Silent Retreat

Silent_retreatIt’s nice to use the phrase “silent but violent” in the context of something that doesn’t stink and Silent Retreat has a lot going for it, despite being a member of subgenre we’re not overly fond of: hissing creatures who skulk about on all fours.

The Toronto Star called the plot “whisper thin” — which as we’ve pointed on occasion here is pretty irrelevant when it comes to horror as long as the frights are delivered. Hell, the plots to thousands of movies can be summed up in title alone: Sorority House Massacre? Spoiler alert: It’s about a sorority where a massacre takes place! Anyway, Silent Retreat has a few genuine scares and looks beautiful to boot, even if the budget was the equivalent of four-year college tuition.

A girl Janey, played by an actress with a promising future and a great nose (Chelsea Jenish) is sent to a small boot camp in the woods that specializes in giving its all-female, er, inmates would be the way to put it, the silent treatment. They’re deprived of all technology and given the sparest of accommodations (though weirdly, given Perrier with lunch).  Speaking without being spoken to is punishable by taking away dinner and the program is supplemented by meditation / brainwashing and run by a creepy doctor who resembles Jimmy Page, along with his two factotum sons.

silent_retreatReviewers have read the whole “voices being silenced” as obvious feminist subtext; this is somewhat ironic given the debate-quashing PC impulses held by some members of the far political left but…it’s interesting anyway, if a bit forced.

As a bonus we’re not led down the garden path of “psychos who run weird correctional facility, act all psycho.” Instead, it’s what lurks in the woods that’s the real danger.

There’s a nice bit of viscera slipping, some surprise killings and the performances are pretty good…the denouement is a bit unsatisfying but it’s nice to see (or is that hear?) a movie that is this silent through the first quarter.

***1/2 (out of 5)

Starcrash

starcrashItalian film producers in the late 70’s and early 80’s excelled at taking hit American films and then ripping them off completely. Hence, Jaws begat The Last Shark, Alien begat Contamination, Conan begat Conquest and Star Wars begat Starcrash.

Starcrash is a film that on paper boasts an impressive pedigree. It stars Christopher Plummer, David Hasselhoff, and this site’s patron saint, Joe Spinell. The music is composed, arranged and conducted by John Barry who is best known for helping to compose the iconic James Bond theme. Along for the ride are child-evangelist turned B-movie actor Marjoe Gortner and the utterly delectable Caroline Munro.

Although an Italian production, Starcrash was picked up for distribution by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. Thus, director and Dario Argento protégée Luigi Cozzi was renamed Lewis Coates (anglicizing Italian directors’ names to make the film more palatable to American audiences being common practice at the time. Sure, we would happily slurp down platefuls of fettuccine alfredo but heaven forbid we watch a film directed by a guy named Luigi.)

Like Star Wars, Starcrash begins with an establishing shot of a large vessel floating through deep space. However, unlike Star Wars, this ship looks like it was made out of Lego. On board are two “small time smugglers on the run”, Akton and Stella Star. Gortner plays Akton. With his reedy voice, wooden line delivery, pained facial expressions and curly-blonde Afro,  Gortner was the least convincing action star around; a distinction he would eventually have to concede in 1989 to Jay Leno when the great usurper of late–night starred as a cop alongside Pat Morita in the woeful Collision Course. But while Gortner was never much of an actor, he did make for a fascinating documentary subject as seen in the highly-recommended doc Marjoe, a profile cum searing expose of “the religion business.”

Much better is Munro as Stella Star, who spends much of the film in a skimpy leather bikini. According to IMDB, Munro was originally set to wear the bikini throughout the entire flick, but American studio executives feared that the provocative attire would prevent the film from being broadcast on network television and insisted that Cozzi cover the actress up for the second half of flicks_couch1-1_29the film. And to that I say Boo-urns!

Spinell, sporting a Ming the Merciless beard, has a glorious time hamming it up as the evil Count Zarth Arn while Plummer, wearing an outfit similar to Captain Power, phones it in as the virtuous Emperor of  the First Circle of the Universe. Try saying that three times fast!

The EFCU gives Akton and Stella a vaguely-defined mission to stop the nefarious count by locating his “phantom planet” and rescuing the Emperor’s missing son. They are joined by Elle, a cowardly, slightly effete robot (more like man in robot suit) who speaks like a refugee from the set of Hee-Haw. And so our adventure begins!

As Akton and Stella zip their way through the galaxy, they encounter all sorts of strange situations and creatures. Well, actually Stella does. Akton is content to stay within the safe confines of the ship while Stella and Elle do all the heavy lifting. He does practice his “power” which, from the looks of it, simply amounts to having the ability to produce miniature laser light-shows from his palms. While this ability might come in handy if Akton were in a planetarium blasting Dark Side of the Moon, it really is pretty useless as far as mystical powers go. All the same, the “power” is miles more measurable a concept than the bullsh*t “midichlorians” concept Lucas farted out in  Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

So while Akton practices being a human disco ball, Stella is out kicking some serious tuchus. And boy can she hold her own. Kudos to Munro who did all her own stunts for this one. Unfortunately, while facing a roving band starcrash1of space Neanderthals, Elle is destroyed and Stella captured. Things look quite dire for our intrepid heroine when, like a lifeguard racing in slow-motion to save a drowning nubile swimmer, the Hoff appears! He rescues Stella and reveals himself as Prince Simon, the one they were looking for all along!

The rest of the film is your usual space battles and ray gun Pyew! Pyew! Pyewing! Suffice it to say, in the end good vanquishes evil, our heroes are reunited, Elle is reassembled, and Joe Spinell cackles maniacally as his plans for intergalactic domination crumble around him.

It would be easy to dismiss Starcrash as junk if it wasn’t so gosh-darn entertaining. The effects, makeup, set design and costuming are all over the place. A lot of it is inept and hokey, but there is also some seriously impressive Harryhausen style stop-motion going on, and the kaleidoscopic lighting effects are fantastic. Plus, watching the film makes me feel like a five-year-old at a Saturday matinee. And therein lies the paradox of bad movies. Is Starcrash awful? Yes. It is also amazing and incredible. You bet you’re ass it is!

**** (out of five)