Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Space Raiders (1983) review


Vince Edwards (Hawk), David Mendenhall (Peter), Patsy Pease (Amanda), Thom Christopher (Flightplan), Luca Bercovici (Ace), Drew Snyder (Aldebaran), Ray Stewart (Zariatin), George Dickerson (Tracton)

Directed by Herman Cohen

The Short Version: The first movie released through Corman's Millennium Films banner after selling New World Pictures is an outer space pirate movie that fails to launch. With barely any new SPX shots, most of the interstellar footage is pilfered from Corman's BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (1980) and some space scraps from the provocative ANDROID (1982) among others. It's not a total barrel-scraper, though; Cohen's movie benefits from some likable performances and witty banter from a cast who strike cool poses that make nice imagery for poster artwork. The malnourished sets, "laser" guns that shoot sparks out of their barrels, and a reliance on space footage from other movies are indicative of the sort of RAIDing being done in this underfunded, derelict SPACE opera.

After stealing a ship for its cargo, space pirate Captain Hawk and his crew discover the ship is empty save for a 10 year boy who got aboard during a firefight. Before they can decide what to do with him, the corporation they robbed sends a robot ship to hunt them down; an ID card worn by the boy allows the huge vessel to track them. Taking a liking to the spunky kid, Hawk and his cohorts go out of their way to return the boy to his home while various cutthroats and the robot ship are in hot pursuit.

Negligible movies like SPACE RAIDERS carry with them a nostalgia factor. They're not very good, but there's something undeniably fun about them that, upon seeing them again years later, you're able to see why it was so good to you once upon a time. Roger Corman was known for his penny-pinching ways, but he was also notable for his uncanny ability to make spare change look like a million bucks. Unfortunately, this is not one of those occasions.

When STAR WARS took the world by storm in 1977, Corman got a piece of the action by spending some 2 million on a space epic of his own with the star-studded BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (1980); written by John Sayles as SEVEN SAMURAI in outer space. The film was a success and Corman, not one to let anything go to waste, recycled everything from the music to the special effects for numerous later productions--SPACE RAIDERS being the most abusive example. Essentially, it's a film about plundering intergalactic pirates produced by a filmmaker ransacking his own backlog of celluloid booty.

But more on that later... 

Evidenced by the handful of movies he helmed, Howard R. Cohen was a better writer than a director. He wrote the cheap in budget--rich in entertainment value Conan coattail rider DEATHSTALKER (1983); but later directed (and penned) the worst entry in that series with DEATHSTALKER IV: MATCH OF THE TITANS in 1991. SPACE RAIDERS was Cohen's second directorial effort; the first being the enjoyably silly horror spoof SATURDAY THE 14TH (1980). Cohen would later direct the scarily unfunny sequel, SATURDAY THE 14TH STRIKES BACK in 1988. The 1980 horror spoof arguably being his most palatable picture, any and all creativity was sucked out into the vacuum of space when he got around to captaining the cockpit of his less than (inter)stellar outer space opus.

STAR WARS fever was still a palpable Force to be reckoned with in 1983. RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983) was a guaranteed box office monster set for release in May of that year. Instead of a futile attempt at looting JEDI's takings, Corman's movie blasted off a few weeks earlier that same month to capture some of its momentum. SPACE RAIDERS was the first theatrical release from Roger Corman's Millennium Films; a company he set up after selling New World Pictures to two Hollywood talent lawyers Harry Sloan, Lawrence Kuppin, and producer Larry Thomas.

Prior to the sell, Corman had announced that New World was soon to produce a $5 million adaptation of Marvel Comics' SPIDER MAN. While his movies often made well over a million bucks, it was rare Roger Corman ever spent that much on one of his pictures. Needless to say, that version of SPIDER MAN was never produced (although Corman did manage an unreleased, anemically budgeted, but spirited film version of THE FANTASTIC FOUR in 1994).

One such production Corman did spend over a million dollars was the aforementioned BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (1980). Sadly, such an expenditure was denied SPACE RAIDERS--the sort of film that needed it. This lack of funds is visible in every aspect of the production. Ironically, it's Cohen's 'Saturday Matinee' style script and spunky performances that makes this an enjoyable experience rather than the expected special effects sequences this type of movie is built around.

As mentioned above, SPACE RAIDERS not only lifted most of the space shots from BATTLE but its music as well. Composed by James Horner (STAR TREK 2, KRULL, TITANIC), cues from his soundtrack for HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP (1980) were also utilized. 

Additionally, some shots from FORBIDDEN WORLD (1982) are used; and even the low budgeted ANDROID (1982) had some of its models raided for Cohen's space pirate non-epic. Some new mattes, brief stop-motion animation; some cheap monster masks; a few shots of asteroids and some new shots of BATTLE's booby ship are all that's new (many of which are scattered throughout this review). The same two explosions are seen over and over; and even shots of guys falling after being zapped by the sparkler laser guns are repeated. BATTLE's deep space dog fights were boringly staged to begin with; ships flying in straight lines, and rarely with more than one seen on screen at once.

The set design fares no better. The landfill in space decor looks like junk electronic parts cluttered everywhere. There wasn't even enough money allotted for laser effects. The cast have what amounts to futuristic cap guns that fire sparks. The sound FX are good although some of those are recycled from GALAXY OF TERROR (1981) and the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA television series. Made up of a literal salvage yard of spare parts, SPACE RAIDERS is one of Corman's most economically efficient, if creatively barren motion pictures ever produced.

The performances are, along with the storyline, the best attribute.

Vince Edwards as former Space Force Colonel C.W. Hawkins--now just Captain Hawk, is an effective leader of the pirates; playing the role like a wizened old patriarch. He takes a genuine liking to the young stowaway (played by David Mendenhall); acting as a role model for the boy. Cohen's father-son relationship between the two is what anchors the movie--with both actors doing a great job garnering a lot of audience sympathy.

Best known as the lead in the popular hospital drama BEN CASEY (1961-1968), Edwards initially had a high-profile career that, by the 1970s, turned into high-profile trash with films like THE DESPERADOES (1969) and THE MAD BOMBER (1973); and continuing into the 1980s with such pictures as THE SEDUCTION (1982), RETURN TO HORROR HIGH (1987), and CELLAR DWELLER (1988). Edwards died in March of 1996 from pancreatic cancer.

At 12 years old, David Mendenhall made his film debut in SPACE RAIDERS playing the ten year old Peter; an imaginative, enterprising young kid who stealthily hops aboard a spaceship manned by thieves who steal cargo for a living. None of the cast of cutthroats likes him at first, but eventually, the crew warm up to him, as does the audience. Again, the camaraderie is easily the most appealing aspect of the movie and Mendenhall is a key proponent. Outside of their mannerisms and periphery information, we don't learn a lot about the "good guys" in Hawk's company; but we like them through their interaction with Peter.

For SciFi fans, the most welcome face (even though you never see his face) is Thom Christopher as the telekinetic alien Flightplan. Two years earlier, Christopher played another alien in the second, and last season of BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY (1979-1981). On that show, he was a half-human, half-bird man named--like Vince Edwards in SPACE RAIDERS--Hawk. An imposing presence even under heavy makeup, Christopher turned up again in a few other motion pictures--one of which was playing the main villain in DEATHSTALKER III: THE WARRIORS FROM HELL (1988), written by Howard R. Cohen and directed by Alfonso Corona, the well known Mexican director known on these shores for such classic Mexi-horrors as WORLD OF THE VAMPIRES (1961) and SANTO VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMEN (1962). Incidentally, the third DEATHSTALKER movie likewise reused James Horner's BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS music.

Cinema everyman Luca Bercovici is not only one of the busiest thespians in the cast, but he possesses one of the most varied and colorful careers. A really good actor (with roles in movies like 1982s PARASITE and 1983s FRIGHTMARE), he not only worked with numerous big names, but eventually moved on to a successful career as a director as well, guiding low budget cult items like GHOULIES (1985) and erotic thrillers like DARK TIDE (1994) and the gory comic horror of THE GRANNY (1995).

Patsy Pease as Amanda resists the kid's charms the longest, stating at one point she doesn't like them. That's about the extent of her character that's learned about. She's got charisma to spare when she's onscreen and strikes some cool comic book style poses with her spark gun. Both before and after SPACE RAIDERS, Pease became an accomplished actress on various daytime soap operas.

Nowadays, a movie like SPACE RAIDERS would go straight to video; but in 1983, you could still see this type of microscopically budgeted movie in a theater. It played in my small town back then for a week or two. I never saw a trailer; just the title on the marquee. Being a big STAR WARS fan, the word 'space' caught my attention as did the word 'raiders'--it reminiscent of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)... and back then, who didn't like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK? As an 8 year old kid, it was a fun experience; and the barely half full theater seemed to feel the same way. People laughed in the right places, and even felt a bit of sadness in others. I wouldn't see BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS till a few years later on WGGT-TV channel 48 on a Saturday afternoon. A sense of Deja vu overcame me in relation to virtually all of the space sequences since Cohen's movie used so many of them.

Of Roger Corman's space-set catalog, SPACE RAIDERS is near the bottom, nestled atop others like 1991s DEAD SPACE--a remake of FORBIDDEN WORLD, and another Corman cribber. What redeems SPACE RAIDERS is its heart; and it has a surprising amount of it predominantly due to the actors. The story is affectionately told even if there wasn't much passion behind the practice of scraping together shots from a multitude of sources to tell it.

This review is representative of the Scorpion Releasing Blu-ray limited to 2,000 units (Blu-ray). Specs and Extras: Brand new 16x9 HD Master from the original IP in 1.78:1; Interviews with star David Mendenhall, producer Roger Corman, production supervisor Clark Henderson; Original theatrical trailer; trailers for SORORITY HOUSE MASSACRE; SEIZURE; THE DIRT BIKE KID; WOMBLING FREE; Running time: 01:23:18

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