Saturday, July 31, 2010

Sci-Fried Theater: THE HUMANOID (1979)

Long, long ago in a decade far, far away, there was… STAR WARS (1977). The director was some guy who made some little films nobody ever heard of, like HERBIE (1966) and AMERICAN GRAFITI (1973), then decided to rehash old  sci-fi serials and turn them into an epic space opera with genre-changing results. It goes without saying that STAR WARS was a huge influence on science fiction movies for decades to come, but while many movies aped bits and pieces here and there, few actually went full tilt into full-blown rip-off as was the case with other mega-hits, such as JAWS (1975). For one, to rip-off JAWS all you needed was some water, some victims and a cheap rubber monster. Hell, you didn’t even need the water, as evidenced by Russell Mulcahey’s excellent landlocked reworking RAZORBACK (1984). With STAR WARS you couldn’t get away with doing a full-blown rip-off on a shoestring budget. You needed lots of sets, costumes, weapons, starship battles, robots and possibly aliens as well. Antonio Margheriti’s TREASURE ISLAND IN SPACE (1984) and STARCHASER: THE LEGEND OF ORIN (1985) would have never been born without the existence of STAR WARS, but to see a true rip-off we need only look to master pilferer Aldo Lado, who was the man responsible for the LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT knock-off set on a train, titled THE LAST TRAIN OF THE NIGHT (1975, aka THE SECOND HOUSE ON THE LEFT, LAST HOUSE PART II, etc). After the success of Luigi Cozzi’s star-studded STARCRASH (1978), Aldo Lado adopted the nom de plume “George B. Lewis” (which sounds nothing like George Lucas), and with second unit director Enzo Castellari created one of the most blatant STAR WARS rip-offs ever. If only they had picked a better title! Seriously, how are you supposed to cash-in on the STAR WARS craze if you don't have “Star” in the title? Crazy.

In a nutshell, the evil Lord Graal (Ivan Rassamov) has escaped from a prison colony and clad in a giant black firefighter’s helmet with a face-cage, customary black cape and quilted outfit, sets out to get revenge on his brother, Great Brother. Man, with a sibling named “Great Brother” it’s no wonder he’s angry! Graal joins forces with Lady Agatha (Barbara Bach), an ice queen who presumably spends most of her time doing her spectacularly futuristic coiffed hair (I can see Lord Graal banging on her galactic bathroom door, “Honey, our reservations are for 7:30! How much longer are you going to be in there?”). Lady Agatha pretty much melts in the presense of Graal’s big, smooth helmet, which is probably due to the fact that she spends most of her time with Kraspin (Arthur Kennedy), an evil scientist that uses an acrylic iron maiden (everything in the future is acrylic) to suck the life essence out of naked women to keep Agatha lookin’ hotter than her name implies. Lord Graal and Lady Agatha need a plan to conquer the planet of Metropolis, formerly known as “Earth”, and Kraspin has just the one: steal the fabled kapitron and turn the people of Metropolis into an army of super-soldiers! What could go wrong? The kapitron is kept under guard in a desert city in which everyone drives around in brown open-cockpit hovercraft vehicles. Where’s uncle owen? When Graal’s black clad stormtrooper mini-me’s blow the Metropolis fighters out of the sky, he barks, “those pilots were sheep, not fighters! My brother’s army has grown bloated with peace!” War: less filling and it won’t slow you down.

While the main goal is to snag the kapitron, Kraspin wants a worker named Barbara Gibson (nice girls don’t get futuristic names?), played sans underwear by Corrine Cleary, killed in the process because she ruined years of his work and got him sent to a space asylum (man, if that isn’t a premise for a new Hammer Frankenstein flick, I don’t know what is)! Barbara manages to escape the massacre because her pupil, a young Asian boy named TomTom (who does not give driving directions as you might think) has hypnotized her through a vidphone call, forcing her to leave and causing a guard to remark “looks like she’s been hitting the ‘Alpha Wave’ pills!” Yeah, you know those alpha wave pills, whoooo! They say not to take them with anti-grav juice, but I call it more of a serving suggestion, if you know what I mean! Eh?

Kraspin claims kapitron can turn the men of metropolis into “an army of rowbuts” and to test out the proof of concept and make double sure that kapitron is the most dangerous weapon in the galaxy, Kraspin uses long-lost space pilot Golob (Richard Keil), a gentle giant with a beard and a robodog named Kit who he feeds “silicon tranquilizers”, as a guinea pig by launching a rocket loaded with kapitron at him. After the explosion Golob’s beard disappears and he has become a monster! This is expressed by having Kiel raise his arms, make claw-hands and growl a lot while wearing platform shoes. You know anyone who wears platform shoes is evil, right? To prove that he has superhuman powers, Kraspin sends out a balsawood – err, I mean hovercraft troopcarrier with which the now Evil Golob dispatches in short order. Kraspin, cackling with delight says “he’s rather irritated, isn’t he?” All they have to do now is slap a sensor on his forehead and drop him off in front of the city (apparently in the future there is no way to detect ships landing on your planet) and watch the mayhem from afar!

Once inside the city, Golob runs amuck throwing men around like dummies… oh, wait, they are dummies, in the appropriately matte-pained city. There are some great moments here such as the scene in which Kraspin watching the action from a monitor sees Barbara and commands Golob to “get her!” That’s your whole plan, wasn’t it, Ray? We also get the revelation that the kid TomTom wields some sort of mystic powers (predating the adolescent jedi plot-lines of the recent STAR WARS sequels) and reads books that are futuristic because they are long and thin and bound with string. Wait, there are books in the future? And string? What?? In addition to reading “books”, Barbara and TomTom also enjoy playing video games on their big screen TV. Apparently, while we are now able to travel at faster than light-speeds throughout the galaxy and beyond, we still have black and white televisions and the best video game we have is a hybrid of Pong and Chess. And hey, it's multi-player, as two people are playing it! w00t, indeed!

One of the other characters is a Han Solo wannabe, Nick (Leonard Mann), who’s ship looks just enough like the Millennium Falcon to avoid prosecution. Nick is waxes sardonic, sporting some great lines like “kid you gotta be out of your gravity zone!” Plus he gets to hop in a spinning chair that is hooked up to an exterior laser cannon outside of hexagonal windows to blow away enemy fighters (sound familiar?). Graal’s ships decide that they are going to shoot at Nick and company with a “hyper-galactic stellar ray”, which I'm not sure is a bad thing or not. During the dog-fight, one of the stormtrooper pilots says “those six idiots couldn’t blow up an old trash can!” Wait, there are trash cans in the future? What??

While they feel free to pillage STAR WARS at will, strangely, they decide against using swords of light and instead, we find out (during a decidedly gweilo martial-arts showdown in the climax) that Graal can flip a switch on his chest and shoot blue lasers from his finger-tips! One of the great things about THE HUMANOID is that it sports a pretty sizable budget allowing for plenty of great low-rent locations in addition to the aforementioned finger lasers! Yes, you need a budget to do that. If you don't think so, you really haven’t rummaged as far down near the bottom of the cinematic barrel as you may think you have.

Landscapes are cribbed right out of the STAR WARS playbook, the sets and costumes are on par with most American indy sci-fi of the time, possibly even better in the case of the costumes, with the exception of Kiel, who looks like a reject from RIDERS OF THE STORM (1986). The special effects used for the laser weapons and spaceship battles are surprisingly well done and while the models are nowhere near as detailed as say BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (1980), the space scenes are pretty impressive for a what they are. Plus we get a score by the legendary Ennio Morricone. What more could you want? Yeah, yeah, lightsabers, I know. In spite of that, I still have the irresistible urge to quote lines from HARDWARE WARS (1978) while watching the film. Why this movie hasn’t obtained more of a cult status is beyond me. Well, I have one idea… it doesn’t have Caroline Munroe in a bikini... Dammit.

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