Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. And yet others thrive on a tone not easily marketed in Hollywood. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these films for what they get wrong — when they get it wrong — and what they did right in spite of the wishes of the studio or the director.
This week: Laserblast
Charles Band is another B-movie producer we should talk about. He’s had a hand in an astounding number of films, some he directed himself. He gave us series like Subspecies, Re-Animator, Trancers, Puppet Master and the even the family-friendly Prehysteria! He’s the sort of producer who starts with a title and a poster, then develops a script. While that sounds cheap on the surface, there’s something kind of thrilling about generating a movie from nothing more than putting “A Weekend of Blood” on a provocative poster. Now, Band was active in the 1970s, which means he made the switch from horror to sci-fi like everybody else. And his attempt to grab some of that Star Wars lucre took the form of this weekend’s cheesy selection, Laserblast.
The plot concerns one Billy Duncan (Kim Milford). He’s a pretty average dude living in the high desert near Southern California. He’s got a van and he’s got a girl, but something isn’t quite right for Billy. His mother takes constant vacation out of town, sheriff’s deputies love to shake him down for pot, and the school bully picks on him. The film never really gives us a reason why everyone but his girlfriend Kathy Farley (Cheryl Smith) is so down on him, but it also never really gives us a reason why she’s with him either.
Billy’s favorite activity is sleeping, so he may have some sort of undiagnosed depressive disorder no one in 1978 knew about.
After taking his lumps from everybody in town, including Kathy’s grandfather (Kennan Wynn), he rides out into the desert and finds a bizarre gun and pendant. Pretending to fire it at a nearby hill, he soon discovers the rifle will fire a titular laser blast if he wears the pendant around his chest.
Soon, Billy’s world is upended as he uses the weapon to give everybody what-for. He destroys the bully’s car, kills the deputies, and even prevents a local doctor from examining a strange growth on his chest. Soon a government agent arrives in town and a pair of aliens meant to disable the weapon return to Earth to deal with it once and for all.
Now, if this all sounds like low-watt sci-fi adventure, that’s part of the charm. And even for as much as we love low-watt ambitions here, Laserblast feature some of the lowest wattage we’ve seen to date. Billy’s yen for sleeping seems to infect the large parts of the production as people lounge at a pool party, take their time to deliver dialogue, and just seem generally uninterested in events. It’s sort of remarkable as generally, people try in a movie like this.
One person actually trying, though, was director Michael Rae. Working from Band’s brief and a script by Frank Ray Perilli and Franne Schacht, Laserblast is intended to be a mini Star Wars meets Rebel Without a Cause. You can just about see this idea in the margins thanks to stop-motion creature effects courtesy of David W. Allen and Rae’s camera capturing the stifling effects of summer in the Southern California desert. More on that in a moment. Rae also tried his hardest to make every explosion in Laserblast matter by cutting to all of the footage he took of the blasts from multiple angles. It’s gloriously repetitive, but the key bit of evidence indicating he actually cared about the movie when no else did.
Okay, back to the Southern California desert for a moment. Either by virtue of Band’s brief, Mildford’s performance, or the general apathy evidenced by everyone except Rae, Laserblast captures a certain ennui of the late 1970s. The entire film is shot through the lead-infused smog of the era. The drab, brown desert creates a beautiful desolation as Billy drives his yellow van around the county. In this, we get more of the Rebel Without a Cause spirit Band wanted Rae to capture. For Billy — and no doubt countless other teenagers tooling around Lancaster, California that summer — life sucked. Finding an alien weapon and destroying your life would seem like an appealing respite to a generation of kids with little else to do but listen to Zepplin, smoke pot, and maybe make it with your guy or girl. Billy’s vague appreciation of those things reflects an honesty I doubt Rae realized he was capturing. Or even if he did, the movie gives little indication it is aware of the honesty on the screen. Considering Band wanted to make an alien encounter movie with a side-order of teenage angst, Laserblast certainly isn’t the movie he wanted.
And thus, the cheese appears from an unexpected sincerity. Laserblast manages to capture and a feelings its creators did not intend. And it smashes that with the science fiction content in a hilarious ways. Once Billy has the rifle, the two aliens are browbeaten by their boss because another damned human got hold of the ray gun. The sequence, realized with stop motion animation and indecipherable reptilian vocalizations, looks like it came from a complete different movie. This incredible dissonance — and the attendant cheese factor — follows the aliens whenever they rejoin the narrative. Early on, the movie suggests the aliens might be Billy’s dream. A more competent film might go in that direction, with Billy’s fantasy leading him on a rampage across the desert. But for us, Laserblast never reconciles its truth or its fantasy in a competent way. The result is a cheesy movie for a lazy, sweaty day.
Oh, also, the film is one of the few to confront the Star Wars phenomenon directly. When Billy is picked up by a hippie headed into the city, he sees a billboard for Star Wars and quickly blows it up. The hippie responds with a “farrrrrrrr out!!!” before he himself is blasted by Billy’s gun. The moment stands out because it reflects Band’s own jealous desire to be the maker of Star Wars. But as Laserblast proves, he’s better off sticking to producing Puppet Master flicks.
Laserblast is available for rent on Amazon.