Monday, June 13, 2022

Day of the Animals

Day of the Animals Poster

(1977) Directed by William Girdler; Written by William W. Norton and Eleanor E. Norton; Story by Edward L. Montoro; Starring: Christopher George, Leslie Nielsen, Lynda Day George, Richard Jaeckel, Michael Ansara, Ruth Roman, Jon Cedar and Paul Mantee; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: ** 


An Artsy Shot

Daniel Santee (Michael Ansara): “Mr. Moore, he’s trying to tell you there is no answer. No fair, no unfair. We just accept.” 

Roy Moore (Paul Mantee): “Accept?” 

Professor MacGregor (Richard Jaeckel): “Accept.” 

Roy Moore: “Well, why don’t we just kill ourselves and be done with it then?” 

Professor MacGregor: “Maybe we will. Maybe we already have.”

 

Puma Watches the Hikers

Big thanks to Pale Writer and Dubsism for hosting the Second Disaster Blogathon, covering depictions of calamity in its myriad forms on the big screen. This week, I’m looking at the ecological disaster movie Day of the Animals (1977).

Director William Girdler is probably best known for the entertaining 1976 Jaws rip-off, Grizzly, and his befuddling swan-song The Manitou (1978), completed before his untimely death in 1980.* Smack-dab between these cinematic wonders, Girdler jumped on the bandwagon of seemingly endless environmental disaster flicks with Day of the Animals.** Forget about a rogue shark or a grizzly. Instead of one species with homicidal ideation, what if all the animals unanimously decided to kill us? With a kitchen-sink premise like that, how could you possibly go wrong? Well, let’s see…

* Not-So-Fun-Fact: Girdler was killed in a helicopter crash, while scouting locations in the Philippines for his next film, The Overlords.

** Fun Fact #1: Day of the Animals was shot on location in the mountainous Northern California towns of Murphys and Long Barn, treating us to some truly gorgeous scenery.

The Hikers Assemble

After human industry has dumped countless tons of fluorocarbons into the atmosphere for decades, Earth’s fauna have had enough. The ozone layer is compromised, admitting an increased emission of ultraviolet rays. This in turn upsets the natural balance, somehow causing animals to go haywire. What’s the science behind all this, you might ask? Who knows? Just when this environmental crisis has reached its apex, a group of unsuspecting tourists embark on an excursion to the mountains with minimal food and no weapons. Their peaceful hike soon turns into a trail of terror* when they realize they’re being stalked by the resident wildlife.

* Fun Fact #1: Poor Susan Backlinie (who plays beleaguered hiker Mandy Young) can’t catch a break in these rogue animal flicks. Before she was mauled by a wolf in Day of the Animals, she became the first victim in Jaws (1975).

Paul Jenson

The characters are a typical mixed bag of personalities, each with back stories that could probably be described in one sentence. Modern audiences accustomed to Leslie Nielsen’s amiable but bumbling comic persona, established in the ‘80s and ‘90s, might be in for a shock with his aggressively loathsome character, Paul Jenson. The combative, racist (and in one scene, rapey) New York ad executive bullies everyone around him, trying to tackle nature as if it were another business conquest. On the plus side, if you ever wanted to see a bare-chested Nielsen wrestling a grizzly, now’s your chance.

At the Campsite

 It's all fun and games until nature attacks.

The rest of the one-note cast includes Lynda Day George as TV news anchorwoman Terry Marsh. Her character’s main motivation seems to be deflecting the clumsy advances of the group’s rugged but ineffectual leader, Steve Buckner (played by her real-life husband Christopher George). This movie isn’t earning any diversity points for Michael Ansara’s stereotype-laden portrayal of Daniel Santee, a Native American guide.  Although he’s visibly irritated by Jenson’s racist barbs, he ends up making a joke about scalping someone in a later (cringeworthy) scene. Clueless, single, middle-aged mom Shirley Goodwyn (Ruth Roman) seemingly exists to whine and complain about roughing it in the wilderness. After his wife Mandy is killed, Frank Young (Jon Cedar) takes a traumatized little girl* under his wing (while alternately yelling at her). Of all the actors, Richard Jaeckel does the best with an underwritten role as Professor MacGregor, creating a surprisingly nuanced character. 

* Fun Fact #2: If the girl (Michelle Stacy, listed in the credits as “Little Girl”) looks familiar, she appeared a few years later in Airplane! (1980), as a precocious young passenger with this infamous line.

Mandy Young Meets Her Demise

You might reasonably ask why the environmental phenomenon only seems to affect animals and not humans. After all, we’re just fancy animals that have learned to walk erect, hold tea parties, and earn useless college degrees, right? Well, this is where the movie’s premise stretches to the breaking point. Apparently, some but not all people succumb to the effects. It’s established that the effect is greater at higher altitudes due to stronger exposure to ultraviolet radiation. If so, why do most of the animals seem to disappear, outside of a plot-convenient bear attack, when half of the hikers decide to hoof it to higher ground? Did the movie’s animal handlers take the day off?

Deadly Rattlers!

One of the cornerstones of genre films from the ‘60s and ‘70s was that there wasn’t always an explanation for everything. A little ambiguity added intrigue to the story, leaving the viewer to reach their own conclusions. In The Birds (1963) no cause is attributed to the avian onslaught. Likewise, in Phase IV (1974), no specific reason (other than some vague cosmic occurrence) was given for the consistent coordinated effort among insects. In both cases, however, the attacks are relentless and calculated. Alas, there’s no such luck in Day of the Animals.  

An Owl Watches Menacingly

 "Give a hoot. Watch Grizzly instead."

Of course, none of these quibbles are a deal-breaker, but the movie’s biggest infraction is that for most of Day of the Animals’ running time, it’s dreadfully boring. There’s nothing wrong with trying to build suspense, as long as it’s leading somewhere. Unfortunately, we’re treated to interminable shots of various critters giving our hapless adventurers the stink-eye, with little payoff. We spend an inordinate amount of time waiting around for animal attacks, and when they do occur, they’re nothing special. The first attack doesn’t occur until we’re almost 30 minutes into the picture, when a wolf mauls a woman in her sleeping bag, then inexplicably leaves. Instead of something that’s visceral and savage, she walks away with a few cuts and abrasions (hardly the opening scene from Jaws). We’re left with a movie that could have, at the very least, been 90 minutes of brainless fun. Instead, it’s merely yawn-inducing.

 

Sources: Jon Cedar interview (2011), “Day of the Humans: Paul Mantee” (2011)

 

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Short Take: Tears of the Black Tiger

 

Tears of the Black Tiger Poster

(2000) Written and directed by Wisit Sasanatieng; Starring: Chartchai Ngamsan, Stella Malucchi, Supakorn Kitsuwon, Suwinit Panjamawat, Arawat Ruangvuth and Sombat Metanee; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

The following review is part of the Foreign Western Blogathon, hosted by Debbie V. from Moon in Gemini, looking at a traditionally American genre through a different lens.

 

Dum and Mahesuan

“The movie harks back to traditional knowledge, like old herbs we used to boil and drink, which now come in capsules. Like our film, we mixed it with modern film language for a current audience. If it was just an old movie, nobody would be interested. We just borrowed its form, techniques, and combined it with contemporary film language.” – Wisit Sasanatieng 

Over the years, many talented foreign filmmakers have tinkered with a genre that was once regarded as the exclusive domain of Hollywood, to create something simultaneously familiar and completely new. A successful reinterpretation of the Western requires more than simply changing the location or shuffling the actors, but changing the cultural perspective, by utilizing familiar conventions as a launching point rather than a destination. One such example is the Thai Western mash-up, Tears of the Black Tiger, a melodrama about star-crossed lovers that infuses the familiar tropes of American Westerns with Thai sensibilities. Setting his film in post-WW II Thailand, writer/director Wisit Sasanatieng blends old-fashioned and contemporary elements, resulting in something uniquely classic and post-modern.

Rumpoey

Dum, aka “Black Tiger” (Chartchai Ngamsan), the film’s antihero protagonist, lives outside the law yet adheres to a strict internal moral code. He works as an enforcer for the ruthless crime boss, Fai (Sombat Metanee), becoming his right-hand man (much to the irritation of fellow outlaw Mahesuan, played by Supakorn Kitsuwon, who formerly occupied that vaunted position). In a flashback, we witness how he meets the love of his life, Rumpoey, the high-born daughter of a local governor. The young girl goads peasant boy Dum into taking her out on a boat, where they discover a sala (a sort of Thai gazebo) floating amidst the lily pads. At that moment, they vow to make this their meeting place. Events take a near-tragic turn when they encounter a trio of bullies, and she nearly drowns in the ensuing scuffle. When he eventually returns home with her near-lifeless body, he’s severely punished by his father (who works for her father). Flash forward 10 years, and the adult Rumpoey (played by Italian-Colombian actress Stella Malucchi) is betrothed to Police Captain Kumjorn (Arawat Ruangvuth). Instead of sharing his joy, she only feels empty, as her heart belongs to Dum.

Dum vs. Mahesuan

Contrasting the rather conventional story of lovers separated by rigid class roles, is a delightfully unconventional pastiche of styles. Sasanatieng draws as much upon glossy Technicolor Hollywood cowboy dramas as gritty “spaghetti” Westerns to play in his cinematic sandbox. One scene illustrates via instant replay how Dum is the quickest gun in Thailand. He’s so skillful that he intentionally aims his pistol, so the bullet ricochets off the interior of a cabin to hit his mark. In another scene, he squares off against a rival gunfighter, accompanied by a surreal painted background.  

Dum and Rumpoey

Tears of the Black Tiger owes much of its distinctive look to post-production visual trickery. The footage was initially shot on 35 mm black-and-white film, transferred to tape for digital editing (including the addition of color), and finally transferred back to film. Many of the colorful scenes feature vivid pinks, reds and greens, while in one sequence, set at a train station, the hues are purposely muted, with digital scratches applied to mimic archival footage. In another scene, when Rumpoey and Dum are seated in the back seat of her chauffeur-driven car, the foreground remains in color, while the projected background through the car windows is in black and white.

Rumpoey and Dum

Sasanatieng frequently plays with the artifice of motion pictures, favoring striking visual compositions and willfully anachronistic depictions over any pretense of realism. While the bandits ride horses and dress in traditional (albeit stylized) cowboy garb, the film remains firmly rooted in the mid-20th century, as they fight the police with machine guns, bazookas and hand grenades. The soundtrack is also a mix of old and new, filled with musical interludes (consisting of vintage Thai pop songs alongside new interpretations by contemporary artists). Tears of the Black Tiger at once celebrates the joy of filmmaking while a streak of a melancholic fatalism runs throughout. According to Sasanatieng, “Thais believe that destiny leads us down the right path,” which ultimately informs the inevitable path the plot must follow. It’s a self-aware exercise in style steeped in Eastern and Western tradition, making this an unforgettable experience. 

 

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Space Month II Quick Picks and Pans

Journey to the Far Side of the Sun Poster

Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969) In this intriguing live-action venture from Gerry and Sylvia Anderson (of Supermarionation fame), scientists discover another planet on the opposite side of the sun, which has remained undetected until now. The U.S. and Europe launch an arduous joint mission, only to discover a duplicate Earth (with everything reversed). The movie has a funky ‘60s future aesthetic, and features some excellent miniature model/effects work by longtime Anderson-collaborator Derek Meddings. It has a solid cast, but it’s hampered by an unsympathetic lead (played by Roy Thinnes). Also, not exploiting the possibilities of a second Earth seems like a missed opportunity (Even if it was populated by duplicate people, why wouldn’t the events unfold in a divergent manner?). It’s still a fascinating concept, though, well worth a look.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Solaris Poster

Solaris (2002) Writer/director Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film (adapted from Stanislaw Lem’s novel) is a brooding drama, short on spectacle but long on introspection. Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is a psychologist, sent to a deep space station orbiting a planet with unusual properties. He soon discovers how unusual Solaris is, when his dead wife suddenly returns. But is it really her, or only a simulacrum, based on his skewed memories? It’s a slow-moving, somber experience that could have benefited from some humor, as well as science fiction elements that were more than window dressing. Soderbergh does a respectable job with the material, but the overall effort seems restrained to the point where it doesn’t embrace the genre as much as tolerate it.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray (Region B) and DVD

Life Poster

Life (2017) A soil sample containing a living organism from Mars is brought on board the International Space Station, with predictable results. The crew members (supposedly the best and the brightest) make stupid mistakes, as they’re picked off one by one. If you can get past the less than original premise, it’s entertaining enough, and the alien creature is pretty cool – just don’t think about it too much. If nothing else, I have to give the filmmakers credit for the gutsy ending. 

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Meteor Poster

Meteor (1979) America and the Soviet Union reluctantly combine forces to stave off certain destruction from a five-mile-wide chunk of rock, hurtling towards the Earth. Sean Connery and Natalie Wood lead an all-star cast of actors who are more talented than this by-the-numbers effort deserves. Released at the tail-end of a glut of ‘70s disaster movies, Meteor was a notorious flop for Samuel Z. Arkoff and American International Pictures.* The $16 million investment was the most expensive production to date for the low-budget film company, but it’s hard to see where the money went. Compared to the high standards set by its contemporaries (Alien, Star Trek: The Motion Picture), the special effects aren’t very special. Yawn.

* Fun Fact: The filmmakers used an avalanche sequence (borrowed from the eponymous 1978 film), which was produced by rival (and former business partner) Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. According to Corman, one review that criticized the overall quality of the effects, lauded the avalanche as the one high point. 

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Ice Pirates

The Ice Pirates (1985) Robert Urich stars as Jason, the leader of a ragtag bunch of space pirates who plunder freighters for their payload of water – which has become a precious commodity in the galaxy. Things get complicated when Jason falls for a beautiful princess (Mary Crosby), while his crew try to stay one step ahead of an evil empire. It’s not a bad premise, but the execution is clumsy, and the jokes never rise above sophomoric levels (“Space herpes,” anyone?). It’s notable for the supporting cast, including Angelica Huston and Ron Perlman, who went on to bigger and better things. 

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Spaceship

The Creature Wasn’t Nice (aka: Spaceship; aka: Naked Space) (1981) Writer/director/star Bruce Kimmel probably shouldn’t have juggled so many roles for this unfunny Alien-influenced spoof. The bored crew of a deep-space mission, led by Captain Jamieson (Leslie Nielsen), pick up some goop on an alien planet, which turns into a voracious monster. Despite a talented cast (featuring Cindy Williams as the ship’s morale officer, Patrick Macnee as a scientist with divided loyalties, and Gerrit Graham as an oversexed crewmember) Kimmel can’t save his film from itself, with limp gags and bad songs galore. It’s not the easiest movie to find, which is probably a good thing.

Rating: **. Available on DVD

Creature Poster

Creature (1985) In space, no one can hear you sigh. American and German teams race to an alien planet to plunder untold riches at an ancient archeological site. Unfortunately for them, a nasty extraterrestrial has other ideas. The only saving grace is the presence of Klaus Kinski (for maybe five minutes of screen time), to liven things up a bit in this otherwise pedestrian Alien rip-off.  

Rating: **. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Tubi

Mars Needs Women

Mars Needs Women (1968) Tommy Kirk plays Dop, the leader of a Martian expedition to bring back five young women to help repopulate the species. How hard could it possibly be to fulfill their mission? Apparently, it’s a Herculean task for the inept extraterrestrials, who wander about aimlessly, stumbling around a strip club, ogling a flight attendant, and bumbling into a hotel. Yvonne Craig (who apparently had nothing better to do at this point in her career) stars as a biologist, and unfathomably falls in love with Dop. The “Martians” walk around in wetsuits, and carry a speargun for a weapon (I’m guessing writer/director/producer Larry Buchanan had some old scuba gear lying around). The goofy premise should have been played for laughs. Instead, it’s all deadpan, which only makes the proceedings more unbearable. 

Rating: *½. Available on DVD and Amazon Prime


Sunday, May 29, 2022

The Corman-verse Blogathon – Wrap-up

 

The Corman-verse Blogathon

Whew! We’ve finally reached the end of the Corman-verse Blogathon, and what a blogathon it’s been. While no single event can capture the immensity of Corman’s impact on film and filmmakers, I think our contributors did a splendid job of spotlighting the wide range of eclectic films associated with this maverick writer/director/producer/actor.  

Big Bad Mama

Once again, I’d like to extend my heartfelt thanks to co-host Gill Jacob for helping make this blogathon possible. Also, many thanks to our wonderful contributors, and to you the reader! It was a blast, as always, and I look forward to my next joint venture with Gill in October (I hope y’all will join us again)!

Piranha

Along with the final entries, be sure to visit the recaps from days One, Two, and Three:

Day 1 

Day 2  

Day 3 

 

Here’s the final batch of submissions…

 

Gunslinger Poster

I’m pleased to present the debut post for Amber’s new blog, Camp and Circumstance, with her review of Gunslinger (1956).

A Bucket of Blood Poster

J-Dub from Dubsism finds hidden sports analogies in A Bucket of Blood (1959).

Suburbia Poster

Eric Binford from Diary of a Movie Maniac returns for a look at the not-so-sunny-side of Suburbia (1983).

The Raven Poster

What’s that rapping at your chamber door? Kayla from Whimsically Classic informs us, with a look at The Raven (1963).


Saturday, May 28, 2022

The End of the Corman-verse Blogathon – Or Is It? – Day 3 Recap

 

The Corman-verse Blogathon

Well, dear readers and writers, we’ve reached Day 3 of the Corman-verse Blogathon, and what a blogathon it’s been. Today, we have a bumper crop of posts, spanning the many decades and multiple facets of Corman’s career. I’m still catching up on reading all of the amazing posts, but rest assured, if I haven’t commented yet, I’ll get to yours soon.

Creature from the Haunted Sea

I’d like to thank my wonderful co-host Gill Jacob for another terrific collaboration. As always, it seems to take ages to plan these events, and they’re over in the blink of an eye. And that’s not all, folks, because we have another blogathon in store for October. Watch for details soon!

Deathrace 2000

If you planned to participate, but didn’t quite meet the deadline, don’t fret. Post a comment below, email me at barry_cinematic@yahoo.com, or reach me on Twitter (@barry_cinematic). You may also contact Gill by commenting on her post, through her blog’s Contact Me page , or on Twitter (@realweegiemidge). There will be a short post-blogathon wrap-up tomorrow, and I’ll list any late entries there.


Be sure to visit the recaps from days One and Two:

Day 1 

Day 2  

 

And now, On with Day 3’s submissions…

Munchies Poster

If you hunger for mischievous monster mayhem, may I suggest reading Motion Picture Gems’ review of Munchies (1987).

Love Letters Poster

Eric Binford from Diary of a Movie Maniac looks at the underseen Jamie Lee Curtis movie, Love Letters (1983).

The Wasp Woman_Poster

Rebecca from Taking Up Room dares us to cross paths with The Wasp Woman (1959).

Sharktopus Poster

Just when you thought it was safe to turn on your TV, Toni Ruberto from Watching Forever tangles with Sharktopus (2010).

The Pit and the Pendulum Poster

Sally Silverscreen from 18 Cinema Lane explores Corman’s take on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum (1961).

Frankenstein Unbound Poster

Andrew Stephen from Maniacs and Monsters unleashes his review of Frankenstein Unbound (1990).

The Gunfighter Poster

The Classic Movie Muse saddles up for a review of The Gunfighter (1950).

Battle Beyond the Stars Poster

And finally, Yours Truly from Cinematic Catharsis takes a look at the little space opera that could, Battle Beyond the Stars (1980).

 

Battle Beyond the Stars

Battle Beyond the Stars Poster

(1980) Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami; Written by John Sayles; Story by Anne Dyer; Starring: Richard Thomas, Darlanne Fluegel, John Saxon, Robert Vaughn, George Peppard, Sybil Danning, Sam Jaffe and Morgan Woodward; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: ***½ 

This post is part of the Corman-verse Blogathon, hosted by Yours Truly and Gill Jacob from Realweegiemidget Reviews. Be sure to check out all the terrific posts from an esteemed bunch of participants!

Sador's Ship Arrives on Akir

“It not only got very good reviews but it was commercially successful in the United States and overseas, and I think to a large extent it was the characters, it was the differentiation, the individuality.” – Roger Corman (from DVD commentary with John Sayles)

“It was a playground, and Roger let us experiment.” – Alex Hajdu, Assistant Art Director (from “Shoestring Space Opera”)

A long time ago in a galaxy, far – hold the phone. Let’s back up a moment… A long time ago, in a land not too far away, Roger Corman assembled a group of unknown but talented young professionals to create a space opera on his own terms. Screenwriter /Corman-protégé John Sayles drew from the same well as Star Wars, particularly Seven Samurai (1954), as its inspiration, but The Wizard of Oz (1939) provided another template. Budgeted at $2 million (a paltry sum by Hollywood standards), Battle Beyond the Stars was Corman’s most expensive production to date. Penny-pinching Corman made sure he got a return on his investment, however, repurposing many elements in the film in other New World productions (obviously he was into recycling, long before it was in vogue). The informative Blu-ray commentary by producer Corman and writer Sayles is like a mini film school, providing us a lesson in low budget movie making.

Friendly Ships Assemble

Corman hired Jimmy T. Murakami* (who was looking to break into directing live-action features) to helm the picture. For the most part, Corman stayed out of the way, although he reportedly directed one scene, featuring many of the principal characters together. Although it took several months to get all the pieces in place, Battle Beyond the Stars was shot during a brisk five-week shooting schedule, using a converted lumberyard in Santa Monica, California for the studio. New sets were constructed as quickly as they were torn down, which required filming some scenes when the paint was still wet.  

* Fun Fact #1: The Japanese/American animator is probably best known for directing the famous 1969 Tootsie Roll Pop commercial (originally known as “Mr. Cow”), featuring an owl that attempts to answer the age-old question, “How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop?” Over half a century later, it still appears on TV from time to time, albeit in truncated form.

Akir

The list of behind-the-scenes crew members reads like a who’s who of Hollywood filmmakers. 20-something James Cameron, who was promoted to art director on the production, provided the intricately detailed models (according to Corman, Cameron could describe the purpose of every bump and nook on his spacecraft). His team included effects maestros Dennis and Robert Skotak, as well as Alec Gillis. Corman’s assistant production manager, Gale Anne Hurd went on to a hugely successful producing career. Young James Horner provided the score, and an uncredited Bill Paxton worked on set construction. It’s interesting to note that all of these individuals worked with Cameron in subsequent films.

Shad's Ship

Sayles wanted the ships to look distinct, so you could distinguish which character piloted them. Thanks to Cameron and his team, each space vehicle delivers on that requirement. According to Dennis Skotak (responsible for miniature design and construction, along with his brother Robert), each ship reflected the personality of the characters. He wanted a different look, compared to Star Wars, where he felt that “everything came from the same factory.” As anyone accustomed to New World’s stable of genre films can attest, many of the space battle scenes look awfully familiar, re-purposing models and effects footage.

Sador

The story opens on a familiar note, with the despotic Sador* (played with relish by John Saxon) delivering an ultimatum to the meek inhabitants of the planet Akir (an obvious nod to filmmaker Akira Kurosawa): join him or die. Sador (with a name like that, you just know he’s up to no good), ravages one civilization after another, reducing them to cinders with his interstellar convertor (basically a Death Star clone). He doesn’t want to raid their crops or take their food; true to his control-freak nature, he only wants to dominate them. Sure, it’s the sort of role that Saxon could probably do in his sleep, but he appears to be having a blast playing a tyrant, so who’s complaining? Why Sador chooses to go away (leaving a couple of incompetent stooges to guard the planet), so the Akir denizens have time to enlist a private army against him, we’ll never know. Shad (Richard Thomas) sets off in his curvy space ship (uh huh, it has boobs), along with sassy computer “Nell” (Lynn Carlin), in a desperate search for individuals* who will fight. 

* Fun Fact #2: Sayles wanted the seven mercenaries Shad enlists to be from different species. Part of the script-writing process involved thinking about the various cultures and philosophies of the various alien races.

Cowboy Meets Shad

Among the first off-worlders Shad encounters is Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel). Bored with her life on a space station, with only her cyborg father Dr. Hephaestus (Sam Jaffe) and androids for companions, she’s eager to join him in his quest. Next in his encounters, is the affable Cowboy (George Peppard). His laid-back persona belies his willingness to fight in a pinch. (A Confederate flag on his spaceship is a bit over the top, though, even for this movie – the less said, the better). Of course, he’s empowered by a helping or two of liquid courage, with a handy belt-mounted gizmo that dispenses booze and ice (because whiskey flasks are so 20th century). Nanelia convinces the lizard-like Cayman (Morgan Woodward) to join the fight. He has an axe to grind against Sador, who wiped out his species, making the enemy of his enemy his friend.

Gelt

The most enigmatic mercenary is Robert Vaughn as Gelt (the Yiddish word for “money”), a reprisal of sorts, of his role from the Seven Samurai remake The Magnificent Seven (1960). He laments that he has amassed a vast fortune, but has nowhere to spend it, so the prospect of a decent meal and place to sleep without watching his back seems inviting to him. In a movie full of black-and-white characters, he provides a healthy dose of ambiguity. As a gun for hire who works for the highest bidder, it’s implied that he’s worked for both sides of the fence.

Nanelia and St. Exmin

St. Exmin (played by Sybil Danning, who’s known her way around several Corman films) belongs to a warlike race known as the Valkyrie. For her people, the thrill is in the fight. Her creed is to “live fast, fight well, and have a beautiful ending.” (a riff on John Derek’s famous quote from 1949’s Knock on Any Door, “Live fast, die young, and have a good-looking corpse.”).* St. Exmin’s eye-catching, gravity-defying costume** undoubtedly fueled many adolescent-male fantasies back in the day. Danning proves to be more than just eye candy, providing a spunky presence. While initially being an annoyance to Shad, she proves her worth in battle.*** 

* Fun Fact #3: According to Sayles, he based her character on the Native American Dog Soldiers, who found honor in death. 

** Fun Fact #4: It should come as no surprise to anyone that the costumers had a difficult time keeping Danning’s (ahem) assets contained. According to co-star Thomas, her costume was prone to quite a few wardrobe malfunctions. 

*** Fun Fact #5: Look for an oops(!) just before the hour-and-25-minute mark, inside St. Exmin’s ship. In the left corner of the frame, behind her seat, you can spot a member of the film crew crouching down.

Nestor

Among the most unique species Shad encounters is Nestor, a collective intelligence comprised of multiple humanoid forms. Each body is a cell in a much larger organism, experiencing everything that each unit senses. Nestor’s deadpan sense of humor is a nice little touch. When one samples a hot dog that Cowboy is preparing, he (or more accurately, his spokesman) comments, “There’s no dog in this.” 

* Fun Fact #6: If one of the Nestor (Nestors?) looks familiar, he’s played by prolific character actor Earl Boen, best known as the sleepy criminal psychologist in the first three Terminator movies.

Help Arrives on Akir

James Horner’s marvelous, sweeping music score (one of his earliest) fits the subject matter perfectly. Think of this as his prototypical blockbuster score, which takes the film to a different level. Many elements and cues are recognizable in subsequent movies. The score elevates the visuals, to the point where any deficits are scarcely noticed. Ever-cost-conscious Corman, recognizing the value of what he heard, re-purposed the soundtrack for other New World trailers, and for at least one film, 1985’s Barbarian Queen, virtually recycled the entire score (Alas, Horner’s composition could only do so much for substandard material).

Onboard Caymen's Ship

Corman and crew could only do so much with the budgetary restrictions, resulting in some obvious cost-cutting measures. The effects team avoided depictions of the ships landing and taking off, which would have required pricey effects. The camera people refrained from panning, which would reveal the size limitations of the sets (with one notable exception – the expansive control deck of Sador’s ship required an entire sound stage). Much like the original Star Trek series, the little community on Akir represents the entire planet’s civilization, thus requiring a healthy suspension of disbelief. In a scene depicting a ground battle with Sador’s army, the antagonists are conveniently channeled through one subterranean corridor so they can be ambushed.

The Night Before the Battle

Corman makes no apologies about jumping on the Star Wars train with his little space epic that could, Battle Beyond the Stars. The difference, however, is in the details, especially Sayles’ witty script, which never takes itself too seriously. Horner’s score and Cameron’s effects work also go a long way to make the most of things. It’s a popcorn movie, not in the derogatory sense, but in the best possible way. This isn’t meant to be a cerebral exercise like Solaris or 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s fun over substance, told in broad strokes, and sometimes that’s all you need.   

 

Sources: Shout Factory Blu-ray commentary by Roger Corman and John Sayles; “His Name was Shad,” 2011 interview with Richard Thomas; “Shoestring Space Opera,” 2011 featurette; How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, by Roger Corman, with Jim Jerome; “How They Painted Samurai Jack Plus: the secret history of the Tootsie Pop commercial (and global animation news),” Animation Obsessive, Nov. 7, 2021