By Simon Abrams
Though I love many films that are often described as “cult films,” I can’t help but feel bad for my fellow cult cinema connoisseurs. It’s like being the cinephilic equivalent of a drug addict. The more devout a cultist you are, the more dedicated you are to hunting for new highs in the most irregular places. Obscurity is often conflated and even confused with quality and no matter whose opinion you turn to for advice, you’re bound to wade through a lot of crappy movies before you stumble upon something great.
Shout Factory!, a budding DVD line that’s release shiny new “Collector’s Editions” of Roger Corman-produced gems, caters to cultists. That’s a double-edged concept if ever there was one. Shout Factory! goes the extra mile to provide commemorative features for most of their new DVD and Blu Ray releases. But the copious special features with which they supplement their films are usually pretty skimpy when it comes to providing some much-needed universal context as to what uninitiated viewers are looking at.
For example, take Shout Factory!’s new release of Battle Beyond the Stars, which just hit stores this past Tuesday. Shout Factory! not only commissioned a new anamorphic widescreen transfer of the film, but they also commissioned several worthwhile bonus features, including audio commentaries by screenwriter John Sayles and producer Roger Corman. The trouble with this DVD release isn’t with the supplementary features that were included with the film but rather the ones that weren’t. Excluding Sayles, Corman and James Cameron completists (Cameron served as the film’s art director; no wonder everything looks so chintzy) and anyone else that already enjoys Battle Beyond the Stars, Shout Factory!’s release doesn’t make an especially convincing case for the film.
This is probably because the film doesn’t really matter after a point. Battle Beyond the Stars is an intermittently clever but mostly lousy rip-off of Star Wars by way of The Seven Samurai. Within Corman’s oeuvre, the film is only really important as one of his most expensive productions. Battle Beyond the Stars is not going to blow down anyone’s doors. But maybe it has just enough to offer cult film buffs that are either looking for an ephemeral and insanely specific something to latch onto or just an intermittently funny Star Wars rip-off. After all, don’t you want to see George Peppard dispense scotch and soda from his belt buckle?
If the answer to that rhetorical question is “Uh, no,” I wouldn’t waste my time with Battle Beyond the Stars. Though Sayles gives almost all of his characters a decent one-liner or two, the film’s dumbed-down combination of The Seven Samurai and Star Wars’* storylines is pretty unremarkable. Today, an uninitiated viewer should watch Battle Beyond the Stars for Sayles’s quips and the film’s dated but satisfying production values, not for its acting, plot or characters.
The same is true about Damnation Alley, another cult item with a fairly modest reputation that Shout Factory! released for the first time on DVD this past week. Based on a novel by the great “New Wave” scifi writer Roger Zelazny, the film has a novel, even frightening, premise. A nuclear strike from parts unknown decimates most life on Earth. A trio of American Air Force men, led by (wait for it) George Peppard, travels cross-country all the way from California to Albany in order to find the source of a radio signal. Along the way, they fight giant cockroaches and almost drown in a flood in a giant armored tank (It’s got missile launchers, kids! And a decal of Captain America’s shield on the side! Buy yours today!). The rest isn’t particularly memorable.
With the exception of Zelazny’s potent post-apocalyptic scenario and some cheesy but memorable scenes, including an early confrontation where a young Jan-Michael Vincent rides around dodges enormous irradiated scorpions on his dirt bike, Damnation Alley is also unfortunately a dud. Even if you really like any of its cast members, including a very young Jackie Earle Haley, you’d have to be already seriously obsessed with the film, its cast or crew to pick the film up. There’s no buried treasure here, though Battle Beyond the Stars has its moments. And the search for the next unsung cult hit continues…
*I tend to doubt Corman or Sayles were even thinking about The Hidden Fortress, the Akira Kurosawa movie George Lucas based Star Wars: A New Hope on, when they made Battle Beyond the Stars.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.