28 March 2019

Live fast, fight well, and have a beautiful ending.

In spite of being a tiny town surrounded by endless fields of corn and soybeans, Eureka, Illinois used to have a small movie theater, the Woodford, whose Art Deco stylings dated to 1937. It had once been charming (or at least serviceable) enough, seating 400, but the time I knew it in the 70's the theater had become a sad thing, with patches of the original carpeting replaced here and there by linoleum, haphazard electrical conduit tracing the walls like vine, and a semi-functional bathroom the size of phone booth (all my references date me) whose pull-chain toilet had seen the end of tens of thousands of movie-goers. The Woodford Theater had settled to the bottom of the distributional food chain, showing second-run movies three times a week and softcore exploitation films late Friday nights. Within a few years, VCRs would kill the market for both of these services.

In 1980, New World Pictures released Battle Beyond the Stars. Today I know all about Roger Corman and his infamous studio and that this film was conceived as a prestige project for the company, a retelling of The Magnificent Seven with its cowboys in space (there is an actual character in the movie called "Space Cowboy"). It even has a screenplay by indie darling John Sayles. But at the time I was 12 and all I knew was that an article in Starlog was calling this a more adult version of Star Wars and Star Wars was the Best in Life. The movie did star John-Boy from the Waltons, and I did not like that show, but probably he wasn't so important, right?

My brother and I went to see it on "opening" night, which was probably a month or so after it had been in release. The crowd of maybe 60 or so was mostly bored kids who didn't have a license or a car and couldn't make it to Peoria and so were stuck sitting here in the theater's torn, creaking seats. The audiences at the Woodford were always noisy, but for some reason that night the movie was late in starting, and stray pieces of popcorn were already being lobbed in lazy arcs. Twenty minutes past screentime, the house lights were still on. A chant went up: "Lights! Lights!" The lights went down, but still no picture. The audience booed. Then at last the credits began: cheers! But why was there no music? Some ugly murmuring. The first scene, involving the distruction of a peaceful spaceship by a looming alien warcraft played out in complete silence. "Sound! Sound!" went a new chant, but no sound came through the expository sequences, which consisted mostly of a scene of a futuristic city where John-Boy and his compatriots stood around in robes and stared at the invaders' ship. As it became apparent that no dialog would be forthcoming, the audience began to yell questions: "What's going on?" "Why are they standing there?" and "Where's Jim-Bob?" There were also some attempts at dubbing; someone started to sing the Star Wars theme and many people joined in.

About ten minutes into the movie, the sound abruptly came on with a deafening crack of static, and the audience cheered. John-Boy was in a spaceship: a bulbous, sagging thing that looked as if it could use a space bra, flying away from his besieged planet, adjusting some instruments and talking to his ship's computer, which had a sassy woman's voice and calls him "kid"—and then the image froze, followed by the classic bubbling and melting of scorched celluloid, and there was a riot of teens and pre-teens jumping out of their seats and tossing Jolly Ranchers at the projection booth. The lights came up and an usher walked in, half-heartedly held up his hands in a gesture of quieting, and then shrugged and left. The lights went down again and now there was a scene involving a lizard man talking to a captive woman strung up by her hands in some futuristic cell. "What the F--K?" yelled an older kid from the front row and the usher reappeared. "No language. Watch the goddamn movie, he barked.

The plot of Battle Beyond the Stars, such as it is, involves John-Boy's character traveling through space to secure the aid of mercenaries to fight back his planets' invaders, since his home world is aggressively pacifistic, as befits an alien culture based on white robes and large crystals. He meets aliens wearing space-clown makeup who have third eyes, as well as an intergalactic trucker named Space Cowboy, played by Space Robert Vaughn (space slumming it). But most memorably for the crowd reaction, he meets a Space Valkyrie portrayed by Sybil Danning, a warrior in a metal bikini and winged headpiece who lounges reclined in her fighter ship with the camera shot straight up her heaving bosom. When she delivered her lines about the glories of the warrior life in as low a register as she could manage, her chest rose and fell with such force that the audience began to breathe along with her in an imitation of Darth Vader.

In fact, every character had a defining tic or phrase that the audience picked up and responded to. Space Cowboy would mention at every opportunity that he came from Earth and so whenever a scene cut to him someone would shout "from Planet Earth" before Vaughn could. The sound continued to die for minutes at a time and during these moments the crowd yelled out catchphrases, sound effects, and expletives, but the usher did not return. There was no need; the atmosphere had changed from surly and combative to giddy, engaged, and even strangely affectionate. We had long ago given up on the movie as a movie and had moved on to the movie as happening.  To be honest, I dont remember much about the movies second half. I remember people cheering whenever Sybil Danning or Robert Vaughn showed up to chew more scenery; mock-sobbing whenever one of the ragtag group of defenders met a violent end; and jumping out of their seats in delight whenever the sound cut or the film broke, which it did many times. Eventually the film ended and the audience rose to a standing ovation.

In this post- Mystery Science Theater world we are familiar with the joys of bad movies, of Troll 2 and The Room. Battle Beyond the Stars is not a great film, nor do I think that it's hilariously awful—it's just a hack job from a time when there was a theatrical market for knockoffs of other, better movies. I wouldn't recommend watching it today on DVD or YouTube, even ironically. But that experience, in that sad little broken-down movie house was one of the most joyful I have known. 

Within three years the Woodford closed. Today the building is a Hallmark store.