Movie That Could Have Been Great

In the ancient days of yore (1983) I viewed a movie called Krull.  It is a strange tale.  Neither science fiction nor fantasy.  Not great, but not terrible.  I weep for the movie it could have been.

This chimera of a movie is the tale of an alien invasion of a fantasy world.  Sort of.  Details are a little fuzzy. 

Essentially, a big bad called “The Beast” invades the planet Krull with an interplanetary castle called The Black Fortress.  The fortress disgorges a bunch of (literally) faceless bad guys called “slayers” (no, not the band,) armed with one-shot blasters called “neon spears”.  The slayers run around conquering Krull for The Beast apparently has a bit of a hard-on for Princess Lyssa (Lysette Anthony).  I can almost see his point, as she’s a fine-looking woman, but planetary invasion seems like overkill.  The Beast apparently thinks that the way to woo her affections is by kidnapping her and slaughtering her family.  Not exactly progressive.

“Hey, could you hold onto this nuclear weapon for a bit?”

Standing in the way of The Beast’s incredibly violent nuptial plans is Prince Colwyn (Ken Marshall). Slayers interrupt  their wedding ceremony when they nab Lyssa.  Their wedding is meant to unify their two kingdoms against The Beast.  Instead, we get to see pretty much every soldier they have die in one night.  Anyway, in what would be an important plot point in a better movie, the wedding ceremony involves a ceremony where Lyssa hands Colwyn a magical flame.  Or rather, she tries to before the slayer wedding crashers arrive.

Fear the Death Frisbee!

Lyssa gets abducted, Colwyn gets injured and everyone else in the castle dies.  Along comes Ynyr, the Old One (no, not Cthulhu.)  Ynyr (Freddie Jones) is a kind of Obi-Wan mentor to Colwyn, and leads him to find a magical weapon called The Glaive.  Colwyn finds this magical, edged Death Frisbee after a very boring climbing sequence which ends with him pulling The Glaive out of lava.  I think it’s meant as a “test of faith”, but I’m not sure.

Armed with the Death Frisbee, Colwyn and Ynyr set out to find The Black Fortress.  The snag is that the fortress teleports every morning to another place on the planet.  Now, how The Beast maintains any logistics with that setup, I don’t know.  I do know it makes it pretty hard to storm the evil headquarters.  Probably pretty hard to receive any mail, too.

“Fred, did you notice a black fortress there last night?”

Along the way, Colwyn and Ynyr pick up a gang of followers.  Ergo the Magnificent (David Battley) is a magical faerie-type fellow, who has a running joke of trying to transform others into animals, only to become the animal himself.  Rell the Cyclops (Bernard Bresslaw) tags along with the backstory of how The Beast cheated his people of an eye to see the future–but the only thing they can see is their own deaths.  Finally, a group of outlaws led by Torquil (Alun Armstrong) joins up.  Liam Neeson, in one of his early roles, plays an outlaw named Kegan.

This motley band sets out to find the Black Fortress in a series of encounters with a body count akin to a Friday the Thirteenth movie.  Torquil’s outlaws serve admirably as redshirts and have worse life expectancy than V.A. patients.  There are a couple of decent fight sequences and a memorable stop-motion giant spider with the “Widow in the Web”.  Unfortunately, slow pacing and ponderous editing neutralize a lot of the good stuff.

The actors are all very British–with the exception of Ken Marshall.  The actors are all very competent–with the exception of Ken Marshall.  Seriously, Ken isn’t strong enough to carry a movie.  The guy’s a block of wood, made worse by the solid actors around him.

My biggest complaint is probably the ending.  The Glaive/Death Frisbee finally gets used against The Beast (and why he didn’t use it in previous fights isn’t explained) only to be useless.  Then suddenly Lysette hands Colwyn that marriage flame and now Colwyn can shoot friggin’ Godzilla-sized flames!  Apparently nobody at the wedding party mentioned “Oh, by the way, you can use that marriage flame like a super-flamethrower.  I mean, if you wanted.”

(beats head into wall)

Can you foresee me in better movies?

I can’t help but wonder who decided this ending made sense.  It could have been fixed to make sense.  I can think of a half-dozen ways off the top of my head.  But no, they decided “Nah, this is good enough.”

That’s what irks me the most about this movie.  There are several moments throughout where it starts to work, only to slam into a wall.  The production values are excellent.  The acting (with one glaring exception) is solid.  The musical score by James Horner is outstanding.  With a rewrite and somebody other than Ken Marshall, this movie had a lot of potential.  Hell, even with Ken Marshall they could have muddled through.

I can still enjoy parts of this movie.  The points which rise above.  Mostly, I just mourn for the movie it could have been.  It might be why I’m an aficionado of Spelljammer and similar fanboy nonsense.

It’s worth watching once for the oddball nature of it and those moments I mentioned.  Check it out.