Writer: Lance Lindsay
Producer: Eric Woster
Cast: C Jutson Campbell, Faye Bolt, John W Smith
Year of release: 1985
Reviewed from: UK VHS
Words cannot begin to describe how awful Star Crystal is. Not hilariously bad, not shoddily amateur, just compulsively, mindblowingly terrible at every level and in almost every respect. It beggars belief that a large number of people could have worked on this film without realising what they were making or that the people ultimately responsible could have had any attitude except complete and utter cynicism, a belief (apparently justified) that in the mid-1980s anything more than 80 minutes long with a spaceship in it would sell to video distributors around the world and turn a profit.
In a way, this reminds me of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. No, wait, hear me out on this one. Stravinsky wrote that piece as an attempt at jazz music - except that, living in Russia as he did, he had never heard any jazz. He had met people who had heard jazz, he had read descriptions of it, so he had a go at emulating what he thought jazz was - and he ended up with something that is nothing at all like jazz. Well, Star Crystal is what one might get if people who had never, ever seen a sci-fi movie set out to make a sci-fi movie, based only on what they had heard and read about sci-fi movies. It has some of the recognisable iconography - spaceship, alien, talking computer - but none of it fits together the right way. More to the point, this movie makes no sense whatsoever and despite that it still manages to contradict itself at every opportunity.
Oh, I should just point out the one big difference between The Rite of Spring and Star Crystal. Stravinsky’s work is good, Star Crystal is shit. I wouldn’t want anyone to labour under a misapprehension.
We open with a couple of guys in spacesuits wandering across the surface of Mars in the year 2032 (not 2035 as the sleeve claims). This is shot using a red filter, the spacesuits aren’t too bad, it’s even slightly overcranked to make them move slowly. It’s a promising start. For no apparent reason, they dig at a particular spot and excavate a rock about the size of a beachball, which they take away with them.
As the shuttlecraft SC-37 blasts away from the Red Planet, the two unnamed guys show the rock to the ship’s doctor (for some reason) and assure him that their equipment indicates that it’s full of electronic circuitry. When the three men leave the room, the rock cracks open to reveal a large crystal and a small amount of goop which drips onto the floor and starts to move slightly.
So no circuitry at all then.
Next thing we know, the ship’s computer is announcing that the oxygen supply has run out and we have a panning shot of various dead crew members.
Two months later the drifting ship is somehow picked up and docked with the L-5 space station (I assume it’s just a snappy name and not an indication that the station is orbiting the L5 Lagrange point). There’s a tall ‘Colonel’ - a youngish chap with a moustache, a bouffant hairdo and an eye for the ladies - who has to attend a meeting which, we are told from a computer read-out, is to discuss why the ‘nuetron reactors’ are malfunctioning. I would expect spelling mistakes in the I’ve-got-an-Amstrad-and-I’m-gonna-use-it computer displays if this had been made in Japan or Italy, but this is an American movie. That’s just monstrously sloppy.
Oh, and a secondary reason for the meeting is to consider why the entire crew of the SC-37 died. But that’s just an aside, really.
This meeting, between four men, is held in a dark room, around a small illuminated table. In other words, the production has saved money on a set by simply not having one. Meanwhile a computer operator named Campbell (C Jutson Campbell, usually misspelt ‘Juston’ in listings and just called ‘Jutson Campbell’ on the UK VHS sleeve) is trying to get the shuttlecraft’s computer to work while trading banter with a black guy (John Smith, credited as ‘John W Smith’ on the original poster but nowhere else) whose name - Cal - is mentioned I think once in the entire movie. Suddenly, the station and the ship are both rocked by an (unseen) explosion and there are a few shots of people running around, several of which are rather obviously in an office building rather than a space station. Two young women run onto the bridge of SC-37 and Campbell talks on the intercom to Billy, a previously unmentioned frizzy-haired, acerbic, female engineer in the ship’s engine room who successfully blasts the shuttlecraft away from L-5.
The two fellas and the two ladies in the control room sit and watch on the screen as L5 - eventually - blows up in possibly the worst thing-blowing-up-in-space model shot I have ever witnessed.
So now we have our main cast: Campbell, who assumes command of the ship; classy brunette Dr Adrienne Kimberley (Faye Bolt) whose antipathetic attitude towards Campbell ensures that they will eventually get together; blonde Sherrie Stevens (Taylor Kingsley), constantly referred to as Debbie despite the name-patch on her loosely buttoned jumpsuit, which incidentally identifies her as a nutritionist - so she is assigned to cooking duties; misanthropic Billy (Marcia Linn), who seems to be loosely modelled on Carla in Cheers; and funky, hip Cal, who has his eye on Sherrie. More to the point, we are only ten minutes into the film and we have already killed off two complete sets of characters.
A word now about the layout and design of the SC-37, which from outside is a fairly straightforward, square-ish, roughly hammer-shaped vessel. In the fairly large control room, along with lots of control panels, a few computer screens and some chairs, is a device for showing where everyone is on the ship. Given that there are only five rooms and they’re all linked, plus they all have wall-mounted intercom telephone things, you do wonder why this machine is necessary.
The map of the ship on the screen shows four corridors fanning out from the bridge to four smaller rooms, which are labelled (using sticky tape!) as ‘Science lab’, ‘Sleeping quarters’, ‘Supply room’ and ‘Engine room.’ Halfway along each corridor is a junction with a fifth corridor, connecting them. Despite the map showing these corridors as short, straight and with a junction halfway along, the corridors that we see on screen are long, curving and junctionless. But the biggest problem is that they are not proper corridors at all (I slightly misled you, dear reader), they are dimly lit cylindrical tubes about three feet in diameter. So anyone passing along them has to go on hands and knees on a curved floor.
Opening and closing the sliding door on the four-foot entrance in each room seems to be automatic but it can be locked, from inside only, by pressing some large, coloured buttons and turning a small wheel. This is clearly modeled on the wheels used to lock hatches in seafaring ships, except that it is on the wall, not the door itself. No-one ever turns it more than about ten degrees and when the crew want to be completely safe, keeping out any beastie that might be aboard, they tie the wheel up with a bit of string.
Are you starting to comprehend quite how mindboggling this film is now? Buckle up, because it gets worse.
The five survivors of the L-5 disaster make no attempt to call for help or investigate whether any other ships escaped the explosion or anything like that. They just swiftly calculate that it will take a year (or 18 months, depending on which character is talking) to reach Earth. This is because SC-37 is just a short-range shuttle-craft, not a long-range ship. Unfortunately they only have five months (or possibly two weeks) of food on board. However, there are two supply depots between their present position (presumably somewhere near Mars) and Earth, the nearest being Alpha 7 which can be reached in five days. So away they go. With an alien onboard.
To the film’s credit, for most of the movie we never get a good look at the alien. Instead we get close-ups of gelatinous stuff, close-ups of a large, blinking eye or shots of very long, snake-thin tendrils whizzing across the floor, occasionally ending in a three-fingered claw but usually not.
Was she hitting the alien with a spanner? Whose blood was that? I actually replayed the sequence to see if it made any sense but nope.
Sherrie/Debbie discovers Billy’s body, which is now a shriveled corpse and she runs off to Adrienne in the ship’s science lab. Or at least, she runs as far as the engine room door, climbs through it, runs a couple more steps to the tube and then crawls along it until she reaches the science lab.
Campbell and Cal, up on the bridge, have been drinking - and who can blame them? If I was on a spaceship that I had never flown before, trying to reach one small supply depot floating in the vastness of space somewhere between Martian and Earth orbits, with very limited amounts of food and drink on board, I think I would hit the bottle too. This drinking has no bearing on the characters or the plot and is forgotten pretty quickly. Like most things in this embarrassingly pisspoor movie, it’s an idea that somebody had which was never developed or followed up.
Adrienne also has a computer terminal in her lab (this one does have a screen, in fact it looks remarkably like an Amstrad PCW) into which she puts a sample of the goop from the engine room, which she removes from Sherrie/Debbie’s clothes. Bernice announces that the goop comes from an “unknown life form - its molecular structure does not require oxygen to live.” Wow, just from this slug trail-like discharge, the computer can say conclusively that the organism that produced the goop respires anaerobically. Nothing else can be determined, just the method of respiration. Intriguing.
Cal and Debbie die next although I can’t recall in what order. The map-of-the-ship doodad is used to show each of the victims being stalked by the alien, which shows up as a different coloured spot because it has a different heat signature, apparently. Odd how nobody noticed that there were originally six lifeforms on board. Debbie tips a beaker of acid on the alien before it gets her, a gloriously unmatched pair of shots showing the tentacles around her feet as she lies on her back, then dragging her away as she lies on her front. As with Billy’s death, the tentacles do not in any way match the goopy alien seen in close-up.
That leaves Campbell and Adrienne alone on the bridge, where they have slowly, one by one, closed the four doors. For the rest of the film they completely fail to generate any sexual tension despite being all alone together. They spend the night in a sleeping compartment leading directly off the bridge, which leaves one wondering what the previously identified ‘sleeping quarters’ were for. When the oxygen supply to the ship is cut off, Bernice does her usual trick of announcing this vital warning silently on a computer screen somewhere.
Having restored the supply, the two survivors find a ‘video laser’ recording of what happened when SC-37 visited Mars. This turns out to be footage of the two spacemen from the start of the film. I mean, it’s actual footage of them on the desolate surface of the Red Planet - so who filmed this? When Adrienne notices that there is 25 hours of this stuff to sit through, they speed up the tape and the resulting high-speed footage is accompanied, incredibly, by comedy ‘silent movie’ piano music!
While trying to get my head around how any film-maker could expect any viewer to watch this nonsensical farrago... another shuttle-craft appears. That’s right. Although they’re stranded out in deep space in a slow-moving short-range shuttle with no human constructions in range except the Alpha-7 supply depot and the smoking remains of the L-5 space station, nevertheless they are briefly accompanied on their journey by the SC-45 (which of course looks exactly like the SC-37, although I suppose that’s fair). Just as the ‘video laser’ recording of the Martian surface was footage that could not possibly exist unless a third person was present, so we now see on the SC-37’s screen footage of both shuttle-craft flying together - which obviously could not exist unless a third craft was present.
We’re not told where SC-45 is going or where it has come from. It’s just there because it’s expedient. Inconveniently, the SC-37’s radio can receive but not transmit so they can’t tell SC-45 their situation. The pilot of the other shuttle, realising that there may be communication problems, asks them to make a 30 degree turn if they’re okay. By now, that sneaky alien - whose crystal, Campbell and Adrienne decide, is both a computer and a power supply - is controlling the ship and executes this manoeuvre, so SC-45 goes off on its merry way.
And then it comes back, just long enough to warn SC-37 that there is “a meteor storm at twelve o’clock”. I tried to work out whether this meant time or direction and then realised that either concept was meaningless in space so it was equally stupid either way. But wait, the alien creates a force field around SC-37 and the meteors just bounce off. Maybe it’s not so bad after all.
‘Two days later’ says a caption but Campbell still only has about twelve hours of stubble so either beards grow slowly in outer space or he’s finding the time to shave regularly. Adrienne’s hair, of course, still looks gorgeous.
What happens next is, even by the plungingly low standards of this film, spectacularly stupid. Hold onto your seats, ladies and gentlemen, because you will not believe this bit.
The alien starts accessing the computer, leading to numerous close-ups of that Amstrad screen. ‘Evolution of the Human Race, Parts 1-20’ is the name of the series of files it investigates, starting (as one does) with ‘Part 5 - 15,000BC to 500AD’. Hmm, I don’t believe there has actually been much evolution in homo sapiens within the last 17,000 years. Really, this is more the history of the human race then, isn’t it? Within this time frame, the file has a menu (as we would now call it) of several directories (as we would now call them), each covering a different part of the globe. Quite brilliantly, one of these is ‘Antarctica’ because of course there was just so much human activity in Antarctica between those dates.
Working through the menus ( as we would now call them), the alien selects ‘Middle East’, then ‘Beliefs and Religions’ then ‘Christianity’. And then the computer reads out two specific verses from the New Testament, about doing unto others and so on. Yes, it’s true, I’m not making this up. The alien reads The Bible! The alien discovers religion!
Maybe, just maybe, if the alien had somehow absorbed the entirety of human knowledge (or at least as much as is routinely stored in the databanks of short-range shuttlecraft) and had noticed the teachings of Jesus in among all the other stuff, there might be some sense in this. But no, the extraterrestrial beastie which somehow has control of this computer zooms straight in to the New Testament.
For some reason, Campbell now goes to the engine room, crawling through the tubes with a home-made flame thrower held dangerously in front of him. Adrienne stays on the bridge and urges caution, apparently able to be heard through some previously unmentioned communications system which doesn’t require the wall-mounted handsets previously used for this purpose. And ultimately, somehow, Campell befriends the alien, which looks like a slug with the head of ET, is about the size of a large dog and has No Tentacles Whatsoever! (It is also completely devoid of teeth, despite what the poster shows.)
A lengthy montage shows the two humans and the alien - which can now talk and is called ‘Gar’ - living together and having fun. Eventually they make it to the supply depot which Gar says he can convert into a spaceship to get him home. And that, apart from an insipid song called ‘Crystal of a Star’, is pretty much it. Just to put the final nail of unbelievability into this film’s coffin, the singer/lyricist, credited as ‘Stefani Christopherson (aka Indira)’ was the original voice of Daphne in Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?!
So come on, own up. Where did this rubbish come from? Writer-director Lance Lindsay has one other credit, a few years later - an action picture called Real Bullets about a group of stuntmen who take on a criminal gang. Marcia Linn and C Jutson Campbell were both in that too, along with - good gravy! - Martin Landau. Apart from that, I can find nothing on the guy whatsoever. Producer Eric Woster, who shares a story credit with Lindsay - as well as directing the second unit, editing the picture and doing some of the make-up effects - was also far from prolific, although he has an excuse. According to the Inaccurate Movie Database (and believe me, I’ve looked everywhere else) he wrote, directed and starred in a 1992 horror film called Sandman, with Dedee Pfeiffer in the cast. He seems to have been a pal of Tommy Chong, working as a production assistant on three early ‘80s Cheech and Chong movies and as DP on Far Out Man. He also allegedly lit another ultra-cheapie scifi embarrassment, Space Chase. According to some non-IMDB sources, Woster died on the set of Sandman, just before completing the film, from a congenital heart condition. He was in his early thirties. Poor bastard.
There are three Associate Producers and two Executive Producers. Apart from one who produced Sandman and another who worked on Far Out Man, none of them seem to have bothered with the film industry before or since.
One thing that really stands out when watching Star Crystal is the number of reaction shots. Every time something happens - like a space station exploding or a dead body being discovered - the people in question just stare blankly while the cruel, cruel camera refuses to cut away. I’ve never seen so many reaction shots featuring actors who either don’t know how to react or weren’t told what they were reacting to (or both).
On the technical side - dear Lord, this just gets better and better - cinematographer Robert Carameco worked on Spawn of the Slithis, Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive, Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, Blackenstein, Octaman, Journey to the Centre of Time, The Cremators, Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural, Guess What Happened to Count Dracula?, Boss Nigga and Orgy of the Dead! He passed away in 1997 aged 64 but boy, what a career. (Oh, and his surname was Camarico so this film manages to spell his name wrong...)
Production designer Steve Sardanis (who is also dead - what, is there a ‘Curse of Star Crystal’?) was assistant art director on The Towering Inferno and art director on Snowbeast. Costume designer MaryAnn Bozek seems to have gone into hiding after this film but recently resurfaced on Reno 911! and Balls of Fury. Script supervisor Nancy Hansen worked on Invasion of the Bee Girls, The Toolbox Murders, Airplane!, Back to the Future, Turner and Hooch and Lethal Weapon 2. Sound mixer Clyde Sorensen did his schtick on episodes of Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers.
Okay, what of the ‘special visual effects’? Step forward one Lewis Abernathy who also - get this - directed House IV, wrote DeepStar Six (and one of the many unproduced versions of Freddy vs Jason) and acted in Titanic. Apparently, Abernathy is a Titanic nut who met Cameron on a diving expedition and suggested to him that he should make a film about the ship. Abernathy inspired the character of Lewis Bodine, the guy in the prologue who shows the computer simulation of how the ship sank, and when Cameron couldn’t find anyone to play the part - he gave it to Abernathy. But wait, there’s more. Abernathy is also a jobbing inventor and he inspired the characters of Walter (John Goodman) in The Big Lebowski and Agent Abernathy in Jason Goes to Hell. Next time you watch Titanic, just pause the DVD at that point near the start and think: ‘Twelve years earlier, that man was in charge of special effects on Star Crystal.”
Harry Hathorne and T Lindsay built the model spacecraft; Hathorne later co-wrote a fantastic and extensive article on Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for Cinefantastique magazine. Model construction supervisor John Coats coincidentally worked on William Mesa’s 1995 Brigitte Nielsen-starrer Terminal Force which was released in Japan as... Star Crystal. He followed this picture with visual effects work on UHF, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Talos the Mummy, The Adventures of Pluto Nash and a whole load of other movies of distinctly variable quality. Construction of the L-5 space station is specifically credited to young Mr Abernathy and Justin Segal. Could he be the LA-based illustrator/designer and author of The American Sign Language Puzzle Book? On this movie, anything is possible.
I can’t claim to know precisely what ‘animation touch-up’ involves but it was done by Dan Kuenster who went on to co-direct Rock-a-Doodle and All Dogs Go to Heaven and also worked on An American Tail and The Land Before Time. I’m guessing he was related to Luke Kuenster (Delta Force II) who handled second unit cinematography. Matte paintings (not that I noticed any, but there must have been at least one) were provided by Dave Goetz, later art director for Disney on The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Atlantis: The Lost Continent. Vince Prentice (Piranha, The Capture of Bigfoot, Total Recall, Legend) gets the glorious credit ‘special effects make-up (dead bodies)’. His other claim to fame is making up Keanu Reeves for his uncredited role as Ortiz the Dogboy in Freaked.
Lou Lazzara - ‘make-up/hair’ - has worked on various instalments of the Friday, Elm Street and Halloween franchises as well as such titles as Mutant, Teen Wolf Too, Face/Off and Terminator 3, plus episodes of Angel and seaQuest and two Weird Al videos! Also credited with make-up and hair are Blake Shephard (probably the Blake Shepard who later worked on Buffy) and Kathy Tessalone, who worked in make-up for 15 years before moving into real estate and teaching; she was last heard of trying to get an animated series called The Welbys off the ground.
Apologies if this is turning into a list of credits (hey, how do you think I feel having to italicise all these titles?) but there were just so many extraordinary people working on this, ahem, unique movie. Do we think that 1st AD Eric Weston could be the guy who, five years earlier, wrote, directed and produced Evilspeak? I wouldn’t be surprised.
When critiquing a film this bad overall it’s very easy to get carried away and claim that everything about it is The Worst Ever. But let’s give it its due. The spacecraft models aren’t bad and the motion control used to photograph them works well. The acting is poor, that’s no doubt, but I’ve seen far, far worse. The alien is actually an imaginative design (or rather, two or three imaginative designs which don’t match). What plunges this film to the bottom of the cinematic barrel where even scraping for it seems thankless is the sheer haphazard nonsense that passes for a plot, the absolutely paper-thin characterisation (although it’s still not as bad as Incubus) and the jaw-droppingly pisspoor production design.
There is so much insanity and inanity in Star Crystal that I can’t do justice to it all, even in a review of more than 5,000 words. A quick google will reveal other reviews around the net, some of them based on a 2003 R1 DVD release by Anchor Bay and many of them dwelling on different details to me. It’s worth reading them all as they vie with each other to find new superlatives for how awful the movie is. Given time, I would not be surprised to find this film established as an icon of awfulness, if not to Plan 9 levels of infamy, at least up there with Troll 2. (Or, for an example of how tolerant some people can be of even the worst shite, check out some of the user comments on the IMDB.)
MJS rating: D