Monday, March 23, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Starship Invasions (1977)

Just between you and me, I was an indulged child. Not spoiled, necessarily...merely indulged. One of my father's frequent refrains when I was growing up was "I wish I had a mother like you."

Didn't you just know it from seeing my toy collection?

Well if you didn't realize it before, you'll know for certain after I reveal the fact that my loving, devoted parents actually took me to the movies (older sister-in-tow) to see the Canadian-made disaster, Starship Invasions (1977) during its very limited theatrical engagement.

(LITTLE KNOWN FACT: Since I saw it in the theater with my entire family, the Muirs represented almost 90% of the film's entire box office return.)

Anyway, this was the disco-decade era of Star Wars (1977) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), I was in the second grade, and I loved with a passion everything outer-space related. Movies, TV shows, books, toys, name it.

My parents supported me in my obsession with the final frontier and so -- when a movie titled Starship Invasions landed at the local theater -- we hopped in the car and went to see it. My parents didn't check reviews, they didn't hem and haw. We just went...

Alas, the movie had barely begun before my enthusiasm and anticipation drained away. The first scene involved a pudgy Canadian farmer being abducted by aliens in funny black hats.

Once aboard the alien ship, the hick (who resembles Elmer Fudd...) was seduced by a naked alien siren, and my Mother was poking my Dad in the ribs with increasing concern. "Ken...Ken!!" What kind of movie was this?

Well, in short, Starship Invasions is a terrible, rotten, stinky B movie. Even as an eight year old kid, I recognized that fact almost immediately. Still, it was awesome that my parents took me to see it...

Written and directed by Ed Hunt (no, not Ed Wood...), Starship Invasions stars a slumming-it Christopher Lee as Captain Ramseses, the nefarious leader of a cabal of renegade aliens and captain of a flying saucer that resembles a hubcap.

As Ramseses explains to his dedicated crew early in the film, their sun is currently experiencing "a dangerous phase" (no, not puberty...) and might explode at any moment. In fact, Ramseses wears a big boxy alarm clock device on one wrist to monitor the sun's status.

When it flashes red, that means his sun has just gone supernova...

What's so funny about this scene, besides Christopher Lee's slow, precise enunciation of the word "super nova" (apparently for the hard-of-hearing in the audience...), is that he is delivering exposition to his own people, who would surely know by the time they reach Earth in their flying saucer, that their planet is in jeopardy and their star unstable. And really, wouldn't it be more helpful if Lee's clunky watch warned him that the sun was soon going to go nova, rather than telling him after the fact?


With his own world threatened, Ramseses needs to find a new home planet on which to hang his silly black hat. Following the abduction of the fat, dopey farmer and the extraction of Elmer Fudd's "sperm cells" (yuck!) by the super-hot naked alien woman, Ramseses declares that humans are actually the parent race of his own species. Still, he's going to kill them all and take the planet.

To commence his evil plan, Ramseses lands his saucer on Earth, at the underwater pyramid base of the "Intergalactic League of Races." The peaceful aliens working there declare "all peace to you, galactic brother" as a common salutation, and work peacefully to safeguard "the civilization, progress and evolution" of worlds like Earth, according to their "Galactic Treaty."

But Ramseses will have none of these namby-pamby ways. After visiting a "Relaxation Room" where he gets to choose between companionship with a sexy redhead, a blond or a brunette (like he's selecting frigging ice cream flavors...), Ramseses kills all the aliens on the base, and prepares to launch "project genocide."

That brilliant plan entails an alien saucer shooting a minuscule lightning ray at Earth, one that spurs a "suicide epidemic" among the humans (as announced on the cover of TIME Magazine...which is tastefully decorated with an illustration of a slit wrist...).

Only, the death ray also sometimes spurs homicide too...thoroughly mucking up the issue.

Only one friendly alien saucer survives Ramseses' vicious betrayal, but is damaged in a battle of the UFOs. The crew thus seeks out human scientist Allan Duncan (Robert Vaughn), to help repair the craft. Duncan is a family man and dedicated UFO expert, one who believes that flying saucers are "damaging" to human self-esteem because they point out that others "are more advanced" than "we are." Allan recruits his friend Malcolm -- who happens to be a computer expert -- and together they board the alien ship to fix it up for battle with Ramseses. The survival of the human race hangs in the balance...

Although Starship Invasions works hard to accurately reflect the details of the UFO abduction experience by featuring alien medical exams (and alien curiosity about human reproduction...) as well as the concept of missing time, the movie remains unintentionally hilarious. For instance, when plotting to take over the underwater alien base base, Ramseses and all his fellow aliens from the Planet Alpha (in the Orion Constellation) arm themselves with tiny little "finger guns" that slip over their digits and are attached to the wrist by old-fashioned, curly telephone cords. Excellent!

Furthermore, Christopher Lee and his cohorts did not have to learn a stitch of dialogue for their scenes together, because no dialogue was recorded. Instead, all the dialogue involving Lee as Ramseses is "voice over" only, and then described in the story as ESP communication between the aliens. This is either inspired or ridiculous. Or both.

It's also rather amusing that the humans of Starship Invasions are not convinced of the reality of UFOs, since aliens of all persuasion make no attempt to hide themselves or their crafts. Saucers brazenly strafe highways and fields in broad daylight, glow by night as they hurtle towards heavily populated cities, and even crash into skyscrapers. Saucers land in suburban backyards too, and on city streets at the foot of public buildings.

The piece-de-resistance in Starship Invasions, however, may be the ludicrous scene set in a grocery store. Here, Duncan's young daughter, Diane, is affected by the alien suicide ray and takes out her pre-adolescent rage...on a helpless tomato in the produce aisle. For years after this movie, whenever my sister and I visited a supermarket produce row together, we'd eye the tomatoes venomously in honor of this moment...

Most of the film's flaws stem from a low-budget or poor execution, but the script is no great shakes in the logic department either. Specifically, a League saucer is shot down by the U.S. military in one scene. Early in the scene, it is established that the aliens aboard that endangered craft can view the military radar room on their view screen. But they do not detect it, apparently, when a missile was launched by the very crew they were just observing. Not paying attention?

The dialogue is pretty lame too. Even the telepathic dialogue. To hear the immortal Christopher Lee bellow the line "we need a human female" via ESP is a camp hoot. I also liked the entreaty from Duncan's wife (Helen Shaver) that she needs more togetherness with her occupied man. "I'm interested in UFOS too," she says, "but we've got to have time to ourselves." Words to live by, indeed.

Pretty much everything about Starship Invasions is textbook dreadful. From the ridiculous android "costume" (which looks appears to be a snowsuit glued to a welding helmet), to the movie's creepy obsession with inter species sex ("so...they shined a light on you and put you with a naked woman?" a police officer asks the fat farmer incredulously...), everything about this movie just...reeks.

But, of course, I had to see it again for nostalgia's sake. I first saw Starship Invasions long, long ago -- in 1977 -- and now I've finally seen it again, in 2009. I mentioned to my mother yesterday that I was planning to watch it last night, and she remembered the details of the movie chapter and verse. I asked her if she wanted to see it again, for old time's sake. Her answer was a polite shake of the head. "No."

She'd already indulged me once, I suppose. And where Starship Invasions is concerned, once is definitely enough.


  1. Anonymous6:30 AM

    Ha, ha, I saw it in the theater too. It had a pretty great thirty-second trailer for TV commercials. Containing every single thing worthwhile about the movie.


  2. Great review - I should check this out again, too. I saw it as a kid in the theater (IIRC). I liked it then because the bad guys were winning...until the end.

    Those were the days - when sci-fi, crappy or not, ruled!

    Thanks for the memory (and review), John!

  3. This movie rules! I can still remember how crappy it looked but yes it indeed tickled my fancy.

  4. Anonymous6:19 PM

    If you've never tried making a film with overbearing producers breathing down your neck telling you to write this and do that, you've never lived the filmmaking life. Happily for you I suppose, the maker of SI made only a few more films, then vanished into obscurity.

  5. Anonymous2:56 PM

    I saw this on late night tv as a kid and have been trying to find out the name of it for years.

  6. R. Wolfe10:31 PM

    Saw this in the theater with my mother, when I was, oh, maybe 17. The film broke 4 times, each time eliciting cheers from the sparse audience. Finally, when the film caught fire, the audience applauded and cheered wildly. We all got our money refunded.

  7. You have to understand something about this movie - bits of it are taken from artist's conceptions of witness encounters with UFO "aliens." The weird-looking robot is based off a creature allegedly sighted by two witnesses in 1976, the skin-tight costumes are pretty common to sightings from the 1950s to the present, the ships look like some of those photographed in the 1960s-early 1970s. So this is a movie where the art director really did their research. As for the telepathy, that is also common to UFO "alien" stories.....this, not Spielberg's "Close Encounters" is the ultimate UFO movie of the 1970s. And it sucks.

  8. I remember watching this movie when I was a kid. Not the best, but for the time period, it was adequate. In response to your query: "[...] the aliens aboard that endangered craft can view the military radar room on their view screen. But they do not detect [...] when a missile was launched by the very crew they were just observing. Not paying attention?"
    They were aware of the missile. The Evil CL had sabotaged their force field. They saw the missile, were unconcerned as it normally would not have affected them, then realize that "there is nothing between us and that missle!" KABOOM.